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Twenty years ago, the princess who vanished without a trace made her way to movie theaters.
Anastasia hit theaters Nov. 21, 1997, and faced multiple hurdles on its way to the screen, where it would earn earn $139 million for the short-lived Fox Animation Studios and become its most enduring legacy. The musical loosely based on the life of the ill-fated Russian princess underwent major rewrites in order to lighten the tone for the film, which stars Meg Ryan (Anastasia), John Cusack (Dimitri), Kelsey Grammer (Vlad) and Christopher Lloyd (the villainous Rasputin).
Screenwriter Bruce Graham recalls that while Ryan was always the first choice for the titular role, the creative team had to contrive a plan to coax her into accepting the part.
In a meeting Graham attended in Los Angeles with co-directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, they sealed the deal by showing Ryan an animated scene from the film that was already drawn with her voice dubbed in featuring dialogue from When Harry Met Sally. To be clear though, the dialogue from the “I’ll have what she’s having” scene was off-limits.
“The first thing she said was: ‘Oh, not the orgasm scene,'” recalls Graham.
The film was ultimately a product of the work of five screenwriters, also including Eric Tuchman, Susan Gauthier, Bob Tzudiker and Noni White, who are listed for their contributions.
Graham primarily worked with Gauthier when he came on to the project in 1995, but they essentially had to scrap Tuchman’s script and start from scratch. And Graham was skeptical he could even bring the story of a princess falling in love and connecting with her family to life.
“I thought that this should be a woman writing this, because I don’t know what it’s like to want to be a princess. And to be honest, I thought it was a dumb idea. It’s based on a dead Russian kid, you know. That’s fun,” said Graham.
After he got paired up with Gauthier, the two took Tuchman’s script and changed everything to “dumb it up a little bit.” The original story “was very adult, very based in reality, all about politics, and without any magic or comedy,” and they turned it into a coming-of-age romance with talking bats who go bump “In the Dark of the Night.”
“We wrote most of it on the East Coast. I would be in one room with Susan, and I’d be writing Bartok [the bat] and Rasputin and the train chase, while she would be on the other side doing a love story. And then at lunch, we’d switch pages. She would girl mine up and I’d boy hers up a little bit.”
After Gauthier and Graham wrapped up their time on the script and moved on to other projects, the studio passed the baton onto Tzudiker and White for final edits and polishing on the story.
Graham concedes that one helpful aspect of his development on the story was approaching the script through the eyes of his daughter, who actually chose the design for Pooka, Anastasia’s canine companion. It was a move that caught the attention of co-director Bluth, who spent 15 minutes talking with Graham’s 7-year-old daughter at the premiere.
“I remember thinking: ‘What a nice man,'” says Graham.
Graham notes that there were casting choices that never panned out, including Peter O’Toole for Rasputin. The role of the demonic adviser went to Christopher Lloyd since “kids don’t know who Peter O’Toole is, but they’ve all seen Back to the Future. And that’s Christopher Lloyd.”
For Bartok, Graham initially wrote the voice in the vein of Woody Allen. But the studio decided that was not the right move following revelations about Woody Allen’s relationship with his ex-partner Mia Farrow’s adoptive daughter, Soon-Yi Previn.
“[Fox Animation Studios exec] Chris Meledandri suddenly went: ‘I think we should forget about Woody Allen.’ And I went: ‘You got it.'” Martin Short was also considered before the role went to Hank Azaria, who ad-libbed dialogue for his kung-fu scene.
But the main misconception that extends to this day about Anastasia is that it is a Disney film. “You get a lot of girls coming up. They all think it’s Disney. They’ll say: ‘Oh, you did Princess Anastasia?'”
Disney was apparently paranoid about Fox Animation Studios having a hit on its hands. A week before the release of Anastasia on Nov. 21, Disney re-released The Little Mermaid on Nov. 14 “just to knock $3 million off our weekend,” Graham claims.
Disney’s sly move did not knock the momentum of Anastasia, however, as it was nominated for two Academy Awards in 1998 in the categories of best music, original song for ““Journey to the Past” and best music, original musical or comedy score.
And its legacy lived on. In April 2017, Anastasia premiered on Broadway, with music and lyrics from the film’s original songwriting team, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.
“I think Fox was surprised we pulled it off, really. We took a story that’s an adult’s story, a depressing story, a story based on real history and managed to make some good entertainment out of it,” Graham said.
Graham is currently working on his new play The Craftsman.
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