A look at the on-set trials and tribulations of maverick director Terry Gilliam, and how he’s managed to roll with the punches that the studio system–and God–has thrown his way.
Film directing is a profession often fraught with impossible challenges. Woody Allen once said being a director meant “the truck of fresh compromises pulls up each day, and by the end of the film you look at the finished print and think unutterable thoughts.” No director in history knows more about compromise than Terry Gilliam. Part and parcel of being a visionary is being constantly told you can’t get the shot. Forces of Darkness conspire to defeat you, often in the form of studio executives, sometimes in the form of Nature herself. Let’s look at some of the roadblocks thrown in Gilliam’s path.
Gilliam should’ve taken his first hint that his career was in for tough times on his first solo-directed feature, 1977’s Jabberwocky. Coming straight from a successful career as a member of Britain’s famous Monty Python’s Flying Circus comedy troupe, Gilliam was anxious to make a name for himself apart from Monty Python. Attempting to garner publicity from Gilliam’s comic pedigree, American distributors marketed the film as “Monty Python’s Jabberwocky”, as can be seen here on the film’s original one-sheet and VHS art:
This angered Gilliam, who sent letters of protest to the studio, but to no avail. Subsequent re-releases have since rightfully credited this as “A Film by Terry Gilliam”.
The notorious battle between Gilliam and studio executives over the final edit of his Orwellian black comedy, Brazil, could fill a book, and in fact has. The short version is this: Following a less than favorable test screening, Universal studio executive Sid Sheinberg (who incidentally gave Steven Spielberg his first directing job) wrests the film away from Gilliam and begins to re-edit it to better suit mainstream sensibilities. This carries on for some time, leaving Gilliam unable to distribute “Brazil” in the US. He takes out a full-page ad in the trade paper “Variety” asking Sheinberg to release the film (a calculated move, as studios rarely like their dirty laundry aired in public), and begins secretly screening it for critics…
Subsequently it begins to win critics’ awards left and right. Universal is forced to distribute Gilliam’s original cut of “Brazil” in order to acknowledge all the critical acclaim. In a bittersweet note, however, Universal doesn’t promote or support the film and it basically dies at the box office. Regardless, it has developed a healthy cult following since.
Sheinberg’s “Love Conquers All” cut is available on video for comparison. Here’s Sheinberg’s recut “Hollywood Ending”:
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
Wikipedia calls 1988’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen “one of the most famous fiascos in film history”, and with good reason. In preparing to mount this production of the classic tale of the notorious fictional German baron with a penchant for tall tales, Gilliam was attracted to the idea that shooting in Italy and Spain would be cheaper than in England. He soon contracted with German producer Thomas Schuhly to produce the film through Rome’s Cinecitta Studios. Unfortunately, Schuhly was often absent and inattentive, more concerned with his own self-promotion than with the day-to-day production of the film.
Once Gilliam arrived in Rome, production problems truly began to snowball. The local crew often trumped up production expenses to sap the budget. Much of the cast and crew got violently ill throughout the shoot. On-set elephants and tigers turned on their trainers. Marlon Brando, cast as the King of the Moon, bowed out and had to be replaced by a last-minute Robin Williams. Planned elaborate sets had to be pared down to embarrassing sparseness.
To add insult to injury, the copyright holder of a 1943 Nazi-produced Munchausen sued over the ownership rights. At one point, even Gilliam threatened to leave the film, but as per the contract he had with Columbia, they would refuse to distribute without him attached as director, so he was in effect held hostage by his own film. All this drove actor Eric Idle to lament “Up until Munchausen, I’d always been very so smart about Terry Gilliam films. You don’t ever be in them. Go and see them by all means – but be in them, fucking madness!”
The Watchmen that never was
The 1986 graphic novel Watchmen has often been called the ‘Citizen Kane’ of graphic novels. Epic, dense and complex, this tale of superheroes struggling with very human tribulations has also been called ‘unfilmable’, but many have said that if it were to be filmed, the ideal director to capture its fantastic nature would be Terry Gilliam. Twice, both in 1989, and in 1999 Gilliam has attempted to helm a production of Watchmen. After his final attempt, he let the rights pass back to the owner, stating “I just don’t think I can do it justice by reducing it down to a film. I keep thinking it would be better as a miniseries – a five-hour miniseries is what I think Watchmen should be…when you reduce it down to a 2-hour film – you’re taking so much textured detail out that it kind of loses what it’s about.” Watchmen is currently being directed by Zack Snyder, who previously helmed 300.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
Nearly every feature-length attempt at Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel has meet with misfortune. Orson Welles struggled for 25 years to create his version, and had nothing but endless reels of uncut footage to show for it. It seems fitting then that Terry Gilliam should be fated to follow in the ‘Citizen Kane’ director’s troubled footsteps when he attempted his version in 2000. On the first day of shooting, his lead actor, 70-year-old Jean Rochefort, suffered from a debilitating prostate infection and could not ride his horse. On the second day, a flash flood washed away his entire set, ‘It was like a punishment for everything bad I had ever done in my life,” said Gilliam, “It was like Job.’
As Rochefort recuperated, co-stars Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis had to bow out due to scheduling conflicts, and shortly thereafter, the entire production collapsed. “I always find that the process of making a film tends to echo the actual story,” Gilliam said, “And, in this case, I started to feel like Quixote, always tilting at windmills.” Gilliam has vowed to pick up the project again sometime in the future, but until then, all that exists are a few minutes of footage, as featured in the making-of documentary, Lost in La Mancha.
The Brothers Grimm (2005)
From early on The Brothers Grimm was met with problems. Gilliam battled with the Herculean forces known as the Weinstein brothers on nearly every decision. Gilliam’s original choice for lead actress, Samantha Morton, was vetoed out, as well as Gilliam’s choice for cinematographer. Gilliam wanted to outfit Matt Damon in a bumpy prosthetic nose, but Harvey Weinstein outright refused to put the Hollywood heartthrob in any makeup that might drive away ticket sales. Bob Weinstein also fought Gilliam for final edit of the film. Deciding to wait him out, Gilliam went away to direct Tideland in the interim. Ehren Kruger’s script was heavily reworked by Gilliam and Tony Grisoni, but they were unable to take credit, due to Writers’ Guild restrictions. In the end, when all was said and done, the film was slaughtered by critics and did poorly at the box office.
Gilliam, ever the iconoclast, chose as his sabbatical away from The Brothers Grimm to adapt Mitch Cullin’s darkly surreal tale of adolescence, Tideland. This would be a hard sell for any director, let alone Gilliam. The main character is a 10 year-old girl abandoned in a dilapidated farmhouse by her heroin addict parents who develops a relationship with a mentally challenged adult that might be considered borderline creepy by most adults. Upon completion, it sat for nearly a year without US distribution. Upon release, several critics praised it, however most mainstream critics called it “disturbing“, “grotesque” and “creepy, and not in a good way.” Perhaps suspecting how difficult it would be to get audiences in the theaters to see it, Gilliam made public appearances, including one outside a taping of “The Daily Show With John Stewart” holding a sign which read “STUDIO-LESS FILM MAKER – FAMILY TO SUPPORT – WILL DIRECT FOR FOOD”.
As suspected, audience response was poor. For the DVD, Gilliam included a disclaimer attempting to get viewers in the proper mindset for such a challenging film:
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
Fate tragically struck Gilliam once again during the filming of his latest movie, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, about a doctor who loses his daughter inside an enchanted mirror, and the mysterious stranger who volunteers to rescue her.
On January 22, 2008, lead actor Heath Ledger died of an accidental prescription drug overdose. In the wake of the tragedy, Gilliam suspended production indefinitely. Faced with killing off the project entirely, he chose to cast actors Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Ferrell to represent the alter egos of Heath Ledger’s character once he enters the enchanted mirror. All the sequences of Ledger appearing in the “real” world outside the mirror had been filmed prior to his death. Gilliam resumed the production on March 10, 2008. As the film is currently in production, here’s hoping no other misfortune befalls it.
Update: Terry’s streak of bad luck continues: Despite the fact that it features Heath Ledger’s last ever performance, Gilliam is now (as of August 2008) facing a struggle to secure a distribution deal for Parnassus.
Terry Gilliam has certainly faced more obstacles in his professional career than nearly any other director. But his persistence to complete his vision, even against all reasonable expectations, sets him apart as a uniquely maverick filmmaker.