Fierce Creatures

How I nearly lost my innocence in La-La Land

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From the May/June 1997 issue

I have just completed my first, and very likely my last, close encounter with the fierce business that has occupied my fantasies of a lifetime: I helped John Cleese write a movie. It may not have turned out very well for the movie, but breaking the humble routine of my day job and acting out secret fantasies of glory were great fun for me.

I met Cleese in 1990, when I did a workshop with him and his former therapist, English family therapist Robin Skynner, at an AFTA meeting in Philadelphia. He and Skynner wrote two very popular books together, Families and How to Survive Them and Life and How to Survive It. They both knew of me from reading my movie reviews in the Networker.

I knew Cleese as the tent pole of the irreverent “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” as the Minister of Silly Walks and as the out-of-control hotelier Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers. In 1988 he wrote and starred in A Fish Called Wanda, one of the funniest movie comedies ever. John personally is a gentleman and a scholar, but his comic persona, based on an imperious air of barely controlled hypermasculine rage, has carried comedy to the outer limits of taste and tolerance.

After listening to Robert Bly’s presentation at the meeting, John and I got together for a glass of port and an evening of male bonding. He had devoted the last few years to his psychoanalysis, books with Robin, management-training films and funny commercials, but he was now ready to write movies again. We told each other our comic life stories and fantasized playfully of movies we could make together.

The next year, I was in London to do a BBC special on infidelity, so I got together with John and his wife, Alyce Faye Eichelberger, a savvy British psychoanalyst originally from Texas. We played with more movie projects, including a nonsequel to A Fish Called Wanda, with the same cast but with everything reversed. In the nonsequel, Cleese, rather than being mild-mannered and sexually repressed, would be promiscuous, explosive and cruel; Jamie Lee Curtis, rather than being a sexually manipulative jewel thief, would be a prim and proper devotee of self-help books; Kevin Kline, rather than being dumb and paranoid, would be smart but paranoid, i.e., suffering from the irrational belief that people liked him; and Michael Palin, rather than stuttering, would be a compulsive talker. It was great fun weaving such fantasies, but I never dreamed they would materialize.

In 1994, my wife, Betsy, and I were in London and had dinner with the Cleeses. The Wanda nonsequel, now called Death Fish II, was actually under way with novelist and London Sunday Times film critic Iain Johnstone as Cleese’s writing partner. It was to take place in a zoo that had been bought by an American or Australian tycoon who doesn’t see the value in animals unless they make a profit. He runs up against a group of British zookeepers who don’t see the value in tycoons.

My practice teems with tycoons and would-be tycoons: men who don’t care who they step over or step on as they try to set themselves safely above the natural and human world. At dinner, I told outrageous stories of men who lust after wealth and power, their childish greed and their intolerance of children other than themselves.

Cleese invited me to spend a day consulting with him and Johnstone. I accepted giddily, but, for the first time in a lifetime of acting the smart-ass in all the wrong places, I secretly feared I wouldn’t be funny enough.

The next morning, Cleese picked my brain about tycoons. He is an avid student who must understand how everything works. (He was studying law at Cambridge when he got sidetracked into doing a comedy with Graham Chapman and Michael Palin.) And he is a perfectionist. When he tells a joke, he can’t resist improving it as he goes along, and he can’t hear a story without figuring out why the people are doing what they do. As I told stories, he got the seeds of ideas, incubated them and hatched comedy. Johnstone, with the awesome memory of a novelist and the sharp ear of a critic, could track this mental peregrination. He fit Cleese’s distilled and sharpened points into the plot diagram in his head, on which he charted what every character was doing and thinking at any point in the story. I came to see that comedy is laboriously precise. The creation of it is an awesome birthing, delivered with great solemnity. I watched in pained wonder.

The script at that point had much funny business. Cleese, a police officer from the Hong Kong office who takes over the management of the zoo, must turn a whopping profit for the tycoon, played by Kevin Kline. Knowing film audiences’ predilection for violence, he declares that the zoo will have a fierce animal policy, through which only killer animals would be displayed. He thus must shoot the most lovable animals in the zoo and become notorious for his cruelty. Marketing people from the Atlanta office (Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline, this time as the tycoon’s nephew) come to straighten out the mess, Curtis pursuing career ambitions and Kline pursuing her. The exasperated Cleese tries to silence the maddeningly garrulous insect keeper, played by Michael Palin. A pet tarantula gets loose in a closet full of hiding people, who tear off their clothes to find the spider. Curtis has an epiphany when she starts bonding with the animals. Kline hatches tacky marketing schemes and is killed by a rhinoceros as he runs off with the zoo’s money. At the climax, the keepers, Cleese and Curtis encounter the tycoon and . . . something happens, but we didn’t know what. The story didn’t have an ending yet.

The atmosphere around the script was tense. Cleese had been criticized by animal rights people for Wanda‘s sadism. (In Wanda, Palin killed three yappie little dogs and Kevin swallowed a whole fish live. Palin’s comic stuttering offended those who are offended by that sort of thing.) John was psychoanalyzed now, mellow in his new marriage and terribly fond of animals and zoos. He wanted to give his critics a sweeter-spirited movie.

For a year, we mailed the screenplay back and forth across the Atlantic and had long telephone consults. I tried to understand and explain the characters, while Cleese dreamed up funny business that was in character and Johnstone kept it flowing. Among the three of us, we’d seen every movie ever filmed, but in the movie trivia encyclopedias inside our brains, we couldn’t find an ending we really loved.

Just before shooting was to start in the spring of 1995, with $18 million from Universal Studios, Cleese and Johnstone flew me over for a week of desperate rewriting.

First we intensified the relationships by turning the larcenous nephew into the tycoon’s son. (Movie characters are easier to change than therapy clients.) Then we found a motivation for the son to risk his obscene inheritance by stealing a pittance from the zoo: the tycoon father, unable to imagine a world without himself, and loathing his son and heir so intensely, announces to the boy that he wasn’t going to die, but be frozen and thus rendered immortal instead!

But the funniest things are always those that are closest to the truth. I recalled a remark from a tycoon in my practice who told me: “I don’t know what his mother did wrong in raising that boy. It couldn’t have been anything I did. I was never there.” In Cleese and Johnstone’s hands, the interchange became, “Dad, you ruined my childhood.” “How could that be, son? I was never there.” They loved that line and wanted more. I strained but nothing came.

Here I was, an amateur scriptwriter faking comedy, feeling that my movie career and someone else’s $18 million depended on my being funny on cue. Cleese and Johnstone were looking at me pleadingly, waiting for me to come up with something that would make the world roll in the aisles. The phone was ringing nonstop with calls from actors and animal trainers who wanted to join the cast, from Kline and Curtis trying to arrange accommodations in London, from celebrities like Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Kevin Costner and Diana Ross agreeing to let their posters be plastered around the zoo. Frank (Miss Piggy) Oz and Michael Shamberg (producer of Pulp Fiction) joined us for dinner.

John told everyone my father-son line. They all laughed. I’m embarrassed by the kick I got from amusing the rich and famous. But I knew I was an impostor. Trying to be a gurgling fountain of funniness was strangling me.

I wanted to come up with an outrageous ending, something no one had ever done on screen before. The current ending, in which the zookeepers put the tycoon on trial and condemn him to death in the tiger cage, felt preachy to me. Inspired by the excesses of Monty Python, I finally pulled forth a scene, not too far removed from reality, that captured my view of tycoons and would-be tycoons, their desperate need for power, their phallic competitiveness and their macho bravado.

My new ending: the tycoon is thrown to the tiger and tries to intimidate the growling beast, first with the power of his wealth and then with the power of his masculinity. He drops his pants and flashes the tiger, challenging him to a measurement. He then has a mad dialogue with his long-dead father, negotiating his right to life as a man. Every man who read the scene howled and rolled on the floor. I was sure the scene would make me famous; I even wondered if they gave Academy Awards for Worst Taste by a Script Consultant.

Cleese, Johnstone and Kline at last thought the film was as funny as Wanda. They were ready to do it. Robert Young (who had once directed John and his first wife Connie Booth in Romance With a Double Bass, a nude comic romp by Chekhov) was set to direct. The title of the film was changed from A Lemur Called Rollo to Fierce Creatures. I was invited to come back for the shooting of it, but I had patients and didn’t go. Still, I imagined the cast laughing until they cried over the tycoon’s competition with the tiger.

The film was shot, edited and screened. Audiences adored it right up to the last 20 minutes, when Kline is killed by the rhinoceros. He suffered so pitifully from father hunger that audiences saw his larcenous, lascivious, utterly narcissistic character as a victim of a bad daddy. They demanded that the character be rewarded, not punished. But even worse, audiences rioted in protest against my scene in which the tycoon flashes the tiger. Now we knew why no one had ever flashed a tiger on screen before.

Then the pros stepped in and agreed Creatures had to have a new, less startling ending. I was politely eased out of the loop. Universal coughed up $7 million more, hired William (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) Goldman to do a rewrite. Director Young was busy, so Fred (Roxanne) Schepisi took over as director. In the new ending, the son lives, the tycoon keeps his pants on and the comedy is less outrageous but paced more briskly. A straight-from-therapy, totally believable, totally in character father-son showdown between Kline Sr. and Kline Jr. provides a satisfying ending. The reshoot had to wait a year for Michael Palin to get back from his latest TV trip around the world. But to the studio it was worth a year and $7 million to give audiences what they thought they wanted.

Screening audiences liked the unflashy new version. They predicted it would be as big a hit as Wanda. Cleese called to invite me to L.A. for the premiere, but I had patients and didn’t go. The audiences here adored it, laughed all the way through and applauded at the end. A few even waited through all the credits to see, at the very end, “Very Special Thanks to William Goldman, Frank Pittman, etc.”

You can’t imagine the thrill of having your words come off the screen and out of Kevin Kline’s mouth. It did bother me a bit that some lines I had written for Jamie Lee Curtis had been cut, while the camera seemed far more interested in leering at her undeniably amazing anatomy. And I mourned the loss of my tiger-flashing tycoon. Still, Fierce Creatures was not merely one of the funniest films in years, I thought it was the ultimate commentary on hypermasculinity and greed. Seeing it on screen was akin to magic for me. I had a funny thought and said a funny line one afternoon in London, and $25 million and two years later, that thought and that line were acted out on all the movie screens in the world!

Sadly, my high did not last long. Each weekend, a quarter of a billion dollars worth of movies open! Most lose money in theaters. Fierce Creatures was a bargain. It got mostly good reviews (although The New Yorker said it was almost as bad as Wanda!), but it opened on Super Bowl weekend and everyone stayed home. The next weekend, Star Wars was re-released and everyone was there instead. By the third weekend, Creatures was no longer being advertised. After the fourth weekend it was gone.

Creatures will not lose money. It is a hit in Europe. It pleased American audiences but did not shock them and fire them up as Wanda had. Instead, it recaptured the sweet, optimistic understatement and self-deprecation of postwar Ealing Studios comedies, starring the likes of Alec Guinness, glorifying the virtues of the ordinary working classes. Gentle humanity is not what angry, bloodthirsty modern movie audiences will pay to see. Cleese thinks his next film, whatever it’s about, will be called Lots of Things Exploding.

Cleese was heading for Spain to film Don Quixote with Robin Williams as Sancho Panza. Then maybe he and his fellow Pythonians will do an act in Las Vegas. Maybe he’ll let me help him write another movie. But I’ll keep my day job. Hollywood has not called; my 15 minutes have come and gone.

I could have gone to London for the shooting. I could have gone to L.A. for the premiere. Why didn’t I? I’ve pondered that. Maybe I’m cheap and no one offered to pay my way. Maybe I can’t stand being someplace where I’m not the star. Maybe I was pouting because my best scene got pulled out. Or maybe I just didn’t want to look too closely at the reality behind the movies–I didn’t want to lose my sense of wonder.

If Fierce Creatures shows up near you, please see it. It’s funnier than anything else you’ll see anytime soon, even without the scene that would surely have gotten it talked about, one way or another, all over the world. 

Frank Pittman

Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.