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John Cleese and co. try to bring the magic back in 'Fierce Creatures'

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On a muggy London day in June 1995, John Cleese and Kevin Kline are struggling to bridge the language gap. They’re rehearsing a scene from Fierce Creatures — the follow-up to their 1988 smash, A Fish Called Wanda — during which Kline’s animal-hating character berates a giant tortoise. The question arises: What derogatory term should Kline use for the animal?

”Does tw– have the same meaning in America?” Cleese inquires.

”Yes, but it’s not in usage much,” Kline answers politely.

”How about turd — is it in usage?”

”Oh, yeah!”

Turd it is — until it’s decided heap of s— would be funnier. Later, Cleese remembers Kline has already used the S-word in his tirade, so the term changes to ”heap of garbage.”

Seems like a lot of work for a tortoise put-down, but it’s business as usual for Cleese and company. It’s taken eight years, two directors, fevered rewrites, and last-minute reshoots to get Wanda‘s crew back on screen, and still the drama isn’t over. Says Cleese, ”My greatest fear is we do all this work and people say, ‘It’s very funny but not as good as Wanda.”’

Wanda was, in fact, very good. After it snared three Oscar nominations and $200 million worldwide at the box office, Cleese decided to try to re-create the magic but not with a straight sequel. ”The feeling was, Been there, done that,” he explains. So, in 1992, he sat down with Iain Johnstone, London Sunday Times film critic and first-time screenwriter, to devise a script that would reunite him with Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Michael Palin. But rather than continue Fish‘s story about a bumbling gang of thieves, Cleese started fresh, from an idea that Palin had developed with Terry Jones during their pre-Monty Python days. Cleese cast himself as a corporate executive who sets out to make a small English zoo more profitable by housing only the most dangerous of animals (hence the title). Curtis joined the team as his love interest, an American marketing maven (”I like to refer to her as a corporate slut,” she says); Palin as the zoo’s pesty insect expert; and Kline, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Fish, as both the company’s Rupert Murdochesque tycoon and his ne’er-do-well son. In place of Fish‘s octogenarian director, Charles Crichton, Cleese enlisted Robert Young (Splitting Heirs).

Filming on Fierce Creatures was completed in August 1995 — or so the cast thought. But when Universal started to screen the film for test audiences three months later, it became clear they were a long way from finished. The audience was particularly offended by a scene in which the elder Kline character flashed his manhood to impress a tiger. (”We thought it was hysterical,” Cleese confesses, ”but it was unbelievable how much the audience disliked it.”) They also disapproved of the ending, in which both Kline characters were gored to death by rhinos.

”When [Universal president] Casey Silver said, ‘I think you’ve got to go back to the point where you kill Kevin,’ I had three reactions,” Cleese recalls. ”’My God, that’s 15 minutes from the end!’ ‘My God, he’s right!’ and ‘I made the same mistake as last time — I killed Kevin!”’ (The ending of Fish was reshot twice to resurrect Kline’s character, Otto.)

Reshoots were once again in order, but there was one problem: Four days after wrapping the film, Palin had left on an 10-month trip around the Pacific Rim to shoot a BBC/PBS documentary. Universal suggested shooting a new ending without Palin, but Cleese refused and the project was put on hold. During the downtime, screenwriters Cleese and Johnstone worked on a new ending with William Goldman, the veteran script doctor who owns a penthouse in the same Manhattan building as Cleese.

By the time Palin returned from his journey, director Young had started work on a new version of Jane Eyre. So Cleese enlisted Fred Schepisi (Roxanne), who was already set to direct him and Robin Williams in Don Quixote. “It’s cruel to say it doesn’t matter who directs it,” admits Curtis, “but on some level, it doesn’t.” Adds Kline: “Whoever the directors were, they were an addition to a party that had started eight years before.” (Young and Schepisi share screen credit.)

Last August, Schepisi and the cast did three weeks of reshoots in London, adding approximately $7 million to the movie’s $18 million budget. In addition to the new ending—in which only one Kline character dies—Schepisi shot a new opener and replaced a more serious love scene between Cleese and Curtis with a double-entendre-laced encounter.

The additional material meant some original scenes ended up on the cutting-room floor. Among them: Palin and Robert Lindsay dressed in a tiger suit (“There isn’t even a picture of it on my wall,” Palin regrets) and Kline in a third role as his own mother (“I looked weird but strangely attractive,” he says). Kline’s flashing was also excised.

When the new version was submitted to test audiences last fall, the response was far more encouraging. The new Fierce posted test scores nearly identical to Fish‘s, according to Cleese. “The main criticism of the movie is that it’s not as mean-spirited as Wanda,” he says.

Fierce’s mellow tone owes much to the Curtis-Cleese romance. “They kept telling me I was the heart of the film, which basically means I’m not funny,” says Curtis. “I dropped subtle hints that I expected a four-carat heart diamond from Tiffany’s.” She never got one, although Kline did give her a suitable wrap present. “It was a necklace with a pair of ceramic breasts with perky little nipples and a heart,” Curtis reports, “because I satisfied those elements of the movie.”

Cleese doesn’t expect critics to take Fierce to their hearts, especially in England: “If Jesus Christ came back, the British press would say his sandals were old-fashioned and his hair wasn’t clean. If they can’t carp, they don’t think they’re doing good journalism.” He did get one bit of good news from Europe, though: “The French distributor thinks it will take quite a lot more money than Wanda in France. But then, they are French—they love Jerry Lewis.”

Twenty months after filming began, Cleese, Palin, Curtis, and Kline have reconvened yet again—this time in New York City, to promote the movie at a press junket. Sitting down together for a lunch break, they discover some unfinished business. Should the movie be called a sequel to Wanda or not?

Curtis: “Ultimately, everybody’s going to know it’s a sequel.”

Cleese: “But it’s not a sequel. Shhh!”

Curtis: “Don’t tell me to shhh!”

Cleese: “A sequel has the same characters.”

Curtis: “It’s got the same spirit.”

Kline: “It’s a semi-sequel.”

Curtis: “I think way too much has been made about whether it’s a sequel or an equal or a prequel. F— it! It’s a movie. Who cares?”

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