LONDON — John Cleese puts as much importance on the craft of selling in Hollywood as more artful aspects of film making. He must be good at it: Earlier this year, he got MGM to put up $7.3 million for his new movie, "A Fish Called Wanda," before ever submitting a script. And his own description of the comic love story sounds considerably low concept, if tantalizing.
"It's a very nasty film," says Cleese gleefully of the story, which revolves on the love-hate relationship between the British and the Americans. "It is brutal, lustful, sadistic--in short, it has all the elements of comedy. Look at 'Rambo.' "
Cleese, the rangy actor-writer-producer-director of Monty Python fame, with his inimitable dry but cockeyed humor, used such arguments to pitch the picture during a one-hour meeting at MGM one Tuesday morning in February. On the car phone that afternoon, as Cleese and his American producer, Michael Shamberg ("The Big Chill"), were driving back to Malibu, they got the go-ahead. It would be weeks before MGM would see a script, which Cleese had co-written in London.
In "A Fish Called Wanda," he plays a formal English attorney defending one of an oddly assorted gang of jewel thieves who have pulled off a $20-million heist, including Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis (made up and dressed as a man during some of the picture). Curtis plays Wanda Gerschwitz and Cleese has chosen as his name Archie Leach, "because I was born 20 miles from where the real Archie Leach came from and it is the nearest thing I'll ever get to being Cary Grant."
Cleese's powers of persuasion do not come by accident--as well as being known for his wayward and advanced comedy in the Python series on television and in four movies, he's a keen student of psychology and the art of selling.
In England, he runs Video Arts, which for 15 years has specialized in making management-training films that frequently deal with selling and the techniques of salesmanship. His clients include the Inland Revenue (England's IRS), gas and electric utilities and the post office.
Armed with his special skills, he decided to seek financing for his project on a visit to Los Angeles with his American wife, Barbara Trentham.
It did not strike him as being unusual that he could get the project going in such a short space of time while other writers and stars languish for years waiting for a green light.
"After 15 years making films about how to sell, I think I knew instinctively how to pitch," he said. "And that is no different in Hollywood than anywhere else.
"You describe the benefits and not the features. In other words, you never talk about why you think the idea is great. You talk about it from their point of view, why they should want to take it.
"If I were selling you a mixer, I wouldn't say this has a revised version of the Gordonsplatz rotator valve--that is a feature--but that it can grind coffee in six seconds. That is the benefit.
"So I said to MGM that for $7.3 million--which is a cheap movie--they were getting a sexy package with a great old English director, Charles Crichton, and with me backing him up, plus a cast which consists of the two best-known Python names (Cleese and Michael Palin) plus Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis."
Cleese already had co-written the script, but he wanted an experienced American producer, and went to Shamberg. The two had been friends for years--Cleese's wife once lived with Shamberg's sister-in-law.
"When you are dealing with a major American studio, I think it is essential you have someone who can talk their language. And in this particular case it's doubly important, because we are making a comedy which owes its humor as much to America as it does to England.
"Humor can travel the ocean as badly as a bottle of cheap plonk. I remember in my film 'Clockwise' there was a scene where I had to make a call from a public phone booth.
"None of the phones worked and I had to go from booth to booth with increasing fury before I found one that did.
"In England, that scene got a big laugh because no one here expects the phones to work. But it played to total silence in America, where they all expect to get through on a phone the first time."
When they went to MGM, Cleese and Shamberg had already struck out with Dino De Laurentiis, where the script had been recommended by the director, Richard Lester. "We also went to Universal but they passed. They thought it was a bit English.
"At MGM, we didn't show the script, which Michael knew was too long anyway. I just sat in a chair facing them and told them the story and they laughed. I didn't do the department of funny walks or anything like that. I didn't think of it as an audition. I always felt it was a good-enough package for someone to take and I went into the meeting at MGM thinking it would be nice if these guys took it but, if not, someone else would."
MGM, according to Cleese, asked for only a few changes.