The Princess Bride: An oral history
Is this a kissing book?
Wove. Twue wove. That’s what fans of The Princess Bride clearly feel for director Rob Reiner’s 1987 cult comic fairy tale. If you woved our cast reunion photo and you ate up the tidbits from our oral history in the current issue of Entertainment Weekly (on stands now), and yet, inconceivably, you still want more… well, as you wish. Here is an expanded version of our in-depth oral history on the making of The Princess Bride.
WILLIAM GOLDMAN, writer of The Princess Bride novel (published in 1973) and screenplay: I had two little daughters, I think they were 7 and 4 at the time, and I said, “I’ll write you a story. What do you want it to be about?” One of them said “a princess” and the other one said “a bride.” I said, “That’ll be the title.”
ROB REINER, director: I read the book when I was in my 20s, because I was a huge William Goldman fan. Then, after I had made a couple of pictures, Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing, I started thinking of The Princess Bride. I very naively thought I could make a movie, then I discovered that Francois Truffaut had tried and Norman Jewison had tried and Robert Redford had been involved — one after the other. No [studio] wanted to make a movie of The Princess Bride; nobody was interested in it. We kept tearing the budget down, I had to try to sell foreign rights and video rights, I had to cut my salary, I had to cut the cast’s salaries. It was crazy. I think we had, like, $16 million dollars, which even at the time wasn’t very much. In the script it said “the army of Florin” — I had seven people in the army of Florin.
GOLDMAN: We had terrible trouble finding a Buttercup because she had to be so beautiful. We had all kinds of pretty girls come in but they weren’t this staggering thing. And I remember, I was in New York and Rob called me and said, “I think I’ve found her.”
ROBIN WRIGHT, Princess Buttercup: I think I was literally the 500th ingenue to read for Rob, and I think he was so exhausted at that point from looking at all the girls he was like, Ugh, God, just hire her. I had done one movie before that — I can’t even remember the name of it — where I played a teenage runaway who became a hooker and heroin addict. Talk about the antithesis of The Princess Bride!
REINER: I saw Cary in a movie called Lady Jane, and he was perfect. He looked like a young Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. He was the only person I could imagine doing it with. I didn’t have anyone else.
WRIGHT: Cary was gorgeous! He was the blonde Zorro. We hit it off right away. We had the same sense of humor. I was the baby and the novice around all the veterans. Inside I was trembling, of course: “Can I pull this off?”
CARY ELWES, Westley: I first met Robin at Shepperton Studios [in England] during a costume fitting. I knew immediately that she was perfect. She had done [the soap opera] Santa Barbara. When you’ve done a lot of television, you become very seasoned very quickly. She was a pro.
CHRIS SARANDON, Prince Humperdinck: Robin always had a very strong sense of herself and yet there was always a sense of mystery about her as well. I’m sure everybody fell a little bit in love with Robin on the shoot, whether we were attached or not. And Cary is a very funny guy. Despite those drop-dead matinee idol looks, he was a brilliant mimic and he does amazing accents and fabulous characters. So there was an interesting sort of balance there.
MANDY PATINKIN, Inigo Montoya: The moment I read the script, I loved the part of Inigo Montoya. That character just spoke to me profoundly. I had lost my own father — he died at 53 years old from pancreatic cancer in 1972. I didn’t think about it consciously, but I think that there was a part of me that thought, If I get that man in black, my father will come back. I talked to my dad all the time during filming, and it was very healing for me.
ELWES: The tone that Bill Goldman set was very clear from the word “go,” with the narrative device of Peter Falk telling this story to Fred Savage. Once you cast Peter Falk, there’s your tone right there!
WALLACE SHAWN, Vizzini: I was not the first person they wanted [for the part]. Unfortunately, my agent at that time believed that it would be helpful for me to know who they actually wanted, so he told me — it was Danny DeVito. Looking back on it, it didn’t help. Danny is inimitable. Each scene we did, I pictured how he would have done it and I knew I could never possibly have done it the way he could have done it. It made it challenging. I’ve mentioned it to Danny since. I said, “You know, of everything that I have ever done since birth, the thing that is most well-known is a part I had because you were unavailable.” He might have laughed nervously when I said that.
WRIGHT: I remember doing the scene with Wally where I’m blindfolded outside. The dialogue that Wally has in that scene — it just hit me at that moment: This is not just a fantasy picture. This is not a Robin Hood repeat. This is unique. And it was all on the page. William Goldman’s words were ironic and humorous and wry and very smart.
SHAWN: I had no idea how to play the character. I imitated Rob. He would do it and then I would imitate him. That’s the truth. And all of the things that I did in that film that people have said, “Oh, that was so funny” — those were totally things that Rob would do, and then I just imitated them.
SARANDON: Chris Guest and I were on horses whenever we weren’t on set. We were taken to a place that trains horses for movies and given horses. My horse was a big black stallion named Fury — they couldn’t give me Powder Puff or Donut — and Chris’ horse was the largest horse I’ve ever seen in my life, a big, huge chestnut stallion, an ungovernable animal that he had some difficulty with, and understandably because it was a big mother—ing horse.
GUEST: I was given a huge horse that had never been in a film. One day we were doing horseback riding training in our costumes, and this horse I was riding took off. I had ridden horses before in movies and otherwise, but this horse wouldn’t stop. It almost ran into a wall. What we realized later was that the scabbard of the sword was whacking it on its side, so he was getting the message “We’re going faster.” That was kind of frightening.
BILLY CRYSTAL, Miracle Max: Rob said, “You could have fun with this — do you want to do it?” I said, “You bet!” It was such a perfect little cameo to play. I met with my makeup artist, Peter Montagna, who had done all these characters with me on Saturday Night Live, and I said, “I want him to look like a cross between my grandmother and [baseball legend] Casey Stengel.”
CAROL KANE, Miracle Max’s wife Valerie: Billy came over to my apartment in Los Angeles and we took the book and underlined things and made up a little more backstory for ourselves. We added our own twists and turns and stuff that would amuse us, because there’s supposed to be a long history – who knows how many hundreds of years Max and Valerie have been together?
CRYSTAL: We ad libbed a lot of stuff: “Have fun storming the castle.” “Don’t go swimming for an hour — a good hour.” There was a lot of really funny stuff that never made it into the movie: “Don’t bother me, sonny. I had a bad day — I found my nephew with a sheep.” “True love is the greatest thing in the world — except for a good B.M.” I remember the only trouble with the scene was Cary trying not to laugh while he was laying on the slab, because he’s supposed to be mostly dead but slightly alive. There should be a Max and Valerie movie. Start a Twitter thing: “We want more Max and Valerie.” Now we won’t need as much makeup.
KANE: Prosthetics are not pleasant. It’s a challenge to sit in that chair for that many hours. Then it’s an hour to get it taken off at the end of the day — you can’t just rip it off, which is what you’re dying to do. But we just had so much fun on the set, and a lot of that was thanks to Rob’s great enthusiasm. You just felt that you were part of something warm and magical and slightly cuckoo.
PATINKIN: I knew that my job was to become the world’s greatest swordfighter. I trained for about two months in New York and then we went to London and Cary and I trained every day that we weren’t shooting for four months. There were no stunt men involved in any of the sword fights, except for one flip in the air.
ELWES: Mandy and I got so good at both left- and right-handed fencing that by the time we showed the sequence to Rob, we’d gotten too fast at it and the fight was over very quickly in a couple of minutes. Rob went, “That’s it? You guys have to go back and add some more!”
GUEST: I got stabbed in the thigh during a rehearsal [of Rugen’s final duel with Montoya]. The blades we used were made of carbon, because if you were using steel it would be incredibly heavy to whip around — I think they were manlier men back then or something. But it was definitely pointy. They weren’t Nerf swords. If you went straight in, it went in. The other weird thing is that in that final sword fight, I was so into it, I was making the sound of the sword hitting the other sword. I was doing the “chk-chk-chk” — because that’s what you do when you’re a kid. Rob said, “Cut! You don’t need to do that. We’re going to put in the sound of the swords later.” I was like, “Ah!”
REINER: Bill had always imagined Fezzik to be André the Giant. I said, “Yeah, let’s see if we can get him.” It’s not like you throw a stick and you hit 50 giants. I met him at a bar in Paris — literally, there’s a land mass sitting on a bar stool. I brought him up to the hotel room to audition him. He read this three-page scene, and I couldn’t understand one word he said. I go, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do? He’s perfect physically for the part, but I can’t understand him!’ So I recorded his entire part on tape, exactly how I wanted him to do it, and he studied the tape. He got pretty good!
ELWES: André said, “We big people don’t live long.” He had that thing you come across with people who are terminally ill where they have a secret most of us don’t get: they understand that life is precious and you have to cherish every moment. He really imparted that to me. He was so filled with life and fun and so sweet, such a truly gentle soul. I mean, for a guy who could crush you like swatting a mosquito, he was so incredibly gentle. I made him tell me his whole life story. He grew up in a little village in France. He couldn’t fit into the school bus even when he was 12 and the only person in the village who had a convertible who could drive him to school was Samuel Beckett — which I think is another movie: Waiting for André.
GUEST: I don’t know if you know this about André, but he was very large. I couldn’t wait every morning to shake his hand because that feeling was like a guy with five catcher’s mitts. Your hand would just disappear into his.
WRIGHT: We had dinner together every night, usually in Rob’s room. We’d have a big feast — the whole cast, their spouses. André would have, like, a case of bourbon just to get tipsy. And he was in physical pain all the time [from years of wrestling]. He had to wear these cables to hold me, and I was, what, 100 pounds? He could barely lift me, because his back was in agony.
GUEST: Every day was really movie camp. There are a lot of times when you’re on a movie on location and you’re kind of a loner and you stay in your room. This was an uncommonly friendly gang of people.
SARANDON: We played a lot of word games in the car on the way to the set, which always intimidated the hell out of me because Chris Guest was so good at them. He would throw out challenges — doing alternate lines of puns and things.
PATINKIN: I’ll never forget the first screening. Everyone came to L.A. on their own dime to see a rough cut. Gilda Radner was there with Gene Wilder, Mel Brooks was there — all these people Rob grew up with. I sat with my wife watching the film, and at the end I was crying. My wife said, “What’s the matter?” I said, “I never dreamed I would get to be in anything like this.”
GOLDMAN: The movie was not a phenomenal success. It did okay. But it found this life as time went on. I don’t like my writing. I only like two movies I’ve ever written: Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride.
REINER: The studio never knew how to market it. We literally never had a trailer. They tried to sell it like a zany comedy. I remember having this conversation with Barry Diller, who was the head of Fox at the time. I was screaming at him. I said, “Barry, I don’t want to have a Wizard of Oz!” Because when The Wizard of Oz came out, it was a disaster — nobody liked it and it didn’t do well. I’ll never forget what he said to me. He said, “Rob, don’t let anybody ever hear you say that. You’d be so happy to have a Wizard of Oz!” He was right, of course. It takes time sometimes for these kinds of oddball movies to find an audience.
ELWES: The movie has an incredible life from generation to generation. I guess it’s because it’s so sweet and has a really good heart. People have told me they’ve named their kids Westley and Buttercup, that they were married dressed as Westley and Buttercup. I met a girl just a few weeks ago who has “As You Wish” tattooed on her neck.
PATINKIN: Not a day goes by where somebody doesn’t come up and ask, “Can you say the line?” And I say it with the greatest joy in the world. I’ll often whisper it into a little kid’s ear so he’s not looking at my face, so he just hears my voice, because I don’t want to mess up the magic.
GUEST: I get: “Hey, let me look at your hand” — which I guess people think is clever. “Don’t scare me with those six fingers!” And young people actually are scared. Little kids’ fathers will say, “Hey, honey, look, there’s the guy… ” and they’ll kind of hide because they don’t want bad things to happen.
KANE: Every time someone says to me, “Aren’t you the one from The Princess Bride?” I have to think several times about how I feel about being recognized. Because I think I was like 36 or something at the time we made it, and I think, “What does this mean? Am I growing into that face? Is Valerie creeping into my every day face now?” I’m always honored but I’m also, like, “Hmm, how should I feel about this?”
REINER: I remember once Nora Ephron and Nick Pileggi said, “There’s this restaurant in New York that John Gotti always comes to — you should come.” So we went, and sure enough, in walks John Gotti with, like, six wiseguys. We finish the meal and I walk outside and there’s a man standing in front of a huge limo who looks like Luca Brasi from The Godfather. He looks at me and he goes, “’You killed my father. Prepare to die.’ The Princess Bride! I love that movie!” I almost s— in my pants. When you penetrate guys like that, you know you’ve made it.
SHAWN: It’s safe to say that three days doesn’t go by without somebody shouting “inconceivable” to me in the street, many of them not particularly imagining that anyone else on earth had ever thought of doing it before.
REINER: Another time, a woman came up to me—she had to be 25 or 30 years old—and she says to me, “The Princess Bride saved my life.” I go, “What do you mean?” She says, “I do extreme skiing, and they dropped me off at the top of a mountain with four other people and we skied down this mountain and we got caught in an avalanche. We got stuck. We couldn’t get out.” She showed me that her frostbite was still going away. And she said, “I kept everybody alive and kept everybody going because I know The Princess Bride by heart—every line from beginning to end. I started reciting it. I acted it out. I kept everybody’s spirits up until we got rescued.”
CRYSTAL: I think every time I’m out someone will either say to me “you look mahvelous” or “have fun storming the castle.” And when I get “have fun storming the castle” and they ask for an autograph, I know they’re special people. So I’ll use my best penmanship.