FIERCE CREATURES RESHOOT DELAYS FILM'S PREMIERE
BY NINE MONTHS
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.
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
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?
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
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?
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: