Back Into the Fish's Den : John Cleese reassembles his 'A Fish Called Wanda' co-stars--Kevin Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Palin--for another comedy, and this time the shoot is a real zoo.

Legend has it that W.C. Fields said it first: Never work with children or animals. John Cleese knows the saying; he's just choosing to ignore it

No children are in evidence on the set of "Fierce Creatures," his new $18-million movie for Universal, currently being shot at Pinewood Studios, 20 miles west of here. But animals? You have to go back to 1967's "Doctor Dolittle" to find a film that bears comparison.

Cleese has ordered a veritable menagerie to play supporting roles in "Fierce Creatures." Among the film's non-human players are 25 ducks, 3,000 ants, 100 pigeons and 54 other animals, including lions, tigers, leopards, sea lions, lemurs, snakes, gorillas and a rhino.

That's enough for a zoo. And indeed, a workable replica zoo has been built on the Pinewood back lot to such high standards that it could be licensed as a real zoo. Its cages and enclosures are strong enough to contain the biggest animals, much to the relief of cast and crew.

Even so, why would Cleese fly in the face of that familiar advice about children and animals? He receives the question impassively and answers in the level, confident but evasive tones of a politician running for office:

"Let's put all this in context, shall we?" he says, a touch imperiously. "I think you'll find the full saying is 'Never work with children, animals or Stewart Granger .' " He nods complacently, like a man who has answered a tricky question really well.

There is something distinctly surreal about this exchange. But then what do you expect from a guy who helped unleash "Monty Python's Flying Circus," "Fawlty Towers" and "A Fish Called Wanda" on the world?

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While we're on the subject of "A Fish Called Wanda," it's worth noting that "Fierce Creatures," tentatively planned for a spring 1996 release, reunites the leading players from that 1988 comedy hit: Cleese, Kevin Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis and Cleese's fellow former Python Michael Palin. So it's a sequel?

"Absolutely not," Kline says. "Same actors, different characters, different story. It's an equal, not a sequel."

"A Fish Called Wanda" seemed too good a treat not to attempt some kind of follow-up. A brilliantly inspired blend of heist movie, romantic comedy and manic farce, it struck a chord with audiences. The film cost just $7.7 million but grossed $200 million worldwide, $65 million in the United States.

Cleese played Archie Leach, a stuffy English barrister who becomes involved with Wanda, a sexy con artist played by Curtis. Kline was Otto, her psychotically manic "brother"; his performance won him an Oscar. Palin, accused by some of sailing beyond the boundaries of good taste, played an animal lover who stammered helplessly; in a sick running joke, he wound up being responsible for the death of a number of small animals. It was all great fun, and "A Fish Called Wanda" now has a thriving afterlife in video stores.

"John always wanted to re-team," says Michael Shamberg, the producer of "Wanda," more recently "Pulp Fiction" and now "Fierce Creatures." "He had notions for a sequel, but I think he felt he'd done it and he could never top himself. He'd also had an idea for a story about a zoo for a long time and felt reuniting the team was a way to do it." Shamberg defines the "Wanda" and "Fierce Creatures" genre as "smart comedy--it's stupid jokes for smart people."

It's unusual for comic teams to reunite for a film that isn't a sequel. Shamberg offers one comparison: Danny DeVito (his partner in Jersey Films) and Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Twins," then "Junior." "It happened all the time with Laurel and Hardy, then Martin and Lewis," he notes. "But we're used to comedy teams of two, rather than the four we have here."

Says Cleese: "I remember saying during the publicity for 'Wanda' that we'd try to do a sequel. I knew we'd all do another together, but I didn't have any idea what it would be. The . . . idea was to get Kevin, Jamie and Michael back."

"Fierce Creatures" has reunited more than its principals. Apart from Shamberg, many of the crew and members of the wardrobe and art departments also worked on "Wanda." But a key figure is absent: veteran director Charles Crichton. He has been replaced by Robert Young, a prominent British film and TV director who has often worked with Cleese.

"It began to dawn on me Charlie was getting quite old," Cleese explains. "He was 77 when he did 'Wanda,' although he sailed through it, looking younger the longer we went on. He loved it so much. When I realized he'd be 85 during 'Fierce Creatures,' I went and talked to him. I think he was a touch disappointed, though he seemed to realize there was a certain truth [to what I said]."

Insurance requirements on "Wanda" meant its backers, MGM, wanted Cleese to be co-director throughout shooting. For quite different reasons, Young and Cleese are co-directing "Fierce Creatures," with Young taking care of camera placement and Cleese talking directly to the other actors.

"Robert and I first worked together in 1974 on a short film called 'Romance With a Double Bass,' " Cleese says. "Since then we've been together a lot, mostly on commercials, so we have this easy interaction. He understands shooting and eye lines, and I don't. I'm not interested in directing."

Cleese has long been interested in animals and conservation, a concern that heightened when he met eminent naturalist and writer Gerald Durrell ("My Family and Other Animals").

"After we were introduced, someone told me Gerry had saved the white-eared pheasant from extinction," Cleese says. "And I thought, 'Well, if you arrive at the Pearly Gates and you're trying to enter into heaven, that isn't a bad claim.'

"There's something about watching an animal that puts you in contact with where we came from and what we're still a part of. I think zoos should be seen not just as conservation areas but places where people who grow up in urban environments can go and have some experience of animals."

Though "Fierce Creatures" is a comedy, its theme is pro-conservation. A small, idyllic English zoo is taken over by Octopus, a large American conglomerate run by a hard-nosed, bottom-line executive, Rod McKane (played by Kline). It makes a modest profit but not enough to satisfy McKane. Cleese is Rollo Lee, a hapless executive who does nothing to increase profits.

So McKane sends his son Vince (also played by Kline), a marketing whiz kid who sees sponsorship and commercialism as a means of increasing profits. Along with him comes Willa Weston (Curtis), a customer relations executive with Octopus who sees the trip as a means of corporate advancement but gradually becomes charmed by the zoo and the notion of conservation. Palin plays Bugsy, the insect keeper; all the keepers at the zoo are inordinately fond of the animals in their care.

On this sunny day, the zoo looks picturesque and appealing. "It's conceived like a formal garden designed by [English architect] Lutyens," says production designer Roger Murray-Leach. "For shooting, it had to be quite compact. In real conservations, you'll see, for instance, zebras wandering in big open fields, but on camera they'd look like pinpricks."

The one thing spoiling the zoo's appearance is the preponderance of advertising billboards and posters for corporations such as Motorola, Guinness, Sol, Perrier and British Airways. Clearly this is Vince's idea, but in the context of the script these billboards become a sly dig at the ubiquity of product placement in movies.

"The companies went along with this," producer Shamberg says. "John wrote a letter explaining what was wanted, and they saw it was tongue in cheek. Not a penny exchanged hands."

The scene being shot today underpins the theme of commercial forces being imposed upon the little zoo. Kline, as the hyperkinetic Vince, is showing around a group of potential backers, outlining his crass ideas for increasing profits. He triumphantly nears a tortoise, dozing inside its shell in the noon sun; behind it is a billboard obscured by a large drape.

"If it died," Kline roars derisively at the tortoise, "no one would know! My grandmother's grave is a bigger attraction!" He taps on its shell: "Hello! Heeello-o-o!" The tortoise makes no movement; Kline gives an "I-told-you-so" shrug.

"But wait!" he cries, running to unveil the billboard, which shows a huge picture of a certain rock superstar. Kline exaggeratedly gestures between the billboard and the tortoise to establish the connection to the backers: " Now . . . it's Bruce Springsteen's tortoise! Now . . . it's an event !"

The scene, which calls for balletic grace and energy from Kline, requires several takes; on each occasion, he seems to play Vince more manically.

Cleese watches gleefully from a director's chair, mouthing along with the words, leaning forward, wringing his hands and emitting a high giggle under his breath. It's as if he is physically willing Kline to get the scene right.

"Two words, Kevin," he urges Kline cheerfully between takes. " Psy. Chotic. "

Cleese spoils another take by laughing out loud at Kline, which causes much banter between them.

"He ruins more scenes than you can imagine by laughing," Kline says ruefully. "It's not that he wrote the words, it's not about ego. It's that comedy's binary--it's funny or it's not. So when you do get it right, it's like lightning in a bottle. It's a delight."

It's also hard work being funny, as Cleese is eager to stress.

"The lengthy part of the process is the writing," he notes. "[Co-writer] Iain Johnstone and I have been involved with this script since November, 1993. Not all the time, obviously, but on a consistent basis.

"I'd do other people's work, but when was the last time anyone saw a really cleverly worked-out, layered comedy script? They're very rare. Of the 200 I've read that came from nowhere, only one was any good, and that was 'Clockwise,' " he says, referring to a 1986 film in which he starred. "And that was by [playwright] Michael Frayn, who wasn't exactly an unknown writer."

Cleese favors writing draft after draft of a script until it works completely to his satisfaction.

He, of course, has the advantage of being wealthy, which allows him longer to perfect his work: "I can go out and do a commercial, come home and live off that money while I continue to write drafts for an uncommissioned script."

Because of Cleese's distinctive appearance (he's 6-foot-5, stands ramrod straight and seems to do whatever he wants with his body), it is often assumed that his is a singular comic vision.

Not so. More often than not, he bounces ideas off a collaborator. Johnstone, until recently film critic for the London Sunday Times, is merely the latest. For the legendary TV series "Fawlty Towers," Cleese worked with ex-wife Connie Booth. And the members of the Python writing team tended to split into pairs; often Cleese worked with the late Graham Chapman.

"Chapman was lazy," Cleese recalls, "but he was a great litmus test. Even though I probably did 80% of the writing, I'd use him to see if things were funny. For instance, I'd probably have abandoned the Python's 'Cheese Shop' sketch had Graham not said, 'Go on, it's funny.' To have someone in the room who laughs when you say something is pure gold."

Cleese's colleagues are in awe of his approach to writing his scripts.

"He's a structure guy," says Jamie Lee Curtis. "On 'Wanda,' structure was his big thing. The story was a caper, but everything had to fit together.

"John finances all the pre-production, all the script development, art department work and location scouting himself. He flew us [Curtis and Kline] into London to talk, polish and develop the script, and then he spent another six months on it. . . .

"It's an almost completely unknown way of working in movies, but it means John doesn't have to do a song and dance to financiers in Hollywood before he's ready to. He gets his script absolutely right, gets an agreement from his leading players, then goes to L.A. and says: 'There's the script, here's who's in it, here's the budget, do you want it, yes or no?'

"We all take a cash fee for acting, less than we could get in the marketplace, then a nice piece at the back end. It's a civilized way of working. Which is John to a T. He's a civilized man."

If only the animals in "Fierce Creatures" could be as civilized. Alas, a couple of supporting actors--Robert Lindsay, who plays a keeper, and Cleese's daughter Cynthia--have had painful bites from a coatimundi and a lemur, respectively.

"Luckily, no skin was broken," says Rona Brown, the animal expert who has her work cut out on this film. "You have to train actors to be animal handlers. The animals don't automatically want to be friends with the actors; you have to give them a reason to be with you and perform."

For Kline's scene with the financial backers, a pack of meerkats (appealing creatures vaguely resembling squirrels) are released into an enclosure--and everyone on the set goes quiet, tiptoeing around so as not to upset them before shooting starts.

Once Kline's tricky scene is complete, Cleese pads around wearing a satisfied look. He agrees that "Fierce Creatures" is a sweet-natured story, which suits him fine; in Britain, Cleese has publicly railed against the cynicism prevalent in public life and the negative attitude of the British media.

"There's a bit of me that likes to do something light and positive," he says. "But in its way the film hits out a bit, at marketing and sponsorship, which seem to be everywhere. You see a sports team going out, each of them covered with 60 commercial emblems. Where's the value system in that?"

Cleese is even high-minded enough not to capitalize on the "Wanda" connection in the title of his new film. Its working title for a long time was "Death Fish 2," a great play on words and a neat echo of the earlier film.

"Hey, I think 'Death Fish 2' is a great title," producer Shamberg says with a sigh. "I don't even particularly like 'Fierce Creatures,' but I've acceded to John's wishes. He didn't feel he could justify that title with this story."

Now he and Cleese are speculating on whether, after nearly eight years, the looming presence of "A Fish Called Wanda" will help the box-office potential of "Fierce Creatures."

"Is there a want-to-see factor there?" Shamberg muses. "I don't know. I know it's relatively cheap and it's a good proposition. 'Wanda' became a video store classic, and a lot of kids grew up on it.

"What I know about 'Fierce Creatures' is that it shares one thing with 'Pulp Fiction': It's fresh. . . . There's a joy in the storytelling. It's like reading a good book."

Cleese adds: "I remember saying if we made $25 million in America with 'Wanda,' I'd be happy. Sometimes a film comes along that corresponds to what people want at that moment. It happened with 'Four Weddings and a Funeral.' Its mood and spirit were right. I hope it happens with this film."

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