by Hans ten Cate
Monday, 10 March 1997

John Cleese not only wrote and starred in Fierce Creatures, he also directed it! Cleese actually co-directed the film with Robert Young, a prominent British film and TV director who has also directed Cleese in over 50 television commercials (and who directed the award-winning drama series GBH starring Michael Palin and Robert Lindsay). Young took care of camera placement and Cleese talked directly to the other actors. "Robert and I first worked together in 1974 on a short film called Romance With a Double Bass," Cleese says. "Since then we've been together a lot, mostly on commercials, so we have this easy interaction. He understands shooting and eye lines, and I don't. I'm not interested in directing."

John Cleese also shared directing duties with Fred Schepisi when the second director was brought in to help reshoot the ending to Fierce Creatures.


Fierce Creatures takes place at the Marwood Zoological Gardens, a fictional zoo in England. Notably, "Marwood," was John Cleese's grandfather's first name and is also John's middle name!

Fierce Creatures was filmed in England at Pinewood Studios (about 20 miles west of London) which played host to a massive reconstruction of a small London zoo. "It's conceived like a formal garden design by [English architect] Lutyens," said production designer Roger Murray-Leach. A great deal of thought was given to building a replica set versus filming at an existing zoo. "I visited 30 or 40 zoos around the UK," said Leach, "but it quickly became apparent that it would just not be practical to attempt the bulk of the filming in a real zoo, both geographically and for the welfare of the animals."

So it was decided to build a zoo set at Pinewood Studios where, apart from a few days at Marwell Zoo in Southern England and the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, the majority of all zoo scenes were to be filmed. Leach continues: "Originally it was just the sea lion pool, the theme park and the tiger enclosure, but the zoo grew and grew." Still, for filming, size can be a major concern. "For shooting," Leach said, "it had to be quite compact. In real conservations, you'll see, for instance, zebras wandering in big open fields, but on camera they'd look like pinpricks."

Actually building a zoo presented its own problems. "With an actor you can say 'please don't lean on that wall,' but when you've got two 700-pound tigers which suddenly decide they've had enough, you've got to be confident that the set will hold them," Leach explained. The zoo was built with the advice of Rona Brown, animal trainer Jim Clubb, and to very rigid government guidelines. The end result Leach describes as a "civil engineering job." Covering three acres of ground, it is one of the largest and most ambitious sets ever created.

Several scenes were also shot at the Marwell Zoological Park in Hampshire, England. For three days in May 1995, parts of Marwell became Marwood Zoological Gardens with the rear of Marwell Hall becoming the Aquarium Cafe, and various scenes being filmed with the rhinos, giraffes and coati. The Marwell Zoological Society Photographic Group was allowed to visit the set and take pictures of the goings on. Says the Photographic Group's David Baxter: "The rear of [Marwell] Hall was extended to feature the cafe area, and an army of technicians, assistants, actors and extras descended on the lawn. It was amazing to see how many people are required to film just a few seconds of action featuring a few of the cast."


One of the hard parts of filming a movie about a zoo is that you need animals... lots of them.

Fierce Creatures employed nearly 150 animals, accounting for some 55 different species in all. Cleese and company enjoyed the creature comforts of 25 ducks, 3,000 ants, 100 pigeons, as well as a smattering of lions, tigers, leopards, panthers, zebras, sea lions, snakes, gorillas, and a rhino. And then you had your very-odd variety of breeds: a lemur, six meerkats, a mule painted red and white, and a llama who wore a tie and had a balloon attached to its head!

Cleese has long been interested in animals and conservation, a concern that heightened when he met eminent naturalist and writer Gerald Durrell. "There's something bout watching an animal that puts you in contact with where we came from and what we're still a part of," explains Cleese. "I think zoos should be seen not just as conservation areas but places where people who can go and have some experience of animals."

Animal consultant Rona Brown, who worked on such films as Gorillas in the Mist and Greystroke: The Legend of Tarzan, was responsible for the animals' well-being. "When I first began working with [Cleese and company] I sent them a huge list of requirements for the animals expecting to have to haggle but they agreed to everything I asked for. They didn't compromise once. I think the animals probably had better living conditions and food than the actors and crew!"

But Brown agrees that animals are by and large scene stealers. "The actors have to learn how to react and handle them, as well as delivering their lines," said Brown. "It's quite difficult to speak if you've got something wriggling and wanting to do its own thing with you."

"We were able to figure out in advance what the animals could and couldn't do," said Cleese. "So that if I have a little monologue, as I have at one point in the film with just a dear little ring-tailed lemur and a handful of raisins, I can do the monologue feeding him the raisins. He's very happy to sit there, because he likes the raisins and he and I get on very well. Then, if necessary, when he's had all the raisins that he needs for breakfast and starts to get restless, he's taken away and his brother is brought in, who looks exactly the same on camera, and I feed him."

"Now, that's very simple. But if you say "the raccoon peddles in on a unicycle, juggles, yodels and disappears upside down," then you're going to spend about 13 weeks sitting there, waiting to get the shot. So the answer is not to be too optimistic about what you're going to get the animals to do. We planned for very simple things and had very few holdups."

And yet, working with animals was not without some incidents. Robert Lindsay, who plays a keeper, got bitten by a coatimundi and Cynthia Cleese, John's daughter, received a nasty bite from a lemur. "Luckily, no skin was broken," says Rona Brown. "You have to train actors to be animal handlers. The animals don't automatically want to be friends with the actors; you have to give them a reason to be with you and perform."

Not only that, you have to make them comfortable with your scent. After all, animals won't accept you without at least some familiarity. Cleese was no exception. "First of all, I used to go and see them every day and just spend a little time so that they got used to me. And then Rona, the trainer, said: 'You know, the best thing that you could do is give them your underclothes.' So I dutifully slept for several days in these vests, until they got a little, a little bit, uh, wiffy, as we would say in England, and we gave them [laughs] to the animals. The animals would sleep on them, and when I walked in the next morning, they'd go [sniffs] 'Oh, I know him.' And it definitely helped."

  • Matt Wolf, "Fish Called Wanda" Stars Reunite - Plus Lemurs - for Zoo Movie, Associated Press, July 1996
  • Chris Willman, "Cleese & Co. Building a Better 'Fish'" Los Angeles Times, November 25, 1994, pp. F1, F22
  • David Gritten, "Back Into the Fish's Den" Los Angeles Times/Calendar, October 8, 1995, pp. 3, 72
  • Jonathan Margolis, Cleese Encounters: The Unauthorized Biography of Monty Python Veteran John Cleese, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1992