From the Author:
Cary Elwes is a celebrated English actor who starred in The Princess Bride before moving on to roles in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Glory, Days of Thunder, Twister, and Saw, among many other acclaimed performances. He will always be indebted to The Princess Bride, he says, for changing his life and giving him a career that has spanned decades. He lives in Hollywood, California, with his family. Find out more about Cary Elwes on Twitter @Cary_Elwes.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Award-winning journalist and bestselling author Joe Layden has written more than thirty books for adults and children, including the critically acclaimed title, The Last Great Fight and the #1 New York Times bestseller The Rock Says. He lives in Saratoga Springs, New York, with his wife, Susan, and their two children.
As You Wish
MEETING ROB, BERLIN, JUNE 29, 1986
The note simply read: IMPORTANT.
It was a message from my agent, Harriet Robinson, that had been slipped under my door by a bellhop at the Hotel Kempinski, where I was staying.
I immediately picked up the phone and dialed her number. This would be the call that actually changed my life. After I reached Harriet on the line she began to tell me that she had arranged an important meeting for me. That the director of This Is Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner, and his producing partner, Andy Scheinman, were planning on coming to Berlin to see me.
She said they were hamstrung by a tight preproduction schedule and were still looking for an actor to play the pivotal role of Westley in a film version of The Princess Bride.
“Not The Princess Bride by William Goldman?”
“I think so, yes,” came the response.
I couldn’t believe it. This was a book I had read when I was just thirteen. And here I was being considered for one of the leads by the director and the producer. Fortunately, for me, they did not change their plans.
A little backstory on where I was at that time. I was a neophyte, just twenty-three, with only a handful of films to my credit. But I already knew what I wanted out of life. I knew I wanted to be an actor. I was born and raised in London and briefly attended the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art, one of the world’s most prestigious training grounds for serious stage actors. I enjoyed studying but my ultimate goal back then was simply to be a working actor, preferably in film. Besides, I had already done plenty of studying when I moved to New York to attend the Actors Studio and the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute. After leaving LAMDA, I picked up an agent, Harriet, and started going out on auditions.
I’d already been a production assistant on a handful of movies, including the James Bond feature Octopussy, where I had the unique experience of being asked to drive Bond himself, Roger Moore, to work a couple of times. I was a nervous wreck, I can tell you. All that kept going through my mind was, What if I killed Bond on the way to work in a traffic accident? How’d that be? It would certainly put a halt to my burgeoning career in the film industry. I could already see the headlines: “Lowly Production Assistant Kills Bond!” During one of our early-morning drives, Mr. Moore actually looked up from his newspaper and said, in that very calm and collected manner of his, “You can speed up a little if you want to.”
By the mid-1980s, I had a résumé that was short but not unimpressive. My first movie, released in 1984, was Another Country, a historical drama based on a popular West End play by Julian Mitchell, with Rupert Everett and Colin Firth. I had costarred with Helena Bonham Carter in Lady Jane, director Trevor Nunn’s period drama about Lady Jane Grey, the nine-day queen of England whose brief reign followed the death of King Edward VI. Apparently this was the film that Rob had been able to see, and the one that convinced him to take a chance on me.
After I wrapped Lady Jane, Trevor Nunn offered me an opportunity to spend a year in residency with the Royal Shakespeare Company, of which he was the director. I was flattered almost to the point of distraction—most young actors would kill for such an opportunity. But by this time I was living in London, and I knew that spending a year with the RSC, as prestigious as it was, would be the equivalent of doing graduate work in theater: the compensation wouldn’t even cover my rent. Nevertheless, I seriously considered the offer, as it came from a talented director whom I admired and still admire a great deal. Might things have been different for me had I said yes? Who knows? I have very few regrets about the life I’ve been fortunate to lead. But this much seems certain: if I had taken up residency with the RSC, I would not have been free to accept the role of Westley. In fact, I might not have even been considered. You could say I was rather lucky, for as it turned out, I happened to be in the right place at the right time.
By the time Rob Reiner had started looking for someone to play his leading man, I had a body of work that was thin but perhaps worth investigating. Through fate or skilled representation or a combination of these I came under consideration for the role of the farmhand turned pirate, Westley—a character created in a renowned novel that had long been considered incapable of being adapted for the screen. And one that I had already read and enjoyed as a kid.
How did that come to be? Well, it turns out my stepfather had worked in the literary department of the William Morris Agency in Los Angeles and, after leaving to make movies, had produced William Goldman’s very first screenplay, adapted from the novel The Moving Target, by Ross Macdonald. The film version was released in 1966 under that same title in Britain but was renamed Harper for release in the United States, where it became a modest hit and helped further establish the stardom of its young lead, Paul Newman. And it wasn’t bad for Goldman, either, who won an Edgar Award for best screenplay and subsequently became one of the hottest writers in Hollywood.
Being a huge fan of Goldman’s, my stepfather naturally kept a copy of The Princess Bride in his library and one day gave it to me to read. Needless to say, I loved it. I remember reading the author’s own description of the “good bits” from S. Morgenstern’s fictitious novel:
Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautiful ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Pain. Death. Brave men. Cowardly men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.
Now if that didn’t sound exciting to a thirteen-year-old, nothing would.
When the call came from Harriet, I was in Berlin shooting a little indie film called Maschenka, based on a semiautobiographical novel by Vladimir Nabokov, the man who gave us one of the most controversial examples of twentieth-century literature, Lolita. The film was a British-Finnish-German coproduction and was being shot in both Germany and Finland.
This was the early summer of 1986, only a few months after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which had caused quite a fear at the time. Harriet actually told me that Rob and Andy had seriously thought about canceling their trip because of “the whole nuclear thing.” My recollection is that it wasn’t of much concern to those of us working on our small European coproduction. I recall a crew meeting being called on a set in a place called Katajanokka, in Helsinki, only a week before and being told that there was nothing to fear because the winds were in our favor and that the fallout was likely to be blown in another direction. We were warned, however, that as a precaution we probably shouldn’t drink the local milk. At least not until it had been declared safe. Like a good many of the others on the crew, I went back to work, scratching my head, wondering if we shouldn’t be taking the whole thing more seriously. We were, after all, only eight hundred miles away from the accident. All I can say is that insurance policies for the film industry back then were not as sophisticated as they are now, so shutting down production wasn’t really an option.
Anyway, not exactly what you want to hear, but the show did indeed go on. And, as far as I know, no one got sick from the experience, thank God. The last few weeks of the shoot took place in Berlin at Studio Babelsberg, which is how I came to be staying at the Kempinski.
I pressed for more information from Harriet. She said all she knew was that Rob and Andy were trying to meet as many British actors who might be right for the part, and that they were obviously interested in me. I subsequently found out that Rob had gotten a call from the casting director, Jane Jenkins, suggesting that he watch Lady Jane, and if he liked it, fly out to meet me. It seemed reasonable to think that I was in good shape if they were traveling such a long way—and not only that but to a region that might be contaminated with radioactive material. I wasn’t accustomed to this level of interest, and (even though it happens quite often now) no director had ever come to visit me on location before.
“Do I have to read for the part?” I asked, dreading the answer.
“It’s possible, since they’re coming all that way,” Harriet replied.
As an actor you lose far more roles than you gain at readings. You learn pretty early on that most things are beyond your control, and that it is better to “let go and let God” and to “get used to disappointment,” as Goldman so eloquently had the Man in Black say in the movie. I kept trying to tell myself there would always be another film, another job on the horizon—that it didn’t matter. But deep down I knew I wasn’t kidding anyone, least of all myself. This was far from being “just another job.” This was two of my heroes, Bill Goldman and Rob Reiner, working together!
Although the novel was published in 1973 to immediate acclaim and passionate reader response, it was already thirteen years old by the time I was approached to play the role of Westley. Goldman’s screenplay, which he had adapted from his own book, had in fact become something of a legendary property in Hollywood circles, having been declared by those in power at the studios as an impossible film to make.
We were trying to meet all the actors who might be capable of playing Westley, and I seem to remember Colin Firth was one of them. We get a call saying there’s this kid you should see, he’s in East Germany. So all I remember is it was right after Chernobyl. And I’m not crazy about going to East Germany. I’m looking at maps, and they have gray areas where the nuclear fallout is and I don’t like it. And Rob was like, “Don’t go if you don’t want to.” But I did. I just remember running fast into the hotel, like that’s going to do anything. And literally leaving a thousand-dollar jacket behind. I didn’t have that much money and I certainly didn’t have any other jackets like that, but I couldn’t wear it anymore. I just left it.
Having arduously penned the script himself, Goldman had long declared it to be his favorite among those he had written. High praise, given that by this time his oeuvre included Marathon Man, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and All the President’s Men, the last two earning him Academy Awards for screenwriting.
And yet, despite Goldman’s impressive résumé and passion for the piece, the project seemed destined to languish in what is commonly known in the business as “Development Hell”—meaning it had been passed around the studios a lot with all of them either unable to get it made, or simply uninterested. As Goldman himself once famously put it, “Even François Truffaut couldn’t make this movie.”
I was going to California on a trip, and I told my daughters, “I’ll write you a story; what do you want it to be about?” And one of them said, “Princesses!” and the other said something about “brides.” And I said, “Okay, that will be the title.” I went out and wrote the first two pages and then I stopped. And then years later I went back and finished the book.
It became this legendary unproduced script, even being mentioned in the prestigious French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma as such. And so it seemed that the author’s favorite work was destined never to see the light of day . . . that is, until it fell into the right hands.
For those of you unaware, it should be noted that Rob Reiner’s career was on a clear upward trajectory by this point. No longer merely a sitcom star, he’d proven himself to be an A-list director with a deft ability to meld genres with his work on The Sure Thing and especially This Is Spinal Tap, released in 1984. Everyone who cared about rock music or comedy instantly fell in love with the movie and memorized its largely improvised dialogue. It was the first and maybe the best of what would become a new category of film and television: the mock documentary (or “mockumentary”), and it was Rob who steered the project expertly from its conception to the cult status it now enjoys, even among musicians. Tom Petty once declared his fondness for the dim-witted, aging rock stars by revealing that he and his bandmates routinely gather and recite lines from the film before going onstage. Rob also told me that when he met with Sting about playing Humperdinck, the musician told him he had watched Spinal Tap over fifty times and that every time he “didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.” For a director or writer (Rob’s coauthors on that film were Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and Christopher Guest, who would be among the Princess Bride ensemble), that has to be just about the highest praise imaginable.
Around this same time Rob was putting the finishing touches on Stand by Me, an adaptation of a Stephen King novella that would be recognized as one of the best coming-of-age stories Hollywood has ever produced. Later on, after I arrived in London, he arranged a private screening for me at Pinewood Studios, and I remember being deeply moved by it. I hadn’t seen that kind of honest acting from kids since watching Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. It was clear to me that from This Is Spinal Tap to The Sure Thing to Stand by Me, Rob was basically on a winning streak. His films were all very different in tone and genre, and they all ended up doing very good business. He was a director with a unique vision who made memorable films. There was really no one else doing the kind of work that he was doing. So with that impressive body of work behind him, Rob had earned the right to choose his next project based primarily on what he wanted to do rather than what was expected of him. Essentially, he was given carte blanche. As I understand it, the conversation between Rob and the then head of Columbia Pictures, which was releasing Stand by Me, went something like this:
“Anything you want,” the studio head told him. “Anything at all.”
“Really? Anything?” Rob responded with glee.
“In that case I want to do my favorite book,” Rob replied.
“The Princess Bride.”
“Anything but that!” came the instantaneous response.
And so for a while the project seemed to stall.
But, to Rob’s credit, he was steadfast. Although he has an extraordinarily warm and generous spirit, and is not at all prone to the sort of rampant ego that is not uncommon among some of the upper echelon of Hollywood talent, he is hardly a pushover. In fact, it was his sheer determination and his vision that were largely responsible for making the film happen.
Time has obviously proven that Rob was the right man for the job. Like most people who read it, he had been a huge fan of the novel. He also had supreme confidence in his ability to blend all the different genres that filled its pages: romance, adventure, fantasy, drama, comedy, action. He would take these elements and turn them on their heads. He would have fun doing it and, in turn, create a movie that would ...
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