'The Princess Bride' turns 30: Rob Reiner, Robin Wright, Billy Crystal dish about making the cult classic
It’s no secret “The Princess Bride” was not a box office success when it opened in 1987. And it’s also no secret that thanks to home video, cable, DVD, and now Blu-ray, the charmingly funny fractured fairy tale directed by Rob Reiner and adapted by William Goldman from his 1973 novel, has become part of the cultural landscape.
Stars Chris Sarandon, Cary Elwes, and Wallace Shawn once did a Q&A after a screening for an audience of 5,000 people. Rabid fans approached the stars reciting their lines — especially Mandy Patinkin’s “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die,” and Shawn’s “Inconceivable.” Even Ted Cruz reenacted the hilarious scene featuring Billy Crystal as Miracle Max and Carol Kane as his wife Valerie during the 2016 presidential campaign.
But did you know the film once saved a woman’s life?
“Honestly, I’m not making this up,” said Reiner. “This is the honest to God truth.”
Reiner, his producing partner Andrew Scheinman, and a mutual friend who was a producer on the 1985 Chevy Chase hit “Fletch” were having lunch one day.
“We were talking about people quoting ‘The Princess Bride’ all the time and it was just going into profits after all of those years,” noted Reiner. Their friend said, “You know, I produced this movie ‘Fletch’ and people tell me in colleges that they quote it all the time.”
After their friend left, Reiner and Schienman were sitting at their table when a young woman who had heard their conversation approached them. “I am an extreme skier,” she explained. “And ‘The Princess Bride’ saved my life.”
She recounted the time an avalanche trapped her and several other skiers. Being an avid fan of “The Princess Bride,” she knew every line from the film.
“‘When we were freezing, I did the entire movie to keep everybody occupied and to keep everybody up, happy and listening,'” Reiner remembered the woman saying.
“I am not exaggerating — then she said ‘You know, because “Fletch” just wouldn’t do.’ That was the best line I ever got. ‘The Princess Bride’ saved my life.”
“That was the best line I ever got: ‘The Princess Bride’ saved my life.'”
With the 30th anniversary of the film’s release on Sept. 25, Reiner and stars Elwes (Westley), Sarandon (Prince Humperdinck), Robin Wright (Buttercup), Crystal (Miracle Max), Kane (Valerie), and Fred Savage (the Grandson) talked with Variety about their experiences making the film and its extraordinary afterlife.
In the Beginning
William Goldman is Reiner’s favorite author and “The Princess Bride” is his favorite novel. In fact, his father Carl Reiner gave him the novel about the beautiful Buttercup and the love of her life, Westley, who, with the help of a Spanish fencing master and a massive wrestler from Greenland, rescues her from the evil Prince Humperdinck to whom she is engaged.
When “All in the Family” actor Reiner became a filmmaker with 1984’s “This Is Spinal Tap,” he had his heart set on making “Princess Bride” as a movie.
But no one else did.
“It was an impossible sell,” said Reiner. “The funny thing about it was that before I made ‘Stand by Me’ — I had made ‘Spinal Tap’ and ‘The Sure Thing’ — I had a meeting with this executive at Paramount. She said, ‘We love your films. What do you want to do next? I said, ‘Well, you don’t want to do what I want to do.’ She said, ‘No, that’s not true. I want to do what you want to do. I said, ‘No, no. You want me to do what you want to do.’ She said, ‘No, no. I want to do what you want to do. What is it?’ I said ‘The Princess Bride.’ She said, ‘Well, anything but that.'”
Reiner discovered that since the book was published, filmmakers had tried and failed to bring “Princess Bride” to the big screen. “Francois Truffaut was involved for a while,” said Reiner.
So were Richard Lester, Robert Redford, and Norman Jewison.
Eventually, producer Norman Lear, whom Reiner worked for on “All in the Family” and had funded “Spinal Tap,” gave him the money to make “Princess Bride,” which was distributed by 20th Century Fox.
Andre the Giant, Mandy Patinkin, and Wallace Shawn on the set of ‘The Princess Bride’ in 1987.
Reiner had a great working relationship with Goldman during the production. He warmly recalled the initial meeting he and Scheinman had with Goldman at the writer’s apartment in New York City.
“I started going through what I thought should be done and was more in line with the book. He was sitting quietly. At one point, he got up to get something to drink in the kitchen. Bill Goldman comes back into the room and he’s got this high, squeaky voice and goes, ‘Well, I just think this is going great.’ I have never been as high at any moment in my whole career because here was a guy I idolized basically saying, ‘I like what you want to do with this.'”
We Are Family
Wright was on the NBC soap “Santa Barbara” when she was cast as Buttercup. And going from a daytime soap opera to the lead in a studio feature film was intimidating for the actress.
“I was honored and petrified,” she said. But once she got on location in the north of England, “It was just the warmest family. We stayed at the same hotel and ate together downstairs.
Rob rented a house, we would go over there, they could cook dinner and somebody would pull out this guitar and sing songs. Rob would sing. It was a real family and we laughed so much.”
Reiner noted he likes to have a “good experience on the set and I like to have people around me feel like they’re having a good time. Creatively, it helps them contribute, I think. If a movie you’ve been involved in comes on, it’s like watching home movies. You want to have a fond memory of the day we went to the castle and we sang inside the room there.”
The Wonder of it All
A pre-“The Wonder Years” Fred Savage was all of 10 when he was cast as the sick little boy whose grandfather (Peter Falk) reads him the book of the “Princess Bride.”
When he and Falk reported to work at Shepperton Studios in England, said Savage, “I think they had completed the [rest of the] film. The last bit was mine and Peter’s parts. So, all the sets and crew and everyone was there. It was, like, my first international flight. It was amazing.”
“It was a real family and we laughed so much.”
Reiner was great with him. “I was young, there wasn’t a lot of technique. Rob just created an environment where I felt really comfortable. I think for a young kid who was just kind of getting into [acting]. That was the absolute right way.”
But it was Falk who became his buddy on the set. “There was no one warmer,” Savage. “He was so good to me and made me feel so comfortable. He was just terrific during the shoot and for many, many years after that.”
And the 41-year-old father of three has enjoyed sharing “Princess Bride” with his kids. “They love seeing me as a kid, but they love the movie.”
Everybody Loved Andre
Sarandon described the late 7’4,” 519-pound wrestler Andre the Giant who played Fezzik, the giant from Greenland, as the heart of the set and the film.
The actor noted that his two young daughters were very excited that their father was working with a giant. And when the production moved to Shepperton, he brought his daughters to the set to meet Andre in his trailer.
“He was sitting down at the end of his makeup table and we walked up the steps and turned the corner. My daughter Stephanie took one look at Andre and started screaming at the top of her lungs and she wouldn’t stop. Of course, her sister picked up on it and she started screaming. We had to take them out immediately. I went back and said, ‘Andre, I’m so sorry. Please forgive their behavior.’ And he said, ‘No, no, no. Either they come to me or run from me.'”
Wright ran to Andre.
“He was so caretaking, that’s what I remember,” she said. “We’re in the middle of the forest and we’d be standing next to each other in our costumes and it’s freaking cold and wet. He put his hands on my head literally to keep me warm from shivering. His hands covered my whole head. The heat from his hand was like an electric blanket. He was just very sweet and thoughtful. He would always hand me his coat if my coat wasn’t nearby. Really sweet.”
At Sword’s Point
Elwes and Patinkin took their “greatest sword fight ever” on the Cliffs of Insanity in “Princess Bride” very seriously. When they weren’t in front of the cameras, the two trained with Peter Diamond and Bob Anderson. “They both worked on the first three ‘Star Wars,'” said Elwes, who wrote the 2014 book “As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales From the Making of ‘The Princess Bride.'”
“They were the top guys in the industry,” Elwes added.
The actors set out to watch every single sword fight ever filmed. “I came up with the idea,” said Elwes. “We watched them all to see if we could improve on any of it. The one we loved the best was ‘Scaramouche’ with Stewart Granger and Mel Ferrer. The fight was extraordinary.”
Cary Elwes and Robin Wright in “The Princess Bride.”
At Anderson’s suggestion, the two learned each other’s parts in the fencing routine. “He said, ‘If you learn the other guy’s part, you know what you are going do and so there’s no chance of an accident.'”
The Book of Mormon
According to Sarandon and Elwes, Mormons love “The Princess Bride.”
“I was in Salt Lake City recently,” noted Sarandon. “I met the Attorney General of Utah. He said, ‘Do you know that in every home in Utah, there is a video, a DVD, and a Blu-Ray of the ‘Princess Bride’? It’s the most popular movie in the state of Utah.'”
He believes the Mormons love the film because “it has good values to it. You know, it’s a message about love.”
Have Fun Storming the Castle
Though Patinkin wasn’t injured in the duel, he has noted that he might have cracked a rib trying to hold in the laughs during Crystal’s mad ad-libbing as the ancient Miracle Max whom Ingio and Fezzik take Westley to after he is killed by Humperdinck. Miracle Max proclaims Westley is “only mostly dead” and proceeds to bring him back to life — albeit paralyzed, but back to life.
Reiner even had to walk away from the shooting because he couldn’t stop laughing, especially when Crystal said, “True love is the greatest thing in the world, except for a nice MLT — mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomatoes are ripe.”
“We had real fun together,” said Kane of Crystal. “We did work on our story together. Before we went to London, we got together and we worked out some of our backstory. We read the book and talked about our lives together. We just got along.”
Crystal added that the couple “had been married, we figured, about 112 years!”
Both he and Kane reported to work at 2 a.m. to begin the arduous make-up process. “I was familiar with that kind of stuff,” he said. “Carol had a hard time with the make-up. She had never been in it before.”
Crystal described his three days on the set as one of those “great experiences that are really about what movies, the magic of making a movie is about. Here you are working with a Bill Goldman script, a brilliant group of actors, and a bold director who would take this kind of movie on to make a simple, beautiful, funny story like this.”
Crystal recalled going to the studio commissary for lunch with Kane both in their make-up, along with “Andre the Giant, a guy who is mostly dead and Mandy in these costumes. You’d sit down and ask the waitress what was good today. This is really what movies are about. It was just joyous.”
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