'Clue' at 35: Jonathan Lynn reveals how Carrie Fisher and Rowan Atkinson were almost cast in the classic board game movie
Jonathan Lynn is no stranger to mixing politics and comedy. Migrating from the world of British theater into the world of British television in the 1970s and 1980s, he was one of the creative forces behind the classic BBC series, Yes Minister and its sequel, Yes, Prime Minister, which lampooned the inner workings of the U.K. government. Recently, Lynn found himself caught up in a real-life piece of American political comedy, when President Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, referenced his 1992 comedy favorite, My Cousin Vinny, in a rambling press conference that made wild, unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
“I took Giuliani's comments with great praise coming, as it is, from a man who's giving the comedy performance of the year,” Lynn tells Yahoo Entertainment. “At that time, he had just been giving a press conference with mascara running down both sides of his face, so I felt he knew a thing or two about comedy!”
It may not be remembered this way, but Lynn’s first feature film — 1985’s Clue — also mixes political commentary into its farcical murder mystery. Inspired by the vintage board game, Clue opened in theaters 35 years ago this past weekend, and features what remains the best ensemble cast ever assembled for a game-based movie. Eileen Brennan, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull and Lesley Ann Warren played the color-coded characters that players moved around the board, while Tim Curry and Colleen Camp added additional laughs (and intrigue) as uptight butler Wadsworth and buxom maid Yvette, respectively.
Today, of course, Hollywood regularly transforms toys, games and theme park rides into feature films. But in 1985, the idea of basing a movie off of a board game proved baffling to many in the industry… including Lynn himself. “It struck me as absolutely nuts,” he says, laughing. “ I thought, ‘How can you write a movie based on a board game?’”
Here’s how: During early story discussions with John Landis, who was originally attached to direct the film, Lynn imposed real-world logic on the board game mystery. “I realized that six people can’t turn up at a house whose real names are all colors — they have to be given aliases. And those aliases must have been given to them by one person, which meant that they must have all been in a conspiracy. I worked out the plot logically from there, because broadly funny farce only works if its logical.”
Lynn also made the eminently logical choice to set the movie in 1954, as that period gave him a piece of actual U.S. history to draw on for the central conspiracy. “That was era of McCarthyism, which I’d learned about as a very young person in England,” he says, referring to disgraced senator, Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade. “I was friends with several expatriate American writers who had been blacklisted, so I was very well-informed on the subject.” Specifically, Lynn befriended screenwriters Donald Ogden Stewart, Ring Lardner Jr. and Waldo Salt, all of whom were blacklisted amidst Hollywood’s Red Scare, and moved to England to find work often under different names. “I heard an awful lot about the 1950s witch hunts from the horse’s mouth,” Lynn says now.
Just like Lynn’s blacklisted friends, all of the main characters in Clue stories informed the way that all of the main characters in Clue have to adopt aliases to hide past scandals. Lloyd’s Professor Plum, for example, had a torrid affair that cost him his medical license; Warren’s Miss Scarlett is the proprietor of a Washington D.C. brothel that Mull’s Colonel Mustard may or may not have visited; Kahn’s Mrs. White and Brennan’s Mrs. Peacock both have shady marital issues; and McKean’s Mr. Green is firmly in the closet lest he lose his job at the State Department.
Protecting those secrets gives each of them incentive, and motive, for the murder of their suspected blackmailer that kicks the farcical comedy of errors into gear. “I don't know how else you can write about politics except treating it as comedy,” Lynn says of Clue’s political subtext. “It's too awful otherwise. I think it's the duty of comedy writers to make people laugh at those who want to govern us.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, Lloyd spoke with Yahoo Entertainment about some of the actors who didn’t appear in Clue, why the film’s multiple endings hurt the movie’s box office (and made it a cult favorite) and the time that Michael Jackson brought him a slice of pizza.
Yahoo Entertainment: It’s interesting that John Landis was originally going to direct Clue. He was so identified with comedies like Animal House and The Blues Brothers, so farce seems very different for him.
Jonathan Lynn: Oh no, absolutely not! I think he would have directed it wonderfully. He had just made Trading Places, which I thought was one of the great movie farces that’s up there with the screwball comedies of the 1930s. He was very excited when he pitched the story to me. Some of the events that are actually in the movie were described by John on that day. When he got to the moment where Wadsworth says, “I know who did it,” I was on the edge of my seat and asked, “Who did it?” And John said, "I don't know, that's why I need a writer." [Laughs] But he eventually opted not to direct it, and asked me if I’d like to do it. He knew I was a theater director, and that I had done a lot of farce in theater. And you can never really say no when someone offers you a film to direct! Clue wouldn’t have been my first choice as a film to make, but it was offered.
Did the toy company behind the game try to have approval over the movie or were they hands off?
I wasn’t the producer or the executive producer, so I wasn’t party to many comments or decisions that were made. I do remember, that the company was called Parker Brothers in those days, and I’m sure they had a lot to say, but I never heard it! It may be that they had set up the original ground rules — you don't have to include the rooms from board game in the film, but you do have to feature the weapons and the characters — but of course we would have done that anyway.
In terms of the cast, you’ve said before that Carrie Fisher was originally going to play Ms. Scarlett.
Yes, but she went into rehab the night before we started rehearsing, I think it was. She was still hopeful that she could be in the movie, but I suppose that drugs make you unrealistic. The rehab people had absolutely no doubt that she couldn't be in the movie. So we had to recast and we got Lesley Ann Warren, who was great. Essentially what I did with the casting was just cast the people who I found funny. It was really as simple as that. I had seen Christopher Lloyd in Taxi, and he was very funny in that. And I knew Madeleine Kahn from Mel Brooks’s films; she improvised that whole speech about flames that’s in the movie. The others were all people who came in to meet with me and I liked them.
There are rumors that Madonna and Demi Moore supposedly auditioned for Yvette.
I've read that too somewhere, but I have no idea if it's true. I read a lot of things that aren’t true! [Laughs]
But it is true that Rowan Atkinson almost played Wadsworth?
Yes, that is right. I persuaded Rowan — who was a very big star in Britain, but not known in America at that time — to send in a demo tape. Stars don't normally send demo tapes, but he was kind enough to do that. I showed it to Paramount confident that they would be thrilled, and I don't know if they ever watched it! I got the tape back two or three weeks later and was told that they weren't interested. But Tim Curry was suggested shortly thereafter, and I thought that was a wonderful idea. I've known Tim since I was 14; we went to school together, and he's an extraordinary talent.
In the case of McKean, there are several gay jokes at his character’s expense. Is that something you think you’d have a harder time doing today?
I don't think so. I have a great many gay friends, none of whom have ever been offended by it. I also go to screenings of the film occasionally, and hundreds of fans turn up. Some are clearly gay, and they love Mr. Green and the movie. So I'm not concerned about that. In terms of whether or not I would make those same jokes today, I don't know. Possibly not, but they're pretty harmless. And I really think that one ought to be able to make jokes about most things. I'm not terribly in favor of cancel culture, generally; I think you should be able to make jokes about nearly anything. If they're not funny, nobody will like them and if they are funny, people will like them. The criteria should simply be: Are they funny?
The idea of doing multiple endings was Landis’s invention. What did you think when he pitched that to you?
I thought that was just about as strange as the whole idea of making the movie in the first place. I found the whole experience strange, and I think that's reflected in the film.
What did you find so strange?
Coming to Hollywood for the first time was strange! Walking along Sunset Boulevard, which at that time was a bunch of one-story wooden shops that looked like expensive shacks, I found it hard to believe I was in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city. I was surprised by everything. I was surprised by the fact that everyone ate sushi all day. There wasn't any sushi in England at that time, or if there was I'd never heard of it. The whole experience of meeting a big Hollywood director like John Landis was strange. I also met Michael Jackson, because they were making Thriller at that time. And the whole experience was strange, meeting a big Hollywood director, John Landis and also meeting Michael Jackson. The whole thing was a week away from my reality. So was I surprised by this suggestion of multiple endings? No more than I was surprised by anything else. [Laughs]
What was it like to meet Michael Jackson?
They were in the mixing room doing the final mix, and I'd never seen any sort of mix. There I was in this huge empty screening room with the big mixing desk and nothing else except a pool table and a ping-pong table and lots of people trying to get all these different sound balances right. This really nice kid who I thought was somebody’s assistant came over to me and asked me if I'd like some pizza, because he was going to get some. I said, "Yes,” and he came back with the pizza. I was looking at the screen and I realized at that point that this nice kid who'd gotten me pizza was Michael Jackson! So, yeah the whole thing was new to me.
You filmed a never-released fourth ending that shows that Wadsworth is the killer. Do you ever intend to let that be seen?
I don't know if it exists anywhere, and I wouldn't particularly want it seen. I cut it because it wasn't very funny. I managed to get three endings that worked, but that one seemed to me to be anti-climactic. It was just too obvious. And three endings ought to be enough for anybody!
Did you have a say in how the studio released the film with those different endings?
I did have say in it, and I made a wrong choice. The studio and all the producers believed that multiple endings shown separately at different movie theaters would be a really good idea. I was always doubtful about it, because I knew that the three endings could be ingeniously applied to the same set of facts, and if you only saw one of them, you’d miss the ingenuity. But I was persuaded by everybody that this was the best thing, because people would go back to see the film two or three times to see all the endings.
In fact, the opposite happened! People didn’t know which ending to go see, so they didn’t go. [Laughs] So it was a massive marketing mistake, which I went along with. I think that's been demonstrated by the fact that nobody in the ensuing 35 years has done a film with multiple endings, and I feel they never will. For the home video version, I put all three endings together, and that was a big improvement.
When we spoke with Rian Johnson last year, he talked about how Clue influenced Knives Out. Are you happy that it has that kind of afterlife?
I’ve never met him, but when I saw Knives Out, I was struck by certain similarities to Clue, as well as another one of my films, Greedy. A friend of mine knows him well, and asked if he liked those films and he replied that he knew them both, liked them and had them in mind when he was writing Knives Out. I thought that was a great compliment. And I enjoyed Knives Out!
Touching briefly again on Rudy Giuliani’s My Cousin Vinny moment, the fact that he’s since been diagnosed with COVID-19 almost seems like a twist ending right out of Clue.
You’d have to have a very dark sense of humor to wish COVID-19 on anybody, I think. I’m completely contemptuous of Giuliani’s politics, but I don’t want him to suffer pain or illness. One does feel that he’s asked for it: He’s gone everywhere without a mask to every super-spreading event that Trump puts on. Obviously he runs the risk of getting the disease — he knew that. It’s a political choice he made: I will not wear the mask because I don’t want to upset Trump, and I might get the virus.
It was nice to be reminded how great Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei are in that movie.
Yeah, they are really wonderful in the film. All of the cast is.
Clue is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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