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A Fantastic Journey With Terry Gilliam : The filmmaker tells how technical challenges were tackled and financial land mines dodged in making ‘Baron Munchausen.’

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Criterion Collection’s eye-opening laser disc on “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” might well be called “The Amazing Misadventures of Filmmaker Terry Gilliam.”

Few lasers assault the viewer with such dazzling technique and such dazing, mind-boggling detail. This is one laser that makes you work almost as hard as the filmmaker . . . well, maybe almost. This is, after all, the story of a fantastic liar (Munchausen) who bends history, fantasy and reality into a phantasmagoria that never lets you know where one begins and the other ends.

That Gilliam, who was responsible for such other fantastic film visions as “Time Bandits,” “Brazil” and, later, “The Fisher King” (for which he also contributed to a superb Criterion laser release), could even embark on such a project defies comprehension.

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“This is very much a home movie,” the former Monty Python troupester chuckles at one point in the analog track, which is every bit as mesmerizing in revealing how technical challenges were tackled as how financial land mines were dodged. “One of the most expensive home movies ever made, possibly,” he adds.

In fact, the movie by most estimates cost in the neighborhood of $40 million to complete, yet brought in barely $4 million at the box office and another $750,000 in the home video market. Just why it cost so much and generated the kinds of tales-from-production that it did becomes clear as the three-disc, CAV, six-sided set unfolds.

Yet, even though he acknowledges he was “caught in the trap of one’s own hubris,” Gilliam nevertheless takes us on a fantastic laser journey that is a model of what a well-produced laser can be. The transfer itself is rich and luminous, made from a 35-millimeter intermediate positive picture and a 35-millimeter Dolby stereo magnetic master. Presented in its original European theatrical aspect ratio, it’s true to the director’s vision.

This is really Gilliam’s story, even though interviews with producer Thomas Schuhly, correspondence from the film’s completion bond company and Columbia studio executives are incorporated. Gilliam attacks the narrative with such self-deprecating gusto, charm and wit that it’s possible to forget now and again that here is a mind that works at the edge of possibility. Listening to him discuss how he hurdled one obstacle after another--rewriting, revising, reformatting, regrouping--as one disaster after another struck is in many ways more captivating than the film itself. Few others could recoup as creatively from the attacking furies: storms, strikes, overcharges, financing.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the backstage of the theater and that’s what these laser discs let us deal with,” he acknowledges early in the proceedings. It’s the backstage stuff of this film (“a film about a battle against death through fantasy and lies”) that is so involving. It’s one thing to read printed reports, quite another listening to the tale unfold from the filmmaker’s perspective. Once in everybody’s life they get to fail,” Gilliam notes at the outset. “I did it with ‘Munchausen’ (but, it’s) . . . a film (failure) to be proud of.”

He could be talking about the film, or the making of it, when explaining “I wanted to push everything to extremes . . . if you’re going to have flesh, then let’s have lots of it.” Gilliam says he wanted to push the live-action film more and more into “the land of cartoon and fairy tales,” which apparently many critics and filmgoers didn’t quite take to.

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Watching the director move from models to live action to mattes and back again constitutes some of the most fascinating of the release’s supplemental material.

Much of the live action, caught between storms in Spain and Italy, proved dangerous, including the film’s set piece--which came to symbolize its vaulting cost and overreaching filmic experience--a huge balloon made of ladies’ silk undergarments carrying the Baron over a city under siege. “It’s a dangerous situation . . . it’s your lead actor (John Neville), and yet you have to do it.”

Until the balloon became airborne, Gilliam and company wondered if they would achieve what they set out to do. Then, “The balloon sailed and, it’s one of those moments that makes filmmaking worth it,” Gilliam exults, thrilled, even now. “At that point . . . it’s all worthwhile. And then two days later . . . they canceled the film. But I knew that it would get financed because the balloon had flown.”

Watching and listening to how Gilliam got to and beyond that point is the fascination of this laser, which more than almost any other is a crash course in filmmaking--its complexity, impossibilities and satisfactions, big and small.

“I started out with a far too ambitious idea, which gets whittled down, a depressing way of making a film, to something realistic because you make less than what you set out to make every day.”

Along with production sketches (many of which, considering Gilliam’s rich resume as a cartoonist, are sparse), there are paintings, models and costume texts. Four sequences deleted from the final film as well as storyboards of scenes intended, but not filmed because of their cost, are also included.

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Other material details how special effects came together, including outtakes of the King of the Moon sequence with Robin Williams as a free-floating head.

“OK, you now know all the facts,” Gilliam asks rhetorically at the end, “Why don’t you go out and make ‘Baron Munchausen, Part II?’ ” Why, indeed.

“The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” (1989), The Criterion Collection / The Voyager Co.: three discs (CAV, full-feature format), six sides; 126 minutes; $125; in original theatrical aspect ratio of 1:75.1 (wide letterbox); second analog track with commentary by Terry Gilliam; deleted sequences; original theatrical trailer, posters, ad campaigns; production sketches, paintings, models; analysis of script, storyboards; unfilmed scenes; historical notes on the Munchausen character.

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