Tilting at Windmills : Terry Gilliam? ‘Mainstream’? The Director Scoffs
Terry Gilliam isn’t literally shaking in his boots--or, to be more precise, his leather shoes and regulation green Fred Flintstone socks--but he’s doing a fine job of at least feigning a case of professional nerves over the critical reaction to his new film.
“It scares the . . . out of me,” admits the Monty Pythonite turned directorial iconoclast, normally famous for giggling in the face of frightening adversity.
Not that he’s worried about a negative response to “The Fisher King,” which opens nationally on Friday. Actually, it’s the positive reviews that have the normally unflappable Gilliam running scared--specifically, the advance blurbs running in the movie’s advertisements trumpeting ecstatic quotes from the likes of local TV critics Gary Franklin and David Sheehan. Given that these are fellows whom he well remembers a few years back lambasting his most personal picture, “Brazil,” he’s almost loathe to accept their hosannas this time.
“I can’t believe it,” he says, belying a sly smile. “It makes me really wonder, have I done something terribly, terribly wrong here to get these people on my side? I think that’s the most disturbing aspect of what seems to be the popular reaction to this film.”
Perhaps the recipient of praise doth protest too much. But Gilliam does seem to be of two minds--or maybe even three, like the tri-headed knight of fantasy in his first feature, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail"--concerning his supposed newfound status as a “mainstream” film director.
Following years of making eccentric, fantastic films sans bankable stars in England, and conducting his business through Monty Python’s London office, Gilliam finally signed with the CAA agency and agreed to film someone else’s script, a more “reality"-based story, working directly through the American studio system for the first time.
Auteur no more?
“I’m sure there’s gonna be a little faction out there saying Gilliam’s gone Hollywood,” he says, anticipating the fringe view. “That’s what’s really funny, because ‘Fisher King’ (written by Richard LaGravenese) is the kind of script that everybody here said wouldn’t get made because it was too intelligent. The script had been floating around for some time. Now that it’s been produced and is finally out there, people can say, ‘Oh, well, it’s just Hollywood pap.’ ”
Actually, the standard critical line so far has been that, whoever wrote it, “The Fisher King” remains a recognizably Terry Gilliam film--the requisite elements including a heroic, Don Quixote-style madman, a demonic monster of mythic proportions allegorically representing all the world’s evils, and abrupt tonal shifts between slapstick and pathos.
But it also has Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges, a gritty modern-day setting, homelessness, dysfunctional romance, and plenty of surprisingly naturalistic, dramatic scenes set in everyday situations--the sorts of things that more traditionally bespeak “Oscar” than the effects-laden adventures that preceded this in the Gilliam canon.
The director says none of the scenes in the film were outrightly his invention--save for one in which Williams, as cuckoo Parry, daydreams all of Grand Central Station as a waltz hall--and that the writer was constantly on the set for script changes. But he does allow that it would have been a very different movie with any other filmmaker.
“I don’t want to name names, but there are a few people around here who are very successful” who were interested in the script, he says. “And it could have been ‘When Parry Met Jack . . . ,’ or ‘Parryhood.’ And it would be a jolly romp and quite nice, but it wouldn’t have the darkness.
“When I first talked to Robin, the main word I kept saying was pain --everything that we’re doing here, however funny and silly and outrageous it gets, it’s all based on pain. All the characters are damaged in different ways by the world they live in.”
Though Williams plays a street person whose mental deck has become unstacked following a personal tragedy in which Bridges also has a stake, this isn’t a disease-of-the-week movie. As perhaps the most openly gonzoid director making major features today, Gilliam likes insanity too much to ever let any of his characters be cured of it.
“Brazil” ended with its possibly lobotomized futuristic hero adrift in a better fantasy world. “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” had a title figure not wholly attuned to the demarcation between fact and fiction. “Time Bandits,” “Jabberwocky” and “Holy Grail” had their own men of La Mancha.
Somehow, obviously, Gilliam identifies.
“They’re all tilting at windmills, people who see a different world. I keep getting caught in this thing of people describing what I do as this level between reality and fantasy, but I just think they’re different versions of reality I’m talking about, and reality is what we choose to believe in. And that’s what I find interesting about Parry--he’s so charismatic and so carried away with his own beliefs that he sweeps other people along with it.
“You’ve got all these different ways of choosing what life is and how you approach it--and some are more fun than others, basically,” he adds, breaking into effusive laughter. “Which is a line from Robin in the scene when he’s rubbing his butt on the ground in Central Park. He says, ‘You know why dogs do this? Because it’s fun! ' And I think those are the choices.
“That’s what ‘Baron Munchausen’ was about. You can choose to look at the world and say it’s about account books and figures and statistics and that way of measuring and looking at life, or you can say it’s about other things.
“And in both of these realities, the dangerous things are still buses that run you over, I think. Even in fantasy they run you over. It doesn’t mean being fantastic you somehow escape actions and death, because that’s always there.”
Gilliam had what might be the director’s equivalent of being struck by a Greyhound on both his previous two films.
With the infamous battle of “Brazil,” Gilliam publicly took on Universal and its president, Sid Sheinberg, who wanted it recut for a happy ending. With the subsequent “Munchausen,” heavily publicized budget overruns threatened to shut down the production. In both cases, Gilliam got his way and got the film he wanted.
If not the release he wanted. He’s still bitter about the $40-million-plus “Munchausen,” feeling it was sabotaged because Columbia never put it into wide release, only striking 117 prints despite good reviews and a strong limited platform opening. And he knows the picture’s reputation as a flop made his name mud--or “the new Michael Cimino"--in some circles.
Prior to taking on “Fisher,” he confesses, “I went into a depression. It’s still around, that’s what I find weird. I find myself still talking about it, to get this thing out. Because you couldn’t find the film, and it never was seen. . . . That film is a beautiful film and has no sense of the chaos or disasters in the making of it. It’s worth every penny it cost--value for the money, even at $41 million.”
Given his private melancholy, from whence springs the public gleefulness always so apparent in Gilliam’s defiance?
“All this madness that’s gone around on ‘Munchausen’ and ‘Brazil'--there’s one side of me that just wants to kill . But the other side almost enjoys it, because not many other people are doing it, basically. There’s a perverse pleasure in (fighting through) this thing, and there’s an element of fun.
“There’s too much irony in life, too many odd and bizarre things. Almost how I judge the importance of things is whether I can or can’t laugh at them. Things I can’t laugh at aren’t very important in my life. I just ignore them.”
Studio heads aren’t the only powerful figures Gilliam laughs at.
“I was actually going to be a missionary at one point. But they couldn’t laugh at God. I believed in God very intensely, but you couldn’t make jokes or ask embarrassing questions. And I thought, ‘What kind of God is this they’re defending that can’t take a joke? What’s my feeble little joke gonna do, put him out of a job? Make him insecure so he can’t actually deal with his omnipotent nature?’ And I had to walk away from it, because nobody could find God funny.
“And I think anything that’s of any importance, if you can laugh at it and it still stands, it’s worth something. If you laugh at it and it collapses, there wasn’t anything serious about it anyway.”