NOTE: Retired Whig-Standard entertainment reporter Greg Burliuk told Jan about the time he interviewed the late great Andre The Giant. Jan didn’t believe. With Burliuk’s, and the Whig’s blessing, here is that star-studded interview, originally published on April 1, 1989. All rights reserved.
GREG BURLIUK/THE KINGSTON WHIG-STANDARD
Once upon a time. . . . (Believe me, there’s no other way to start this. This is a story about the making of a cinematic fairy tale. And, like the film itself, it has villains, heroes and even a happy ending.) . . . there was a screenwriter and novelist who wanted to give his daughters a special gift.
“It began because I had two daughters, now 25 and 22,” recalls William Goldman, “and when they were little I said, ‘I’ll write you a story, what do you want it to be about?’ One of them said ‘Princesses’ and the other said ‘Brides.’ And I said, ‘OK, that’ll be the title: The Princess Bride.'”
Published in 1973, the resulting book became a best seller. Now, at last, it has become a film, directed by Rob Reiner. The Princess Bride, which opens at the Odeon Theatre in Kingston next Friday, received its world premiere last month at the Toronto Film Festival. On that occasion its distributors flew in journalists from all over the United States to see it and to meet its stars and its creator.
In case you don’t recognize the name, William Goldman has written 14 novels and three non-fiction works, including one of the best behind-the-scenes books about filmmaking, Adventures in the Screen Trade. But he’s probably best known as a screenwriter: his scripts for Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and All The President’s Men both won Oscars. The Princess Bride, he says, was a different proposition.
“The first chapter is quite short and the second chapter is really short. I had stupid, dopey names like Buttercup and Humperdinck in it because it was just going to be this children’s story.” But something happened, and the children’s fairy tale became a gentle satire. Ever since he was a child, Goldman has been an avid movie fan. He wanted to incorporate elements of the romantic swashbuckler into his story but couldn’t figure out how. “Then I got the idea of having it as a story that was told to somebody. Once that happened, the whole book opened to me. It was very releasing. I was writing extremely quickly. I didn’t know what the hell it was. I’d give it to my wife in sections, which I never do, and say, ‘What is this?’ She’d say, ‘I don’t know, but keep going.'”
This narrative device makes Goldman a character in his own book. In it, he recalls how his father first read him the story of the princess bride, describing its contents thus: “Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunts. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.” But when he tracks down the book years later, the Goldman character discovers that his father had read him only the good parts.
There’s another quirk to the story: as a character, Goldman can’t help commenting on the story as it proceeds, in little asides. Like this:
The nattily sweatered Goldman, New York Times tucked under his arm, is at a table, surrounded by journalists. He fields each question glibly and as smoothly as an all-star shortstop. He makes some of the dumber questions sound intelligent. Almost from the beginning, filmmakers wanted to make The Princess Bride into a movie. “I can’t imagine any movie ‘almost happening’ as much as this one,” says Goldman. “This is the kind of thing that would happen. The head of 20th Century-Fox at that time liked it but didn’t know if it was a movie. We made an arrangement whereby I owned the screenplay and he owned the book, or something like that. If he liked the screenplay he would buy it and make the movie.
“He read it and loved the screenplay. He sent me off to England to work with Richard Lester, who had just directed The Three Musketeers. I worked with him for two weeks, rewrote it, sent it back to the studio head, who loved it and was fired. Then I bought it back myself.
“Every six months there would be some show of interest, someone who would want to make it. But it would usually be someone who didn’t have the money to make it. Four years ago I had lunch in New York with a studio head on a Friday. He said, ‘I want to make The Princess Bride more than any other movie in the world.’ He was fired on Saturday.
“Another director, John Badham, called me up and said he wanted to direct The Princess Bride. He said, ‘I’d like to come in and talk with you about the script.’ I said ‘Terrific!’ Then he called me on the Monday and said, ‘Listen. A producer friend of mine is producing a film called WarGames. They just fired the director so I’m stepping in.’ That happened a lot.”
Goldman has had experience of this sort of thing before. “When Butch Cassidy was first written I went out to Hollywood with it and every studio turned it down. And then I did a smidgeon of rewriting — I can’t tell you how little — and then it went out again and every studio but one wanted it. That was MGM, who said, ‘We already have our joke western, The Ballad Of Dingus McGee.’
A quotation from Goldman’s book Adventures In The Screen Trade is mentioned at least 10 times during the interview session. In the movie industry, it says, “nobody knows anything.”
Rob Reiner, the latest aspirant to The Princess Bride, had read the book when he was 26, a copy that Goldman had sent Reiner’s father, Carl. After years of starring as Archie Bunker’s son-in-law in the hit TV series All In The Family, Reiner became a film director. He and a couple of buddies had an idea for a spoof on the world of rock bands. The result was the hilarious This Is Spinal Tap, which Reiner screened for the now gun-shy Goldman to convince him that he was right for The Princess Bride.
Eventually winning Goldman’s approval, Reiner meanwhile made two more films, The Sure Thing and Stand By Me, a sleeper hit about about young boys coming of age in the ’50s. But when he shopped the Princess Bride script around no major studio was interested. So he turned to long-time friend Norman Lear, creator of All In The Family (and also of Maud, Sanford And Son, The Jeffersons and One Day At A Time) and the man who’d bankrolled both Stand By Me and This Is Spinal Tap.
Lear believed in Reiner, whom he’d known as a nine-year-old kid. Carl Reiner, himself a very funny man, would invite his buddies Mel Brooks and Lear over to his Fire Island summer home, where young Rob distinguished himself by doing schtick while playing jacks with Lear’s daughter. Says Lear, “You can’t hang around with Mel and Carl without picking something up if you’re your father’s son at nine. I’d tell Carl, ‘This kid is hysterical.’ And Carl would say, ‘He’s a pain in the ass.'” Lear and Reiner are a study in contrasts, even though they both come from the Borscht Belt school of comedians. Another dapper guy in a sweater with a New York Times tucked under his arm, Lear sounds like a hesitant intellectual. Bald now, Reiner dresses like a guy about to wallpaper your house. He blows you away with gusts of energy, his sentences long and convoluted but in the end always making sense. And yes, he still sounds like an aging Jewish comedian.
Lear, now head of a multi-purpose company called Act III Communications, put faith — and money — in both Reiner and The Princess Bride. His conviction was matched by that of two new executives at 20th Century-Fox, Martin Shaefer and Allan Horn. They loved the story, and their colleagues who didn’t were reluctant to say no to them on their first project. So 20th Century-Fox, the first company to be interested in The Princess Bride, finally agreed to release it.
Reiner began to assemble cast and crew. He says, “I like films where everyone coming into the project, whether it be the actors or the production designer, the cameraman or the editor, are all serving the film. It’s like a team. Carroll O’Connor said this, and I’ve always used this, both as an actor and a director: be careful of the actor who fills his moment by emptying yours. You have to make sure that each person is helping the other guy. You try to get across to them the idea if you can make that guy look fabulous, you’re gonna look good.”
Some of the casting was easy: Reiner had his buddies, with whom he’d worked before. Christopher Guest, one of the zanies in Spinal Tap, signed on as the sadistic, six-fingered Count Rugen. “One of the elements which makes this movie work,” says Guest, “is that it has really bad guys. These are people you want to see get stabbed in the ass.” Billy Crystal does a quick turn as Max, a wizard with a Yiddish accent, who is called upon to exercise his powers of life restoration. Then there was the role of Fezzik, the genial giant who is one of the kidnappers of the Princess Bride. “It’s not like you put out a call and 50 giants turn up,” says Reiner. Everyone wanted the popular wrestler Andre the Giant, who stands seven feet, four inches tall and weighs 450 pounds. But no one knew where he was.
“Not even my agent knew,” says Andre in his deep rumble of a voice. “I told him I was taking three months off, but I just went to Europe and wrestled down there. He tried to call my home in North Carolina and even the people that lived in my house didn’t know where I was. Finally they found me in Austria. I said yes that same day.”
When you shake hands with Andre, your hand disappears in his. I make my biggest mistake of the day in asking the Giant, who recently challenged “good guy” Hulk Hogan for the International Wrestling Federation title, why he has turned into a “bad guy” in the ring. Fortunately I’m sitting safely across the table from him. “How come you say I’m a bad guy?” he snarls. “Just because I challenge Hogan? I have the right.” Down, Giant, down. For another of the kidnappers, the master swordsman Inigo Montoya, Reiner made an unusual choice: Mandy Patinkin, best known for his role as Che in the musical Evita. “I’d seen him do a special on ABC long before he became famous as a Broadway star,” says Reiner, “and knew he could also do comedy as well as satirical comedy. He walked that perfect line between playing absolute dead for real and doing satire.”
The same was true of Chris Sarandon, who several years ago won an Oscar nomination for his role as Al Pacino’s gay lover in Dog Day Afternoon. In The Princess Bride he plays Prince Humperdinck, Princess Buttercup’s suitor. “We saw a lot of people in England,” says Reiner, “because we wanted a guy to be English but also understand what was tongue-in-cheek about this. A lot of English people we met played it straight but didn’t know what was funny. He also looks handsome as a prince.”
For the young lovers, Reiner chose two unknowns. Cary Elwes, a young Brit and Erroll Flynn look-alike living in New York, was selected as the romantic hero, Westley. And for the title role, he picked 21-year-old soap actress and former model Robin Wright, who had auditioned for him five years previously for The Sure Thing.
“They had auditioned 500 girls,” says Wright. “I was the last one on the list. They called every agent and said, ‘Well, we’ve covered every one in L.A.,’ and my agent called and said, ‘What about Robin?’ ‘No, she’s too young, she doesn’t have any training.’ By the grace of God I was last. They had to have a decision by Monday and it was Friday.”
Wright is the only one who comes close to blowing her cool in the interviews. For some reason the reporters at my table are determined to find out the identity of her Hollywood scriptwriter fiance, and she’s just as determined not to tell. As the questions grow insistent, her answers start to lose their flirtatious buoyancy. Wright didn’t have to research her role: Reiner just told her to play herself. Likewise with Andre. But Elwes was set on a different course. “I got from Bill Goldmana list of all the films he loved as a kid,” says Elwes. “I saw Gunga Din, Sea Hawk, Robin Hood and some really obscure ones. Mostly they were the Basil Rathbone-Michael Curtiz films that he used to go see every day as a kid. However, Rob didn’t want me to stereotype my character too much. I did add the Erroll Flynn moustache one day with a pen and Rob liked it, so I kept it.”
Both Elwes and Patinkin had to learn swordfighting: their characters are supposed to be the best swordsmen in the world. Patinkin attacked the problem with his usual fanatic energy.
“The swordfighting was one of the things that attracted me to the part. The minute I got it, I got in touch with Henry Hartounian, the fencing coach at Yale. I worked for two months fencing for five to six hours a day. I trained with my left hand first, then the right hand. Then I had a month of training with Peter Diamond, who designed the fights for the Star Wars pictures. On the set our coach was Bob Anderson, Erroll Flynn’s fencing partner and the man who designed swords for Scaramouche.”
Patinkin was just as meticulous in acquiring the Spanish accent required for the role. He hung out at Spanish embassies and restaurants to meet immigrants who had been in North America for anything from three to seven months. Then he had them read him back the script in English. It didn’t always help. Patinkin’s first line in the movie is “I agree with Fezzik.” He recalls: “One Spanish guy had said, ‘I am agree with Fezzik,’ But the test audiences didn’t understand the line, and when that happens they miss the next two lines after. Another line was ‘I don’t swim.’ I thought ‘I no swim’ was great, but once again the audiences didn’t understand.”
One of the greatest problems for Reiner was deciding what to leave out — not just out of Goldman’s book but out of his screenplay, which had to be cut by 40 pages. “We’ve got an hour and a half to two hours to tell a story,” says Reiner. “You do lose things but that’s the nature of making films.” There is, however, one element of the book, untranslatable into film, that Reiner particularly regrets having to omit.
“In the book there’s this whole element of Bill Goldman sitting out there in Hollywood at the Beverly Hotel doing a rewrite of The Stepford Wives. It’s an actual film that he wrote the screenplay for. While all the producers and directors and studio heads are arguing about what direction the script should go in, he’s sitting there feeling guilty because it’s his son’s 10th birthday and he doesn’t know what to get him. He decides to give him a copy of The Princess Bride because it was his favorite book as a child. So he has his agent go down to the Village in a blinding snowstorm and get this one tattered copy. He sends it back to his son and then he comes home and says, ‘Hey what did you think of this book?’ And the kid goes, ‘Uhhh, it’s good Dad, good.’ And then he finds out the kid hated it and never read it because it was boring. Then he realizes he’d never actually read it, he only had his father read it to him. Then he decides to abridge it and give people the good parts, because that’s the only parts his father read to him.”
I swear Reiner said all of this in one breath.
The participants all claim to be delighted with the experience of making the movie. At the premiere, says Patinkin, “My heart was soaring from the way the people love the movie, yet at the same time a piece of me was dying. This was a family of people that loved being together.” But will the movie be a success? Fox has released it slowly, banking on word of mouth to build an audience. It could be huge, as long as adults understand that’s it’s a funny adult movie and not a kids’ fairy tale. Goldman makes no predictions.
“Nobody knows anything. It’s a total crapshoot business and anybody that says different is a liar, with the exception that I think we know that when Rambo III opens it will do huge business the first weekend. But we don’t know beyond the first one.”
Nor does it matter. For William Goldman, just having his favorite child made into a movie is enough to make this a story with a happy ending.
Greg Burliuk covered the arts and entertainment for 40 years at The Kingston Whig-Standard. At one time, his beat regularly included professional wrestling.
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