The Terry Gilliam Retrospective Part 4: The Munchausen Nightmare

Paul Risker continues his Terry Gilliam retrospective…

In Part 3 of this ‘Retrospective Series’ I likened Brazil to Orson Welles’ The Trial and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. There is another comparison that can be drawn between Welles and Gilliam, but this time it is Gilliam who has previously drawn the comparison, contextualising his ordeal with Munchausen to that of Orson Welles and The Magnificent Ambersons.

When it became common knowledge that Welles’ Citizen Kane was about newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, the conflict that erupted engulfed the whole of Hollywood, as other studios offered to reimburse RKO if they saw fit to destroy the print of the film. Welles had acted with gall, the Hollywood elite had a long memory and his comeuppance was quick to follow, in fact on his next film: The Magnificent Ambersons. The producers cut forty minutes of footage, and just as Sid Sheinberg would add his happy ending to Brazil, forty-three years earlier RKO discarded Welles’ original ending for a happy ending more in keeping with the ‘Dream Factory.’ Welles remarked: “They destroyed ‘Ambersons,’ and ‘it’ destroyed me.” Both Gilliam and Welles’ careers have a synchronicity that cannot be ignored.

Gilliam has remarked that he won ‘The War of Brazil’, but it has been famously called ‘The Battle of Brazil’, not ‘the war.’ If history had taught Gilliam anything, it was that winning the battle was all well and good, but how to avoid the comeuppance? Much like Welles, the maverick expatriate had behaved in a most disagreeable way, and his cinematic escapades had seen him upset producers and studio executives as well as the critical establishment. Directing The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Gilliam would discover through his comeuppance the cutthroat and deceitful nature of the film business.

Gilliam’s comeuppance was a case of guilt by association. The individual he was unfortunate enough to be associated with was David Puttnam, CEO of Columbia. Puttnam’s time in charge of Columbia was short lived, and once out, films such as Munchausen that had been green lit by his regime were denied financial support, a deliberate and malicious effort to bury the projects of the old guard, and make the numbers look as attractive as possible for the pending sale of Columbia.

In the middle of all of this was the maverick expatriate, and much like the adventures of Gilliam’s protagonist the Baron Munchausen, the director’s career was becoming quite the adventure – a particularly fiery one. Whereas Brazil was a post-production hell, Munchausen was one of those projects that started out well, but then quickly descended into production hell. It was a nightmare that left Gilliam in one respect wanting to wave the white flag, and at the same time he was all too aware there was no way out of the trench that was Munchausen.

Some of the agreements were unfortunately oral, and so the new regime headed by Dawn Steel was able to refuse to honor them, wanting to support neither Puttnam nor Gilliam. Munchausen is a film that represents Gilliam’s grand visual ambition, featuring a number of spectacular set pieces from a city under siege to a moon city. So, he was sent to Rome to shoot the movie, where he was assured that the budget would stretch to accommodate such a vision, only to eventually realise to his horror that he had started production based on a lie, the supportive film bureaucrat Puttnam having lured Gilliam into a position where the director would be unceremoniously ambushed, in what would be his moment of his comeuppance.

In an interview with IGN’s Kenneth Plume, Gilliam reminisced: “I was wanting to do something really spectacular and was being promised that Rome was the answer to all of this, and we could do it for the kind of money we had. It just was not the truth – that was the basic problem. It was a terrible production. Film is very much about organization, and if you don’t have organization – if you don’t have material when you need it – you’re in trouble… and we were very soon aware of how deep the s*** was we were in. Before we started shooting, I thought we would never finish the film, because nothing that we needed was there when we needed it. But by then, I had been in it for eight months and there was no turning back.”

The deceit of one regime, followed by another unsupportive group, and yet it was Gilliam and the production that was out of control. It was stated publicly that the film was not completed on schedule and consequently exceeded its budget by $16.5 million, costing a total of $40 million. This figure has been challenged, with evidence provided in the documentary, ‘The Madness and Misadventures of Munchausen’ that the film cost $35 million, and the original budget set aside by Twentieth Century Fox before the film arrived at Columbia was in fact $35 million. With hindsight it seems Gilliam was more of a scapegoat for the unwise practices of the studio: an unrealistic budget, and unsupportive of neither film nor director.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was well received by critics, and was the most successful film for Columbia since Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. Columbia however were intent on perceiving the film as a failure, and Gilliam asserts that the number of prints made for U.S. distribution was less than half of the number of prints made for the distribution of art house movies. Gilliam was a victim, and whereas Welles suffered by losing final cut approval of The Magnificent Ambersons, Gilliam was instead slandered with lies, branded irresponsible, a director who was out of control, who was to blame for the film running ridiculously over schedule and therefore over budget.

Gilliam’s adventure on Munchausen paints a picture of a career that one could see as closely resembling a rollercoaster, and if not that, then an adventure much like any number of the director’s protagonists. Gilliam had won the ‘Battle of Brazil’ by fighting it as he has remarked with Guerilla warfare tactics, not in board rooms, but in the pages of Variety, and in interviews on talk shows.

Arguably it was the bureaucrats who won the war, adopting the tactic to lie to give Gilliam his comeuppance. Gilliam has struggled with the image of the irresponsible director, strict budget controls on future films to prevent a recurring Munchausen incident; somehow Gilliam still to blame. Despite continuing to make films, his most recent film, 2009’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus was financed in part as a consequence of the late Heath Ledger’s involvement. Though as they say the truth will eventually come out, and the Gilliam has been vindicated, yet as a true maverick he is his own worst enemy and the industry will always be a difficult place for him.

The last word should go to the director: “It seemed actually appropriate that Munchausen – the greatest liar in the world – should be a victim of some of the greatest liars in the world. So I don’t mind this stuff being out there, because it’s really funny – but it’s not the truth.”

Paul Risker is co-editor in chief of Wages of Film, freelance writer and contributor to Flickering Myth and Scream The Horror Magazine.