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Mel Brooks, David Lynch Awarded Honorary AFI Degrees

AFI Honorary Degree Recipients Mel Brooks and David Lynch

32 years after the duo collaborated on "The Elephant Man," Brooks and Lynch reunited to offer graduates words of inspiration.

While honoring the school’s 2012 graduating class on Wednesday, Mel Brooks and David Lynch received honorary degrees at the commencement ceremony, which was held at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Following an introduction to the ceremony by Bob Gazzale, President and CEO of AFI, Lynch and Brooks’s (respectively) longtime friends Laura Dern and Carl Reiner gave a short speech and handed each of them their doctorates.

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Gazzale started by invoking the legacy of the institute, referencing several of its most famous graduates: “David Lynch, AFI class of 1970, Terrence Malick, Darren Aronofksy, Patty Jenkins, Janusz Kaminski, Wally Pfister, Robert Richardson – and some day your name will be there too.” He challenged the graduates to make their voices heard – and get their movies made.

“There is your audience, waiting for your story,” Gazzale said. “Now write it, dress it, light it, shoot it, cut it, sell it. Do it – for this is your time, and this is your story to tell.”

Brooks was honored first. After being credited as “the man who gave us Rob Reiner,” Carl Reiner took the stage for an anecdotal celebration of his friend, whom he revealed he met in 1950. “I used to be Carl Reiner,” Reiner said. “I’m here because I have a very, very dear friend that’s being honored tonight.” But when Brooks joined Reiner at the podium to accept his degree, he offered a few words of gratitude –- and a few complaints.

“I’m very honored and I’m very happy -- and bitterly disappointed,” Brooks admitted. “When I was offered this award, I thought I was going to become a doctor, so I went out and got a stethoscope.” Brooks wielded his stethoscope as he turned to the graduating class and offered them words of inspiration. “A word of advice is to writers, if you really don’t feel it, if you’re really not moved emotionally, if you feel they’ll like it, don’t write it,” he said simply.

“If you don’t laugh when you’re writing comedy – if it doesn’t make you laugh – don’t write it. Don’t say to yourself, ‘this is funny. They’ll like it’. That’s bullshit – it will never work. If you don’t laugh, nobody will laugh.”

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During his introduction of Laura Dern, Gazzale revealed that the actress dropped out of college in order to star in Lynch’s Blue Velvet, a detail she too remembered when speaking about the filmmaker. “Yes, in fact David Lynch is the reason that I have never worn a gown until today,” she said. “I told him I was excited that it was because of him that I finally have one on.”

Dern spared no effort highlighting Lynch’s longtime affection for AFI, observing, “It is a deep part of his soul, and anyone who knows David knows what AFI has meant to him.” Lynch cracked wise after Dern wrapped up her superlative-filled speech and called him to the stage: “I want to thank first my favorite actress in the world -- Meryl Streep.”

After thanking a list of faculty and alumni, Lynch paid special tribute to Brooks, with whom he made The Elephant Man in 1980. “If AFI put me on the map, which they certainly did, Mel Brooks put me on top of a beautiful mountain,” he said. “He called me a madman, and he called me Jimmy Stewart from Mars, but he’s the crazy one – he picked me having made only one feature film to go over to London, England to direct a Victorian drama starring Anne Bancroft, Sir John Gielgud, Dame Wendy Hiller, Anthony Hopkins, and John Hurt to name a few. It was my great good fortune that Mel had this kind of insanity.”

In lieu of a lengthy speech, Lynch solicited the graduating class for questions, which Dern read to him. What was the scariest moment of his life, for example? “When I first met Dame Wendy Hiller,” he confessed. “She grabbed me by the throat and marched me around the room in a circle and she said, ‘I don’t know you. I will be watching you’.”

When asked, “for you what defines a successful story?” Lynch responded, “It’s always like they say – the story, and the way the story is told. As you know, the thing is made out of many, many elements – but if they’re all feeling correct along the way, you’ve got a chance of having an experience where people will share that feeling of correctness.”

Although a few of the questions submitted by students attempted to tap into the darkest recesses of the filmmaker’s creativity, his most insightful answer came to one that was asked decidedly more delicately. Dern recited, “How did you find your voice as a filmmaker, and once you found it, how did you get it to sing?”

“That’s beautiful – that’s almost a poem,” he said, continuing, “I found my voice by accident.

“Learning by doing is really critical. Intellectual knowledge is very good, but we learn so much by doing and there’s action and reaction. And it’s really about what moves you and what you love, so you act and react, learn by doing, and then your voice will come out, and you stay true to that voice.”