"How many sequels can you think of that were better than the originals?" asks John Cleese, not entirely rhetorically, calling from London. "It's quite an interesting question. The percentage is something like the number of good comedy scripts you get sent through the letterbox. There are two. . . . Can you think of any?"
Well, some folks would say "Godfather II," we proffer, playing along with stump-the-interviewer.
"That's right. And the other one is 'Aliens,' some people think. But those are the only two that I've ever seriously had put forward. And that seems to me a function of the fact that they're intrinsically not very interesting. Either most of the creative people are rather less interested, or even if they're the same, somehow the first one comes with a lot of baggage that weighs down the second.
"(So) we're actually quite frightened that people will think this is a sequel, because we think that most people would not be interested if they thought it was."
What's "this" object of Cleese's stated antithesis to Roman-numeral projects?
"Death Fish II."
But not really. That's the working title--destined to be changed, alas--for Cleese's long-awaited follow-up to the hugely successful 1987 farce "A Fish Called Wanda," which marked the last time he graced the screen as script writer or leading man. Word has circulated for years that a sequel of sorts was cogitating through Cleese's creative pipeline, even if the title character did get killed off in the first installment.
The Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Palin and Kevin Kline characters did survive "Wanda's" fin . But no matter. The follow-up--which goes into production for Universal this spring--will reunite the same principal cast of four, but as five all-new characters (Kline has two roles in this one). It's "an equal, not a sequel," or so goes the catch phrase coined by Kline.
You could also think of it as the second project from an extremely unprolific repertory company. Whatever you call it, reuniting an ensemble cast for a non-sequel is just about unheard of in contemporary English-language cinema.
The new characters will be markedly different in temperament as well as name. Says Cleese, "Knowing that I wanted to use the same people, and not wanting to do a sequel, I simply reasoned that to make them really as different as possible from the characters they'd played in 'Wanda' was the smartest thing I can do."
Therefore: Instead of being mocked by Kline for his stutter, Palin's character will be roundly excoriated for never shutting up. Kline, who played the nastily none-too-bright Otto in "Wanda" (and won an Oscar for it), will play two sharper characters, a tycoon and his marketing-executive nephew. Curtis graduates from a life of crime to the exec fast track, too.
And Cleese himself, stretching for polarity, will portray a former Hong Kong cop "who has got a lot more balls than old Archie had in 'Wanda,' but isn't really very romantic in his attitudes."
Cleese's co-producer, Michael Shamberg ("Wanda," "Pulp Fiction"), prefers that the audience would see the project as the grand resumption of "a great comedy team," and acknowledges the likelihood of the public perceiving this as a sequel works both for and against them.
"I think we want it both ways," Shamberg says. "We want all the goodwill that we get for reteaming, with none of the pressure of trying to do a better version of a film that was already good to begin with."
Robert Young, who's directed Cleese in about 50 TV commercials, will take the on-set reins over from "Wanda's" Charles Crichton--who, at 85, "has agreed that he's a little too old now to direct a full feature film, though he's helping us on the script," Cleese says.
The new film will be something of a slapdash morality play, whereas "Wanda" was better described as an amorality play. The infusion of ethics is deliberate.
"The thing is, 'Wanda' I think was a very nice little farce, but it wasn't about anything much," Cleese says. "And by the time I realized that it wasn't about anything much, I only had time to put a little bit of stuff in that had any resonance to it, which was the stuff about the English and Americans--about which I consider myself an expert, since I've married three Americans. . . .
"But on this one, (co-writer) Iain Johnstone and I really started with more of an idea--it's basically something to do with values . That sounds a bit tedious for a comedy, doesn't it?"
Farcical "Death Fish II" will be, nonetheless.
"It's a comedy first and foremost," says Johnstone, taking the phone from Cleese during a break from a script touch-up. "But then, what preoccupies one is, how do I live my life--and it's quite nice to be able to work that out in comedic terms. Obviously that's John's great gift: He makes more jokes than Ibsen, as it were."
Says Cleese, coming back on line: "It's a disaster if you preach. We discovered this on Monty Python. Graham Chapman and I once or twice got cross about things we'd read in the newspapers and we tried to write sketches about them. They were never funny. Nevertheless, we all agreed that Monty Python was at its best when we were doing material that was 'about something.' For example, 'Life of Brian,' which is very much about something, seems to be much the best film we made. So it's a very delicate line."
Cleese has walked another delicate line with his career. It's nigh impossible to think of any other remotely bankable comedy star who's so fin-icky.
Ostensibly the biggest star to emerge out of the Monty Python troupe, and perhaps the most widely respected name in contemporary British comedy, he's studiously avoided taking lead roles not of his own making in recent years, and hasn't "starred" in any film since "Wanda" seven years back. Not because nobody's asking.
"Wanda" was a huge hit that made about $190 million internationally, from a $7.5-million budget (after every studio but MGM passed on it, "too British" being a common rejection note).
But he's taken his sweet time crafting a follow-up. He and co-writer Johnstone have been working on "Death Fish II" for 2 1/2 years, though rumors of its development go back much longer.
His unapologetically leisurely scripting pace--and not-impoverished country lifestyle--are financed through his TV commercials and bit parts in films like "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" and the upcoming "Jungle Book." Bigger roles he turns down as a matter of course, citing the dearth of decent comedy scripts from writers not as painstaking as he.
"I'm quite proud of my writing record," Cleese says. "If you take 'Fawlty Towers,' which I wrote with Connie Booth, I think everyone thinks those are good comedy half-hours. But what they don't know is, Connie and I took six weeks to write each one. Well, if you take six weeks to write a comedy half-hour, you bloody well ought to get it right.
"But I can afford to, because I can traipse off and do a commercial for four days and earn all the extra money that then enables me to take all the time to get the script right, when the fee for that is very small. So the acting subsidizes the writing.
"But it's also true to say, for what it's worth, I really have never much enjoyed acting on film. I once compared it to spending three months at Heathrow Airport waiting for your plane to take off. I find it immensely boring and not very satisfying at the end of the day. Whereas if Iain and I sit down and produce 2 1/2 sheets of words, at 5 o'clock I feel I've added something to the sum total of the knowledge in the world."
But isn't Cleese selfless enough to take stock of the pleasure people derive from seeing him on -screen?
"I think yes. But I've always felt that the people who like my work, I suspect, are bright enough to know that it works because the script is good, you know? If I started doing bad scripts and believing the people who would tell me, 'Oh, don't worry, you'll make it funny,' I would be dead in two years--I mean, professionally.
"I saw that happen to Sellers. I worked with Peter Sellers on several movies, and I saw again and again how people somehow--by playing, I suppose, to a kind of vanity--persuaded him to take on projects that were simply not good enough. That's why he made so many bad films. And the moment you think that you can save bad material because you're such a good actor, I think that's the moment your career is dying fast."