An inconceivable conversation with "Princess Bride" star Cary Elwes
When it was released in the early fall of 1987, "The Princess Bride" was never the number one movie at the box office. It never grossed more than $5 million during any of its 11 weeks in theaters, instead being constantly overshadowed by the likes of "Fatal Attraction," "The Running Man" and the Dudley Moore/Kirk Cameron body-swap comedy "Like Father, Like Son."
By the time the year came to a close, the Rob Reiner fantasy tale grossed a total of $30,857,814, good enough for the 41st highest-grossing movie of the year, right behind "Nuts," a Barbra Streisand courtroom drama you probably forgot existed until this exact moment.
It wasn't a notable success. It wasn't even a notable flop. On paper, "The Princess Bride" would seem to be dead.
Only mostly dead, as it turned out.
While movies like "Nuts" and "Like Father, Like Son" have vanished from memory without much of a fight, "The Princess Bride" is still one of the most quoted, most beloved and most impossible to duplicate success stories (just ask "Stardust") to come out of Hollywood. And almost 30 years after its original release, Westley himself, Cary Elwes, is travelling around the country to share his experiences with fans young and old – including a resurrected stop at the Riverside on Saturday, Oct. 8.
We got to chat with the actor to get a sneak preview of some of his insider insights on the film, the legacy and the state of Hollywood right now.
OnMilwaukee: What was it like being on the set of "The Princess Bride" – before the hype, before becoming a cult classic?
Cary Elwes: It was very surreal for me. I was a 21-year-old young man; I'd only acted in a couple of films, really. So I knew that, when I was cast, Norman Lear – who'd produced the film and financed it largely out of his own pocket – and Rob Reiner were taking a huge risk in casting a virtual unknown to play Wesley. It would never happen today. So that's why I always remind myself just how fortunate and what a blessing it is.
So when people say, "Oh, don't you ever get bored of it?" or "Aren't you sick of it?" or whatever, I always say no (laughs). I shouldn't be in that film. It should've been somebody of a much higher caliber at that point; I didn't really have any kind of following at that point in my career – and neither did Robin Wright, although she had a lot more experience; she was doing "Santa Barbara" at the time, the soap opera. But basically, to cast two virtually unknown actors as the leads in a film usually spells disaster. Because even though this was an independent film, it was the most expensive independent movie that'd ever been made at that point.
Did you feel like you had something special on set, that this was going to be something big? Or was it just another movie?
Not at all, because, you have to remember, this was (screenwriter) Bill Goldman, who's no slouch. This is a man who wrote "All the President's Men," "Butch Cassidy" "Marathon Man" – and this was his favorite of them all. Of all of those incredible movies he's worked on, this was the one he cherished the most.
The reason was because he wrote it for his daughters. When he was on a road trip with them, he asked them what he should write his next book about, and one of them said princesses and the other said brides. That's how it came about, so it's a very personal story for him.
You have to look at the combination of all the people involved. You've got Rob Reiner, who was on a massive roll at that point in his career; he'd done "Spinal Tap," and "Stand By Me" was about to come out but already had incredible word-of-mouth from early screenings. And you had this cast that was second to none. Talk about filling the shoes of the roles with incredible actors: Billy Crystal and Chris Sarandon and Carol Kane and Wallace Shawn and Peter Falk. It was an incredible cast. I knew all of these people; I'd studied their work as a young man in England, watching movies and watching TV.
Do you have a particular favorite memory from the time on set?
Every day was something. It was incredible. It was more the whole journey rather than one specific moment in time. There were times when I had to pinch myself while we were waiting for a shot or waiting for the clouds to move – that was the biggest issue for Rob: the continuity, because in England, it's really hard to shoot in continuity outdoors (laughs). But sometimes I'd look myself while we were all waiting for a cloud to move or something, and go, "I can't believe I'm here. This is so great. Here I am, fighting a rodent of unusual size; it's nuts."
What do you think it was about "Princess Bride" that people really attached to so much – especially after its release, the slow discovery of it having such a life after its theatrical run? I mean, it was not a hit in its release.
It was not. It was saved by the invention of the VHS. It's interesting because, what you're seeing in a way is that (through) television – which is now the medium by which people watch everything and we're seeing the end of cinema as we know it and the rebirth of television – our film became successful. So television helped us. VHS helped us. People started renting it and buying it and giving it as gifts to family and friends, and people still hold onto their VHS copies like they're family heirlooms.
There's been a lot of talk over the last few months of the death of cinema and TV becoming the ultimate creative medium. It sounds like you agree …
It's a great sadness to me because I adore the movie-going experience. I love the idea of sitting in a darkened room with perfect strangers, sharing a communal experience – but I fear that we're looking at, in the next 15 or 20 years, cinemas close and change and adapt.
I think they'll become events. And I think the ticket prices will be higher. Like, they'll have a screening of "Star Wars" at a certain time on a certain date, and you all have to go. The studios will be forced to make them event screenings.
Is the blame on Hollywood, or is it on the viewers and changing generations? Or both?
I think you're seeing a new generation that is just seriously not interested. There are only three things in life you have to plan your day around: catching a flight, going to a theater or watching a movie. Right? Because you can't miss the beginning of the movie or the play. Well, kids want to watch it or binge-watch it or whatever at their own leisure; they don't want to stand in line unless they really have to, because they want to be the first to see it. And sadly, with pirating and illegal downloading, they can see it anyway. So it's a problem. We're seeing a new era, and it's going to change radically.
Back to happier topics! Was there a moment when you realized that the movie was a sensation?
We kind of went away quietly in the theaters, and it wasn't until 10 years later, after the VHS boom, that I was in Manhattan. I was ordering a hamburger or something, and the waitress said, "How do you want it cooked?" I said medium rare, and she went, "As you wish," to me, and I'd never heard that before. I went, "What?" and she just looked at me and said, "You know," and winked at me. I couldn't believe it!
Do you still discover new things when you're watching it?
I don't watch my films very much, to be honest. I see them once. I saw this one twice because I went to the 25th anniversary screening and watched it with everyone. But I don't tend to really watch my films over anymore. And I sat down and showed it to my daughter, of course, and that was fun. But once you've seen a film once, and when you're involved with a film, it's very hard to see anything new. So I have to let a lot of time go by – and if I ever watch it again, I'm sure I'll see something where I'll be like, "Oh, that's cool."
But the main thing I took away from watching the film at the anniversary is how great everybody was in it. Everyone came with their A-game. They just showed up and went, "You know what, you're in for a treat." Each character has a unique behavior and unique attitude and unique background. You look at the relationship between Chris Guest's Count Rugen and Humperdinck; it's hilarious! It was so well written; all the roles were so carefully and meticulously crafted.
And the casting was impeccable. I mean, there was no one else who could play Wally Shawn's role. I mean, I know he was terrified; he thought that they wanted Danny DeVito, and I love Danny DeVito, don't get me wrong, but it would be a different movie with Danny DeVito. Originally, Arnold Schwarzenegger was going to be cast as the giant, as Fezzik, and that would've been a different movie too.
When did you realize there was a book to be written about all of this?
We were at the 25th anniversary, I believe, and we had a screening at the Lincoln Center. We were all up on stage – and by the way, we watched the movie with Goldman, the first time he'd seen it in a cinema ironically – and it was extraordinary. It was like going to a screening of "Rocky Horror Picture Show." They were yelling back the lines before the actors were saying them, and it was amazing. And Bill was absolutely … you could've knocked him down with a feather. He couldn't believe it. He was sitting right behind me, going, "Oh my gosh! They know every line!"
I realized after looking at all of this and feeling this reaction from the audience, well, somebody should write about this. I called all of the actors, I called Rob Reiner, I called Norman and called everybody associated with the picture, and I said, "Listen, how would you feel about it if I wrote a book, and are you guys interested in writing one yourselves?" Everybody said no, but if I wanted to, I could go right ahead. So I secured all of their permission, and I said, "I'll only do it if you guys are all involved. I don't want to do it on my own." Because this is a family; it really is my extended family for life now. And they all, every single one, said yes.
Like I said, we all feel very blessed to be a part of this extraordinary thing, called "The Princess Bride."
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