Tuesday night, the New York Film Festival celebrated the 25th anniversary of The Princess Bride (and the release of a new Blu-ray tied to said anniversary) with a special screening of the film, followed by a Q&A with several members of the cast and crew. The movie was raucously received by the rowdy audience: they applauded their favorite lines, cheered the entrances of its many memorable characters like old friends arriving at a party, and generally ate it up with a spoon. After the closing credits, director Rob Reiner, screenwriter William Goldman, and co-stars Billy Crystal, Mandy Patinkin, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Wallace Shawn, Carol Kane, and Chris Sarandon sat down for a Q&A with NYFF Associate Programming Director Scott Foundas.
The project came to Reiner partially because of his dad. According to Rob Reiner, a film adaptation of William Goldman’s book The Princess Bride had been considered by several directors before him, including Francois Truffaut, Norman Jewison, and Robert Redford. The book came to his attention via his father, legendary comedy writer and director Carl Reiner, whose play Something Different was included in Goldman’s 1969 book The Season: A Candid Look at at Broadway. The two men became friends, and “when he finished writing The Princess Bride, he sent it to my dad,” Reiner remembers. “So I read it, and I thought, oh my God — and I know you’ve all had that experience, when you’re reading something, and it’s what you wish you could write. It’s like somebody’s in your head, and voicing your feelings for you… I thought this was the most brilliant thing I’ve ever read in my life.” Years later, with This is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing under his belt, Reiner sought out the project, courted Goldman, and the rest is movie history.
It was as much fun to make as it is to watch. “It was a blast,” Cary Elwes says, and Mandy Patinkin concurs: “The only injury I received on the entire movie was I bruised a rib holding in my laughter.” They shot in England and got along famously, hanging out and eating together — Reiner brought in cooks (the food was “execrable,” according to Sarandon), and had them make the group Thanksgiving dinner. “We had English people trying to figure out, ‘How do you make a Thanksgiving?'” Reiner recalls. For his part, NYFF’s Scott Foundas remarked, “It was an easy group to get together because everybody likes each other. When you try to put together one of these screenings, you quickly learn if people actually enjoyed making the movie or not, by the quickness of their reply.”
Elwes and Patinkin did all their own fencing. Though stunt people were used for some of the flips and gymnastics, Reiner says that Elwes and Patinkin did their sword-fighting themselves. “Rob said from the beginning, I don’t want stuntmen, I don’t want shots of arms,” Patinkin says. “I want you guys to film it, I want wide shots where we see the two of you.” Reiner felt tremendous pressure to stage the scenes well. “In the screenplay,” he recalls, “before the first swordfight, it’s described by Bill Goldman, it says, ‘What you’re about to see is the second-greatest swordfight in movie history. The first-greatest comes later.'” The duo trained and practiced for months — with two teachers, one for the right-handed fighting, and one for the left — up to and including the shoot, where Reiner scheduled the fight at the end of production so they could work on it as long as possible. “Cary and I would film separately for most of our scenes,” Patinkin remembers, “so during lunch and dinner was when we had the chance to work together.” When the time finally came to shoot, it led to “the only depressing moment” of the production for the actor: “When Rob would say, ‘Cut, print, we got it,’ and I would look at Cary and I’d go, ‘That means we don’t get to do that part anymore!'”
It was a “dream job” for Crystal. Though he spent something like ten hours getting into makeup (“I wanted to look like a combination of my grandmother and Casey Stengel”), Billy Crystal says it was a dream job. “I had three days,” he recalls, “you never saw my real face, which at that hour is a pleasure. And I’m acting with Cary laying there, a giant, and Mandy, and Carol, and the best director in the world. It was like a dream. And to get to say those words — he had the greatest sense of rhythm for comedy of any director I’ve worked with… and then, the trust that he would have for us, which was… y’know, ‘I want you to go play around. What do you got?'”
Crystal came up with some R-rated improvisations. Some of Crystal and Kane’s funniest lines were improvised on set — the “MLT,” the bit about not going swimming, etc. But Crystal would most like to find the footage of when the improvisations got a little blue (“You’re in the rubber,” he says Reiner told him, referring to his heavy make-up, “So do what you want!”). He still remembers one of them — “Don’t rush me, sonny, I found my nephew with a sheep” — and when Reiner expressed surprise that he still recalled it, Crystal quipped, “I’m waiting for the sequel to use it!”
Don’t hold your breath for that sequel. The notion of a follow-up got a big cheer from the audience, but novelist and screenwriter William Goldman says he doesn’t see it happening. He’s tried doing it, and though he wants to write it “more than anything else I’ve ever not written,” it was a “total failure.” Goldman explained it thus: “It’s just one of those things where you go to your pit and everything sucks there.”
Robin Wright is surprisingly accommodating. The first question from the audience came from a young man who told Wright that she was his first crush — “You and Winnie Cooper,” he corrected himself, and no, it wasn’t co-star Fred Savage — and unashamedly asked if, after all these years, she would honor him with a hug. Not only did she happily do so, but when he grabbed his phone to take a picture with her onstage, she took the phone and expertly snapped a self-portrait of herself with the thrilled fellow.
Everybody loved Andre the Giant. Christopher Guest was unable to attend because he’s working on a series in London, and three of the film’s other featured players — Peter Falk, Peter Cook, and Andre the Giant — are no longer with us. Patinkin took the opportunity to tell a lovely story about the latter (“this gentle man”). Wallace Shawn was particularly worried about the cliff-climbing sequence, due to a rather debilitating fear of heights. The actors’ portion of the stunt was done very safely, of course; the cliffs were made of rubber, Andre was raised by a forklift, and the trio he was “carrying” were sitting on a custom-made three-pronged bicycle seat. “Wally was very nervous that day that he was going to ruin the day’s shooting because of his fear of heights,” Patinkin recalls. “And there he was on this, in this Medieval ‘Snuggly’ on Andre’s stomach… and he was really quite frightened. And Andre, in his inevitable beauty, just patted him on his head, and on his back, and he said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you.'”
Unlike most things from the ’80s, the movie hasn’t aged. At the conclusion of the talk, Carol Kane called it “a perfect movie,” and watching the film for the first time in years, she may be right. Aside from the opening shot of a comically primitive video game, there’s little in it that seems of its 1987 vintage; its storybook quality makes it a timeless picture, and the jokes still land, reminding us of how remarkable it is that Reiner and Goldman created a film that is both a spirited swashbuckler and a parody of same. It’s eminently quotable, but what struck this viewer were the little things I’d forgotten: that tiny, perfectly-timed pause before Christopher Guest runs away; the fire in Patinkin’s eyes as he growls, “I want my father back, you sonofabitch”; the warmth of Andre the Giant (“Hello, lady!”). It may very well be a perfect movie, the cinematic equivalent of an old record you never get tired of playing.