In 2008, the restaurant critic and occasional filmmaker Michael Winner asked his friend John Cleese what his greatest regrets in life were. “I wouldn’t have married Alyce Faye Eichelberger and I wouldn't have made Fierce Creatures,” Cleese replied. It is understandable why he may have felt jaded about the ex-wife who he paid a £12 million divorce settlement to, but it seems extraordinary that the actor and comedian felt such animosity towards the apparently good-natured follow-up to his Oscar-winning hit A Fish Called Wanda: Fierce Creatures, which turned 25 this month.
But a production process of hideous length and complexity, requiring two separate directors, a full-size functioning zoo set, a largely rewritten script and a shooting schedule that dragged on for well over a year, albeit sporadically, led to the joke being well and truly over.
When A Fish Called Wanda was released in 1988, it was an enormous hit at the box office, earning nearly $190 million worldwide on a relatively small budget of $8 million; it is the second-most successful British film ever made. It attracted praise for many of its elements, including the chemistry between Cleese, as the hapless lawyer Archie Leach, and Jamie Lee Curtis as American con-artist Wanda, and the hilarious comic performances from Kevin Kline, as psychotic dimwit Otto, and Michael Palin, as the helplessly stuttering animal lover Ken.
With dialogue that became iconic as soon as it was uttered (“The London Underground is not a political movement!”) and a rapturous reception in both Britain and America – not least an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for Kline and a Bafta for Best Leading Actor for Cleese – it was inevitable that there should be a follow-up.
Cleese was uninterested in making a straightforward sequel, believing that A Fish Called Wanda had ended satisfactorily. As he said: “I thought about it very briefly, but I enjoy writing new characters and almost every sequel made is a disappointment.” Nonetheless, the opportunity to work with Kline, Palin and Curtis once again was a tempting one. Cleese commented: “If you've got a really good team, why not work together again?”
The idea for what Kline would later pithily dub “an equal, not a sequel” came about from Cleese visiting Jersey Zoo, which the naturalist Gerald Durrell had turned into a wildlife preservation trust, as well as from a never-filmed comic script that Palin and his writing partner Terry Jones had come up with.
It revolved around a zoo where the fearsome properties of the animals were exaggerated by their keepers. As Cleese said: “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.” Palin was pleased that his unused concept would be resurrected, saying: “We weren’t going to do anything with it. It’s a nice idea and especially nowadays it has a grain of truth.”
Cleese co-wrote the script about a zoo under pressure with the film critic Iain Johnstone; both men shared an anti-establishment ethos. Johnstone said: “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.”
It originally bore the working title Death Fish Zoo, and Palin wrote in his diary in March 1992 that the film was to be “about the importance of humour v bigotry and prejudice”. Cleese would not reunite with his Wanda director Charles Crichton – “He found it heavy going with Charlie towards the end of Wanda, especially… in the editing stage” – and so hired the British television director Robert Young, with whom Palin had collaborated harmoniously on Alan Bleasdale’s drama G.B.H.
Kline and Curtis were happy to return – Kline commented that he “wanted to come back to a place I had enjoyed… no one writes like John”, and Curtis praised Wanda as “a big success for all of us professionally, financially and personally” – and so Palin happily observed that “the prospect of having a Cleese-Kline-Jamie Lee collaboration to embark on at the end of Pole to Pole is very satisfactory.”
Palin continued to believe that the film was “a winner”, noting in November that the story combined “so many different strands of current thinking and so many different aspects of 20th-century life – greed, sentimentality about animals, green politics, marketing, sponsorship of every area of life – can be covered.” He was cast in the part of Bugsy, a loquacious spider-handler, while Cleese took the lead role of Rollo Lee, a former Hong Kong police officer who is brought in by the Murdoch-esque magnate Rod McCain (Kline, who also played the character’s son Vince) to jettison a zoo’s tame animals in favour of the titular fierce creatures, which will increase visitor numbers. Curtis, meanwhile, would play the seductive management consultant – usually a contradiction in terms – Willa, whose machinations, both romantic and corporate, drive the film’s narrative.
However, when Palin read the first draft of the script in late 1993, he was disappointed. He observed that “though very funny at times, [it] seems to suffer from the icy hand of good old Cambridge intellectual detachment – people talk and speak because they are the mouthpieces of an argument”, and moaned that there were “too many keepers”. Meanwhile, Hugh Laurie, who had been cast, dropped out.
Palin was reassured by a revision the following year – “The story moves on briskly, there is potential in all the characters, and above all it is very funny…good to see JC back on form” – and by the time of the read-through in April 1995, Palin expressed “a general feeling of satisfaction and indeed quiet excitement” at the project that he had joined.
When filming began in May 1995, Cleese quipped that the film’s tagline should be: “They’re older, they’re richer, they’re fatter and they’re back.” It was officially renamed Fierce Creatures, a title which Palin was initially unconvinced by, but eventually came to accept. But it soon became clear that the alchemy that had worked so successfully on A Fish Called Wanda was not present.
Filming took place at both Marwell Zoo in Hampshire and at Pinewood Studios, but the first problems were caused by the logistical demands of building a functioning zoo on a studio set, leading to a severe delay in production. As the production designer commented: “With an actor you can say, ‘please don’t lean on that wall’, but when you’ve got two 700-pound tigers that suddenly decide they’ve had enough, you’ve got to be confident that the set will hold them.”
Palin wrote miserably in his diary in June 1995: “I can never remember such long hours and such hard work doing so little… the crew seem tired… they watch it all but I wouldn’t say there was a close feeling of involvement.” Not only did he feel “marginalised” compared to his work on Wanda, but, in a dig at Cleese, who had cast his daughter Cynthia in a prominent role and was constantly coaching the actors through their line readings, Palin wrote: “There is an uncomfortable whiff of elitism about the place.”
The script was constantly revised during production, and Palin’s erstwhile G.B.H co-star Robert Lindsay, cast in the role of the keepers’ leader Sydney, saw his part reduced from 185 lines to 32, much to his irritation. An anonymous insider told the Daily Telegraph: “The trouble is that John is so intimidating – because of his size, because of his intellect and because of all the power he wields. Everyone’s scared of him and afraid to tell the truth.”
Curtis, who was missing her children, fought with Cleese openly on set, and most of the supporting cast, which included Ronnie Corbett and Play School actor Derek Griffiths, vied with one another to steal scenes. However, by the time that Palin finished filming in August 1995, he felt that he had done his job to the best of his abilities, and Cleese was able to tell him in October that he was “very happy”, not least with his co-star’s “super” performance.
Palin had more mixed feelings when he saw the finished film himself in November 1995. Acknowledging that there was “no shortage of laughter”, and that “there were good moments, well received, right up to the end”, he also complained that the film “began to sag as the plot became more convoluted and just about everything to do with Kevin’s character failed – especially exposing himself to the tiger.” Although everyone seemed “visibly relieved”, Palin noted: “That it took four months of my life [to film] is, on the other hand, barely believable from the amount of time on screen.”
He might have expected that his work was finished, but, to his chagrin, Cleese contacted him in early 1996, to inform him that American test screenings had gone poorly and that the film’s beginning and ending needed to be reshot. Palin called this “quite startling, though John makes it all sound business-like and rather unremarkable.” The death of Kline’s character Vince, killed by a rhinoceros, had been particularly unpopular, and a fortnight of reshoots were scheduled.
Unfortunately, Palin was already committed to filming a new series of a travel programme, Full Circle with Michael Palin, and Kline and Curtis were unavailable until late summer. A wholescale rewrite of the script was undertaken by Cleese and Johnstone, but Palin was informed that one of the central problems was: “no-one liked the keepers, that’s the problem.” As he despairingly noted: “If the opening scenes with Jamie and Kevin didn’t work and 20 minutes of the ending didn’t work and they didn’t like the keepers, what is left?”
The answer, predictably enough, was “not a lot”. Cleese therefore recruited William Goldman, legendary screenwriter of The Princess Bride and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, to help rewrite the script, with ideas suggested by Shamberg’s girlfriend Carla. Young was replaced by the Australian director Fred Schepisi, who had previously directed the romantic comedies Roxanne and I.Q.
Around half the film was reshot at a cost of $7 million – nearly the entire budget of A Fish Called Wanda - over a period of five weeks. Palin approached the extensive reshoots with greater confidence, saying: “I have an unparalleled feeling of having done something the best way it could be done – a feeling I rarely experienced on the last shoot.”
Cleese now confined himself to acting, rather than being an uncredited co-director (as he had been on Wanda and in the first phase of production), Curtis and the “wildly, richly, grandly inventive” Kline relaxed into their roles, although the “kind, thoughtful, highly intelligent” Kline could also be arrogant and egocentric on set, insisting that the corridor outside his dressing room was carpeted so he could sleep better. As Palin tactfully put it: “Like all great talents, Kevin sometimes loses sight of the contribution of lesser talents.”
Meanwhile, Palin ad-libbed so much, at Schepisi’s behest, that Cleese suggested, only half-jokingly, that the film should bear the credit “endless additional dialogue by Michael Palin”. In a lighter moment, Curtis flashed Palin at the end of a day’s filming, leading his driver to say mournfully: “Did you see that? Trouble is, if I tell anyone about it, they wouldn’t believe me.”
At last, after a year and a half’s intermittent filming, Fierce Creatures was completed. Unfortunately, yet another test screening in Long Island in November 1996 went poorly, meaning that the film was cut down to 90 minutes, and its satirical thrust diluted to the point of non-existence. As Palin miserably wrote in his diary: “After all these years of time, energy, money and hard graft, ‘FC’ looks likely to be a 90-minute quickie, its shape and content decided eventually by 20 people in Long Island. [Cleese’s] message scenes – all his indignation at the system, his invective against the modern management style – have virtually disappeared.” When he finally saw it, he called it “a solid, aggressive piece of work”, full of farce and one-liners, but bemoaned the way that he was sidelined and marginalised, “stuck amongst the keepers”.
Curtis, meanwhile, was unimpressed, but expressed a vague hope that it would find an audience in America. With a budget of $27 million – a vast amount for a film of this nature – it would need one.
Unfortunately, it flopped heavily when it opened in the United States. Cleese had commented that “the script never relied on obscure jokes I didn’t think audiences in middle America would find funny, so there aren’t any references to Heidegger.” It might have helped if there had been. The endlessly protracted production process, as well as the now nine-year-old Wanda being all but forgotten by younger audiences, had not helped, nor did the largely indifferent reviews. “It lacks the hair-trigger timing, the headlong rush into comic illogic, that made Wanda so special,” wrote Roger Ebert, and most of his colleagues agreed that it was a disappointment compared to its predecessor.
Although it did decently enough in the UK, eventually grossing around $40 million internationally, it was doomed to be a box office failure. There has been no attempt to reunite the cast subsequently. “You felt people were celebrating the film’s failure in advance,” Cleese went on to complain. “Some reports were almost gleeful… it was unpleasant.”
That the film should emerge as an entertaining enough comedy, despite everything, is testament to the peerless comic skills of its excellent cast. While Cleese delivers a tried-and-tested variant on his uptight authority figures, Kline, Palin and, especially, Curtis, offer fine performances, and the zoo setting is an original and fresh one.
And, encountering Kline subsequently, Palin reported his accurate observation about why the film doesn’t quite work. “John is at his best when creating awful people (Fawlty, Otto etc.) and least convincing when trying to write warm, decent, friendly ones (his own character as Archie in Wanda an exception)… John is happiest when on the attack. And funniest too.” He later pithily summarised his work on the film. “For me, to be honest, it wasn’t a very happy experience,” he said.
Ironically enough, the comic highlight of the film – when Kline’s Murdoch-esque character is accidentally killed and his son has to impersonate him – is also its darkest material, suggesting how much better Fierce Creatures might have been if Cleese had approached it differently. Instead, it merits only the briefest of regretful mentions in his 2014 autobiography, So Anyway, in which he wrote: “My sole aims in life have since become: not to fight in a war; not to have to give birth; and not to work in finance. So I deem my life a success (even allowing for Fierce Creatures and my third marriage).” Few would disagree.
Fierce Creatures is available to stream on BritBox