The princess bride, p.3
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       The Princess Bride, p.3

           William Goldman
 

  "Is that a screenplay?" this handsome doctor said then. "I always wanted to be a movie star."

  "You be the man in black," I told him. Then I pointed to the big doctor in the doorway. "Give Fezzik a shot."

  That was how I first heard the screenplay. These medicos and my genius wife struggling with it in the middle of the night while I froze and sweated and the fever raged inside me.

  I passed out after a little while. And I remember thinking at the last that the big doctor wasn't bad and Helen, miscast and all, was an OK Buttercup, and so what if the handsome doctor was a stiff, I was going to live.

  Well, that was the beginning of the life of the screenplay.

  The GG at Fox sent it to Richard Lester in London--Lester directed, among others, A Hard Day's Night, the first wonderful Beatles film--and we met, worked, solved problems. The GG was thrilled, we were a go--

  --then he got fired, and a new GG came in to replace him.

  Here is what happens Out There when that happens: the old GG is stripped of his epaulets and his ability to get into Morton's on Monday nights and off he goes, very rich--he had a deal in place for this inevitability--but disgraced.

  And the new GG takes the throne with but one rule firmly writ in stone: nothing his predecessor had in motion must ever get made. Why? Say it gets made. Say it's a hit. Who gets the credit? The old GG. And when the new GG, who can now get into Morton's on Mondays, has to run the gauntlet there, he knows all his peers are sniggering: "That asshole, it wasn't his picture."

  Death.

  So The Princess Bride was buried, conceivably forever.

  And I realized that I had let control of it go. Fox had the book. So what if I had the screenplay; they could commission another. They could change anything they wanted. So I did something of which I am genuinely proud. I bought the book back from the studio, with my own money. I think they were suspicious I had some deal or plan, but I didn't. I just didn't want some idiot destroying what I had come to realize was the most important thing I would ever be involved with.

  After a good bit of negotiating, it was again mine. I was the only idiot who could destroy it now.

  I READ RECENTLY that the fine Jack Finney novel Time and Again has taken close to twenty years and still hasn't made it to the screen. The Princess Bride didn't take that long, but not a lot less either. I didn't keep notes, so this is from memory. Understand, in order for someone to make a movie, they need two things: passion and money. A lot of people, it turned out, loved The Princess Bride. I know of at least two different GGs who were mad about it. Who shook hands with me on the deal. Who wanted to make it more than any other movie.

  Who both got fired the weekend before they were going to set things in motion. One studio (a small one) even closed the weekend before they were going to set things in motion. The screenplay began to get a certain reputation--one magazine article listed it among the best that had never been shot.

  The truth is, after a decade and more, I thought it would never happen. Every time there was interest, I kept waiting for the other shoe to come clunking down--and it always did. But, without my knowledge, events had been put in motion a decade before that eventually would be my salvation.

  When Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was done, I took myself out of the movie business for a while. (We are back in the late '60s now.) I wanted to try something I had never done, non-fiction.

  I wrote a book about Broadway called The Season. In the course of a year I went to the theater hundreds of times, both in New York and out of town, saw everything at least once. But the show I saw most was a terrific comedy called Something Different, written by Carl Reiner.

  Reiner was terribly helpful to me, and I liked him a lot. When The Season was done I sent him a copy. A few years later, when The Princess Bride was finished, I sent him the novel. And one day he gave it to his eldest son. "Here's something," he said to his boy Robert. "I think you'll like this."

  Rob was a decade away from starting his directing career then, but in '85 we met, and Norman Lear (bless him) gave us the money to go forward with the movie.

  Keep hope alive.

  WE HAD OUR first script reading in a hotel in London in the spring of '86. Rob was there, as was his producer Andy Scheinman. Cary Elwes and Robin Wright, Westley and Buttercup, were there. So, too, were Chris Sarandon and Chris Guest, the villains Prince Humperdinck and Count Rugen, and Wally Shawn, the evil genius Vizzini. Mandy Patinkin, who played Inigo, was very much there. And sitting by himself, quietly--he always tried to sit quietly--was Andre the Giant who was Fezzik.

  Not your ordinary Hadassah group.

  Sitting suavely in a corner was moi. Two of the major figures of my years in the entertainment business--Elia Kazan and George Roy Hill--said the same thing to me in interviews: that by the time of the first cast reading, the crucial work was done. If you had gotten the script to work and cast it properly, then you had a chance for something of quality. But if you had not, it didn't matter how skillful the rest of the process was; you were dead in the water.

  This probably sounds like madness to the uninitiated, and it should, but it is very much true. The reason it sounds like madness is this: Premiere magazine isn't around when the script is being prepared. Entertainment Tonight isn't around for casting. They are only around during the shooting of a flick, which is the least important part of the making of any movie. Remember this: shooting is just the factory putting together the car.

  ***

  A. R. ROUSSIMOFF was our biggest gamble that rehearsal morning. Under the name of Andre the Giant, he was the most famous wrestler in the world. I had become convinced that if there ever was to be a movie, he should be Fezzik, the strongest man.

  Rob thought Andre might be good for the part, too. The problem was, no one could find him. He wrestled 330 plus days a year, always on the move.

  So we went ahead trying to find someone else. Strangest casting calls I ever saw. These big guys came in--we are talking immense here--but they weren't giants. Occasionally we would find a giant--but either he couldn't act or he was skinny, and a skinny giant was not at all what we needed.

  Still, no Andre.

  One day Rob and Andy were in Florin doing final location scouting when a call came--Andre would be in Paris the next afternoon. They flew over to meet him. Not easy, since Florin City has zero nonstops to any of the major capitals of Europe. Not to mention that their scheduling depends on load--all Florin Air's flights are jammed because they wait until they are before they'll take off. They even allow people to stand in the aisles. (I had only seen that myself once, in Russia, on a nightmare jaunt from Tblisi to Saint Petersburg.) Eventually, Rob and Andy had to charter a tiny propeller plane to make the meeting. They got to the Ritz, where the doorman said, in a weird voice, "There is a man waiting for you in the bar."

  Andre, for me, was like the Pentagon--no matter how big you're told it's going to be, when you get close, it's bigger.

  Andre was bigger.

  His listed size was 550 pounds, seven-and-a-half-feet tall. But he wasn't really sure and he didn't spend a lot of time fretting on the scale each morning. He was sick once, he told me, and lost 100 pounds in three weeks. But other than that he never talked about his dimensions.

  They chatted in the bar, then went up to Rob's room where they went over the script. A couple of things were clear: Andre had a clock-stopping French accent and, worse, his voice came from the subbasement.

  Rob gambled, gave him the role. He also recorded Andre's part on tape for him--line for line, inflections hopefully included--so Andre could take it with him on the road and study it in the months before rehearsal began.

  Rehearsal that London morning was intentionally light: a couple of readings of the script, few comments. It was a beautiful afternoon when we broke for lunch, and we found a nearby bistro with outside tables. It was perfect except the chair was far too small for Andre--the width was for normal people, the arms way too close. There was a table insid
e that had a bench, and someone suggested we eat there. But Andre wouldn't hear of it. So we sat outside. I can still see him pulling the metal arms of the chair wide apart, squeezing in, then watching the arms all but snapping back into place where they pinioned him for the remainder of the meal. He ate very little. And the utensils were like baby toys, dwarfed by his hands.

  After lunch we rehearsed again, doing scenes now, and Andre was working with our Inigo, Mandy Patinkin. Andre had clearly studied Rob's tapes--but it was undeniable that his readings were slow, with more than a little rote quality.

  They were doing one of their scenes after they have been reunited. Mandy was trying to get some information out of Andre and Andre was giving one of his slow, memorized readings. Mandy as Inigo tried to get Fezzik to go faster. Andre gave back another of his slow, rote responses. They went back and tried it again and again. Mandy as Inigo asked Andre as Fezzik to go faster--and Andre came back at the same speed as before--

  --which was when Mandy said, "Faster, Fezzik!" And with no warning he slapped the Giant hard in the face.

  I can still see Andre's eyes go wide. I don't think he had been slapped outside the ring since he was a little boy. He looked at Mandy ... and there was a brief pause. A very dead silence filled the room.

  And then Andre started speaking faster. He just rose to the occasion, gave it more pace and energy. You could almost see his mind: "Oh, this is how you do it outside the ring, let's try it for a while." In truth, that slap was the beginning of the happiest period of his life.

  It was a wonderful time for me, too. After the decade plus of waiting, the most important book of my youth was coming to life in front of me. When it was finished and I saw it finally, I realized that, in my entire career, I only really loved two of the movies I've been involved with: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride.

  But the movie did so much more than just please me. It brought the book back to life. I began getting these wonderful letters again. Got one today--Scout's honor--from a guy in L.A. who had been dumped by his Buttercup and, after a decade of separation, heard she was in trouble. So he sent her a copy of the novel and, well, obviously they are together now. You think that isn't wonderful--especially for someone like me who spends his life in his pit, writing--touching another human? Can't get better.

  Of course, along with the good, I have regrets. I'm sorry about the legal troubles with the Morgenstern estate, about which more later. I'm sorry Helen and I went pffft. (Not that we both didn't know it was coming--but did she have to leave the very day the movie opened in New York?) And I'm sorry the Cliffs of Insanity have now become the biggest tourist attraction in Florin, making life hell for their forest rangers.

  But this is life on earth, you can't have everything.

  THE PRINCESS BRIDE

  THIS IS MY favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.

  How is such a thing possible? I'll do my best to explain. As a child, I had simply no interest in books. I hated reading, I was very bad at it, and besides, how could you take the time to read when there were games that shrieked for playing? Basketball, baseball, marbles--I could never get enough. I wasn't even good at them, but give me a football and an empty playground and I could invent last-second triumphs that would bring tears to your eyes. School was torture. Miss Roginski, who was my teacher for the third through fifth grades, would have meeting after meeting with my mother. "I don't feel Billy is perhaps extending himself quite as much as he might." Or, "When we test him, Billy does really exceptionally well, considering his class standing." Or, most often, "I don't know, Mrs. Goldman: what are we going to do about Billy?"

  What are we going to do about Billy? That was the phrase that haunted me those first ten years. I pretended not to care, but secretly I was petrified. Everyone and everything was passing me by. I had no real friends, no single person who shared an equal interest in all games. I seemed busy, busy, busy, but I suppose, if pressed, I might have admitted that, for all my frenzy, I was very much alone.

  "What are we going to do about you, Billy?"

  "I don't know, Miss Roginski."

  "How could you have failed this reading test? I've heard you use every word with my own ears."

  "I'm sorry, Miss Roginski. I must not have been thinking."

  "You're always thinking, Billy. You just weren't thinking about the reading test."

  I could only nod.

  "What was it this time?"

  "I don't know. I can't remember."

  "Was it Stanley Hack again?" (Stan Hack was the Cubs' third baseman for these and many other years. I saw him play once from a bleacher seat, and even at that distance he had the sweetest smile I had ever seen and to this day I swear he smiled at me several times. I just worshipped him. He could also hit a ton.) "Bronko Nagurski. He's a football player. A great football player, and the paper last night said he might come back and play for the Bears again. He retired when I was little but if he came back and I could get someone to take me to a game, I could see him play and maybe if whoever took me also knew him, I could meet him after and maybe if he was hungry, I might let him have a sandwich I might have brought with me. I was trying to figure out what kind of sandwich Bronko Nagurski would like."

  She just sagged at her desk. "You've got a wonderful imagination, Billy."

  I don't know what I said. Probably "thank you" or something.

  "I can't harness it, though," she went on. "Why is that?"

  "I think it's that probably I need glasses and I don't read because the words are so fuzzy. That would explain why I'm all the time squinting. Maybe if I went to an eye doctor who could give me glasses I'd be the best reader in class and you wouldn't have to keep me after school so much."

  She just pointed behind her. "Get to work cleaning the blackboards, Billy."

  "Yes, ma'am." I was the best at cleaning blackboards.

  "Do they look fuzzy?" Miss Roginski said after a while.

  "Oh, no, I just made that up." I never squinted either. But she just seemed so whipped about it. She always did. This had been going on for three grades now.

  "I'm just not getting through to you somehow."

  "It's not your fault, Miss Roginski." (It wasn't. I just worshipped her too. She was all dumpy and fat but I used to wish she'd been my mother. I could never make that really come out right, unless she had been married to my father first, and then they'd gotten divorced and my father had married my mother, which was okay, because Miss Roginski had to work, so my father got custody of me--that all made sense. Only they never seemed to know each other, my dad and Miss Roginski. Whenever they'd meet, each year during the Christmas pageant when all the parents came, I'd watch the two of them like crazy, hoping for some kind of secret glimmer or look that could only mean, "Well, how are you, how's your life been going since our divorce?" but no soap. She wasn't my mother, she was just my teacher, and I was her own personal and growing disaster area.) "You're going to be all right, Billy."

  "I sure hope so, Miss Roginski."

  "You're a late bloomer, that's all. Winston Churchill was a late bloomer and so are you."

  I was about to ask her who he played for but there was something in her tone that made me know enough not to.

  "And Einstein."

  Him I also didn't know. Or what a late bloomer was either. But boy, did I ever want to be one.

  WHEN I WAS twenty-six, my first novel, The Temple of Gold, was published by Alfred A. Knopf. (Which is now part of Random House which is now part of R.C.A. which is just part of what's wrong with publishing in America today which is not part of this story.) Anyway, before publication, the publicity people at Knopf were talking to me, trying to figure what they could do to justify their salaries, and they asked who did I want to send advance copies to that might be an opinion maker, and I said I didn't know anybody like that and they said, "Think, everybody knows somebody," and so I got all excited because the idea just came to me and I said, "Okay, send a copy to Mi
ss Roginski," which I figure was logical and terrific because if anybody made my opinions, she did. (She's all through The Temple of Gold, by the way, only I called her "Miss Patulski"--even then I was creative.) "Who?" this publicity lady said.

  "This old teacher of mine, you send her a copy and I'll sign it and maybe write a little--" I was really excited until this publicity guy interrupted with, "We were thinking of someone more on the national scene."

  Very soft I said, "Miss Roginski, you just send her a copy, please, okay?"

  "Yes," he said, "yes, by all means."

  You remember how I didn't ask who Churchill played for because of her tone? I must have hit that same tone too just then. Anyway, something must have happened because he right away wrote her name down asking was it ski or sky.

  "With the i," I told him, already hiking through the years, trying to get the inscription fantastic for her. You know, clever and modest and brilliant and perfect, like that.

  "First name?"

  That brought me back fast. I didn't know her first name. "Miss" was all I ever called her. I didn't know her address either. I didn't even know if she was alive or not. I hadn't been back to Chicago in ten years; I was an only child, both folks gone, who needed Chicago?

  "Send it to Highland Park Grammar School," I said, and first what I thought I'd write was "For Miss Roginski, a rose from your late bloomer," but then I thought that was too conceited, so I decided "For Miss Roginski, a weed from your late bloomer" would be more humble. Too humble, I decided next, and that was it for bright ideas that day. I couldn't think of anything. Then I thought, What if she doesn't even remember me? Hundreds of students over the years, why should she? So finally in desperation I put, "For Miss Roginski from William Goldman--Billy you called me and you said I would be a late bloomer and this book is for you and I hope you like it. I was in your class for third, fourth and fifth grades, thank you very much. William Goldman."

  The book came out and got bombed; I stayed in and did the same, adjusting. Not only did it not establish me as the freshest thing since Kit Marlowe, it also didn't get read by anybody. Not true. It got read by any number of people, all of whom I knew. I think it is safe to say, however, no strangers savored it. It was a grinding experience and I reacted as indicated above. So when Miss Roginski's note came--late--it got sent to Knopf and they took their time relaying it--I was really ready for a lift.

 
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