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Exclusive Interview: Cary Elwes Talks Princess Bride

Acclaimed actor talks about the best-selling new book about the making of his breakthrough movie



Touchstone

Actor Cary Elwes was just 25 when he filmed Rob Reiner’s comic fantasy, The Princess Bride. Remarkably, this delightful, whimsical movie wasn’t a big hit at the box office when it came out in 1987—but as the years went by, the film’s reputation and audience grew exponentially. Now, The Princess Bride is one of the most loved, most quoted movies of the 1980s. (Check out how many different Princess Bride t-shirts are available at 80s.tees.com.)

The Princess Bride is, without question, a classic.

That's why it is this month’s entry in our Classic Film Series at the Orinda Theatre. If you haven’t seen the movie (inconceivable!), you’re in for a treat—join us this Thursday, January 8 at the Orinda Theatre for a free screening. The fun starts at 7 p.m., when we give away Republic of Cake cupcakes as trivia prizes before starting the movie. Make sure to arrive early enough to find parking and best available seating, as we are expecting a big crowd.

And here’s another treat. I just got off the phone with Cary Elwes, to talk about the movie and his terrific new book, As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride. Unlike the film, the first run of the book is a New York Times-bestselling smash. Elwes’ book is a must-have for fans of the film, it’s brim-packed with behind-the-scenes scoop and written with the warm, nostalgic tone that this beloved movie deserves.

Elwes was delighted to hear about our free screening this week—and he also wants you to know that he will attend a "quote-a-long" screening of The Princess Bride on February 8 as part of SF Sketchfest.

PC: Cary, nice to meet you and congratulations on the success of your book. Given the film's current popularity, it's interesting to look back and realize that The Princess Bride was not a big hit when it came out in 1987. With the remarkable team that put this film together, did it feel like you might be making a classic when you were filming?
CARY ELWES: I hoped it would turn out well, and it certainly did. There was a tsunami of talent working on this film, starting with (director) Rob Reiner and (writer) William Goldman. And the cast was amazing, so we all had high hopes for the film to be very successful, and we were disappointed when it was not.

PC: When did you notice that the film's popularity started to take off?
CE: It was about ten years after it came out—that was the height of the VHS and cable era. Thanks to VHS tapes and cable TV, it started to build an audience. I still meet families who show me the VHS tapes that have been handed down from grandmother to daughter to granddaughter. The film has had an amazing life. I can speak on behalf of everyone associated that we are humbled by the way folks have taken to it.

PC: That's funny. I still have my vinyl copy of Mark Knopfler's soundtrack to the film and I play it every now and then.
CE: Do you really? Isn't it wonderful music? There's a little bit in the book about Mark's involvement in the film and the funny arrangement he and Rob Reiner had.

PC: You're certainly right about a tsunami of talent. I wanted to make sure to ask about William Goldman, who wrote the original book and then adapted the screenplay. What an amazing range of work that he gave us—the whimsical fantasy of The Princess Bride could not be further from a thriller like Marathon Man, or the gritty realism of his screenplay for All the President's Men.
CE: Yes. William Goldman loomed very large in my household growing up. My biological father was a huge fan of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and my stepfather worked on one of William Goldman's first movies, Harper. My stepfather gave me the book The Princess Bride.

You're right about his range of work. Rob Reiner was the same way—he made comedies, dramas, even horror. (After The Princess Bride, Reiner and Goldman re-teamed on the Stephen King adaptation, Misery.) They liked to mix it up.

PC: The entire cast of The Princess Bride is pretty amazing, but I wanted to ask specifically about Billy Crystal and Christopher Guest, who are incredible improvisational performers. As a young actor, what did you learn from them?
CE: I was very excited to work with both of them. I knew Chris Guest, of course, from This is Spinal Tap and I knew Billy Crystal from the TV show Soap. And I knew the both from Saturday Night Live. They were both friends of Rob's, and I believe they were the first ones cast. Rob likes to work with his friends. Of course, that's because they were perfect for those roles, there was not an ounce of nepotism involved.

As far as improvising on The Princess Bride, Bill got to do quite a bit more than Chris did in that film. The Miracle Max character was perfect for improvising. I'll never forget Billy's first day on set, when I got to watch him do about three hours of pure improvisational brilliance as this Yiddish standup magician. We were laughing so hard that almost none of the footage was usable.

PC: I asked some readers for questions, so I wanted to give you a couple of those. Jeffrey Winslow asks: "Your role in The Princess Bride is iconic. If he could have had any other iconic movie role in cinematic history, what would it be and why?"
CE: Oh, I can't answer that. I can't take another actor's role from them! That would not be polite.

PC: That's very diplomatic. Barry Howarth asks, "Are there any out-takes or deleted scenes with Andre the Giant and Wallace Shawn that could be compiled into My Dinner With Andre The Giant?"
CE: That is funny! And a good question. Sadly, I don't think so. This was shot on film, before the days of digital playback. I think if Fox did have extra footage, they certainly would have used it as an extra feature on one of the DVD releases.

PC: How did the book, As You Wish, come together?
CE: I came up with the idea at the 25th anniversary reunion of the film. We screened the movie at Lincoln Center, and during the Q&A we were all asked what was our favorite moment or memory from the film. I realized, I didn't have just one. I had far too many to count. The whole experience was so joyous in my life and career. And the whole journey with the book has been wonderfully joyful and nostalgic.

PC: Finally, what has been the most rewarding part of your experience as an author?
CE: Easily, it is the connection  to the audience, connecting to the fans. It is wonderful to be able to connect with them. The response to the book has been unbelievable. I did a signing in Beaverton, Oregon and 2,000 people showed up. It was overwhelming.

I could have never expected the kind of warmth and joy this movie has brought to people. When someone comes up to you and thanks you, then tells you that this movie helped get them through chemotherapy ... you just can't quantify that.

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride is in independent bookstores and on Amazon now. Cary Elwes will be in San Francisco for a "quote-a-long" screening of The Princess Bride on February 8, as part of SF Sketchfest. And we're showing the film for free this Thursday at the Orinda Theatre.

See you at the movies!