Cary Elwes, best known to his fans as Westley in the 80’s cult classic The Princess Bride, sat down at a press conference at Dragon Con to discuss his new book, As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, to be released on October 14. The book, a compilation of behind-the-scenes stories, photos and interviews from the classic movie is Elwes’s first foray into writing. Target Audience Magazine was there as he reminisced about the making of the beloved movie and gave insight into the new book.
Can you share any stories about your cast mates?
Sure, sure. There are so many stories, this is why I wanted to write the book. My first day of shooting was the fire swamp with Robin. I called Rob (Reiner) the night before because I was nervous. I was 23 and this was my first big movie. So I called him and asked him what to expect and he said (imitating Rob) “Aw, it’s an easy day. You’re going to rescue Robin from a big burst of flame and then you’re going to jump into quicksand and then you’re going to wrestle a couple of guys dressed as rats, no big deal.” And I said, “That’s no big deal?”
So we get to the set and first up is rescuing Robin from the flame spurt. So we had a big safety meeting and long story short, they told us where to stand, where not to stand, etc. They tell me, “So you’re going to grab her and move away from the flame, then we’re going to douse her with a fire extinguisher. So the stuntmen go in and do it first and we watch them. Bill Goldman missed all of this, he was on a phone call or something, but he walks back in the middle of the take and as I’m grabbing Robin, this huge burst of flame comes out of the ground and I hear, (imitating Bill) “Oh my God, she’s on fire!” and Rob goes, “Cut, cut.” And he turns to Bill and he goes, “What’s going on?” Bill says, “You’re setting fire to the leading lady on the first day, what are you, nuts?” And Rob says, “Bill, you wrote this. It’s in the script, it’s in every single draft of the script. This is where he saves her from the fire swamp. And Bill says, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry, I forgot.”
He had completely forgotten. And of course, seeing this huge burst of flame, he thinks there’s been an accident and that Robin’s dress wasn’t supposed to catch on fire. This was my first day, my first scene and this is how it all started. So there are plenty more stories like that in the book.
Did you ever think when you were making the film that it would become the classic that it is now?
You know, you never know when you’re working on a movie if it’s going to be successful. You hope, of course. No one ever sets out to make a bad movie, you always want the film to be successful. But as Bill Goldman says in his book, and I urge you to read it if you haven’t, “Nobody in Hollywood knows anything about making hit movies, because if they did they would make them all the time and we’d all be producers.” He said he knew this movie was strange, he called it an oddball film. We all knew we were making something fun and we had a great time doing it. So, of course we were disappointed when the film opened and didn’t do the business we had hoped. Fox marketing department, they were great guys, but they had no clue how to market this film. Was it a comedy, was it action, was it an adventure, was it a fantasy, was it a kid’s movie, an adult movie, what was it?
So the one thing they came up with was the grandfather, Peter Faulk, reading to Fred Savage from the rocking chair. And it didn’t really sell the movie, because there was no Westley, no Buttercup, no Rodents of Unusual Size. Little boys thought it was a girl’s movie because of the title and adults thought it was a kid’s movie, so nobody really went to see it. It wasn’t until the VHS market took off that people started buying and renting it, lending it to friends, giving it as gifts at holidays.
I remember, almost ten years later, I was at a restaurant and a waitress asked me how I wanted my meat cooked and I said medium rare and she said, “As you wish.” That came as a wonderful surprise for all of us. I think that a film that was “mostly dead” was suddenly brought back to life.
The book comes with a poster by Shepherd Fairy. Were you involved in the direction of the poster?
I never tell Shepherd what to do (laughs). He’s too talented for that. I pitched the idea to him and he loved it. I thought it was a natural fit, considering his work and he graciously accepted right away and came up with this fabulous poster that is now part of the book. Actually in the hardcover version, if you take the cover off the book, inside is Shepherd’s poster, which is very cool. I don’t believe that’s been done before. It makes it a very wonderful and unique limited edition.
It’s been rumored that your Fat Albert impression got you the part of Westley. Can we hear it?
(Laughs) How do you know about that already? It was weird. I grew up in England, as you know but I had an American stepfather who took us on vacation to the States as a kid and I became fascinated with American television, The Jeffersons, All in the Family, Mork and Mindy, these shows were a huge influence on me. So when I met Rob (Reiner) not only had I seen Spinal Tap, but I already knew him as Meathead, you know? He couldn’t believe that I knew about SNL or The Jeffersons. Somehow Bill Cosby and Fat Albert came up and I just went “Hey, hey hey!” and Rob just burst out laughing and said that was the tipping point for him and he knew I was the right guy because I had a sense of humor. And I’m glad he did, I’m glad I did it.
Were there any improvised moments or things that happened that weren’t in the original script?
Yes, again on the first day, the second sequence of the fire swamp scene when I was rescuing Robin from the quicksand. The way it was set up was very clever. They had a trapdoor that they filled with sand and they had a trapdoor that they were holding up by hand literally underneath with latex foam and a piece of plywood. So Robin’s stunt woman went in and Andy, my stunt double, went in after her. We were watching the playback and I remember thinking that it didn’t look very dashing for Andy to hold his nose while going into the sand, but he had to in order to keep sand out of his nose. And Rob said, “Eh, it’s all right, that’s what we’re going to do.”And I said, “Please just let me talk to the stunt guy so I can see if we can do something different.” So I go over and I talk to Andy and in the next take, he just stuck the sword in the ground and just dove into the sand, didn’t hold his nose or anything and Rob jumps up and says, “That’s great!”
Then the special effects team came up and said, “Mr. Reiner, just wanted to say, this was not built for that purpose. Someone could break his neck and that might slow down production a little. And I don’t recommend we do it twice.” And Rob went, “Cary, I don’t know what to tell you, they said it’s too dangerous, we still have a lot of shooting.” And I said, “Just let me try one.” And he was petrified, obviously, because if I injured myself, that was it.
Andy took me aside and said “So here’s what you do. You have to time it correctly.” So I went in and did it once and that’s the take that’s in the movie.
There was a lot of playing around like that. Of course, Billy Crystal had the most improvisational moments. I think he would deliberately try to make me laugh. In the scene where he’s supposed to be pushing air out of my body he started tickling me, he was really messing with me. We were both banned from the set because we were ruining the takes. You can Google outtakes and you’ll hear the entire crew laughing.
This is your first book. Do you see a future in writing or will this be a one-time thing?
That will be up to the book sales (laughs).
You said you read the book when you were a kid. When you were filming, did you feel a sense of ownership over your character?
Ownership? I try not to own anything. I try to be open on three things when I’m on a set: listening, being present and being grateful. I just felt incredibly grateful when I got the part. I thought they made a mistake choosing me, honestly. I love the book and if you haven’t read it, please do. It is so great. There’s a reason why Bill is one of the greatest writers, he is truly phenomenal. It took me almost a year to get him to let me write this book, because this is his favorite book and movie and he was afraid that it might get messed up. He finally agreed and I wouldn’t be here if not for him. I’m standing on the shoulder of a giant.
Can you tell us how the reunion photo (for Entertainment Weekly) came to be?
That was the 25th anniversary and EW wanted to do a reunion shoot and it was beautiful, the way they set it up. It was nice to have everyone back together. It was the first time we’d all been in a room together. I mean, we still talk to each other just not all together like that. When we were all together again for the screening, that was great. Bill sat behind me and he hadn’t seen the movie since the first screening in 1987 and he couldn’t believe the audience knew every line and were cheering when characters came on screen. He was sitting behind me going, “Oh my God.” He couldn’t believe it. He came up to me afterward and he says, “Can you believe how much they love the movie?” And I said, “Bill, you wrote a classic. It’s a beautiful film.”
How long did you have to train to be able to do the stunt work?
I had two months to train. Mandy didn’t tell anyone but he had been training for two months prior to the start of filming. So when I showed up for the first rehearsal, he already knew how to fence left handed. He was very proficient at that point and was well ahead of me. We had Rob Anderson, who was an Olympic fencer and Peter Diamond, who was an amazing fencer and stuntman. Sadly they have both passed on now. They taught us so much.
Westley is your most iconic role, is it also your favorite?
Definitely my favorite. I call it the gift that keeps on giving because I still meet grandparents with their grandkids and even today people have old VHS tapes that they’ve passed on through generations. It’s amazing, you can’t wrap your head around it. It’s just one of those phenomenal things. I feel very blessed.