It took dedication to make unusual 'Fisher King'

September 23, 1991|By Tom Jacobs | Tom Jacobs,Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES -- When producer Lynda Obst began reading the script for "The Fisher King," she was evaluating it solely for its box-office potential. Her initial judgment: It didn't have much.

But as she kept reading, something happened.

"It got me on a deeper level than my evaluating commercial material," she recalled. "It just got under my skin. I was weeping.

"I realized I was really late for where I had to be that Saturday afternoon. But I couldn't stop reading the script. So I took it with me [in the car] and I read it at red lights.

"When I finally got to my destination, which was a party, I sat in a corner in a chaise lounge and I continued to read it. People were thinking, 'Why is Lynda Obst crying in the corner?' "

They'll be able to find out this weekend, when "The Fisher King" opens. Obst ended up producing the film with her partner, Debra Hill.

The film, starring Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges, tells the story of an unusual friendship between an arrogant disc jockey (Bridges) and a former professor of medieval history who has become a street person (Williams) and lives in an illusory world.

As one might expect, getting a film this unusual made in Hollywood required considerable determination. Hill and Obst's first hurdle was at Disney, where they had an exclusive deal.

"This was as far from a Disney script as you could get," Obst said. "So we had our work cut out for us."

How did they persuade Disney to option the script? "We begged," Obst said. "We just stayed in there until they knew we would burst [if they said no]."

After developing it for a time, Disney passed on the project, which the producers then took to Tri-Star Pictures. Williams, the producers' first choice to star in the film, signaled his interest.

"Robin, being selective as he is, helped us do our job, which was to make sure we didn't let Tri-Star rush us into making this script with a lesser director," Obst said. "You don't get scripts like this -- exclusively many times in your career. So if you do it wrong, that's that."

The script was offered to director James Cameron ("The Terminator"), who agreed to direct but dropped out three months later, saying the experience of making "The Abyss" had left him too worn out to attempt this project. Hill and Obst then went to the giant talent agency CAA, where an agent suggested Terry Gilliam.

"We flew over to London and met with him," Hill said. "From the moment we met him, we said, This is the visionary who is going to make this work."

But first, casting had to be completed.

"Terry knew he needed an actor who grounded both [he and Williams]," Obst said. "He was afraid the two of them together would go off into the atmosphere. So he was always looking for great actors, even though the studio was coming up with every comedian you can imagine.

"Jeff [Bridges] loved the material and let his interest be known to us early. He had never played such an urban guy. [Before getting the role] Jeff started a series of meetings with Terry and started working with a disc jockey and training and creating this character. We saw him transform into Jack."

The producers admitted that Tri-Star executives were less than thrilled with their choice of Gilliam, whose "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" lost a lot of money for the studio. But, as Hill noted, the producers demonstrated complete faith in their director, and their attitude made the studio more relaxed.

Hill said they are not at liberty to disclose the final budget, but she said they are proud that they brought it in at a relatively low cost.

So was Obst's initial reaction correct? Will the film find a large audience? Reporters at a recent press conference were skeptical, noting that several other films with similar themes have failed in recent months.

"I think something has to work as a movie, not just as a theme," Obst said. Hill added, "Maybe we've done it right."

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