FIERCE CREATURES RESHOOT DELAYS FILM'S PREMIERE BY NINE MONTHS
by Hans ten Cate
Wednesday, 20 August 1997

As with "A Fish Called Wanda," audiences did not react favorably to Kevin Kline being killed off (gored by a rhino in this case) so several scenes for Fierce Creatures were reshot in August 1996

Well, Fierce Creatures finally premiered on January 24th 1997. But there were some who feared that the film would forever remain on the dusty shelves of Universal Studios when rumours emerged that Cleese was having trouble during the film's editing and screening. The film was to be released last summer, you see - sometime around May 1996. But due to poor reactions from test audiences here in the United States, the film had to be "re-tooled."

This past August, the principal actors of the film reconvened for five weeks to reshoot nearly a third of the film. Test screenings in the United States in the fall of 1995 failed to elicit positive reactions from audiences on some parts of the film. In particular, the original version of Fierce Creatures had both of Kevin Kline's two characters meeting an untimely death at the end of a charging rhinoceros' horn. Audiences apparently didn't care for that. "Like all comedies, when people laugh they laugh, and when they don't, it's not working," said co-producer Michael Shamberg.

Before you get too irate with American audiences for being hypersensitive dolts (well actually you're right, we are), let's reflect on the fact that the very successful A Fish Called Wanda underwent a similar process. Whereas Kevin Kline's Wanda character, Otto, was to have remained submerged under the wet cement at Heathrow airport, test audiences felt, even then, that this was somewhat of a downer. So, the actors got together and reshot some scenes such that Kline was seen very much alive on the wing of a departing 747. The ending was, in fact, filmed twice, until audience reactions were just right. And despite the new ending, or (dare we say it?) perhaps because of it, A Fish Called Wanda became a $200 million international blockbuster.

29 July
1988 A Fish Called Wanda premieres and becomes an international success, grossing nearly $200 million worldwide
1992 John Cleese & Iain Johnstone begin devising a script for a new film, tentatively titled Death Fish 2
15 May
1995 Filming of Death Fish 2 begins in London under the direction of Robert Young
August
1995 Primary filming concludes (four days later, Michael Palin leaves to film Full Circle)
November
1995 Film, now renamed Fierce Creatures, is screened in London, Los Angeles, and New York
February
1996 Decision to reshoot parts of Fierce Creatures is made by John Cleese and Universal Pictures
August
1996 About one-third of the film is reshot in London under the direction of Fred Schepisi
November/
December
1996 Fierce Creatures is screened once more for audiences and studio executives
24 January
1997 Fierce Creatures premieres nationwide in the United States
14 February
1997 Fierce Creatures premieres in Britain

EARLY SCREENINGS OF FIERCE CREATURES

Universal Studios showed Creatures to an English audience in November 1995 where reactions were quite positive. Cleese explained, "I had 40 odd London friends there, [but] something was wrong with the ending. You could tell. That really bothered me. I thought... maybe if we cut this really well, it'll be okay." Shortly thereafter, they showed the film to American audiences in Los Angeles and New York, where reactions were even more mixed. Cleese explained that during one screening of the film, "I was sitting at the back of the audience with a big, fat grin on my face because I thought we were home and dry. The reaction dipped, improved, dipped a little and then sank even further... and I knew it wasn't good enough..." Cleese further explained that "...it wasn't anything to do with the difference between American and English audiences, which appeared in some newspapers and is just inaccurate."

When Cleese met with Casey Silver, the head of Universal Studios, Casey told Cleese, "we have a hit here but we need to get the ending right. I think you make a mistake when you kill Kevin." Cleese recalls, "I had three reactions: '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!'" Casey agreed but pointed out "You write these dreadful characters for him and the audience like him."

So the decision was made in February 1996 to reshoot a number of scenes in the film.

A RESHOOT NEARLY ONE YEAR AFTER PRIMARY FILMING?

A scene we'd like to have seen: Kevin Kline in the best drag role since the Batley Townswomen's Guild reenactment of the Battle of Pearl Harbor. He was to have played Mrs. McCain, mother to Vince (played by Kline) and wife of Rod (also Kline). Jamie Lee Curtis, who is an avid photographer, took this picture on the set of Fierce Creatures.

But why wait a year to reshoot? Six months passed before production could resume again in August 1996. Although this was unfortunate for Fierce Creatures, Python fans will be pleased to know that this was largely due to Michael Palin's new travel series, Full Circle (formerly Palin's Pacific). "Almost as soon as we stopped filming," Cleese explained, "[Michael] departed to the other side of the world to make a series of... nine programmes about the countries around the Pacific Ocean, and had a fearsome schedule." The series, which will air this Fall 1997 on the BBC and a few months later on PBS in the United States, took nearly ten months to film, which meant logistics hell for the Fierce Creatures team.

Universal Studios even initially suggested shooting a new ending without Palin, but Cleese refused. "When I said, 'I really can't do that,'" said Cleese, "[the studio] accepted without protest."

At one point, it seemed that Palin would have a few weeks available, which unfortunately didn't work well for Jamie and Kevin, being parents and all. Jamie Lee Curtis said to the studio at that time that "I can't take [my daughter] out of school now! And then, Kevin had his kids in school... Literally, everybody's schedule couldn't be cleared until late August." Adds Cleese, "That's when we realized we'd probably have to wait a whole year to get everyone together."

DOING THE RESHOOT

Another scene removed from the final print was one in which Michael Palin and Robert Lindsay dress up in an elaborate tiger costume (shown here)

During the downtime, screenwriters Cleese and Johnstone worked on a new ending with William Goldman (screenplay writer most noted for The Princess Bride). Coincidentally Goldman owns a penthouse in Manhattan, eight floors up from the Cleeses.

By the time Palin had returned from his journeys and the studio execs were ready for production again, British director Robert Young had begun work on a new version of Jane Eyre (although some accounts say he had also begun pre-production on a project called RPM). Not wanting to create any further delays (which could have led to months), the studio set out to find a temporary replacement for the director. John Cleese came in with Australian director Fred Schepisi (Roxanne, Six Degrees of Separation).

Schepisi had, around that time, asked Cleese to star with Robin Williams in a remake of Cervantes' classic novel Don Quixote, which was to begin production March 1997. "I was delighted to agree," explained Cleese. "I suggested to him that, as he was preparing for Quixote, he wouldn't really have time for a full feature in '96, so would he like to come and reshoot Fierce Creatures for us?" "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."

Schepisi agreed and brought with him his own technicians to finish the job: lighting cameraman Ian Baker, composer Jerry Goldsmith, and editor Robert Gibson. Together, the new director and cast reshot about 52 pages (about half the script). Starting August 1996, the reshoots took nearly five weeks. Since the original film was budgeted for only 12 weeks (and was now into 16 weeks), the reshoots also added about $7 million to an already existing expenditure of $18 million.

SO WHAT'S CHANGED?

This is How the Film Was Originally Supposed to End...

After Rollo and Willa discover that Vince has embezzled money from Octopus, Vince meets an untimely demise at the end of a charging rhinoceros' horn. The zookeepers, now having befriended Rollo, think he is the one who has killed Vince and hide the corpse by feeding it to the lions and tigers.

As Rollo secretly yearns for the lovely Willa, Rod makes a surprise visit to the zoo to inform them it is going to be sold and made into a golf course. Willa and the others offer to raise the money and buy the zoo for themselves but Rod will have no part of it. They overpower him and lock him into a tiger's cage, hoping to encourage him to agree to sell the zoo to them. Rod backs down and agrees and signs, then learns the tiger was actually Bugsy and another zookeeper in an elaborate tiger costume.

Rod won't be made a fool of and overcomes Willa, stealing the signed document and nullifying the deal. But Rod has wandered into the rhinoceros compound like his son Vince and meets the same fate. The zookeepers get the zoo, Rollo gets Willa and all is right with the world.

The cast reshot the controversial ending to the film (see inset) and filmed a few new scenes to be added towards the beginning of the film. "We... reshot some of the earlier scenes, which we felt we could improve simply by clarifying some of the characters' motivations." To preserve the film's length, some of the existing scenes had to be cut from the film as well. The main changes to Fierce Creatures included:

  • Kevin Kline's character Vince McCain is resurrected. He does not get trampled by a rhino. Audiences reacted poorly to Kevin's character being bumped off. Said Cleese in an interview, "I made the same mistake as last time - I killed Kevin!"
  • Kevin's older, less sympathetic character, Rod McCain, still gets killed but, this time, meets an entirely different fate. No longer a rhino but a nice bullet to the head provided accidentally by Michael Palin's character, Bugsy. Note that it was also Michael Palin's A Fish Called Wanda character who was to have killed Otto (played by Kevin Kline) in that film.
  • A scene in which Palin and Robert Lindsay were dressed in a tiger suit was cut from the final film. These two characters apparently scare Rod McCain into submission by wearing an incredibly impressive tiger costume. "There isn't even a picture of it on my wall," Palin said regretfully.
  • Also, cut from the film: Kevin Kline in a third role as his own mother! Check out the photograph above (taken by Jamie Lee Curtis on the set) and look at that impressive make-up job!
  • Some photographs of the Fierce Creatures set showed there to be much more to the elaborate commercialization techniques employed at the zoo; some shots included an amusement park with a huge tiger's head where visitors would enter through the tiger's mouth
  • Test audiences also took offense to Kline's elder character, Rod McCain, flashing his manhood to impress a tiger, so that scene was taken out as well. Cleese confessed that "we thought it was hysterical, but it was unbelievable how much the audience disliked it."
  • Schepisi also replaced a more serious love scene between Cleese and Curtis with a double-entendre-laced encounter.

 


Sources:

  • "Ullo John, Gotta New Ending?," by Andrew Collins, Empire, February 1997, pp. 64-67.
  • Ivan Waterman, "Point Blank: John Cleese, the Total Film Interview," Total Film, Issue 2, March 1997, pp. 48-53.
  • Judy Brennan, "Coming... Eventually," Los Angeles Times: Calendar, Sunday, September 29, 1996, p. 34.
  • Bruce Fretts, "Behind the Scenes: And Now For Something Completely Different," Entertainment Weekly, Issue No. 364, January 31, 1997, pp. 12-14.
  • Fierce Creatures Notes, Universal Pictures, Fierce Creatures Website (www.fierce-creatures.com), accessed: December 16, 1996