Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Commentary Tracks - A Fish Called Wanda

A Fish Called Wanda (1988) with writer/star John Cleese

Comments on the Film

On Charles Crichton
Of all the reasons for doing this movie, the greatest was Charlie Crichton. Charlie, who is sadly no longer with us, was a really wonderful director. He started cutting film in 1932 and he always announced that he was an editor before Hitler came to power, but I never knew quite what the connection was. In 1946, after 14 years of editing, he started directing and became one of the great Ealing comedy directors, and I nearly worked with Charlie in 1967 or 68. The producer, for some extraordinary reason, wouldn't touch Charlie and didn't want him on the movie, so I walked away from it. I said to Charlie – who was the most expert director I ever worked with – "We'll do something one day," and my God, how many years later, 19 years later we did work together. We started by meeting up in France and we sat at a little table by the swimming pool drinking coffee to work out the story, and Charlie, if you can believe it, celebrated his 77th birthday while we were shooting. He was nominated both for an Oscar and by the Director's Guild of America, so it was the most extraordinary swansong. After this he was offered a couple of movies but I think he knew this had been a good experience so he turned down all offers, and instead he bought a place in Scotland where he could spent his time fly-fishing. He was famously irascible – it was never serious, just his way of communicating – and the place in Scotland was called Grumbles.

On dialogue
This scene probably contains one of the best-known lines in the movie, when Kevin says "I'm DISAPPOINTED!" It's an interesting kind of line because it's almost impossible to write that when you're sitting at a desk. It comes out in the course of rehearsing. One of the things I was able to do with Kevin was to stop for ten days before we got anywhere near shooting the movie, and I went through the movie with him, all the scenes, just to see what he would come up with. He came up with some wonderful lines – like this one – and also some wonderful physical stuff, like sniffing under the armpit. All of that came about because we were very loose, very relaxed, we had lots of time and we were just able to play. Jamie also contributed a lot of lines; I was sending her early drafts of the movie, particularly asking if there was anything colloquial from an American point of view, because I don't feel I write very good American dialogue. So Kevin and Jamie were constantly phoning me and faxing me with suggestions; in fact, I'm rather proud of the fact that I think 13 different people contributed to the dialogue.

On Ken's stutter
One of the things I started with when I was trying to work out Michael's character is that I simply had the idea of the scene at the end of the movie. In fact, I think that was the very first idea I had for the movie, of someone with a stutter trying to get information out and not being able to. The reason I knew that would be beautifully played by Michael is that his father had quite a stutter, and he was able therefore to observe it throughout his childhood. There's a very obvious way to do a stutter that I guess most actors would do, which wouldn't be right and wouldn't be funny. It's the little sort of subterfuges, the little tactics, that people with stutters use to try and hide it that Michael knew about and was able to incorporate in his performance.

On playing a romantic lead
I have to tell you that this is the first time in my entire life that I had played a proper romantic scene, for obvious reasons. But on this occasion I was playing one, mainly because I had written it. I had no idea how to play this kind of scene and Jamie was very helpful. But there's a moment when I used a little trick I'd seen in a movie called Outrageous Fortune, when I was very impressed with the way one of the actors indicated to the audience that he had fallen in love with someone. It was a particular look at the other actor's mouth that did it, and I actually pinched that moment. I think it works reasonably well.

On loosening up his acting style
In comedy, I believe in endless, endless, endless rehearsal. Do it again and again, because each time a little smoothness creeps in, you discover something else, you find a new rhythm. Jamie said to me that it isn't like that with a romantic scene, and she said she didn't want to rehearse this. She would catch me rehearsing my lines in the corner and she'd wave my finger at me and say 'No'. So for the first time in my life I suddenly found that acting is not about this strict rhythm that comedy demands – like I had no idea she was going to pick up the wig there – and it was rather fun. When you're playing comedy normally, the demands of the timing are so great it sometimes seems to me like there's a huge metronome at the back of my head, just clicking. I've got to do everything on the click – line on two clicks, another line three clicks, turn head on another click – and I can get it very grooved. I can reproduce almost exactly the same performance again and again, and it surprises people but I am a very technical performer. So going into these scenes with Jamie having no idea how we were going to play them, I found that intensely liberating. I was suddenly released from the metronome and was just able to play in the moment.

On writing farce
This is the beginning of one of my favourite sequences in the movie because I've always had a terrible weakness for farce. I should add for 'good' farce, because there's nothing worse than bad farce. Bad farce is where none of the characters are believable at all. But I do love it when relatively sane, ordinary people get into situations where they are maximally stressed and start behaving more and more oddly. It's one of my favourite forms of comedy, and I think some of my happiest nights have been spent at the National Theatre in London watching Feydeau farces. When I started to write this sequence I made a map, almost a model, of the set and I got some little figures to start moving them around. In fact, at one point I had Michael Palin's character Ken following these guys on his little moped and he then got into the house in the big farce sequence, but that didn't quite work out unfortunately. It would have been wonderful if it had, but sometimes you just find if you go over all logical possibilities that certain apparently good ideas just don't lead anywhere, and it's rather sad when that happens.

On Ken's attempts to kill the old lady
The idea of Michael's character Ken trying to kill the old lady came to me as the last funny structural idea that I had, and I reached it by pure logic. I could not think what Michael was up to in the middle of the movie, and I remember my wife at the time Barbara and I took a house in Malibu to get away from the English winter. I sat there for two weeks and thought, 'What is Michael Palin's character going to do in the middle of the movie?' and I slowly got there by starting from the fact that he would be trying to kill the old lady. Then I thought that every time he tried to kill her something else will happen; then I thought "What's he going to kill instead? it's obviously a pet"; then I got to dogs; then I thought that was much funnier and more ironic if Michael was an animal rights activist. So the whole thing was constructed entirely logically. One of the things I often say to people, when I'm doing little comedy classes for students, is that very frequently the funny idea is inherent in what you've already got. You don't necessarily have to have a new idea, you just have to examine as closely as possible the nature of what you already have and try to see if you might be missing it.

On Otto torturing Ken
This scene caused quite a lot of trouble. When Kevin started to push French fries, or chips as we say in England, up Michael's nose, the audience became very, very distressed. When Kevin put the apple in Michael's mouth they really started to worry about whether Michael could breathe properly, which is extraordinary because it is a movie and the whole thing consists of a number of cuts. This is the man who was trying to kill an old woman for half of the movie – but no, that doesn't matter, they're more worried that Michael couldn't breathe very well. When I saw these scenes in rushes, particularly when he had the apple in his mouth, I have never laughed so much in my life. I thought this was quite simply the funniest sequence I had ever seen, and it was a considerable disappointment when we started playing it to audiences, to discover that it distressed them and we had to keep shortening it. They were even worried about the chip up the nose! I remember doing some publicity photos in New York after the movie opened where I had chips put up my nose, because I said I didn't want any of the actors doing a stunt that I was not prepared to do myself. I suppose it's slightly disgusting, but I do love the way they play this. It's absolutely insane and it's completely real.

Bits and Pieces

One of the things that annoys me usually when I'm watching movies is that they put the names of the starring actors up very frequently over other people. So I deliberately here wanted to do these little thumbnail sketches in the right order and with the right names up.

Charlie and I made a big mistake here. When we went to the close-up of the squashed dog, Charlie had actually got a bucket of innards from a local butcher and had lovingly arranged them around the dog. When we started previews the audience absolutely froze and the laughter stuck in their throat, so we went and shot that close-up which doesn't even look like a dog if you look at it for more than three seconds, it looks as though it's made out of a raffia mat. Anyway, it didn't bother the audience anymore so they went on laughing.

A little joke there that of course Cary Grant had a real, non-stage name of Archie Leach, so I popped it in. I thought it would amuse about 25 people, but to my amazement about 8 million people got it.

Incidentally, Jamie thought I was a rotten kisser, and I did point out to her that I was trying to kiss in character, because I don't think Archie is a very sexy man...whereas I, of course, am enormously sexy.

When I sat down with Charlie on the first day I said, "I want to have a scene where a man with a really bad stutter is trying to tell someone some very important information but he just can't get it out" and he said, "Alright, we can do that, and I've got one scene I want to do. I want to run someone over with a steamroller." So those were the two scenes we started with.

Final Thoughts

I haven't watched this for many years and I have to say I got some good smiles watching it again. It's so lovely to be with people you enjoy, and so nice to see them again. It was a very happy production, we did it in 52 days, plus the reshoots, and Charlie was so efficient he used to finish at half past six every night, so nobody got too tired and we all had a really good time. I think that contributes to the good spirit that you see up there on the screen.