Fierce Creatures: About The Production

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A Fish Called Wanda was the second most successful British film ever made, winning Kevin Kline an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and taking in $200 million worldwide at the box office. A huge hit with both audiences and critics, it also received Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Director, a Writer's Guild of America nomination for Best Screenplay as well as British BAFTA Awards for John Cleese for Best Actor and Michael Palin for Best Supporting Actor.

In referring to this reunion of Wanda talent, Kevin Kline dubs Fierce Creatures an equal, not a sequel" to the 1988 film. His co-star and co-writer of both films, John Cleese, had no desire to attempt to make Wanda 2. "I thought about it very briefly," Cleese admits, "but I enjoy writing new characters and almost every sequel made is a disappointment. At the same time, if you've got a really good team, why not work together again?"

The idea to reunite the team was broached during the making of Wanda, but it was when Cleese began visiting Gerald Durrell's world-renowned wildlife preservation trust in Jersey, England that the story really began to take shape.

"John was very inspired by Durrell's work in Jersey," adds Fierce co-writer, British film critic lain Johnstone. "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."

A third element of the story actually came out of a comedy playhouse script written by Michael Palin and Terry Jones pre-Monty Python, but never commissioned. "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. I never read the script but even though it was over 25 years ago, I never forgot the idea," explains Cleese.

Michael Palin was only too happy to contribute to the new film: "I'm delighted 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."

The various strands of the story slowly began to come together although not without meticulous research by Cleese and Johnstone, friends since they first met back in 1975 when Johnstone was commissioned by the BBC to profile Cleese for the second series of Fawlty Towers.

But was it easy seven years later to reassemble the cast and crew, many of whom had gone on to tremendous international success? According to producer Michael Shamberg, who recently produced the phenomenally successful Get Shorty, starring John Travolta, it was a piece of cake. "John's been discussing this since we first made Wanda, and once he told everyone he was ready to do it, they just said 'Tell me when and I'll be there,'" recalls Shamberg.

Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline have come a long way since playing Wanda and Otto, with Curtis having starred on the big screen opposite Mel Gibson in Forever Young and Arnold Schwarzenegger in True Lies and on the television series Anything But Love and in the TV-movie The Heidi Chronicles, and Kline co-starring opposite Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Meg Ryan in the films Consenting Adults and French Kiss, respectively. Yet both were only too keen to rejoin the team.

"I wanted to come back to a place I had enjoyed. No one writes like John and I enjoyed our collaboration so much on Wanda, I welcomed the opportunity to continue where we had left of{" says Kline. "It would have been hard not to come back," agrees Curtis. "We had a great experience the first time and it was a big success for all of us professionally, financially and personally."

The only potential problem lay with Michael Palin who was about to embark on a nine month journey around the Pacific Rim for another exciting series of his award winning BBC television travel programs. And in fact when principal photography finished at the end of August 1995 and the rest of the cast jetted off for well-earned holidays, Palin had just four days to pack his bags and set off for Siberia.

Cleese and Johnstone were also very keen to ensure that as well as a completely new storyline, the four lead characters themselves were different enough from the Wanda roles to challenge the actors and entertain the audience while still retaining the quirkiness and charm that proved to be so irresistible the first time around.

For Kevin Kline, playing the dual roles of both father and son, Rod and Vince McCain in Fierce Creatures was a challenge he relished: "Vince is one of those characters that John writes brilliantly. He's a man who lives in a separate reality and when he brings his set of values to bear on the real world, you get a potentially comic situation. He's gotten a hold of a lot of bad information which he has completely absorbed, and of course he is his father's son. Rod you don't get to know too well and that's the way he likes it."

John Cleese describes Jamie Lee Curtis' character of Willa Weston as "the emotional heart of the movie, the anchor of the story." Adds Curtis, "Willa is an ambitious executive who has worked her way up the corporate ladder without realizing where her real values lie. Then she arrives at the zoo and she starts changing. She is the character that takes the audience on the emotional journey of the film."

Michael Palin faced perhaps the greatest change from his role in the first film with his new character, Adrian 'Bugsy' Malone: "With Ken (in Wanda), I had a fairly easy time of it in that I had hardly one line of dialogue throughout the entire movie. And so I think it tickled John that instead of someone who stammered, he would write me a part where the character never stops talking although no one listens. John has always had a view of me as someone who talks a lot. During Python he wrote that I 'talked on and on and on,' and that 'when the ground is littered with the hind legs of donkeys, he goes home and writes up his diary."

Iain Johnston describes one of his greatest contributions to the film as persuading John Cleese to create a character who was "less of a wimp than Archie in Wanda!! I felt that people wanted to see John doing the things that the public loves him for, being bossy, getting cross, playing the upright controlling individual who is brought to his knees by events, and this is very much how Rollo turned out."

Cleese agrees: "Rollo is slightly military and desperately trying to get everything under control, a public school figure who starts imploding when things go wrong. That seems to be the type of character I enjoy writing. I think it's because authority figures when they begin to fall apart are much funnier than insignificant figures. But he's a lot more grown up than some of the characters I have played in the past."

The commitment of the four stars to the project was never more evident than when, after an early preview of a rough cut of the film, it was clear that Fierce Creatures needed work. Although audiences loved the premise and the characters and found the film very funny, they did not find the resolution satisfying. This was not something unfamiliar to Cleese, Shamberg and company; they had been down a similar road before at early previews of A Fish Called Wanda when they had to re-shoot the ending twice. With the studio's blessing and the eager cooperation of the principals, it was decided that the Fierce Creatures company would reassemble for additional shooting just as soon as all four leads were available which, due to Michael Palin's BBC series Palin 's Pacific, turned out not to be for eight months.

Meanwhile, every one had other commitments, and when the re-shoot dates were finally agreed upon, the film's original director, Robert Young had started another movie. Cleese and Shamberg were faced with the prospect of finding a new director. As luck would have it, Fred Schepisi, the very esteemed filmmaker responsible for such films as Roxanne, A Cry in the Dark and more recently, the motion picture adaptation of John Guare's play Six Degrees of Separation, was talking to Cleese about playing Don Quixote in 1997. Schepisi was captivated by the premise and agreed to helm the additional scenes. He was joined by his longtime collaborators, cinematographer Ian Baker and Academy Award®-winning composer Jerry Goldsmith, who ultimately scored the film.

In addition to the four principals, Fierce Creatures welcomes a large cast of respected and well-known actors, many playing the eclectic zoo keepers. 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.

Ronnie Corbett, who plays Reggie Sea Lions, is a household name in British television and has known John Cleese since working together in 1966 on The Frost Report. Carey Lowell, who plays big cat keeper Cub, is perhaps best known as the 'Bond Girl' from License to Kill, although most recently she appeared with Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas and was seen briefly as Tom Hanks' wife in Sleepless in Seattle. Robert Lindsay, best known for his Tony Award-winning role in the Broadway and London stage musical Me and My Girl, as well as the British TV series GBH and Jake 's Progress, plays small mammal keeper Sydney Small Mammals, the rebellious leader of the keeper group.

Sydney's assistant Pip is played by Cynthia Cleese, the daughter of John Cleese and actress Connie Booth. Having played Archie's daughter in Wanda, she portrays the most idealistic and sensitive of all the keepers. Richard Ridings, who plays Hugh Primates, first worked with John Cleese in Clockwise and then again in Erik the Viking where he played a 'Nordic psychopath.'

Maria Aitken, who played Archie's wife Wendy in A Fish Called Wanda, is back as Di, the zoo's well-meaning, mild mannered PA. Australian actor Billy Brown, who plays Rod McCain's assistant Nev, was discovered by Cleese, Young and Johnstone when they watched the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford, where they had gone to meet Derek Griffiths about the role of Gerry. Cleese and Griffiths had worked together in TV in the '70s.

Since the casting of the animals themselves was certainly as important as the casting of the actors, the filmmakers brought in film and television animal expert Rona Brown, who has worked and cared for animals in films ranging from Doctor Doolittle to Gorillas in the Mist to Mary Reilly. Creating an entire zoo for Fierce Creatures, and filling it with exotic animals has been her most exciting and daunting challenge to date.

Says Brown: "John liked the sound of animals with weird names such as a capybara, but then we started going through the list and some, such as the bandicoot, were only available in Tasmania. Eventually we came up with a combination of animals that were accessible which he liked and which I knew would work well together and would enjoy filming."

The final head count totaled 11 5 animals including two Siberian tigers, a lion, a leopard, a panther, llamas, zebras, baboons, sea lions, a camel, meerkats, lemurs, coatis, a baby ostrich, maras, wallabys, a python, a lamb, a goat and two red-kneed tarantulas.

But for both Brown and the producers it wasn't just the availability of the animals that had to be taken into consideration, it was their well-being. "When I first began working with Fish Productions 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!" says Brown.

John Cleese is quick to address the importance of animal welfare: "If you're doing a film about treating animals with respect, that's what you have to do! So you need to have someone there who can say when the animal is tired or bored."

Producer Michael Shamberg readily agrees: "It was fun working with the animals and I think it will be fun for the audience watching them. But we've made a comedy which supports animals. Our comedic points are not at their expense, but reinforce the ideas behind conservation."

In particular, the principal animal actors are the cuddly five: the coati, lemur, baby ostrich, baby wallaby and mara, all of which had acting doubles (four for the lemur), as did Terry the tarantula. And Rona Brown frequently invited the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) to inspect the set and the animals' quarters.

Where it proved difficult or impractical to achieve certain scenes with real animals, animatronic experts Asylum and Animated Extras were called in to produce animatronic animals including gorillas, a rhino, an anteater and a coati.

Rona Brown was quite impressed with all the actors who voluntarily spent a great deal of preparation time with their charges, particularly Robert Lindsay whose coati was one of the most unpredictable animals to handle, and Michael Palin who was very at home with his tarantula. It was, however, John Cleese who she claims not only had the greatest empathy with the animals. He even sent in his underwear so that the animals could get used to his smell.

"It's true," admits Cleese, "I wore slightly old stuffy flannel vests and sweated into them dutifully for several nights before handing them over to Rona who distributed them among the coatis, lemurs and maras! Then when they saw me coming, they thought 'Ah, I know him."'

As much of the action takes place in the fictional Marwood Zoo, a great deal of thought was given as to whether to film at existing zoos or to build a replica set. "I visited 30 or 40 zoos around the UK 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," says production designer Roger Murray-Leach.

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."

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 lb. tigers which suddenly decide they've had enough, you've got to be confident that the set will hold them," Leach explains.

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.

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