I believe I was about eight years old when I first came across THE PRINCESS BRIDE, having snagged a VHS copy from the tiny video rental place that had sprung up in my neighborhood pharmacy. As Peter Falk's Grandpa clearly lays out in the opening sequence - "Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles..." - what more could an eight year old want? And, as I'm sure is the case with many others, the true love that served as the foundation of the film expanded beyond the story of Westley and Buttercup, creating a connection between the audience and this magical film that has lasted multiple viewings and now 25 years.
Earlier this week, the New York Film Festival held a reunion of sorts for the cast of THE PRINCESS BRIDE, screening the film for its 25th Anniversary, which is also now commemorated with a new Blu-ray release. While he was in New York, I had the chance to talk to Cary Elwes, who starred in the film as Westley or, as he's known to some, the Dread Pirate Roberts. Elwes has had some memorable roles over the years, whether as Robin Hood in Mel Brooks' spoof of the legendary outlaw, the foil to Charlie Sheen's Topper Harley in HOT SHOTS!, Jerry in LIAR LIAR ("The claw's gonna get you"), Nick Eliot in THE CRUSH (a movie I will always have a sweet spot for) or Dr. Lawrence Gordon in the SAW franchise. However, none have come close to being as beloved as the love-driven hero of THE PRINCESS BRIDE.
We discussed the legacy of the film, some of his bigger scenes in the film with Mandy Patinkin and Andre the Giant, and whether or not THE PRINCESS BRIDE could ever be made today, so enjoy...
Cary Elwes - Hey, Billy, how are you?
The Infamous Billy The Kidd - Hi, good morning, how are you?
Cary Elwes - Very well, thank you. Good morning.
The Kidd - So let me just jump right into it with you, since I’m a huge fan of the film. This is one of those movies, actually, that I kind of grew up on. I think I was about seven or eight when I was first exposed to THE PRINCESS BRIDE. So, when the film was released theatrically, it wasn’t really a huge success.
Cary Elwes - Right.
The Kidd - And yet slowly but surely the film has developed this fanbase over the years, kind of through a couple of generations now... I think really since it hit home video is where it really first started to take off, and where a lot of people discovered it. At what point did you kind of come to realize the delayed acceptance that this film was getting and kind of the impact that it was making on this expanding fanbase?
Cary Elwes - Well it was really, like you said, the film did not do that well in the theatre. It did okay, but it really found a sort of cult status, in a way, from this new invention called VHS. That’s when the studio who was releasing the film on video realized that there was some money to be made from people both renting it in large numbers, and then owning copies. That’s when I started having fans coming up to me with their VHS copies... Which, by the way, I still have fans with their VHS copies today. They don’t want me to sign the DVD, they want me to sign the VHS, but it’s like worn out and frayed on the edges. It’s a very... They played it a million times for their kids, and the kids of the generation who watched the movie, and now they’re grown up and they have kids and they’ve shown it to their kids. It’s an incredible thing.
The Kidd - What struck me in watching it again recently was the amount of practical effects and stunt work that are used in the film, between the swordfighting, the eels, the Fire Swamp, the Rodents of Unusual Size... In an era where everything kind of tends toward GCI and wirework and what not, do you think that THE PRINCESS BRIDE could actually be made today and work as well as it did in the original version?
Cary Elwes - I happen to agree with you. I think I sense where your question is going. I think there’s something to be said about... Today audiences can... I think they’re beginning to get a little weary of CGI, because it’s almost... There’s some filmmakers that exploit it to the point that it’s ad nauseum, yes?
The Kidd - Mmm-hmm.
Cary Elwes - And audiences... I can tell you that the audience that watched the movie last night was just an incredible audience. They were clapping, they were cheering... Every time a character showed up, they were just yelling and screaming. It was extraordinary. I think there’s something visceral about a movie where they feel like they’re actually watching effects that are happening in front of their eyes rather than ones generated in post-production. Because I just think we can spot them now. And no matter how good they are, if you consider when we go, okay, that’s an effect, and it kind of takes you out of the movie a little bit, whereas... This film, as cheesy as some of the effects might seem to some people, at least they’re there. They’re on film. They’re not generated in post, do you know what I’m saying?
The Kidd - Well, exactly. Something like the Fire Swamp would, now, be a lot of greenscreen, and here, you can see that this place exists. Even if it’s in this fantastical world, you can sense that they are actually in this particular place.
Cary Elwes - The quicksand would be CGI for sure. The Rodents of Unusual Size would certainly be... different.
The Kidd - Oh absolutely. And as a result, they would not nearly be as beloved, because you don’t feel this connection to the material anymore. It feels fake, as opposed to feeling as if something was put into the making of this happening.
Cary Elwes - Right, that’s right. Although we were confined by the budget we had anyway, so there wasn’t really a chance to sort of... Even in early CGI, in its infancy then, we certainly couldn’t have afforded it anyway.
The Kidd - I know you learned to fence pretty extensively for your sword fighting scenes between you and Mandy Patinkin. How much training did you go through to really be able to carry the scene by yourself?
Cary Elwes - We had about two or three weeks training, and every time we were on the set... Mandy and I never really got to sit down on this movie. Every time between set up and... If it was a long time between set ups, the trainers would come up to us and grab us. We worked through lunch most of the time... They really... We had to get it down. It wasn’t even a choice, really. We had to learn how to fence with our left hand, which is something that’s really difficult because you have to train your mind to... I can’t even write my name with my left hand, let alone pick up a sword with one. That was a challenge, but we were up for it. You know, Mandy, I found out only last night at the festival, during the Q&A, actually had some sword training ahead of me. And I was like, “Really? That’s the first time I’ve ever...” [laughs] He never shared that with me. He goes, “Well of course, I’d never fenced with my left,” and I said, “Yeah, sure... Suuure...”
The Kidd - You also can’t tell from the finished film, but I know that Andre the Giant had a lot of trouble supporting your weight. At that point he wasn’t in the physical shape that he had previously been in...
Cary Elwes - No... He was in great physical shape, he’d just been beat up so much on the canvas. First of all, his back, he had to carry the weight that, even from the age of 13, carrying that weight is a strain on anyone’s spine. But don’t forget, in the ring... What I found out is that when he was in the ring... Wrestlers who, for the most part, fake their jumps and fake their pulls and fake their punches and fake all this and that... With him, they would literally use him as a trampoline when he was on the canvas. They would just jump up and down on his back, thinking he could take it because of the size he was. So combine that with the strain already on his spine, and the poor guy... He was in enormous pain. Poor thing. He was such a sweet guy, he really was. Such a great guy.
The Kidd - Yeah, that’s all I’ve ever heard about Andre the Giant is how... How funny he was.
Cary Elwes - Very funny. Always had a smile. Never without a smile on his face. Never. Never, never, never, never. Except when the director asked him not to for a scene. As soon as they yelled cut, that huge grin would come back. It was just adorable.
The Kidd - My favorite scene, period, from the film, and the one that’s always stuck with me is the battle of wits with Vizzini. When I just watched it again, it appears that you have a difficult time keeping a straight face as he’s processing the ridiculousness of trying to figure out which cup contains the poison.
Cary Elwes - No, you misread that. I was able to keep a straight face for that. Not during rehearsals, but when we shot it I was able to keep a straight face.
The Kidd - Is there more to that scene that didn’t make the final cut? Because it appears that he could go on all day with...
Cary Elwes - Billy, I think that was it. The only person who really improvised was Billy Crystal, because he only was there for one day... Two days, I think. And Rob [Reiner]... Being an old friend of Rob’s, once... Having his stand up background, Rob knew to just let him run with it. And he came up with so much hysterical... We ruined so many takes. I was supposed to be playing dead in that scene, so of course I was not supposed to be breathing. I ruined a few. Mandy ruined tons. Rob himself ruined several. He had to be... Actually the first AD asked him to leave the set. So he wasn’t directing some of that. They should find them. There was some great stuff. Billy saying things like, “Don’t rush me, son.” “I just found my son with the sheep.” Things like that, just silly. And a former viking, no less! Just silly.
The Kidd - Last year I know you were involved with one of Jason Reitman’s live readings for THE PRINCESS BRIDE, and this time you played Prince Humperdinck. How strange was it to be on the other side of the action? How bizarre was it to see someone else in a role that’s really been associated with you?
Cary Elwes - I thought Paul [Rudd] did a great job. He really did. In some ways better than me. It was wonderful.
The Kidd - Why do you think that THE PRINCESS BRIDE has endured as it has? Because 25 years later, we’re still talking about it as it’s been passed down, whereas other films released around that time or even on that same weekend have kind of just been forgotten in the history of cinema.
Cary Elwes - I don’t know... It has a lot of heart to it. It’s not a mean movie, it’s got a very sweet arc to it, and... The basic theme is true love. That true love conquers all. I think that universal theme is timeless. It’s a sweet movie. Nothing is mean about it, as I said. It’s a film that kids can watch with parents. So it’s a family movie, but it’s not G-rated, but at the same time... It has adult humor in it that’s safe for kids. It’s a unique movie in that sense. It has adventure, it has romance, it has fairy tale, it has... A very sweet relationship. The relationship between Peter Falk and Fred Savage is so funny and so sweet in the movie. It’s just... Seeing it again, 25 years later, you just find the heart of the movie, right there. The whole thing where Fred says, “Aw, kissing again?” And Peter says to him [with perfect Peter Falk impression], “Someday you won’t mind that so much.” It’s sweet. It’s great. It’s very sweet.
The Kidd - I think that’s about all I’ve got for you today, thank you for taking the time...
Cary Elwes - Can I just mention that we’re doing a limited edition memorabilia for fans, connecting with an aid organization that I’m working with? Do you know about this?
The Kidd - No. Absolutely, go ahead and tell me about it.
Cary Elwes - Okay, so, for fans who want to get involved and pick up limited edition memorabilia, we’ve decided that we’re... We’re working with this aid organization called Mercy Corps, have you heard of these guys?
The Kidd - No.
Cary Elwes - So these guys are unlike any other aid organization. They not only provide food and shelter and medicine to areas that have been affected by natural disasters and man made conflicts, but they also stick around after most other organizations have left to help those communities get back on their feet to rebuild their economy, so their interest is in long term rebuilding. They’re very innovative. They’re always coming up with ideas for micro-loans and micro-insurance. They’re like insuring... Micro-insurance... They set up a micro-insurance plan for small businesses in Haiti to protect them against hurricanes and floods, and so... And they also came up with a new technology for low-income farmers in Indonesia, and Uganda, and Zimbabwe. It’s called Agri-Fin Mobile. And it’s a mobile technology and they help these farmers increase their revenue by 30% in the first 3 years, and it was just recognized at the Clinton Global Initiative. And so we’re asking fans, if they want to feel good about themselves but at the same time getting some fun limited edition memorabilia, they can go to www.mercycorps.org/princessbride. They can some fun stuff... Beard hair. Rob Reiner’s beard hair. And they can get limited edition posters that were turned down by the studio, like... I think there’s one that says, “As You Wish, Dude,” and some autographed copies of the script signed by myself, Robin [Wright] and Rob.
The Kidd - Well, for fans, you can come away with something from your PRINCESS BRIDE fandom, while helping out a good cause at the exact same time.
Cary Elwes - It’s a good cause. So, can you post that? Is that cool?
The Kidd - Absolutely.
Cary Elwes - Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
The Kidd - Thank you. Like I said, this is one of those films that I grew up on and it’s stayed with me, and I have kids now, and when they’re of the age to understand, this is one that I’ll share with them, because this is a timeless movie.
Cary Elwes - Thank you, Billy.
The Kidd - Alright. Thank you very much.
THE PRINCESS BRIDE: 25th Anniversary Edition is now available on Blu-ray.
"The Infamous Billy The Kidd"
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