“Making the Elephant Man: A Producer’s Memoir” by Jonathan Sanger— Telling His Story

Sanger, Jonathan. “Making the Elephant Man: A Producer’s Memoir”, McFarland, 2016.

Telling His Story

Amos Lassen

We have been astonished over the years by the story of John (Joseph) Merrick (the Elephant Man). In 1978, producer Jonathan Sanger was sent a screenplay from two unknown writers about a horribly disfigured man who refused to fall victim to despair and who chose to become an example of human dignity. Sanger was then determined that Merrick’s story would be told. In this book  is Sanger’s unvarnished first-person account of how the “The Elephant Man” (1980) came to be made. Many of us who saw the film had no idea how the movie was put together and how it became, like Merrick, an example of human dignity. As producer, Sanger had to become involved in special effects, scheduling conflicts, location issues and many risky decisions. He brought together a team made up of Mel Brooks (executive producer), David Lynch (director) and actors John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins.

Sanger is s an Academy Award winning producer, film, theater and television producer and director, media advisor, and entertainment financial consultant. He has written for magazines, newspapers, encyclopedias and filmmaking handbooks yet in this his memoir about an exciting and landmark film, he really lets us into his world.

Most of us who go to the movies are unaware of what goes on behind the scenes even before a movie is made. It involves taking an idea to the page and then finding a director and producers, funding, a cast, costume and art directors and so on and then the work after the shooting is done—editing, scoring, wooing the media and so on. Now we have all of that in this book since anger shares it all with us and it is fascinating.

Using his experience with “The Elephant Man”, he begins a discussion on the evolution of cinema that is almost the same as a master class. When Sanger found a script written by Christopher DeVore and Eric Bergren he realized that it was exactly the kind of story he wanted to make— the biography of a very sad man who was able to have an extraordinary life even though he was terribly deformed. John Merrick had been known as the Elephant man and in a sideshow in London who was treated by a Dr. Treves. Sanger brought his idea of a film to Mel Brooks who then helped get the idea to director David Lynch. Then the work began with finding the best crew and cast including John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Sir John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller and Anne Bancroft. Then they had to find locations and deal with deadlines and the anxieties that go along with them as well as, the technical problems of creating a film about character like Merrick and dealing with the situation that a dramatic stage production about Merrick was being produced at the same time. This is really the story of a man staying with his concept from the very beginning to the very end.

While this is the story of a particular film, it is also the story of bonding and we certainly see that here throughout the book. We are very lucky that Jonathan Sanger has such a great memory and that he is able to share the details of his adventure with “The Elephant Man”.

The film won many awards (including Best Picture at the BAFTA awards), eight Oscar nominations and numerous other international awards. It also gave a huge boost to Sanger’s career.

Sanger begins his memoir by telling us his dream of one day becoming a successful producer. Sanger’s memoir starts off with his dream of making it as a producer some day. One day his children’s babysitter asked him to read a script her boyfriend wrote. He agreed to do so but put it on his desk where the forgot about it for a few months but when he remembered, he could not let go. He shares why the script was so important to him (it reminded him of his childhood) and his empathy soon becomes our own.

Sanger’s writing is absolutely fascinating as he are taken inside the film industry and are with him every step of the way until this picture is made.  As I said this is so much more than a book about making a movie— it is about compromise and the little jobs that are drudgery and not giving up when the future is dim.

I love the many photographs and reading about those in the film imagery who have achieved greatness in their lives. This is a story of hope and motivation and a read that will stay with you long after the covers are closed.