This week, finally, sees the release of Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The titular Parnassus sold his daughter’s soul to the devil, and now she is reaching 16, the devil is due to collect. Parnassus hopes a stranger, Tony, holds the key to saving her.
Gilliam’s productions have a tendency towards misfortune, and The Imaginarium was no exception. The tragic death of Heath Ledger, of course, overshadows trivialities like film production and distribution problems, and i’m sure Gilliam’s thoughts were with the family of his friend, and not his movie. A question mark did, however, hang over the future of the project. Eventually, Heath’s friends stepped in and the show went on.
That wasn’t that though, as Gilliam struggled to obtain a distribution deal, with companies reluctant to gamble on an independent fantasy movie in the current economy. For some film-makers, this might have put them off for life. But Gilliam has a wealth of experience with strife.
It all started off quite well, and the Python movies were reasonably simple, within the usual parameters of any production. Even Time Bandits went pretty smoothly by all accounts. It wasn’t really until the end of Brazil, namely post-production, that Gilliam’s troubles really started.
Universal, who were distributing the film in the US, felt that the downbeat ending wasn’t being well received by test audiences. There was extensive re-editing to give a happier conclusion, which greatly angered Gilliam. Following a long period of time with no release in sight, Gilliam fought back. Using his own money, he bought a full page advertisement in Variety magazine demanding Brazil be released with his own original cut. When that didn’t work, Gilliam had private screenings of his version, unsanctioned by Universal. After Brazil was named ‘best picture’ by the LA Film Critic Association, a compromise was reached, and Gilliam re-cut the film for release.
Things went from bad to worse with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which was somewhat of a fiasco from start to finish. The producer, Thomas Schuhly, felt the movie could be made in Italy at a fraction of the budget of a UK production. But when the crew arrived, it became obvious the producer was completely dis-organised and under-prepared. Amid an escalating budget, the insurance company took over, and set a date for the end of production. The company wanted Gilliam replaced, but distributor Columbia insisted Gilliam be allowed to continue.
Compromises had to be made over several sequences to reduce costs, but shooting was finally completed. Due to Gilliams previous problems with Brazil, and the presence of a new CEO at Columbia, Munchausen had a limited run in the US at a handful of theatres. From a final budget of reportedly $46 million, twice the initial $24 million agreed by Columbia, it took just $8 million in the US. The Munchausen saga earnt Gilliam a Hollywood black mark.
Twelve Monkeys didn’t fare too badly in comparison. Burnt by his Munchausen experience, Gilliam was adamant not to go over budget. Without the budget for sound stages, production staff had to find abandoned buildings to use. There were technical problems with many of the futuristic props, as they were built from scavenged materials. Disaster almost struck when Gilliam chose to go horse riding during production and had a near-fatal accident. He was then brow-beaten into filming two endings for the film, neither of which were his original vision for the final shot. The studio wanted to test both an ending that tied the story up a bit at the end, and one that left it all open. During the post-production, the time-travel element made editing a bit of a headache, with continuity management a real difficulty.
Some of Gilliam’s problems have been productions that didn’t happen. He has twice tried to put together a project to adapt the Watchmen graphic novel, but it didn’t work out – author Alan Moore even told him it was unfilmable. Gilliam also had plans for a sequel to Time Bandits, but as several of the original actors had died that didn’t work out either.
Probably the biggest disaster was Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Production did actually begin, but as soon as they started filming, a flood subsequently destroyed much of the set. Located near a military base, the engine noise of jets flying overhead rendered most of the audio recording unusable. Lead actor Jean Rochefort then suffered a herniated disc. Having spent seven months learning English and preparing for the role, Rochefort was literally irreplaceable. The whole production was cancelled, resulting in a $15 million insurance claim.
Gilliam is now gearing up to retry Don Quixote again, and has recently announced he has found his lead actor. With Parnassus now reaching theatres, maybe things are starting to look up again for Gilliam.
Is Terry Gilliam cursed? No. Instead, he is a visionary film maker. This means that he will always clash with major studios, as he will always be following his artistic vision, as the executives instead focus on their bottom line. Whilst the studios want to make movies for the masses, Gilliam wants to make art that appeals to himself. And as his unique ideas lend themselves best to exotic filming locations, Gilliam’s projects will always be at the mercy of the harsh and problematic environments. It’s the nature of the beast, and to be honest, i don’t think Terry Gilliam would want it any other way.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus opens this Friday 15th October here in the UK. It goes on limited release on 25th December in the US.