ON WRITING FIERCE CREATURES
by Hans ten Cate
Monday, 10 March 1997

John Cleese's projects have historically been shrouded in secrecy. Cleese's long-term sales technique has been to keep the press guessing. A Fish Called Wanda, for example, underwent several title changes before its release. Fierce Creatures, John's new film, is no exception. Working titles for the film have included Death Fish II, A Lemur Named Rollo, and Fierce Things. If you want to make matters worse, just ask Cleese what the film is about. Last July he responded that "it's an ecological melodrama set in Finland. It'll be about three-and-a-half hours long, and it's about whether this elk, who can only breed in a small copse of fir trees, will survive or not."

Ye Olde Fierce Creatures Comedy Sketch

The idea behind Fierce Creatures actually pre- dates Monty Python. It was based on an old sketch written by Michael Palin and Terry Jones for the BBC series Comedy Playhouse. "Terry Jones [and I] wrote a half-hour script for the BBC in 1967 called The Zoo," said Michael. "We created a character called Mr. Burster, who hated all small, furry animals, and wanted a zoo full only of killers. The BBC said no thank you, but John, for whom it was written, remembered it."

John Cleese added that "I never read the script [and] even though it was over 25 years ago, I never forgot the idea! They had an idea for a half hour comedy about a zoo where people were only interested in big and frightening animals, where a keeper ended up stretching his snake because it had to be six foot long and it was only five foot nine inches."

Michael Palin was only too happy to contribute to the new film: "I'm delighted that that it's being used as we weren't going to do anything with it. It's a nice idea and especially nowadays it has a grain of truth."

PLANTING THE SEED...

The idea to reunite the team was actually broached during the making of A Fish Called Wanda, but it was when Cleese met eminent naturalist and writer Gerald Durrell that plans were set in motion. "After we were introduced someone told me Gerry had saved the white-eared pheasant from extinction," Cleese says. "And I thought, 'Well, if you arrive at the Pearly Gates and you're trying to enter into heaven, that isn't a bad claim."

Cleese had long been interested in animals and conservation and visiting Durrell's world-renowned wildlife preservation trust in Jersey, England planted the idea for a story. In addition to John's interest in conservation, co-writer Iain Johnstone said that "we also shared a mutual distaste for the mindless expansion of modern media conglomerates and so the idea came together fairly neatly about a conflict between two value systems -- without wishing to say that all people who work in zoos are good or that all those who work in multi-media corporations are evil and should be destroyed!"

"I had at the back of my mind for some time an idea of writing something about a tycoon," said Cleese. "I am fascinated by tycoons. People who just want to get bigger and bigger. People who would apparently rather own 200 newspapers than run one good one."

SLOW GOING?

John Cleese spent two-and-a-half years writing the script for Fierce Creatures with friend Iain Johnstone, former film critic and journalist for London's Sunday Times. Two-and-a-half years may seem like a long time to be doing anything, but Cleese insists that it is the only way to create good comedy.

"I'm quite proud of my writing record," Cleese says. "If you take Fawlty Towers, which I wrote with Connie Booth, I think every-one thinks those are good comedy half-hours. But what they don't know is, Connie and I took six weeks to write each one." Even A Fish Called Wanda, which Cleese co-wrote with Charles Crichton, went through thirteen drafts (most film scripts only see about four or five redrafts).

Other famous names rumored to have assisted in script writing are William Goldman (who wrote The Marathon Man and the very funny The Princess Bride) and Charles Crichton (who directed the original cast in A Fish Called Wanda). Crichton, unfortunately, did not assume directorship of this project this time. "It began to dawn on me Charlie was getting quite old," Cleese explained of the 85-year-old Ealing comedy director. "When I realized he'd be 85 during Fierce Creatures I went and talked to him. I think he was a touch disappointed, though he seemed to realize there was a certain truth [to what I said]."

John Cleese stuck to a leisurely scripting pace. This was partially to take the "right" amount of time to develop a good comedy script but also because he could afford to. John Cleese is a wealthy man, you see - sharing time between homes in California, New York, and London. But when funds are short, Cleese is apt to do a cameo or play a small role in movies like The Jungle Book and Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, or perhaps a commercial. "I can go out and do a commercial, come home and live off that money while I continue to write drafts for an uncommissioned script," says Cleese.

J.C. HAS AN M.O.

John Cleese's modus operandi has, over the years, been to avoid the typical Hollywood bullshit. He operates outside of the traditional boundaries of movie deal-making. Jamie Lee Curtis explained that "John finances all the pre-production, all the script development, art department work, and location scouting himself... It's an almost completely unknown way of working in movies, but it means John doesn't have to do a song and dance to financiers in Hollywood before he's ready to. He gets his script absolutely right, gets an agreement from his leading players, then goes to L.A. and says: 'There's the script, here's who's in it, here's the budget, do you want it, yes or no?' We [the actors] all take a cash fee for acting, less than we would get in the marketplace, then a nice piece at the back end. It's a civilized way of working. Which is John to a T. He's a civilized man."

Not only is Cleese is a civilized businessman, he also spares no expense when it comes to casting. Cleese is a firm believer in what he refers to as "casting up" -- meaning to cast the finest actors possible no matter the size of the role in order to achieve a rich and diverse group of characters. He even insists that the principal actors help with the script-writing. Curtis described how "...he flew us [Curtis and Kline] into London to talk, polish and develop the script, and then he spent another six months on it..."

"Most of the way I work," said Cleese, "is really to spend a lot of time improvising when we're both writing the script, using the actors to help the writing process. Because Kevin writes a lot of his own part. And then later on in the rehearsal process there's a lot of ad-libbing. But once you get on set you basically stick to the script."

Keep an eye on John Cleese during this scene. Although they reshot it many times, John Cleese couldn't stop laughing at Kevin Kline's antics. He can still be seen cracking a smile when Kevin delivers the line "Paisley? Are you Insane?!!.

Writing the script together requires quite a bit of improvisation and fun on the part of the actors. When asked if John and company had trouble keeping their composure on the set, he said "Sometimes. Particularly with Kevin. I mean Kevin ad-libbed a line. One of these lines at the end... One of the characters... is obsessed with clothing. And at some point he notices that I'm wearing a paisley tie. And he just broke right off and he just took the tie and he said: 'Paisley? Are you insane?!!' That wasn't scripted and I just started to laugh. That was rehearsal. And every time he did that I could never... if you look in the movie you can still see the corners of the mouth [indicates a breaking smile]... Kevin does that to me occasionally."

"He ruins more scenes than you can imagine by laughing," Kline said.