On December 13, 1985 Paramount Pictures released Clue: The Movie, the feature film ‘adaptation’ of the popular Parker Brothers board game which was directed by Jonathan Lynn and was brought to life by a top-notch ensemble of talent including Tim Curry, Christopher Lloyd, Madeline Kahn, Michael McKean, Lesley Ann Warren, Martin Mull, Eileen Brennan, and Colleen Camp.
Clue was a remarkable film for many reasons- many of which we’ll get to shortly- but its greatest feat just might be that, even though it was released some 30 years ago now, it still remains one of the greatest exercises in farcical comedy ever that has continued to grow in popularity over the decades.
At the time, Clue was an unusual venture for a studio; these days, it’s not uncommon to base a film upon a board game (Battleship, Jumanji or Zathura being modern examples) but in the early 1980’s, such an idea was considered a bit preposterous- even to director Lynn who discussed his initial trepidation at tackling such an unconventional premise for a movie. “I was, I believe, the 6th writer that was approached for it. I know that Tom Stoppard had been on it for a while but finally gave up and sent back the check. I don't know who all the other writers were.”
Lynn continued, “I was asked to come to Hollywood and meet John Landis, who was going to be the director. I found that an exciting project because I'd never been to the West Coast. I was told I was going to be flying first class and that certainly was something that I could never had afforded so that was very good (laughs). And I thought, 'Well, I've got a spare week, why not go and see?'”
“So I went along and John pitched me this story, which, to some extent, resembles the story that's there now in the finished film. He was amazing at pitching; he ran around his office and jumped on the furniture and shouted and screamed. I would say that he acted out roughly the events that happen in the first two-thirds of the film. Then he said, ‘And then the butler tells everyone that he knows who did it.’ I was on the edge of my seat so I said, ‘Well, who did it?’ He exclaims, ‘I don't know. That's why I need a writer.’”
Lynn was intrigued by the prospect of writing such an exciting script but was still hesitant how he could possibly create an entire film based around the concept of a board game. “I phoned my agent, and said, ‘These people are mad. Can I come home now? It's a board game; nobody can write a film based on a board game.’ He said, ‘Well, now you're there. Why don't you try and think of something?’ I was up all night at the Chateau Marmont, which in those days was a terrible, rundown, old place. I did have a few thoughts and I talked to John the next morning, and he liked them. He asked if I would write it and I accepted.”
“I got back on the plane with just a few pages of notes and really very little idea of what the film was going to be,” explained Lynn. “It took me, I don't know, some months to write it; partly because I was doing other work and partly because it just took so long to work out the plot. John had pitched me a sequence of funny events, but there was no reason for any of them so I had to come up with the reasons and make the changes when necessary.”
“For instance, the first problem I had to address was the reason why there are a bunch of people gathered together that are named after colors? And so I realized they had to be aliases and that meant somebody, the same person, had to have invited them and given them all an alias and so on. I tried to follow this relentless logic because that's how you construct a mystery and a comedy like this. Otherwise it's just silly. I mean, Clue is pretty silly, but it does actually make sense. Eventually, I finished a draft and they loved it, to my great surprise.”
Another surprise that producers had in store for Lynn was how his involvement with Clue would evolve. “I did some rewrites on the script and then at that point, John was no longer available to make the film. He said to me, ‘Would you like to direct it?’ I had been directing for a long time in the theater at that point and so I said, ‘Yes.’ Had I selected a first film for myself to direct, it would not had been Clue for a whole variety of reasons. One of which, as you rightly pointed out, was the extraordinary difficulty of making it, but there we are. I was offered a film to direct and I said yes, so that's basically how it happened.”
Despite the fact that Clue stood out at the time for being (most likely) the first-ever board game movie adaptation, Lynn’s directorial debut was also so incredibly memorable for a multitude of other reasons as well- the snappy dialogue, it’s 1950’s setting, all the various plot intricacies, its trio of endings and of course, the incredible cast that were hired to bring Clue to life. Lynn discussed the process behind some of his key overall decisions on the project.
“I felt that it had to be set in the past and so I picked the only time period I knew much about in American history, which were the 1950’s,” explained Lynn. “Once I actually worked out how the plot worked, I was able to able to write the script very fast. I spent some weeks working out the story of up to the moment where Mr. Boddy is found dead but writing it out only took about a week. Then, it took me some months to work out the whole of the middle of the film but then again, I wrote that part of the script out very quickly. I wrote the last act, I think most of it on the plane to LA when I was due to nearly deliver it.”
“Something else that determined a lot of what went into Clue was the fact that I had to follow the rules of the board game. It had to be set in the house with all nine rooms and secret passages, it had to include those characters, and I had to use those weapons. The pieces were there but the problem was there was no story. It's not necessarily easier to construct a story when you've got all of those ingredients that have to go into it either.”
“So I just had to make multitudinous notes throughout the entire process. I had a copy of the floor plan from the board game too. It was daunting. I'd made only one short film before Clue and honestly, I didn't really know anything about the camera. It was a very difficult film to shoot because nearly every character is in nearly every scene. You've got to know what you're going to cut to next or else everyone's going to be looking the wrong way,” added Lynn.
As he was largely untested as a feature filmmaker at the time, Lynn found his cinematographer would end up being a huge resource to him throughout production on Clue. “I was greatly helped by my cameraman, Victor Kemper, who was so understanding and wonderful to me, really. It was extremely difficult making Clue and it wasn't a long schedule either so it took a lot of planning. It was a very slow and time-consuming process just to light everything because those rooms were so intricate. We often got behind schedule and as we got towards the end of the shoot, I just abandoned any sense of continuity and so I shot shots from different scenes, which everyone, the actors I'm afraid also, found very confusing. There was just no other way to get it done in time.”
“But with Victor's help I was able to make the shots interesting. In retrospect, I think we cut the movie too much in an attempt to keep the momentum going, as we were under pressure from the studio to do so. It's a little shorter than it should have been too but there were some really beautiful shots that didn't have laughs in them were cut. I was very sorry about that sort of immediately afterwards, but it was too late.”
“I still believe Clue remains one of the great comedies though; I told the cast that they had to keep up that kind of breakneck pace too, and they all took that to heart. I wanted it to go at a mile a minute but in retrospect, now that I know more about movies, I think it goes a little too fast, in my opinion. I think there are moments when I should have allowed it to breathe a touch but, you know, one is always wanting to improve what one's done,” added Lynn.
“In fact, the scene where Mrs. White starts talking about the ‘flames on her face’ was all Madeline; she wanted to improv a little and I wanted her to do it my way. So we went ahead and agreed that I would let her do it her way but then she had to do the scene as it was written. Well, of course, what Madeline did was utterly brilliant and hilarious so I didn’t even waste the time having her do it my way. There was no need whatsoever.”
Lynn continued, “All the other cast members were people who all just came in to meet me and read for me. I had seen Christopher Lloyd on Taxi but I didn't know Martin Mull and I didn't know Eileen Brennan either. I didn't know most of them but they all reacted extraordinarily favorably and wanted to come and meet me to discuss being in it and I ended up casting the ones I liked the most.”
He may not have recognized it initially but Lynn ended up bringing together one of greatest comedic collectives in cinema with Clue, each actor being masters of timing and delivery- both verbally and physically- that all sparked when brought together with an infectious energy and shared chemistry that elevated Lynn’s ingenious script.
“We were able to rehearse everything a little bit before we shot but the reason Clue works so well is just that they were all very good actors who were enormously talented,” explained Lynn. “It's very simple. If you cast good actors and the script works then all that’s left is that you just have to shoot it. They all acted wonderfully. One thing I did before we started shooting was that we all went to watch His Girl Friday by Howard Hawks just so they could get a sense of the pace I wanted Clue to move at.”
At the time it went into production, films like Clue just weren’t something studios were too keen to make because of the creative risks involved. “It was a very risky venture to make this kind of story, set in the past, that relied on talking as much as we did. That's why I think it was made for not all that much money, even in those days. It was well below average for a Hollywood film at that time; I think the total cost was 8 million dollars, which wasn’t a lot when you consider that our set along cost a million dollars. Now that was a hell of a lot of money to spend on a set in 1984 (laughs).”
His million dollar set for Clue still remains a true production design marvel, with intricacies and details that viewers can spend hours upon hours pouring through and Lynn discussed the challenges that came with shooting in such a large space.
“It was an enormous set. The whole of the inside of the house was built on Stage 16 at Paramount, with the exception of the ballroom, which was an actual location. But the set also included a part of the exterior, where the cars pull up in the rain and outside the front door too. That set required such a huge amount of lighting and then we’d also have to go through staging each scene with so many people in it, so production was always a slightly slower business than it probably should have been. But the amazing sets were all due to John Lloyd and his team of designers; I thought they did an amazing job. It was a work of art.”
According to Lynn, “I don't think anyone's ever done it before or since and there's a very good reason for that- because it didn’t work (laughs). I think it's one of the reasons why we didn't do well when we opened; I feel like the public didn't know which version to go and see, so they thought, 'Well, I can't decide, so I'll go see something else.' I think also the problem was that, in a sense, the point of every film is in the ending and if the filmmakers can't decide how to end a film, that tends to put the audience off.”
“I didn't realize any of that at the time, nor did anybody else connected with the movie. It was conceived by the studio as a way to make the audience go several times but nobody thought that it might have the opposite effect, and I think it did. In fact, shortly before the film was finished, the last day or two before we had to make the final print, I was of two minds about whether I should change the ending and put all three endings together as they are now on the home versions. I foolishly went along with the original idea. But it was wrong. It was wrong for one important reason, which is that the cleverness of the story is only apparent if you see all three endings and that’s how we should have done it all along,” Lynn added.
But despite the fact that it may not have done huge business while in theaters, Clue has still built up quite a legacy over the last 30 years as a brilliant and underrated comedy classic that only continues to grow in popularity even to this day. And after helming his first movie, Lynn found himself anxious to get into the director’s chair once again.
“When the film didn't do well when it opened I was determined to prove that I could make a hit movie,” said Lynn. “A lot of directors get to make one movie and that's it. If it doesn't do well, their career is over. I was determined that wouldn't happen. I spent a long time trying to get my next film together, which was Nuns on the Run and thankfully, that was very well received. I had thankfully overcome the hurdle of making another film and eventually, I was asked to make My Cousin Vinny, which was a gigantic success and after that, I was sort of hooked on filmmaking.”
“I would say that Clue changed my life in a variety of ways though- as every job that you do does, or every job I do does, at least. Actors may only be on a film for a few weeks, or a few days, but a director's on a film for a year on average and sometimes, even much longer. So if you do a job for a year, that obviously has an effect on all kinds of things and you learn a lot too.”
“What's rather incredible about Clue though is that it has gotten a bigger and bigger audience as the years have gone by. I get more fan mail and email and social media contact about Clue than about anything I've ever done. It's become enormously popular with people and how many films can you say that about? Not many, which proves just how special Clue really was and continues to be, even now.”
[Credits: Cast photos are courtesy of Paramount. The Clue house artwork was created exclusively for this piece by Margie Markevicius]