Cary Elwes interview: The Princess Bride, As You Wish

We chat to Cary Elwes about his new memoir on the making of The Princess Bride, working with Mel Brooks, Men In Tights and more...

Cary Elwes has amassed a wide-ranging filmography during his career, appearing in diverse projects such as Glory, Days Of Thunder and horror smash hit Saw. However, the role he is most well-known for is that of Westley in Rob Reiner’s iconic and beloved fantasy, The Princess Bride.

Elwes has now written a book about his experiences making the film, entitled As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales From The Making Of The Princess Bride. It’s an entertaining look back at an incredibly popular film with input from his colleagues such as director Rob Reiner, screenwriter William Goldman and Elwes’ fellow cast members. We chat to him about the writing process, his memories of the film and the enduring legacy of The Princess Bride.

What made you decide that now was the right time to tell your story?

We were all asked at the 25th Anniversary event at the Lincoln Centre what our favourite memory was from making the film and I thought it was very hard to pinpoint one single moment because the whole journey for me was so joyous. I had such a fun time making it that I wanted to share that with the fans and I wanted to do it before my memory started to fade!

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The idea of storytelling is really central to The Princess Bride and the film celebrates the joy that that kind of creativity brings. I thought your book tied really nicely into that because you combine your own narrative with the anecdotes of your colleagues – did you always intend to include their stories with your own when you began working on As You Wish?

Yes, absolutely. I felt that the journey was not just fun for me and one of the reasons why it was so fun Is because I got to work with these incredible people who were a lot of fun. So I can’t take full credit for the book. Not only did I share the writing with Joe Layden, but also with Rob [Reiner], with William Goldman, with the cast and so on. It’s an incredible book but I can’t take all the credit for it.

And all of these stories give the book a wide emotional range. I found myself laughing one minute and then feeling quite emotional the next which is quite befitting of the film itself, but it seems that the shoot itself was just an extraordinary amount of fun.

It was. People always ask me “was it as fun to make that movie as it looked?’ and I always tell fans it was more fun and they can’t believe it because I didn’t make anything up in that book; it’s all true! All of it and it’s crazy. Breaking my toe, Andre’s fart. It’s unbelievable!

Was there a particular memory or time on the film that you enjoyed revisiting the most?

I just remember being excited from the minute I got the call from my agent because I knew about the project, I knew who Bill Goldman was obviously and I knew who Rob Reiner was. I’d seen nearly all of his work and I knew the book. I read the book when I was 13 so from the minute I basically met with Rob and got the part, I was whizzed off on this incredible journey that I try to detail in the book, being basically the novice in the group. I was surrounded by a tsunami of talent, as I like to call it, so I can’t oversell how important this film was to me and to my career. It’s incredible.

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And was there anything you’d forgotten and rediscovered during the process and talking to your colleagues?

Yes, I didn’t know that Wallace Shawn was terrified of being fired because he was convinced they were going to replace him with Danny DeVito. I didn’t know that at the time. Which is so bizarre… no it’s more than bizarre. It’s inconceivable to think of anyone else in that role!

I found that quite surprising myself because Vizzini is such an iconic character now and he seems so comfortable with all of the comedy.

Right! And Rob was so funny. Rob goes “I don’t think he still gets why he’s so good in the film!” [laughs].

Another surprise in the book and a personal favourite of mine was learning about the process both you and Mandy Patinkin went through to create the ‘Greatest Swordfight in Modern Times’, as the novel terms it; you both put in an incredible amount of work.

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They told us from the very first day, our trainers didn’t think they had enough time to get us to be completely proficient in our right hands – forget the left – so the gauntlet had been thrown down. And Rob had said right from the start: ‘I don’t want any stunt doubles or stand-ins for the swordfight. I want it to be you guys.’ So we really didn’t have any choice [laughs]. And the title of the fight was no pressure at all!

And did you actually study your Agrippa?

Oh that’s funny! It wasn’t until later that I found out that these books [fencing manuals written by Ridolfo Capo Ferro and Camillo Agrippa, mentioned in the film] are now available online, but our tutors, Bob Anderson and Peter Diamond, knew all about these guys. They were connoisseurs of fencing. Bob Anderson was on the British Olympic fencing team in the 1950s so they were absolutely brilliant and that’s why Rob hired them. He wanted the best of the best available.

And I still think it’s one of the best swordfights in cinema.

Thank you. It still holds up!

Definitely! Just to digress slightly, your love of comedy is something that comes up a lot in the book and you’re starring with some of the comedy greats in Christopher Guest and Billy Crystal. You’ve gone on to star in some great comedies yourself like Hot Shots! and Robin Hood: Men in Tights; and I’m a massive fan of the latter so I have to ask, having very nearly worked with Mel Brooks on The Princess Bride, what was it like then starring with him in Men in Tights?

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That was an amazing call to get. He actually called me at home and I thought someone was pulling my leg so I hung up on him. He called back and he said “don’t hang up, it’s really me!” I apologised, but I couldn’t believe he was calling me. He’d seen [The Princess Bride] and I’d actually met him at one of the screenings. He was very, very sweet and he said ‘I’m thinking about doing this comedy about Robin Hood and I wanted to talk to you about it’. He was one of my heroes growing up.

I’ve had an incredibly blessed life; I went from working with probably one of the greatest screenplay writers in William Goldman and one of the great comedy director in Rob Reiner to working with a classic comedy director in Mel Brooks. It doesn’t get much better than that for me. I still reflect back on it and go ‘how did I get to be this lucky?’ [Laughs] but talk about another joyful experience, totally joyful every day.

Returning to The Princess Bride, you touch on the marketing issues around the film in that 20th Century Fox, the distributor, didn’t really know how to sell it and you raise an interesting point about the way in which social media could’ve helped the film find its audience. Could you expand on that a little?

I think [20th Century Fox] had their hands full because they’d never come across a film that had such a mish-mash of genres. Was it a comedy? Was it a kids’ movie? Was it a fairytale? Was it an action film? Was it an adults’ movie? They settled for the kids approach with this very beautiful poster. It was a Maxfield Parrish type poster in America, which had Peter Falk reading to Fred Savage, the Grandfather and the Grandson.

In the UK, they actually kind of got it right. There’s a charming poster out there of myself, Robin [Wright], Mandy and Andre [the Giant] and I think Andre is holding up the gate or something like that. It has a lot of the fun aspect of the film in the artwork, but still the film didn’t really perform. We had no trailers on television to speak of. The first one they made, they pulled. And we didn’t have the Internet back then so we if we had, we would probably have been more successful earlier on. So the film kind of went away sadly at the time when it came out in 1987.

The film has a huge following online now and it shows just how much these quotations have ingrained themselves in popular culture and you talk about how often you and your colleagues are asked to repeat lines from the film – has there ever been a time you’re asked to quote something from it that’s a little less well known than ‘as you wish?’

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It’s mostly that one. Occasionally. What other ones do I get? ‘Drop your sword’ from kids in the wrong section of a toy store [laughs], but it’s mostly those three words that I get. It’s great, I lucked out. I don’t get yelled one word as Wallace Shawn does in an elevator or Billy Crystal who gets ‘I’d like a nice mutton, lettuce and tomato’ line if he walks into a deli.

It’s amazing how widespread the fanbase is. I attended an outdoor screening last year and saw children watching it for the first time, completely captivated by it, but they’re alongside their parents who were quoting and cheering along.

That’s great!

Why do you think the film continues to appeal across generations?

Well, I think the film is not insulting or doesn’t talk down to anyone. It’s fun, it’s a family movie, as you say, that whole families can watch together. Everyone can enjoy it on their own level and sometimes on multiple levels and it’s sweet! It’s sweet and funny. I mean, gosh, if I knew the exact answer as to why this film was so successful, I’d be producing more of them. It’s one of those extraordinary things that you can’t put your finger on. It’s like Bill Goldman says in his book, Adventures In The Screen Trade, nobody really knows anything about what makes a hit movie, because if they did, they’d be making them all the time.

And just to finish, you close the book by discussing the ways in which it still captures people and endured for these years. I’m one of those fans who has grown up watching it more times than I care to say and I take something different from it every time and I wondered, watching all these years later, is there anything in particular you take away from the film when you see it now?

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I just feel very fortunate to have been, as I said, part of this tsunami of talent that I was surrounded by. I feel blessed to have been part of that, I really do. You’re very lucky as an actor to have anyone resonate with your work and this one seems to have resonated quite profoundly.

Cary Elwes, thank you very much!

Read our review of As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales From The Making Of The Princess Bride, here.