The original post for this episode can be found here.
Craig Mazin: We didn’t make this movie. You know that right?
John August: We’ll start this officially. Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And we are here for a special discussion after watching The Princess Bride. So, on our show Scriptnotes every once and a while we’ll take a movie and sort of go through and do a deep dive on it and this was a unique opportunity to show the movie and do a deep dive on The Princess Bride.
All right, so this screening is part of a special month-long retrospective of the work of William Goldman, an acclaimed screenwriter. This is our last night doing this. But when we got the email about trying to do this we jumped on this movie because this was a movie that – we’ll talk about our priors here – you love this movie.
Craig: Yeah. It’s very meaningful to me. And I love it and I watched it a thousand times.
John: I’ve watched it four times.
Craig: That’s 996 fewer.
John: Yeah. It’s fewer. So I saw this movie for the first time in late high school/early college and I don’t love it as much as you do. So, I do really admire the movie. I don’t love it as much as you do. But I would say weirdly it’s had a much bigger – there’s many more parallels in the work I’ve done to The Princess Bride than the work you’ve done.
Craig: Yeah. Probably because I just didn’t think I could ever do anything quite that good. No, I mean, the work that you do isn’t necessarily always going to match up. But there are things about this that I have taken in my own stuff, specifically this movie – it wasn’t anything that I specifically thought about when I watched it. It was just something that seemed evident. It was the first movie I remember seeing that would make me laugh and then – and not take itself or movies or storytelling particularly seriously. And then the next scene ask that I do take the character seriously. And then in fact I feel – should feel quite deeply about them and I did.
So, this sense of a broad tone kind of going back and forth with a rather moving, emotional tone, mushy comedy. That is something that I took to heart. And I think this movie does it about as well as anybody.
John: So as I look at this movie there’s so many echoes I see in Big Fish. There’s a giant. There’s a swamp. There’s a lot of things that are similar to it. And this sort of storybook quality where you have a narrator who is talking through stuff and we’re moving back and forth in time.
But also Aladdin, which you guys haven’t seen it. But Corpse Bride. That sense of this romance has to happen. That you’re only there if this romance can be fulfilled.
Craig: Yes. And obviously it reminds me a lot of Chernobyl.
John: Yeah. So, let’s talk about the history of this movie. This movie came from a book first written by William Goldman in 1973. So at that point he had already done Masquerade, Papillion, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as a screenwriter. So 20th Century Fox bought the rights to the book and had Goldman do a script. That version never got made and then never happened. And so apparently Goldman bought the rights back from 20th Century Fox and his script. But then ultimately it was a Fox movie, so it went back there. But it went through a lot of directors. And we’ve both had projects that have gone through multiple directors.
At some point there was Francois Truffaut Redford, and Norman Jewison had all talked about directing this movie.
Craig: That would have been an interesting – the Redford version would have been interesting. I mean, I’m obviously very happy with the way it came out. There is a certain Borscht Belty thing going on throughout that Rob Reiner brought to it. And I always appreciate that. But what strikes me about the genesis of this is that William Goldman was just telling stories to his daughters, his young daughters, and these were kind of the stories he was telling them. He invented a princess named Buttercup. And this young farm lad that she was mean to, a farm boy named Westley. And he invented the ROUSes and the idea of a six-fingered man. A giant and a swordsman. These very broad Jungian archetypes. Very much a fairy tale thing.
And what I love about the way he talks about the creation of this is that when he decided to make it into a book he was really struggling, I imagine because he’s William Goldman and he’s sitting there thinking I know how a book should go. There’s all this stuff I have to do to make sense of this. And he said the thing that broke it open for him was coming up with the idea that he’s not writing it at all. That somebody named S. Morgenstern has written it. And that S. Morgenstern’s book is out of print and no one can find it. And so what’s he’s done is essentially put together an abridged version.
This story is only the best parts. And I love that because I think that ties in ultimately to what I love most about this movie which is that it is a movie about storytelling itself as an act of love.
John: And so part of the conceit is that he heard this story as a kid and that when he went back and found the actual book he realized it was like a big political tract and it was completely different than how he remembered. So he was using his childhood memory of the way he wished the story actually really went.
Craig: Which I actually had that real experience. When my kids were young I was like you know what I’m going to read you a book tonight. And they were like yay. And it’s one of my favorite books from childhood. You’re going to love this. It’s called A Wrinkle in Time. And then I started reading Wrinkle in Time and I’m like–
John: Yeah. So I worked on–
Craig: This is just a teen romance. When does the – like all the cool stuff is in the last 12 pages. I forgot.
John: Yeah. And you realize that many of the things that the missuses do so much of the work for the protagonist and it’s a frustrating adaptation. It was a hard movie to adapt. I tried it. It did not work.
So let’s talk about the frame story because this is actually part of the conceit. William Goldman had been telling the story to his daughters and the conceit in the book is that his father had told it to him. In this movie version, and I don’t know if it was always this way in the scripts but we have the Peter Falk, the grandfather character, telling the story to his grandson who is sick. It’s a pretty simple setup but we come back to it a lot.
And so the frame story gets us a lot. Let’s talk about why you do it and what’s helpful about it.
Craig: Well they’re letting you know right off the bat that the story that you’re seeing is a story. Usually when we tell a story on screen we want people to forget that it’s a story pretty quickly. Here they never let you forget. And in doing so they immediately excuse a lot of things that I think had they not done you would have said this is very true love. It’s so over the top. It’s over the top for a reason. Everything if you think about it, every emotion is pushed beyond to the edge. So, the true love is the truest of love. And the villains are the most hateful villains. The kiss at the end, there is the top five kisses of all time, and this one puts it to shame. So everything is taken to its extreme because it’s meant to be a fairy tale. And the actual story is the story of a grandfather and his son. Even though there’s these little tiny bits with Peter Falk and Fred Savage, to me that’s the movie.
John: Yeah. So obviously the frame story lets you jump forward. It lets you contextualize things. It lets you sort of fill in details that you wouldn’t have otherwise known and sort of skip past the boring parts. But let’s talk about this frame story just really quickly in terms of the progression of the relationship between Peter Falk and the Fred Savage character because it’s very simple but it’s really well sketched. And every time we come back to those things there needs to be progress. If we just came back and it was exactly the same situation it wouldn’t feel like you were moving forward. It would just feel like you were just repeating an old scene.
Craig: Peter Falk. Right? The perfect casting because he’s literally Colombo-ing his own grandson. You know? “OK, you know what, you don’t want to hear this. Never mind. Now you’re taking this very personally.” “No I’m not. No I’m not.” Right? So Fred Savage does a fantastic job playing like a regular – I think he’s a very regular kid there. They didn’t push it at all. Kids do get annoyed with that. They don’t want to hear about, at least in this case, you know, 1987 lovely gender stereotype of a boy that doesn’t want to hear about kissing. But I remember my son didn’t want to hear kissing stories. So that all felt very true.
But Peter Falk is playing a long con with this kid, repeatedly. “I told you.” “Yes, very good, shut up.” Wonderful. “You’re very smart.”
John: So let’s go into the actual story as it is being told. And so we really rush through the setup very quickly.
John: And it’s surprising even just watching it tonight to recognize how little backstory we know about our central characters. Buttercup, I guess she has a family. We never see them.
John: She lives alone in a cabin I guess.
John: She makes fun of this farmer boy.
Craig: It’s just the best parts. Right? So actually no one in this entire movie has a real character. No one. It’s just nice farm boy, nice slightly noble girl, a very smart Italian, a very big Greenlander, a very skilled Spaniard. And then the prince is just a dick, right? That’s his character.
John: But a very, very proficient dick. You also watch, it’s like, oh, he’s somehow really good at all these tracking things.
Craig: He’s an amazing tracker.
John: And so you think there’s going to be some payoff like–
Craig: There was a great duel.
John: Yes. And somehow he can smell the iocaine powder that is unsmellable.
Craig: Of course. Isn’t that the best? I love that.
John: Yeah. [Unintelligible] but sure.
Craig: It’s so great.
John: But obviously the performances are fantastic and without great performances you’d feel the artist, these little paper dolls moving throughout the story, and yet we so quickly setup who Buttercup is, the nature of sort of what the stakes of the movie are, which is basically this is the couple and we want this couple to be back together.
John: That’s the whole storyline that you’re really going to get through. So no matter what happens it’s the two of them. But what’s also surprising and sort of frustrating if you’ve read a bunch of screenwriting books is your protagonist, your heroes, are not on screen a ton and they often don’t – they’re don’t have a lot of agency in their story.
Craig: Correct. Because they’re in a story. So you can see why Goldman felt so liberated by the technique of imagining that he’s only telling you parts of a story. Because he can literally just not do the stuff that is really annoying for us to do, to make people believe that what they’re watching is real. He doesn’t have to worry about that.
And so in a weird way the protagonist, I always think of the protagonist of this movie in the true sense of someone that has to make a choice is Fred Savage. Because those are the only two real people in the movie. And the mom.
John: Oh, the mom is a really crucial character there. Yeah, without that…
Also, you notice, you watch the movie, it starts with this long shot of a baseball game being played on a video screen.
Craig: Which thrills me.
John: Yeah, of course, yes. I mean, it does anchor it in a place in time, but it didn’t even need to be because it was contemporary. It’s just a really strange thing. It’s like you’re watching Stranger Things and they’re trying to say, oh no no we’re this–
Craig: Well they didn’t know. They thought that was the way it was always going to be.
John: That’s true.
Craig: I thought baseball games would always look like that. But I guess they were probably trying to say look kids don’t read.
John: It’s true. They don’t.
Craig: Which continues to apply.
John: It does apply. So, back to Buttercup and back to her story. So, let’s track the movie from what we know of Buttercup. So somehow she goes from the farmhouse. She believes that Westley has died. And then suddenly she’s getting married to the king. We don’t know why.
Craig: It’s been years.
John: It’s been years. She’s a princess now for some reason because–
Craig: He had the right to choose his own bride, so one imagines that he rode through the countryside and said, “You. I want you.”
John: Picked the prettiest.
Craig: And that was it. And then, boo.
Craig: God, that lady scared the hell out of me.
John: Absolutely. Her eyebrows alone.
Craig: Well, it’s the last shot. The last shot just is terrifying.
John: From her perspective, so the story from her perspective is I’m going to marry Humperdinck because – there’s just no alternatives.
Craig: She’s going to commit suicide. I mean, one of my favorite lines is, “Please consider me as an alternative to suicide.” It’s so great. So she’s never going to marry him. She doesn’t want to. Her heart was broken because she had true love, which is the ultimate magic here. So, no, she’s never going to marry him.
John: So let’s imagine the version of the story where we don’t have the framing device and we actually have to fill in these details.
Craig: Oh my god. Oh my god.
John: So then you have to create some stakes and reason for why she doesn’t do this then there’s some other thing that she’s going to lose–
Craig: How about this? Start with the fact that you have to see Westley the farm boy show up and be hired. She notices him. Or they’re both children and they grow up together. It’s like, blah, I already want to die.
John: All right.
Craig: I mean, because everything that’s joyous about this–
John: Is that you don’t know.
Craig: It’s the best parts-ism of it. It’s that you don’t know and it doesn’t matter. She has no other wants. He has no other wants. No one – Inigo Montoya, his entire life is one want. His I Want song is one line long.
John: Yeah. That’s true.
Craig: Brilliant. And Fezzik has no wants.
Craig: He just is happy.
John: He’s happy to be there.
Craig: He’s done. His character is complete.
John: Let us talk about the biggest character in the story who doesn’t actually appear on screen which is Dread Pirate Roberts. Which is actually a really fascinating running thing through it. It pays off nicely at the end. You know Montoya will be there. But it is a really interesting amount of screen time spent on Dread Pirate Roberts as a conceit, as a way through this. You feel like Dread Pirate Roberts is going to show up at some point as much time as we spend talking about it.
Craig: Somewhere among my many hundreds of viewings I lost that desire to see Dread, because in part once I understood that he was the Dread Pirate Roberts and he explains that the guy that took him wasn’t the Dread Pirate Roberts, it just becomes this very brilliant explanation. Again, you see Goldman just sort of waving his magic pen and saying you don’t have to worry about that. And you don’t have to worry about that. And you don’t have to worry about that. It’s just the way it is. It’s really simple.
And the Dread Pirate Roberts thing I have heard many times in my life used as an analogy for all sorts of things. It’s incredibly useful. The idea of something that isn’t a thing but creates its own mythology to be the thing. It’s quite lovely actually.
John: Absolutely. Well let’s talk about as screenwriters the ways that this is brought up, because I would say that one of the reasons I wanted to do this as our movie to talk about is it’s one of the most frequently mentioned movies that’s going to come up in a discussion, in an early pitch session, talking about how we are going to do something. And so the idea of a framing device, are we going to Princess Bride it? You’ll hear that as sort of like, OK, we’re going to wrap stuff around this to sort of show – to contextualize this as a story in it.
The Dread Pirate Roberts as an idea of like this thing that’s happening, this conceit about this is not really the person, or the person has actually died a long time ago, that gets brought up in meetings.
Craig: Absolutely. And then there’s this very classic structure that’s taken directly from Grimm and earlier, but it comes up a lot which is the notion of trials and tests. And it goes back to Greek mythology. But the idea of using this time in your first act, or whatever act, I hate acts anyway, but of encountering tests. And going through – one of my favorite things that happens in this entire movie is just the little exchange that Inigo Montoya has with the Man in Black when he’s hanging there on the edge of the Cliffs of Insanity. You know, “I’m waiting for you. I’m bored. Come on, I won’t kill you. I’m promise.” And he’s just bored. “I swear on the soul of my father that you will meet no harm. And throw me the rope right away.” And that’s such a great way to solve a little plot problem and a little story problem by also revealing something interesting about both characters at the same time.
This guy is not only a good guy and a good sport, but there’s something that matters a lot to him. And that guy is a sort of guy that knows when somebody is telling the truth about something that matters to them and can then invest trust in them. That’s brilliant. And that little bit of good sportsmanship and Fezzik’s bit of good sportsmanship at giving him a warning shot saves those two guys from the mindset we should have of them which is that they are hired murderers.
John: It’s true.
Craig: But that’s all. They’re good sports. We love them.
John: All right. But that idea that you have a person who is your opponent who ultimately becomes your friend, an ally, down the road after you go through a battle sequence we do see a lot. And I’m thinking Black Panther has that same sort of moment. The waterfall cliff moment. That’s an important moment that we need to see that both men are proficient, that they can do this thing, and then coming through this we’re going to get to a spot where they can be allies down the road. Because they have each other’s respect.
Craig: Correct. And it’s so wonderfully circular. You find out who these people are by the actions they take with the Man in Black. You find out how good he is. It’s so surprising that he’s better than both of them. Obviously Vizzini never has a moment of surprise because he gets the most surprises when he dies. Amazing. But through that we learn that this guy is great at everything, which again you cannot do. I mean, so Gary Sue, right, I mean, this is the classic character that’s just good at everything. And never loses. Even when he is murdered by a death machine he still doesn’t lose.
And what’s fascinating is that Goldman points to it through Fred Savage. Because when it seems like he’s lost Fred Savage gets upset, which I love. “You’re telling the story wrong.” Because he doesn’t get that he’s being misdirected. But the truth is that kid understands, even though he’s never heard this story, he understands how stories are supposed to go. And I love that.
John: So this movie hangs on a lantern on that sense of as a screenwriter you need to be aware of where your audience is at and what their expectations are. And so moments of Buttercup marrying Humperdinck. The dream of marrying Humperdinck, of Westley dying. Those are moments that as a screenwriter you have to be in the seat with the audience watching it and go like, oh no, no, that couldn’t possibly happen. Something is wrong or broken about this movie. And so in this movie we get to call that out. We actually have a character who can say like, uh-uh, that couldn’t possibly happen.
John: You would have to do these sequences very differently if you didn’t have that character.
Craig: Yeah. And you don’t have to be quite so misdirect-y about it. Because it’s a child that’s being misdirected. It’s a children’s story. Of course she doesn’t get married there. Of course something is going to happen. We don’t know what. Did she really get married? I mean, I remember because I wasn’t familiar with the specific rights of marriage as a 16-year-old, when he says, “Man and wife, say man and wife.” “Man and wife.” And she goes, “He didn’t come.” I’m like, how are they going to get out of this? Well apparently did you say I do, that works in Gilder I guess. Or Florin or wherever they are. I never remember which one. Thousands of screenings and I still can’t remember.
John: They’re in Florin.
Craig: They’re in Florin. Thank you. But I got fooled by that. And I find it – I mean, I also got – even when Christopher Guest throws the knife he looked like –
My dad used to tell me a story. When he was a kid he would go to the movies and before the movie would start there would be a Flash Gordon. And the Flash Gordon would always end in a cliffhanger. So he said, you know, you’d go there and then Flash Gordon would get captured by guys and they would lift him up and they would throw him into this big lava pool, right? And he would be in midair and they would freeze it. How will Flash – and he’s like I’ve got to get back next because how, that’s not possible.
And when you would get back next week they just started it again but a little earlier he beats the guys up and never gets thrown.
John: Oh that’s horrible.
Craig: it’s like a massive cheat. You could get away with that in the ‘50s apparently.
John: Because they couldn’t go back and find the old take.
Craig: Exactly. They couldn’t go back and find the old tape. But that kind of cheaty misdirect is kind of fascinating. And here he gets to do this cheaty misdirect all the time which I just thought was great.
John: Yeah. But let’s talk about the places where he’s not cheating and where he’s doing kind of very classic things you need to do in scripts. And so as I watching it tonight I was looking at the moments where characters talk about the plan. And characters do talk about their plans quite a lot. So, from the start like after she’s kidnapped it’s like I’m going to leave this thing here and this is going to be this and then we’re going to take her to the Cliffs of Insanity and that’s where we’re going to kill her. So you get a sense of what is supposed to be happening up ahead so that if you didn’t have that sense of what was going to happen up ahead it would just seem like a bunch of random events.
Craig: Yes. And because they’re not really people but just archetypes, they can just announce their plans. It’s a little clumsy when Chris Sarandon says to the guy that also knows the plan, without even giving him an “as you know.” “I will do this and then this and then this and then this and then this.” But Vizzini laying out the plan it’s almost like you people are stupid, let me just say it again.
And when they come up with the plan of how to break in that’s the one where they don’t tell you how it’s going to work because there’s this big surprise that shouldn’t work by the way. It’s kind of crazy how not real that looks.
One step back for a second. I think about this all the time. If they made this movie today and everybody was – we just moved those people through time so they were still alive and that age, what would they do about the Andre the Giant voice problem? Because he is borderline intelligible. And there are times when he says things that just aren’t correct at all.
John: I have no idea what that was, yeah.
Craig: How many times does Mandy Patinkin say, “My name is Inigo Montoya?” A lot. He calls him Inigo. Inigo. Right? Which must have been the best he could do. It appears that all of it has been looped and that was the best they could do. [laughs] I wonder what they would do now.
John: Well, let’s talk about what they would do now because I think it would be actually very hard to make this movie now. Because I can just imagine, you know, even with William Goldman’s fantastic screenplay there would not be confidence that an audience would be willing to just go along with this ride. And there would be a desire to have just more stuff painted in. And there’s some things which are in 2019 we would make some different choices. And so I think, you know, this movie doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test. There’s no other female characters. You’d want to have just some other sense of who Buttercup is and have her do something, have her take some agency.
There’s a moment in the fire swamp where she just falls a lot. And it’s not her greatest moment. She picks up a stick–
Craig: Pokes at it, kind of.
John: But not especially convincingly.
Craig: Yeah. She seems anemic to me. Deeply anemic. And also let’s not forget the moment where Westley threatens to slap her across the face.
John: That’s not a good moment.
Craig: Doesn’t hold up. Problematic as the kids say. Also that is a moment that I never really bought. In other words Westley comes back to save her but he’s really angry at her because she wants to marry a guy, because she wasn’t loyal. But why would she be loyal? I mean, that makes no sense. His anger there makes no sense so it’s a bit of a false–
John: Yeah. It’s one of those situations where in a book where we can believe that she doesn’t really see who he is, but because we can see from the very first moment it’s like oh it’s him, he’s back.
Craig: Well, yeah. I mean, it’s a Clark Kent thing going on for sure. The mask does not hide.
John: Didn’t hide it so good.
Craig: The palpable gorgeousness of a young Cary Elwes. By the way, how beautiful are those two people?
John: I just want to slow motion walk–
Craig: I mean, the two of them, when they’re just looking at each other like on the farm. I’m like, oh my–
John: It’s crazy.
Craig: Are they the same species as I am? I mean, it seems like they’re from heaven, right?
John: They are. They are angels.
Craig: Just glowing angels. And they’re still both good-looking. I think people like that stay good-looking literally until they’re dead.
John: It’s out of spite.
Craig: But, yes, that thing does not work. And I think you’re right that in general this movie has a hard time getting made today because all movies have a hard time getting made today. And it wears its innocence on its sleeve. It wears its fairytale-ness on its sleeve. There’s no reason to cast a big movie star in it because the characters are unchallenging. It’s actually more like some of the spoof stuff I had to do. Had to do, like I was forced.
Craig: I was actually for some of them. But regardless, where the characters have no – what they say is exactly what they’re thinking. There’s no subtext ever to anything. Like there’s no guile ever. Even like when she says, “All your ships but your four fastest.” And he’s like, “Huh?” Like he forgot his own plan. And then she’s like, “But your four fastest.” And then he realizes his mistake and he still is like, oh. All you have to do is like, “Yeah, that’s what I meant. Of course.” But no one has any guile.
John: I do agree. You get the sense that there was nothing happening offstage. She walks in and she’s–
John: She’s been in like a box and then she walks out.
Craig: It’s very Westworld that way. Yeah.
John: It is. Oh, the Westworld version of this would be fantastic.
Craig: Cease all motor functions.
Craig: For sure. But that’s kind of the joy of it. You know, I mean, I love that part. The moment for me other than the moment between the two human beings, Peter Falk and Fred Savage, there is one moment that is very human and very real and that is when Inigo Montoya gets his revenge. And that’s where the movie actually said, you know what, this is a real person. He has experienced – and Mandy Patinkin also just acts beautifully there. So does Christopher Guest who played an amazing villain. “Stop saying that.” Oh, it’s just wonderful.
And that’s a moment that a guy like William Goldman figured out how to do something like a simple revenge plot except he boiled it into this little rock of crack that has just gotten into our bloodstream. It is something everyone knows. Everyone knows this. The moment is–
John: Repetition is also a huge help of that. He says the line so many times that it just becomes a thing. And also he’s a character who clearly articulates his goal from the very, very start.
John: So we know exactly what he’s after and we know that he’s probably going to get it at the end or he’s going to die trying to get that thing. He’s the only character other than Buttercup and Westley that we really have a sense of what they’re after. Even our villain, I don’t really kind of know what he wants. He wants a pretense for this war.
Craig: He wants a war. He wants a war.
John: But we don’t know why.
Craig: Why? Doesn’t matter.
John: Doesn’t matter.
Craig: I mean, and also if you want a war there are so many better ways.
John: Maybe start a war.
Craig: Start a war.
John: Yeah. That’s a thing you could do.
Craig: Fire upon them. Seems pretty easy to me. God, I love his – the dad, the king, so great.
John: One little kiss.
Craig: “Isn’t that kiss.”
John: “Isn’t that nice.”
Craig: “She kissed me.” Oh, god, I love that.
John: Let’s sort of wrap up this part by talking about sort of world-building and then sort of the future of The Princess Bride. So the world-building of this I thought was really interesting. So it would take place in fairytale land yet it’s also the real world. It’s weird for me when they reference Australia.
John: I mean, it feels like a bit of a reach. And when they talk about Greenland, great, that’s sort of in that little space.
Craig: “Unemployed in Greenland.” I mean, greatest.
John: It’s a great line. Australia feels like a weird reach.
John: It’s an interesting universe. And also we don’t know sort of how much magic there is in the world. There’s a tiny bit?
Craig: Yeah. There’s a tiny bit. So it’s this medieval version of our world. No one seems to be aware of anywhere in the world except for Vizzini who is aware of everything, including Plato, Socrates, Aristotle. “Morons.” And he knows Asia and why you should never get involved in a land war there. And he’s from Sicily. Right? So apparently this is in our world, it was just this little weird – it’s like Luxembourg, you know, it’s like this little area.
Magic wise it seems like there’s just minor, I mean, Miracle Max seems like just an early–
John: Like an alchemist.
Craig: Early pharmacist.
John: All right. So let’s talk about the future of this movie. So we talk about sort of its history. There was discussion of Buttercup’s baby.
Craig: Oh yeah. Right. That was William Goldman’s.
John: William Goldman. So William Goldman was writing a sequel book and never finished it.
Craig: Couldn’t do it. Couldn’t do it.
John: So he said, “I desperately want to write it and I sit there and nothing happens and I get pissed at myself. I got lucky with The Princess Bride the first time and I’d love to get lucky again.” So that was 2007, so there wasn’t one. There was a Broadway musical that was in development. A lot of it was written. It never happened. Apparently–
Craig: Royalty dispute or something like that.
John: Yeah, disputes behind that. So Disney Theatrical is apparently trying to do it again so there’s a new version.
Craig: Yes. And I think that that’s a fair way to approach this. Approach it as a musical because it does seem very adaptable as a musical to me. And that would not step on what exists here. There is beautiful music in this movie written by Mark Knopfler. One of my wishes for this, I wish that they would release a version where they took Knopfler’s score and recorded it with a proper orchestra instead of a synth which was I guess exciting at the time, but it just–
John: It feels a little thin.
Craig: Well, it diminishes the score and also it’s wrong. That place doesn’t have synth. You know, it’s just so weird. That makes me sad.
John: Oh, I’m sorry. We don’t want Craig to be sad. But I agree with you, I think the idea of doing a musical of it makes sense because it feels like these characters want to sing. So, they’re expressing such kind of simple true ideas that those feel like songs and that’s the way to get into these character’s heads. I’d be curious whether they keep the framing device of the grandfather and son. I don’t think you necessarily need it in the stage version. But you can keep it.
Craig: I bet they do.
John: I bet they do [crosstalk] simplicity.
Craig: And also the last line, why in god’s name Rob Reiner didn’t just fade out on Peter Falk after he says, “As you wish.” Why does he then go back and have him walk out of the room and close the door and just leave Fred Savage there alone? It’s the weirdest choice. Anyway.
John: We can find Rob and ask him.
Craig: Let’s. But that last line is the whole raison d’être of this thing. Which is you kid, just learned that love is a service that we do for others. That’s what this whole story was about. And me being here with you was my service to you. I love you. And you need that last line because that to me explains why we went through the exercise.
William Goldman effectively convinced I think everybody that reading a story, telling a story to somebody is in its own way an act of service and an act of love which is why he did it for his own kids. It is brilliant in its simplicity and I’m going to have to watch it for the 1,001th time clearly.
John: All right. Let us open it up to some questions. We have two stands in the aisle. If people have questions or things or comments they want to share. I guess we’ll allow comments. This is sort of a special, if someone has an observation–
Craig: I mean, we did not make this movie.
John: If people have other observations they want to share as well that’s cool, too, but we’ll sort of get your thought on this. We’ll start with you, sir.
Male Audience Member: Hey there. Just from the last few things you guys were saying about the synth tracks and the closing the door at the end, it occurs to me we’re not really seeing the story that’s on the paper. We’re seeing what Fred Savage is seeing. And we just saw him – we opened on him playing the video game with the synth track. And it kind of matches with what he might be imagining. And I kind of feel like that closes at the end of the movie, too, with the door closing. It’s him going to sleep. We’re not really following the book. We’re following Fred Savage in his head.
Craig: Right. That makes sense. I mean, I always identify with the old Jew, so that’s probably where my.
John: Yeah, but you’re actually raising a good point which is basically who’s POV is that whole sequence from. Is it from the grandfather’s POV or the–?
Craig: I always thought it was from the grandfather’s point of view personally.
John: You could make a good argument either way. But I think those choice of shots really matters here. I mean, an argument against it being from the grandfather’s point of view is that he walks into the scene.
Craig: Yes, but there are moments where Fred Savage is shocked and even says, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, you said no kissing,” which makes me think that he isn’t watching the movie.
Male Audience Member: Well if I was going to turn it into a question the question would be you say you identify with the old Jew now, but the first time you saw it?
Craig: Oh, old Jew.
John: Craig has always been an old Jew.
Craig: I was born 80.
Male Audience Member: Hi, so weird seeing your guys’ faces move while I’m hearing your voice.
Craig: It’s weird for us, also.
Male Audience Member: I was into everything you were saying about not being able to make this movie today and the one kind of thing I wanted to bounce off of that is like in some ways I feel like I see this movie everywhere today, like everything that Phil Lord and Chris Miller do for example.
Male Audience Member: So curious on your thoughts on like – because it seems to me know that meta-ness in movies is more endemic than it maybe was in 1987. So your thoughts on the state of that and the influence and doing it well versus doing it poorly and all that.
Craig: Yeah. I wrote something down here. You can just imagine young Chris Miller and Phil Lord watching this and absorbing the lessons of a gentle meta-comedy. And it is very gentle. I mean, they are very gentle about it, too. I think that’s why they’re so good at it. One of my favorite jokes ever in history is “Where am I? The pit of despair. Don’t bother trying to escape.” It’s wonderful. It is meta. It pokes fun at a trope. But it doesn’t break anything. And I think that’s wonderful.
I have to imagine that they love this movie the way I do, but you know what, we’ll ask them.
John: We’ll ask them.
Craig: We’ll ask those guys.
John: So I agree with you that you see the same things that this movie does reflected in other things. And there are some direct echoes. Like you don’t get to Once Upon a Deadpool without this movie. But I would suspect that like the meta-ness of our culture is just there no matter what, so without this movie we’d still have – we’d probably still have Phil Lord and Chris Miller making their stuff.
Craig: Oh yeah. I don’t think they would have perished or anything like that, but maybe they would have.
John: Yeah. And so no spoilers but in some of the work I’ve been doing recently, which you guys haven’t seen yet, there is that quality of like are we framing that this is a story within the world of how it’s being told. And it can be a very useful way of placing something within a larger world and a larger context. And so that meta-ness is I think you’re going to increasingly see.
Craig: Yeah. I like it.
John: Over here.
Male Audience Member: Well there was one hole which again you explain in the very beginning because it is a fantasy, nothing really supposed to make sense in a way. But the beginning when the Man in Black, the protagonist, follows him he just appears. How does he know she’s there?
Craig: Oh, there are bigger holes than that one. I mean, how about this one: Fezzik finds a drunken Inigo and he fills him in on everything including the six-fingered man. How did he know about that? Was he watching this movie, too? There’s huge holes. But you’re like, meh.
Male Audience Member: But then again if you watch the comic books, what we watch, the movies all the time there’s holes all over the place. Again, it’s a fantasy, so it’s a fantasy.
Craig: You get away with a lot. No question.
John: Also, I think it’s important about setting expectations. So this movie in contextualizing it as a story it gives you a lot of buy-in for genre conventions and just the ability to skip over some things that would otherwise feel like giant plot holes. You feel like maybe this story that Fred Savage is hearing actually has some of those things filled in and we’re skipping over those.
John: Let’s start over here.
Male Audience Member: Hi, do you feel that there is any benefit to the fact that characters like Buttercup and the other characters in the actual story we’re being told don’t grow as characters, they don’t change. If the story were made today, if this film were made today, is there any benefit to keeping Buttercup as a character that doesn’t really grow and start learning to defend herself in that way?
Craig: Well, it’s a fairytale and what we’ve started to do now is reevaluate fairytales and retell them in a modern way, or if you want to call it postmodern way. Disney is doing this quite a bit. You reimagine these stories and then you turn them on their ear. And you don’t just have a female be a damsel in distress.
For this movie, no one changes. None of those characters change because that’s how that story functions. The only person that changes is Fred Savage, which is why I think he’s the protagonist. But no, you can’t do that now because it won’t work. People won’t like it. And this is why it’s important to view movies in their context. And, yeah, there are moments where you go, uh, the kind of trope-iness of their characters is sort of a point. He’s telling a tropey story.
John: Disney’s Cinderella, the remake of Cinderella, the live action version, one of the things I really appreciate about it is it was the exact same story but they gave the characters human motivations rather than cartoon motivations. She’s a more fully fleshed-out character than she would ever be in the original animated film. And I think if you were to approach this – I don’t think you should remake this movie – but if you were to approach a remake of this movie you would be thinking from inside her point of view like how can she do some things to change her world around her. And sort of what is it unique and special about her other than just being incredible gorgeous that we’re going to really focus on.
Craig: So gorgeous.
John: So, so beautiful. Over here.
Male Audience Member: Sure. Just watching this, having reflected on recent episodes, it’s like if there’s a scene you’re dreading to write just don’t write that scene, just move past it and see what happens. And there’s so much of – the economy of that story works so well that it feels like it’s 60 minutes long. What’s the runtime on that? Anyone? It feels less than 90 minutes it is so quick. And have you – does anyone know how close that follows the book? Did Goldman cut a bunch of material from that?
Craig: There are serious differences. The book was, you know, the subtitle of that book I think was called A Hot Fairytale or something like that. It was a little more adult when he put it in book form. But the basics are all there. There’s not much new there that isn’t in the book. So, yeah, that was kind of how he wrote it, right? He just was able – it’s a great experiment to free yourself from having to write everything in the story and just write some of it.
Male Audience Member: So many details that don’t matter. Is it Florin, is it Gilder? Doesn’t matter, it’s sword land. Who cares?
Craig: Does not matter. It does not matter.
John: Yeah, so this takes out all the shoe leather basically. Characters aren’t walking from place to place. Basically they’re just suddenly showing up there and doing stuff and that can be a really great lesson. You’re not always going to be able to have this kind of economy for very good reasons. But it’s also a good lesson in why it’s important to have something to cut to.
So, if you were to do this without the framing device it would still be incredibly helpful to be able to cut away to the other characters doing something so that you can move both stories together.
Male Audience Member: Splitting the party.
John: Yeah. Otherwise you’d be walking through all of this with them. I’m doing the third Arlo Finch book right now and man there’s times I wish I could skip over the stuff.
Craig: You can.
John: You can sometimes. But sometimes you cannot. And so chapter breaks are really helpful but like you got to finish out a scene. You can’t just summarize it out.
Craig: You got to finish a scene. Yeah.
Male Audience Member: Are you guys waiting for all the characters in that – All the President’s Men?
John: Oh, no, no, no. We’re not staying after that. No.
Craig: No. Oh, I thought you meant they were coming. OK, sorry.
FeMale Audience Member: So it feels to me very [spollen] because it’s very playful the whole conceit of it. And I tell a lot of stories to my grandkids and I can jump all over the place, you know, the little mouse suddenly ends up three stories down and he finds a cockroach that he rides and like they just go with it. So, I think even though we have over-institutionalized in a way storytelling through our big brains and trying to figure it out, in the end just having a playful spirit and sort of the logic seems like underneath less important than this sense of play. So I wanted you perhaps to address how play and creating from a sense of play can inform story, like using this as a great example.
FeMale Audience Member: Thank you.
Craig: Of course.
John: So often we can sort of imagine development notes and process on this and trying to answer all of the questions. And in trying to answer all the questions the notes will forget like, oh that’s right, it’s supposed to be fun. And so they will try to fix all the problems and not recognize what was actually great and working about it and would squash some of what was great and working about it. The lines that Craig quotes, they’re just weird fun moments that wouldn’t happen if you had spent all the time to fix all the mistakes.
Craig: Yeah, like no one ever tells you – it just says then assemble a Brute Squad. And we’re supposed to know what a Brute Squad is. You know? I’m going to call the Brute Squad. I’m the Brute Squad. You are the Brute Squad.
But I think that that is a great sign that it started the way it started. Because when you tell stories to your children within seconds you realize you better be entertaining. I mean, the attention span is short, but when you have them they give you more attention than any adult ever would. So it’s figuring out what are those things. And big swings and exciting things. It’s not enough to have, like OK, they fell down a hill. She just got hurt. The love of her life back. If we’re not telling that story to a child they sit down and they discuss. Not these two. They go into a swamp with huge rats. And fire. And the – and the – I mean, that’s the point.
FeMale Audience Member: Swamp-eating fire.
Craig: Yes. Yes. Love it. So good.
John: Over here.
Male Audience Member: One thing I noticed while watching the film this time is how good William Goldman is at that bad guys closing in tracking beat that he also does that great in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And I was just wondering on a craft level like how do you approach writing those kinds of beats. We see them in lots of films and I just feel like there’s this great comedic interplay between the two spaces when they’re there and when the bad guy runs in. How do you balance that beat?
John: I think it’s recognizing that you’re going to want that moment. That you’re going to need that moment to see that this is between the two. That you see the interplay between them. Because there can also be the instinct of just like we’re going to deal with these people and then we’ll have a separate scene where we’ll see these people over there. And we’re not going to contextualize where they are in relation to each other.
And if the screenwriter doesn’t recognize like, oh, that’s a thing I’m going to need or I’m going to need to see those things, that may not get shot and may not be a thing that you have in your movie.
Craig: Yeah. I think that’s right. I mean, the key isn’t so much that you have that scene or not have that scene. It’s how you want it to be. What the meaning of it – do you want to see somebody looking at somebody in the distance that keeps coming while they’re standing there? Or do you want them to be surprised by it? But it is also a chance to be really funny.
I mean, one of my favorite versions of that is in Holy Grail. He’s running, running, and then he’s there. I love that. So you can play around with it. But you have to know what you want out of it. Yeah.
Male Audience Member: Thank you.
John: Over here.
Male Audience Member: I’m curious what you think is the target audience of the film when it first came out compared to nowadays. I think Craig you said you saw it when you were 16 and John like late high school/early college. But like you said there’s, you know, with the tropes and everything it’s kind of postmodern with the meta, you know, it almost has that idea of watch Star Wars when you’re younger because by the time you see it in your 20s how many times have you heard “I am your father” and that moment now has kind of lost its impact. So, just curious on – obviously it still lives up and the protagonist in your guys’ opinion is Fred Savage the child. So, even though you saw it kind of late adolescence has it kind of grown into a movie you should see and you should introduce to someone when they’re young, they’ll really appreciate it?
Craig: I think so. I think the movie is designed to speak to children of all ages as they say. Talking to you when you watch it now, I don’t care how old you are, it’s just all about the kid in you. There’s really nothing, I mean, there’s no – there’s not even a hint that reproduction occurs. Do you know what I mean? It’s about a kiss. Everything feels so broad the way a child would want it to be on purpose. And they keep making it broader, and broader, and broader. And the comedy is very physical. And I love that about it.
So to me who is this – this is one of those movies that anyone should be able to watch and hopefully enjoy. Anyone.
John: Yeah. So the movie was not a huge success. It did OK. But it was not a big blockbuster. Go to YouTube and look at the trailer. It is the worst trailer. It has the worst music. All trailers from that time are terrible, but this is a really bad trailer. So it’s hard to say who the target audience was, but like target audience is like anybody who would watch that trailer and actually show up at the theater and go in.
What I do want to address though, I feel like part of the reason why we’re talking about this movie and why this movie has had a cultural impact is because it came out on home video at a time where home video was incredibly important. Most people saw this a thousand times on home video. I didn’t. But also it got rereleased again and again on laser disc and better and better laser disc. So I felt like it really benefited from the rise of home video and the ability to see it again and again and become a family favorite.
Craig: Similar thing with Spinal Tap. I mean, look, every movie got that treatment, but this one captured people. It took a while. Because it’s also very hard to explain what it is. You have to kind of see it to get it. But it is so remarkably entertaining. And so it caught on. It was one of those movies where like “you have to see this movie, I love this movie.” And it wasn’t just your friend trying to push some art film on you. It was like moms were telling other moms, “You’ve got to see this movie.” It’s for everybody. Yeah, god, hard to solve. Geez.
John: Over here.
FeMale Audience Member: So, I’m going to kick myself if I get this wrong but I’m pretty sure that the title of the book was A Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, the Good Parts, by William Goldman. Which leads to my question–
Craig: Nice. That is.
FeMale Audience Member: I’m fairly familiar with the book.
FeMale Audience Member: And I actually remember the first time the book was read to me. I don’t remember the first time I saw the movie but I had seen it many times beforehand. And I’m just curious from, you know, we’re super lucky that William Goldman got to adapt his own work and really polish up his own wonderful novel. Do you feel like there’s anything from the book that’s missing that you’d like to see in this? Or do you think he just clinched it perfectly tight?
Craig: Honestly, I mean, I don’t want to represent that I am sort of steeped in the novel as you are, but I’m good. This gets everything that I want. And it’s one of those things where over time a movie that you love just becomes unchangeable. Even its flaws. You come to love all of it. I mean, there is some editing in this thing that is just astonishingly horrible.
John: There’s some eye lines that are rough, too.
Craig: Eye lines are like, you know, Westley’s head is flopped this way and in the next shot he’s close up looking that way. No one gave a damn. But I love it. So, anyway I’m happy. I’m good.
John: So I have not read the book. But I will say just in general an adaptation is how do you tell the best story for the screen. And so we need to remember that he was a screenwriter, I don’t really want to say first, but he had written a lot of screenplays before he wrote this book. And so I think even if he wasn’t planning at the time to adapt this into a movie I think he had a cinematic sense to it. And so he wrote this book probably with a good idea of what this would be like on a screen. And so I think there’s a natural reason why a screenwriter wrote this book and why the novelist was the screenwriter who brought it to the end.
FeMale Audience Member: Hey, so I have a question. We talked a lot about holes and it’s kind of a follow up to that. If each of you had to fill in a hole or had to add something I would love to hear what that is, whether it’s another element of the fire swamp, or if we actually see the Dread Pirate Roberts. I’d love to hear what you have to say.
Craig: Oh that’s good. That’s a good question.
John: I would want some Buttercup stuff where we understand why Buttercup is marrying him at the start. I just feel like she needs somebody else to talk with. Because the character is incredibly silent throughout the movie, as if she was only contractually allowed to say like 200 lines. Because there are a lot times where there’s cuts to like she just nods at the end of a scene. It’s like, well, you could say something there.
I would love to just have a little – someone else she can talk to in the movie just so I can get a little bit more insight into her.
FeMale Audience Member: The albino. The albino.
John: Sure. The albino. That would be great. We want some albino backstory as well.
Craig: The origin story of the albino?
John: Yeah, absolutely. Why is the albino there and sometimes nothing? No, yes.
Craig: Love that.
FeMale Audience Member: He could be the confidante.
Craig: I’m good on the albino. I’m going to be honest with you. I feel pretty good about that. I would want maybe I would love to see a short little bit where Fezzik and Inigo are kind of floating out there unrooted and miserable because when we catch up with Inigo he’s drinking himself to death because he’s miserable and has failed. And obviously Fezzik has just been recruited for the Brute Squad. So I would love – maybe even just Inigo Montoya, one scene where you see that it’s all unraveled for him. I would love that.
John: It’s kind of weird that it feels like, you know, for Inigo and Fezzik that like six months have passed, but it could only have been like 10 days.
Craig: Right. And no one ever changes their shirt.
John: No. That’s accurate. That’s accurate to medieval times.
John: Over here.
Craig: Jay Hogan?
Male Audience Member: Hey, how are you?
Craig: He’s famous you guys.
Male Audience Member: I’ve been dying to be a guest on your show, so this was the only way I could do it.
Craig: Oh no. If you want to be on the show you can be on the show.
Male Audience Member: OK. Well here I am.
Male Audience Member: I was watching this and thinking as I’m watching this as a writer I’d be afraid to write this movie. And the reason I’m afraid to write this movie is there are no stakes in this movie. People don’t die. When you think they die, they don’t die. They come back to life. True love is going to save the day. It’s stated at the very beginning and proved very quickly in act one he’s going to come back, he’s going to find her. For no reason he’s going to find her. They’re going to get together. The love story is going to work. Nobody you care about is going to die. And the protagonist in your story, the little boy, is quickly into this book, pretty quickly. And into his grandfather – you could tell pretty quickly that this relationship, this bonding happens quickly.
So we’re watching this story and not necessarily getting as involved as you need to be. It’s a fairytale so you’re separated. Your emotions are separated. But that frightens me as a writer.
Craig: Well, I mean, that’s the thing. It’s a fairytale. So the traditional tale of Cinderella, the stakes are she’ll just keep being treated poorly and she won’t be married to a guy. And that’s pretty common. In this case you’re absolutely right. I love the fact that, oh my god, if they fail there will be a war between Florin and Gilder. Who cares, right?
So I kind of love the fairytale-ness of it. And I guess that’s enough stakes for me is will this kid like his grandpa at the end. It’s so sweet.
John: So Jay, what I hear you talking about is there are stakes, I mean, like you know will these two lovers get back together. Will he die? He’s being tortured. Will he die? Will she kill herself? But you know that they’re false stakes.
Male Audience Member: The writers’ room calls it Schmuck Bait.
John: Schmuck Bait. Absolutely. And so I guess what I would say is even when you recognize that it’s schmuck bait I think you can sometimes lean into a film because you’re wondering like how can this actually end well. How can this actually–?
Male Audience Member: Yeah. Process is the alternative to stakes. It’s like what is the most interesting way to get there even though you know where you’re going.
Craig: And also there’s – the schmuck bait catches a schmuck. It’s the kid. He falls for it. Right? So that’s the point. They know they’re doing it. What you’re doing is you’re watching somebody falling in love with narrative. So I’m OK with that personally.
John: So, Jay, you did talk about like you’d be afraid to write this because you’re just worried that stakes are so low. And I think that’s actually really interesting and thank you for bringing up that point because you do worry about is this actually going to feel – is this actually going to have the weight that you would kind of want it to have? That there’s going to be enough real emotional resonance beyond just like a beautiful kiss at the end? And I think that’s a fair thing.
I think if you were to approach this movie now there would be an expectation of–
Craig: Yeah, there would.
Male Audience Member: I would even say that the highlight, the climax, is when Inigo Montoya gets his revenge.
Male Audience Member: And it’s not when the lovers kiss, better than the best five kisses–
Craig: Leaves them behind, right.
Male Audience Member: Right. Because that moment feels like, oh, well maybe he’s really going to die. For that one moment you thought maybe he’s done. And then when he comes back that feels good. That feels like a victory. As a writer, I think my audience is engaged in that moment. But everything after that is just, well, do-di-do, fun times.
Craig: There’s not that much after it. I mean, they land on horses and they ride away. And then there’s a kiss.
John: Jay, thank you.
Male Audience Member: Thank you.
John: And we have one more question. In the blue shirt. You get the final question of the evening.
Male Audience Member: All right. Hope it’s good. Just thinking about how this all started because he would tell the story to his kids and it eventually became the screenplay. As screenwriters yourselves and having kids yourselves have you ever found yourself in a similar situation where you would tell stories to your kids that you would make up and just think to yourself like, hmm, this could be a screenplay? Has that ever occurred to you?
Craig: I mean, never to me, because I need to get paid. I can’t do it – I just can’t. I can’t. It’s so hard to do it anyway that without my kids slipping me serious cash.
John: Yeah. I mean, you’d have to pay Jessie like a big allowance so she could pay you back.
Craig: It’s just too much.
John: I will confess that I find it really tedious to have to do that work of making up a story for my kid. And there have been times where like we’re on a long flight and I’m just trying to get her through something. Luckily we’re past all of that stuff. But I find it really tedious because I hate sort of falling back on those tropes. I hate falling back on sort of the “and then…” and she’ll try to introduce something. I never enjoyed that. And so I want to have control over the universe and the world. I want control over Craig.
Craig: See what I talk about? Know what I mean? [makes robot noises]
John: But thank you for the question. All right, that is our discussion.
Craig: Thank you guys.
John: I need to thank the Guild Screening Series, Ian Dietchman, Scott Alexander for doing this. Casey our projectionist. Marty and Brian for putting this whole logistics together. Megan McDonnell is our producer. And listen to Scriptnotes and this will be not Tuesday but a week from Tuesday.
Craig: Awesome. Thank you guys.
John: Thank you all.
Craig: Thank you.
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