Paul Risker continues his Terry Gilliam retrospective….
Close to a quarter of a century on, the Munchausen disaster still echoes as one of film’s great fiascos. It would forever taint the reputation of Terry Gilliam, though it was Gilliam himself who revealed years later to Ian Christie that any suggestion of a reputation came as quite the surprise. The sins of this filmmaker however would be revisited upon the film, the reputation of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen forever tainted in the cinema’s social consciousness.
Compared to the conclusion of the ‘Battle of Brazil’ the Munchausen experience was a decidedly different conclusion for Gilliam. The maxim “winning the battle; losing the war” is perhaps the most fitting choice of words to apply to Gilliam’s career when reflecting upon the back-to-back fiascos of the years 1985-1988.
The Gilliam who emerged from the Munchausen disaster was a defeated filmmaker, depressed by the whole experience – a stark contrast to the victorious Gilliam who had emerged from his battle with Sid Sheinberg. Handing the completed film over to the guarantors, a weary Gilliam was told that he wouldn’t be paid, and after organising underground screenings for Brazil, waging war in the pages of Variety and storming University faculty offices, perhaps there was just no fight left in him; injured both financially and personally by the debacle. If simplicity is genius, then perhaps Gilliam’s simple choice of words summed it up best: “The film world can be very brutal.”
It is worth taking a moment to consider just how close Gilliam came to walking away from filmmaking. If he had, two iconic films in his oeuvre, Twelve Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, would have never been. Just consider how different these films would have been without Gilliam to imbue them with the Gilliamesque, an ingredient that has come to define them, whilst each is significant entries in his oeuvre.
For Gilliam, filmmaking was never a career; rather it was something he just did, something that he belonged to. In many ways film served as an outlet for his grand visual and narrative imagination. Gilliam enlightens us to his state of mind in an explanation he offered to Christie. “I don’t have any idea of a ‘career’, so all that mattered to me was the fact that I was depressed by the whole experience. I didn’t want to make films anymore, so in interviews I would say that I wanted to make a really small film; a film about a schizophrenic, but about only half of his personality.” He was torn between his earlier ambitions to be a filmmaker, and the bruised and battered director who just wanted some peace and quiet; an easier time of it all.
But Gilliam was not to walk away from that which had been and not been his career. Gilliam’s career was never boring, and for a spell before the script for The Fisher King would arrive in a two script package – The Addams Family and The Fisher King – he flirted with directing comic books’ War and Peace (Gilliam’s phrasing) – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. At the time Joel Silver had secured a $40 million budget and the green light to produce the film. This turned into a genuine flirtation with disaster as Gilliam and writer Charles McKeown re-wrote Sam Hamm’s original script, but for Gilliam he was never able to satisfactorily condense the expansive story of the source material. When interviewed years later, Gilliam remarked, “It was such wonderful arrogance on his (Joel Silvers’) part: he had just done Die Hard 2, which had gone way over budget, and I was fresh from Munchausen, also famously over budget. We were running round Hollywood together trying to make this very dark film that was going to cost a fortune and, of course, nobody wanted to do it.”
So Gilliam in search of a script that would inspire him, and which would not be overshadowed by a prophecy of doom was offered no films that would pique his interest. Equally he was too late in his career to form a team that had served him well earlier in his career. Discussing his second fiasco Gilliam admitted to Christie, “I think after Munchausen I had a real wish to have the support of a group and to be part of something again.”
It would be three years after Munchausen that Gilliam’s rule breaking film The Fisher King would be released. His dogma was simple. He would only direct his own scripts. His films would not be set in America, and his films would not be studio films. This was the doctrine that had shaped his career, but as Bob Dylan sang, “The Times They Are a-Changin’”, Gilliam was a-Changin’ and this brought about the period of change in Gilliam’s career. At the point of Fisher King, “The Times They Were a-Changin.’”
It is the film that marks a change in the maverick ex-patriot, a movement from his stubbornness to make a point, to show that there was an alternative way to make films, not necessarily by working within the constraints offered by the studios. In hindsight Gilliam reflected that “In a sense, everything I’d done had been reacting against America or trying to show America that there was another way of doing things. That’s why I was doing optical effects down at Peerless, to demonstrate that you don’t need Industrial Light and Magic.”
By the time the two script package of Addams Family and Fisher King landed on his doorstep, Gilliam following Joel Silver’s advice had joined the Creative Artists Agency (CAA). This in itself signalled the first shift from Gilliam the maverick to Gilliam as part of the system he had exerted so much energy rallying against, or as Gilliam described it, “So I got one of the biggest agents of all and that was the beginning of the end of my virginity.” Fisher King is an essential film in charting Gilliam’s narrative as a filmmaker, just as much for its thematic devices, the film a dark fairy tale, blurring the boundaries of fantasy and reality, but equally as the moment Gilliam broke his hallowed dogma. “It seemed a nice idea to do Fisher King because it broke all my rules: it wasn’t my script, it was set in America, it was a studio film – everything I’d said I wouldn’t do. But I’d tried doing things my way and got into a mess, so why not break my rules and see what happens?”
The Fisher King finished the year the second biggest earner for Tri Star. It brought to a close an important moment in his career. If anything this was an audition to see if he could work in an industry that had grown weary of him and his career incapable of withstanding another fiasco. The box-office success was just what the doctor had ordered. Gilliam recalls, “So this time I decided to do everything differently. This was the first time I didn’t have final cut. It was head-in-the-lion’s-mouth-let’s-show-‘em time. The point was to make sure I came in on budget and did all the right things: it was like putting together a new business card.”
If Gilliam did in fact come close to not making another film, then The Fisher King bridges the void between his elongated wet Wednesday afternoon or depression following his back-to-back fiascos, and transforming him into, whilst not a sycophant of the system, more of co-operative maverick filmmaker with grand visual and narrative ambitions, who was willing to finally compromise and work within the system. The Fisher King is the link between disaster and a prevailing career. Even following box office success his name was synonymous with caution. Even fate in a bright moment hit Gilliam hard, events external to the film preventing him casting his past disasters further into the shadows with a more successful box office performance. “But what was frustrating was that the film should have taken more money. We were number one for almost five weeks and we were running away from the competition – but nobody was going to the movies because of two things: the World Series and the Judge Thomas Supreme Court hearings. That’s show business.”
One may reflect that Jeff Bridges’ fallen DJ, melancholically quoting Nietzsche, embroiled in a quest for the Grail, may have coincidentally been a metaphor for Gilliam’s predicament – the injured and nearly broken director, forced to go on his own quest to discover a new way of making films, for the then present and future.
Paul Risker is co-editor in chief of Wages of Film, freelance writer and contributor to Flickering Myth and Scream The Horror Magazine.