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Interview: Cary Elwes on the Lasting Power of “The Princess Bride”

Two years ago, Cary Elwes joined Rob Reiner, Billy Crystal, Carol Kane, Wallace Shawn, Chris Sarandon, Mandy Patinkin and, of course, Robin Wright at the Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center for the New York Film Festival screening of “The Princess Bride,” commemorating the 25th anniversary of the movie.

After the screening, each panelist shared a few words about their experiences and Elwes was convinced to do his impression of Fat Albert, something he used during his nervous audition to make director Rob Reiner laugh. Inspired by this event, Cary Elwes with Joe Layden has now written about those few months of filming in England in his first delightful book, "As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of 'The Princess Bride.'" The book which includes a forward by Rob Reiner, is available on Amazon.com and includes never before seen photos from Norman Lear and Rob Reiner's personal collections.

The 1987 movie "The Princess Bride" crosses several genres—it's a rom-com, but also a fantasy adventure film and the movie is about love in many forms—cross-generational from grandfather to grandson, best buddies and true love. William Goldman wrote the original book because one daughter wanted a story about a princess and another wanted a story about a bride. The resulting 1973 novel was then about “The Princess Bride”--a lovely modern fractured fairytale made with a fatherly love. The novel was optioned for a movie treatment but spend nearly a decade in limbo until Rob Reiner decided to take on the challenge with Goldman writing the screenplay.

Reiner had just finished directing the coming-of-age movie “Stand by Me,” his third film after his directorial debut, the 1984 rock music mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap” and 1985 John Cusack rom-com “The Sure Thing.”

Although “The Princess Bride” got good reviews from some major critics, that wasn’t enough to make it a hit during its initial release. Like "This Is Spinal Tap," "The Princess Bride" has become a cult classic and while its popularity was noted at the NYFF, as is typical for panel discussions, there is never enough time. On the 20th and 25th anniversary edition DVDs, Reiner and Goldman offer separate commentary.  The 25th anniversary DVD includes a 15-minute conversation with Elwes, Reiner and Wright. Yet still, that's not enough to time to tell all the stories.

In a recent phone conversation, Elwes noted that the original poster and the movie trailer didn't accurately portray the full breadth of the movie, asking where the music for the trailer came from. Ironically, the only Academy Award nomination the movie received was for Best Original Music (Willy DeVille for the song "Storybook Love"). Mark Knopfler was nominated for a Grammy (Best Album of Original Music Written for a Motion Picture).

Elwes will be making a few scheduled appearances to promote the book.

In the introduction to your book, you talk about the 25th anniversary screening of “The Princess Bride” at Lincoln Center in 2012. Was this what inspired you to write the book? In the acknowledgement, you credit your manager Ben Levine with the idea. So give us an idea of how the conversation went.

I had an idea to write it a while back, but I didn't think anyone would be interested. My manager encouraged me and I said, "If you think you can get a publisher interested."

On stage at the 25th anniversary, when we were invited to share what our favorite memories were, there wasn't enough time to share what I really felt. I couldn't pick any one particular scene.

How much input did you have on the format of the book?

The idea came from Simon and Schuster. We thought if the memories of the other actors who were involved in the film would be included, that would be fun. The idea came together to have the memories almost in the margin in a way with little blocks of little snippets.

The DVD extras (of the 20th and 25th Anniversary editions) show that you were making videos during the filming. Did you review any of those while you were writing and how much more footage do you have?

I have reviewed them. I haven't decided what to do with them yet. I may share them as part of my book tour. No one seemed to be shooting behind the scenes so I rented a camera in Sheffield. I'm glad I did, but I'm not a professional filmmaker. It's pretty much like someone with an iPhone today.

You mention that the 1987 screening at the Toronto Film Festival “while successful, did not exactly produce the sort of response one would expect of a film destined to become a classic.” Here are you talking about the lack of studio support or the public response?

They (the studio) were very supportive, it's just their marketing department was confounded about the best way to sell the film. Was it a comedy? Was it an adventure film? Was it for kids? Was it for adults? They didn't know which angle to take. They were not used to having so many genres thrown at them. It wasn't until the film came out on VHS that it found its legs so to speak.

Roger Ebert gave this movie 3.5 stars out of 4, but I was surprised to learn this movie wasn’t considered a hit. When did you first get an inkling that it was becoming a classic?

I was in a restaurant ordering something and the waitress asked how I wanted my burger cooked and she said, "As you wish." It was very weird and very delightful.

(After a brief discussion, Elwes wasn't exactly sure when that happened, but it was well after the film had been out and he had long gone on to other projects. It was perhaps even as much as a decade later).

That continued to build. The gift that keeps on giving. I meet families, grandparents and kids who have all shared watching the film together. That's a rare thing today.

I had always gotten fan mail (for "The Princess Bride") from kids, but then there was a very different demographic (as VHS became more popular). All the mail was very sweet.

You devote a whole chapter to the "greatest sword fight in modern times." Do you still have your swords? Were you able to use the skills you learned anywhere else?

I always get asked that question. Sadly, I did not continue my fencing training. I gave my sword to Rob (Reiner) after the shoot. I think he has it displayed in his home.

During the interviews for writing the book what is the most surprising, touching or favorite anecdote that came out?

I had no idea that Wally (Shawn) thought that Danny DeVito was the first choice to play the role (The Sicilian). I knew he was anxious, but I didn't know at the time what the reason was. Then I find out that he was convinced they had another actor in mind. It's inconceivable now.

At the time, he was convinced; there was no shifting that in his head. Even with all that anxiety, he pulled off an incredible performance. That's a testament to how talented he is.

From your interviews about the book, what seems to be people's favorite passage? Andre's legendary drinking capacity? The Star Wars connections? Your broken toe?

All of it really. So many different fans have different stories they are interested in. Hopefully, the book will cover all of them--all of their questions, all the things they have wondered about.

When you viewed the movie 25 years later, a lot had changed in your life—you are now married and have your own princess to whom you dedicated the book. How has this changed your emotional reaction to the movie?

I've always been emotionally attached to the film. It was my first Hollywood film that I'd been attached to as an actor. Now being a father, the whole thing of Peter Falk and Fred Savage reminds me of reading to my own kid.

It's a very sweet film, a film about love. That's the main reason why people connect to it. It's a funny movie about love.

You’ve just finished an association with a TV program that has a following, “Psych,” where you played the debonair Pierre Despereaux,. Between “Psych” and “Princess Bride” and your other endeavors, which do you find you get the most fan response from?

Still "Princess Bride," no question about it. More people have seen "Princess Bride" and it's cross-generational.

You mention in the book that you owe your role as Westley indirectly to Bill Cosby and I know that at Lincoln Center you obliged fans and did your impression.  Have you ever had any comment from Bill Cosby on your Fat Albert impressions?

No, not yet. I like to think my acting talents and my athleticism had a good part in being cast, but I do think making Rob (Reiner) laugh helped. He was looking for someone with a sense of humor. Indirectly, Bill Cosby is why I got the part.

What do you hope fans take away from the book?

I hope that they enjoy it and it answers all the questions and curiosities that they may have. It was as fun as it looked and there were so many strange and wonderful things that happened during the making.

You have an association with “The Princess Bride,” Psych,” Saw” and now "Granite Flats." Are you considering writing more books?

It would depend up on how well the book does.

One hopes this book does well. "As You Wish" is dedicated to Elwes' daughter, Dominique, who has yet to see the film. The book is a slender 250 pages with a light-hearted narrative that sometimes flows around grey color blocks of other people's commentary on the same event or on each other. Nothing in it will ruin the good-natured warmth of the tale and a few of them, such as Elwes' injury, have already been told in the DVD extras, but the book offers more details and corrections. For instance, in the DVD commentary, Reiner mentions an ankle injury which was really Elwes' broken toe.

From the cast commentary in Elwes' book, Reiner seems to be a fatherly figure and very open to suggestions from the cast, making the movie very much an ensemble piece under the benevolent guidance of Reiner.

The audiobook, also out now,  is 7 hours and 2 minutes, unabridged, with narration by Elwes, Christopher Guest, Carol Kane, Norman Lear, Rob Reiner, Chris Sarandon, Andy Scheinman, Wallace Shawn and Robin Wright.

If the Academy Awards ignored "The Princess Bride," the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror did not. The movie won the Saturn Award for Best Fantasy Film and Best Costumes (Phyllis Dalton), and Robin Wright was nominated for Best Actress and William Goldman for Best Writing.

In 2002, the American Film Institute listed "The Princess Bride" as number 88 on its AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions, a list of the 100 greatest cinematic love stories. The 1942 "Casablanca" tops that list, but "The Princess Bride" comes after the 1988 "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" but before the 1966 "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Dirty Dancing," "Lady and the Tramp," "Grease" and "Pillow Talk."

At the end of the interview, Elwes fondly noted that "The Princess Bride" is a movie that brings people together romantically and has inspired themed weddings complete with The Impressive Clergyman and "mawage" vows, except one supposes that the bride and groom actually say, "I do" and find "twue wuv."

You can catch Cary Elwes at the events listed below:

Tuesday, Oct. 14: Book Revue, 313 New York Ave., Huntington, NY, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. In conversation with Loren Aliperti.

Wednesday, Oct. 15: Jacob Burns Film Center, 364 Manville Road, Pleasantville, NY. 8 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Screening and Elwes in conversation with Janet Maslin.

Thursday, Oct. 16: Northshire Bookstore, BowTie Cinemas, 19 Railroad Place, Saratoga Springs, NY, 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Screening and Elwes in conversation with Joe Layden, co-writer.

Friday, Oct. 17: Porter Square Bookstore, Brattle Street Theater, 40 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Screening and Elwes in conversation with David Waldes Greenwood.

Sunday, Oct. 19: Rainy Day Books, The Unity Temple on The Plaza, 707 W. 47th Street, Sanctuary, Kansas City, MO, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.  Elwes in conversation with Vivien Jennings.

Monday, Oct. 20: The Alamo Drafthouse, 1120 S. Lamar Blvd., 1120 S. Lamar Blvd., Austin, TX, 7:30 p.m. Quote-along screening and Elwes in conversation with Henri Mazza.

Tuesday, Oct. 21: Book Passage, 1 Ferry Building, #2, San Francisco, CA, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Elwes in conversation with Jesse Hawthorne Ficks.

Wednesday, Oct. 22: Copperfield's Books, 140 Kentucky Street, Petaluma, CA, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Dread Pirate Roberts Day! Elwes in conversation with Greg Sestero.

Thursday, Oct. 23: Barnes & Noble, The Grove, 189 The Grove Drive, Los Angeles, CA. 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Elwes in conversation with Jon Lovitz.


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