It’s tempting to see Terry Gilliam as being not unlike the hero of his latest film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. The Baron is a teller of tall stories, who sees the world as a magical place where anything is possible.
“There are certain similarities,” Gilliam says, laughing.
After a while you realize that, the more serious the subject, the more likely he is to laugh at it. But, if his head is in the clouds, chuckling at the overview, his feet are set firmly on the ground. “I’m supposed to be this fantasist, living in a dream world, but, in fact, making films is a very rational, technological, organized thing. It’s like being a magician; you work very hard at sleight of hand, but the effect is – magical.”’
Munchausen is certainly magical; an elaborate fantasy come to life before your very eyes, dripping with the detail which Gilliam loves to cram in, Bosch or Breugel-style, regardless of whether or not anyone will notice it.
Not all of the narrative flows as smoothly as it might, but the parts which succeed – a flight to the Moon in a balloon made of ladies’ lingerie, the decapitated Lunar King battling against his own head, a plunge into an active volcano to meet Vulcan and Venus – are set-pieces as glorious as any on film.
Gilliam, who was born in Minneapolis, is 48 and looks like a debauched cherub. He is amused to hear of the British Film Institute employee who tutted over his spelling of Munchausen, with only one “h” and no Umlaut. This, he says, is the Anglicized spelling.
It is as well he has a sense of humour. Directing Munchausen was an experience that might have sent a humourless man round the bend. To read the trade papers, one would have thought it was another Heaven’s Gate. His producer persuaded him it would be cheaper to film in Rome, but the budget still soared over its allotted US$23½ million to over US$40 million. Sean Connery quit (reportedly amicably) when his role as the Lunar King was chopped down; he was replaced by Robin Williams, whose management got cold feet at the production’s negative PR and insisted its client, then in the running for an Academy Award, remain uncredited. The insurance company, forced to intervene when the money ran out after only the seventh week, halted shooting and demanded cuts in the script. At one stage, it even looked as if they would pull the plug on the project.
“I was hoping they would!” Gilliam says, laughing again. ”Please pull the plug! Please fire me! There were threats I was going to be replaced – which was nonsensical, because any half-way decent director would have taken one look, and turned and gone straight back again.” Besides, Columbia, who had agreed to distribute the film when David Puttnam was still in power, insisted that a Gilliam film directed by anyone other than Gilliam would have meant – no deal.
“This is the last of the Puttnam films,” Gilliam says, showing remarkable sang froid in the face of rumours that Columbia has been less than wholehearted in its handling of films inaugurated by the Puttnam regime. “The company’s a mess at the moment, but there are a lot of people who are really enthusiastic and working very hard on this.”The fundamental problem with Munchausen, he says, was lack of organization. “The finalized money came very late, and we had to start at a specific point, even when things weren’t ready, because John Neville [who played Munchausen] had a theatre season. And then we ended up with people working day and night and weekends, trying to get sets and costumes ready on time, which cost a fortune. And the financial people were going crazy, and the producer was spending all his time in his office doing interviews; I couldn’t even get him down to production meetings!”
This “producer” was Thomas Schühly, who received an Executive Producer’s credit on The Name of the Rose. Gilliam displays more bemusement than rancour on the subject of Schühly’s contribution, or lack of it, to the production. “He’s an interesting character, because he’s like a Viking berserker, but you’ve got to aim him in the right direction, and I didn’t know this.” On the other hand, he admits, had it not been for Schühly, the film might never have got off the ground int he first place.
Until Munchausen, Gilliam’s directing career had been far from profligate, and it would be unjust if he were now to be classed as a spendthrift. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which he co-directed with Terry Jones), Jabberwocky and Time Bandits were all made for peanuts, and Brazil actually came in one and a half million under budget. He fought long and hard with Universal, who wanted to recut Brazil so it would have a happy ending; he was finally rewarded with a clutch of awards, though he is still regarded as a troublemaker in certain Hollywood circles.
It is somehow appropriate that he is wearing a Smiley badge; even more appropriate that its face is dripping with blood. This, in fact, is the logo for the “graphic novel” Watchmen, a tale of disaffected superheroes which is to be Gilliam’s next project. This time, he’s unlikely to have problems with his producer, the boundlessly energetic Joel Silver, whose impressive track record includes Lethal Weapon and Die Hard.
One hopes that Gilliam will have a smoother ride. He is not a guerrilla filmmaker; he is a child-like visionary. “Most people don’t look at the world in a fantastical or magical way but I still find the place pretty extraordinary. I like surprises, even when they’re awful ones – like this film! It makes life more interesting.”
This interview was first published in The Times in 1989. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was a box-office disaster, though not as much of a disaster as it was painted in some quarters – see Wikipedia for more about the conflicting reports on the film’s release and reception.
Ten years after this interview, Gilliam’s travails on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (described in the documentary Lost in La Mancha) would make the problems of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen seem like small beer. And history has shown what happened to Watchmen; ie twenty years later it ended up as a film by Zack Snyder.
- Terry Gilliam’s darkly humorous animated Christmas cards (dangerousminds.net)
- Disney and Johnny Depp Team on Modern Version of ‘Don Quixote’ (slashfilm.com)
- Terry Gilliam Still Doing His Own Don Quixote; Not Involved With Johnny Depp’s (screenrant.com)
What I like about Gilliam’s early pieces is the sense of humor and satire. But The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus brought a whole different side of his creativity.
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