Cary Elwes looks back at 'The Princess Bride' at 25
I recently learned that I was the only person living in my house, out of six of us, who had seen "The Princess Bride."
I found this revelation to be completely inconceivable.
The only reason it came up was because I was sent the 25th anniversary edition of the film on Blu-ray to prepare for a conversation with Cary Elwes. It's not like I needed the reminder of the film, since it's been one of those movies I've seen dozens of times since release, and each time, I am struck anew by just what a miracle it is. It doesn't really feel like any other movie, and while I've spoken to both screenwriter William Goldman (who adapted it from his tremendous novel) and director Rob Reiner about it in the past, I'll take any opportunity to chat about it with people who worked on it.
When I spoke to Elwes, it was by phone, and he was in an airport sitting under what sounded like the loudest speaker in human history, with a long garbled announcement blaring every three or four minutes. He seemed chagrined by the situation, but absolutely unflappable in how pleased he was to be talking about "The Princess Bride." The sheer hideousness of the situation only made Elwes seem more likable.
"If it's alright with you, we'll just take a break when that happens and let her do her thing." I laughed and told him it was fine, and then told him about how frustrating it was as a theater employee in 1987 to see the movie before it came out, love the movie, and then watch it land in theaters to near-total indifference from audiences. It wasn't that people hated it. It's just that no one went to see it. The film's marketing just never managed to explain the film to people, it seemed, but over time, it has become beloved, and I asked him how it is to see a film you're in grow like that over time after such a painful start.
"I tell you, Drew, it's one of the most extraordinary things. I tell you, as an actor, you're blessed to have any movie resonate at all and have longevity, and this one seems to be timeless. I call it the gift that keeps on giving. People who were kids when they saw the movie are now adults and they have kids, and they've shown it to their kids, and some of those kids are starting to grow up now. It's just incredible. It's really extraordinary. You know, Fox had a real dilemma on their hands when they saw the picture, because it's unlike any other movie that the marketing department had ever been faced with. Was it a love story? Was it a fairy tale? Was it a kid's movie? What was it? They actually didn't know how to market it. They were stumped. And Rob [Reiner] was telling us, right up until the week before release, that they didn't even have a one-sheet yet. They were absolutely… dumbfounded, and didn't know how to release it. The movie actually found its feet and its following on this marvelous new invention called VHS, and that's when people started buying it and started renting it. That's when they finally figured out there was a market for it. It was one of the early movies to really find success in ancillary. I still have fans today who walk up and they don't want me to sign a DVD. They still have their worn-out frayed copy of "The Princess Bride" on VHS, and they've traveled with it, and it means a lot to them. They're always well-worn, well-used, yeah?"
I remember when Matthew Vaughn was in production on "Stardust" and starting to have conversations about marketing, he kept bringing up "The Princess Bride," and it kept making the marketing people deeply nervous. I told Elwes that I think part of what makes the film so charming is the way it keeps turning into different movies as it plays. "That's exactly right," he said. "It's a testament really to the genius of Bill Goldman. He mixed all these genres, and he respected them, but at the same time, he made fun of them. I don't think there's any other movie quite like it. It's a movie kids can watch with adults. It can be a family movie, but it's not G-rated. It's got humor for everyone. It's not mean. It's got a good heartwarming feel to it. It's got a good message." The loudspeaker behind Elwes started in again, loud as thunder, and he laughed. "Can't beat the message of 'true love conquers all,' can you?"
I love the stuff in the film where Wesley, dressed as the Dread Pirate Roberts, bests each of the men who have kidnapped Buttercup. First there's Inigo Montoya, played by Mandy Patinkin, and then there's Fezzick, played by Andre The Giant, and finally there's Vezzini, the "mastermind" played by Wallace Shawn. When I talked to Rob Reiner, he had some great stories about the shooting of those scenes, and I asked Elwes for stories about working with Andre, who learned much of his dialogue phonetically because of how bad his English was, as well as the hyper-verbal Shawn, who seems such a great crazy choice for that character.
"Andre was just a sweetheart. He really was the 'gentle giant,' and I'm sure you've heard that before. He really would give you the literal shirt off his back. And a massive shirt it was. You could hold three people in it. But he really was that kind of guy. He constantly had a smile on his face, and he had those little teeth that were so sweet. The only time he wasn't smiling was when Rob told him not to for a scene. As soon as they would call cut, his face would just break out into that adorable grin of his, and he called everybody 'boss.' I always found that amazing. Here's this guy who is 7'5", and he's somehow figured out a way to make it seem like everybody is the boss of him." He started laughing at the memory, and the affection as he spoke was evident. "But he couldn't have been sweeter. I mean, he just was… the true… the epitome of a gentleman. I miss him dearly. I really do, to this day. I hold him in my heart forever."
As far as the contrast between the sweet and sunny personality of Andre and the loud motormouthed Shawn, that also had Elwes laughing. "Well, Wally… Wally was amazing. Wally Shawn did not think he was going to stay on the picture. He was terrified. He'd heard that there was another actor that the producers wanted, and he lived in fear every day that he was going to be replaced, so he just said 'I'm just going to do it and be as loud and as intense as I can and hope that they don't replace me.' Which is incredible in hindsight, because, really, nobody else could have played that role. And clearly I feel that way about the whole cast. The casting of this movie by Rob was impeccable."
I agree. It's one of those casts that looks interesting on paper, some names you knew at the time, some you didn't, some big comedy names, a pro-wrestler, a prime time TV icon, a soap star, and an assortment of other fascinating character faces, but until you see how every single part pays off, you can't possibly understand just how well cast the movie is. Mandy Patinkin as a hot-blooded Spanish sword master on a quest for revenge?
Bob Anderson's work choreographing the swordfight between Patinkin and Elwes is remarkable, and it's one of the great movie sword fights. It's clever, it's character-driven, and the actual physical feats in the fight are pretty daunting. "Thank you, Drew. That means a lot to me. We worked very, very hard at it. Unlike most of the cast who got to sit in their director's chairs between shots or takes or set-ups, Mandy and I were never allowed to sit down. Bob and Peter Diamond, who was the other trainer, would just grab us and go, 'Come on, let's go.' So every spare second we had. We would sometimes work through lunch, through dinner. We worked very hard at it, and I think we're both very proud of it. It was not easy. I'm certainly not left-handed, and neither was he, so we really had to… but these guys, keep in mind, had to first teach themselves how to fight left-handed so they could then figure out how to teach us to fight left-handed. They were incredibly proficient at it, and they expected us to be no less proficient than them. They were very firm but very gentle at the same time. We learned each movement of it, and we rehearsed it like a ballet. We learned each other's parts so that we learned not to hurt one another. They were great, great trainers for us."
I told him it feels like a lost art these days, taking the time to learn skills like that to the point where they appear effortless. And what really floors me is that as they're doing the sword fighting and the running and the jumping, they are also delivering one of the juiciest scenes of dialogue in a film packed with them.
"So why are you smiling?"
"Because I know something you do not know."
"I… am not left-handed."
So it's not just dance, it's music as well. "I know. And it's great. And when you look at the script, it just says 'You are about to see the second greatest swordfight of all time. The first greatest swordfight of all time, you will see a little later.' So that's what we were up against." That certainly reads like a challenge, and one that they took seriously. "And I watched everything," Elwes continued. "I told Bob and Peter, 'let's get every movie on VHS.' 'The Crimson Pirate,' 'The Adventures Of Robin Hood,' 'Scaramouche,' and 'Captain Blood' and, and, and everything. Let's just look at them all and see if we really can come up with the best possible swordfight.' And to their credit, these guys really worked hard at it, and so it was never boring and never repetitive. It was completely original. I don't think anyone's ever fought left-handed onscreen, you know?"
The only way that beat works is if they are both amazing in the first half of the fight, when they are both fencing with their left hands, so that when they make the switch, it's sort of scary. After all, if that was their weak hand, then how strong is their strong hand? "Rob said, 'I don't want any stunt doubles in this. I don't even want to cut away to anyone's arms that aren't yours.' And so we knew. Even in the wide shots. We just had to get to work."
I talked to him about some of his other work as well, mainly because I couldn't resist. I have a huge soft spot for "From Earth To The Moon," the HBO mini-series about the space program, and I asked him how he approaches the responsibility of playing a real person. "Well, it's an enormous amount of research, and I love the research process. I'm a closet historian. If you look at my body of work, I do tend to lean towards historical material more than anything. I love reading biographies and autobiographies. History was the only subject I excelled in at school. Anytime anyone approaches me to play a real person, I delve into it. I gather as much material as I can. I try to meet the real person if I can. If I can't meet the real person, I try to meet people who knew them. Michael Collins [who he played in "FETTM"] lives in Florida, and I spoke to him on the phone to get his blessing. He gave me a few pointers. A very sweet man. And we had a lot of people on the set who helped us with the picture and who taught us how to look authentic in the command module. It was a tremendous experience. I learned a lot about NASA and how to fly a command module and how the old computers worked. It was really fun. It's just like I learned how to drive NASCAR from Kyle Petty. This is one of the great things about what I do. It's like going back to school. I get to learn a new craft, a new skill, on almost every picture."
Obviously, we were on the phone because of the enduring success of "The Princess Bride," and Elwes is right that actors are very lucky if they end up in one project that resonates over time. In his case, he's been lucky more than once. "Saw" is one of those films that had a huge life beyond its initial release, and no matter how tired you got of the sequels, that first film was an indie phenomenon. I asked him how it felt at that first Sundance screening when "Saw" went from a short film no one had heard of to a must-see buzz sensation. "Well, again, that's one of those things where you can't put your finger on it. It almost feels like the stars aligned, you know, where the director is at the peak of his talent and able to convey his vision very clearly and the cast and crew… the editor… the casting… there are so many elements that have to come together to make a film memorable, and yet it only takes one person being off his game or her game and it can cause a thing to misfire."
After another burst of audio noise from the loudspeakers, Elwes sighed. "I'm guessing caffeine is somehow involved in the fact that she keeps getting louder." It was so loud on my end of the phone that it actually shook the phone in my hand, and when I told him that, he started laughing, too entertained to let himself get annoyed. Finally, once it subsided, he continued. "It's one of those things that I can't put my finger on. If I knew what made a movie into a cult film, I'd be in more of them or I'd produce more of them. We made that film in 18 days for a million dollars."
That seems like that's the pleasure of it, though, making those choices and taking those chances and seeing it pay off. "Well, I knew a little bit of what to expect from meeting James Wan, because he was so incredibly prepared. Here's a guy straight out of Melbourne Film School, and he showed up at the meeting with a huge portfolio under his arm, and in it were these incredible drawings and watercolors that he'd done of the sets and the costumes, like the pig costume, and very intricate drawings of the little puppet on the bike. He had this intricate blueprint of this sort of reverse bear trap thing that he'd made for the short film that was designed to show to potential investors. I looked at the blueprint and I went, 'Good god, James, this thing looks operational.' And he said, 'Aw, yeah, well, it is.' So I sensed from him already that he was a talented storyteller and artist. He had done these beautiful watercolors of the bathroom, and I actually made him give me one. There's a certain element of rolling the dice. And in his case, I could tell that he was not going to wing this thing at all. He had a vision, a very clear vision of what it was going to look like. That was comforting."
Finally, he had something he wanted to pass along in the interview, and I suspect part of why he was so happy to do press about the film was so he could also help promote this cause. Mercy Corps is an organization that Elwes works with out of Portland, a non-profit aid agency, and they visit hotspots around the world to provide both emergency services and then also stick around to help create longterm economic solutions in these places. They use things like work programs, micro-loans, micro-insurance, and they were just cited by President Carter for another new idea of theirs. The program he described to me involved farming in Uganda, and he couldn't have sounded more excited. If you go to the official Mercy Corps site, you can get special "Princess Bride" memorabilia that will help fund the program. It's a great way for the 25th anniversary to benefit someone while also celebrating a movie that has generations of fans around the world now. Best perk at the site? It's a tie between the actual authentic beard hair or Rob Reiner and a jar containing a whispered "As You Wish" straight from the lips of Cary Elwes. Hilarious.
It was a pleasure to speak to him about this enduring, beloved film, and we did indeed end up screening it as part of the Film Nerd 2.0 series. I'll write that screening up soon, but for now, I'll just say it's been fun listening to the four year old stomp around the house bellowing in his very best Mickey Mouse squeak, "I AM THE DREAD PIRATE ROBERTS!" It's not nearly as terrifying as he suspects.
"The Princess Bride 25th Anniversary Edition" is on Blu-ray and in stores now.