UNIVERSAL SOLDIER : Terry Gilliam Gets 1 Monkey Off His Back
Irony is one ingredient never in short supply in Hollywood, where alliances and friendships are forged, broken and repaired according to the next project and next potential fortune. But there have been few ironies in recent years quite as rich as the current honeymoon between former Monty Python illustrator Terry Gilliam and MCA’s Universal Pictures.
It has been 10 years since Gilliam took on and embarrassed then-MCA President Sid Sheinberg in a months-long battle over the release of “Brazil,” Gilliam’s ambitious Orwellian satire of bureaucratic inefficiency in the 20th century, and here he is, upon the release of his and Universal’s latest film, “12 Monkeys,” saying things like, “This has been the easiest relationship I’ve had with any studio, period.”
“It has been amazingly smooth,” Gilliam says. “There were certain people within the organization who were keen for me to do it, and if there were others who didn’t, I never heard from them.”
Though Sheinberg, now departed, was still heading MCA when Gilliam was returned to the payroll for “12 Monkeys,” Gilliam says that he and his old rival have not spoken to each other since “Brazil.”
“When I was asked to go back to Universal, I said, ‘OK, fine, but I want total control of this thing.’ Casey Silver [then head of production, now MCA Motion Picture Group chairman] said, ‘I think you should do this and that, but it’s your movie.’ He has lived up to that.”
(Sheinberg declined to be interviewed for this story.)
There are other ironies punctuating this production. Producer Charles Roven, who brokered the reconciliation between Gilliam and Universal, is married to former Columbia Pictures President Dawn Steel, whom Gilliam still holds responsible for that studio’s abandonment of “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.” And despite its high-octane cast of Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt and Madeleine Stowe, “12 Monkeys” is easily the closest--in tone, style, themes, density and marketing difficulty--to “Brazil” of any Gilliam film.
“12 Monkeys,” inspired by the 1962 French film “La Jetee,” is a science-fiction mystery about a mental patient who claims to have been sent from the year 2035 to collect information on a viral plague he says will wipe out all but a handful of the world’s population in 1996. Willis plays time traveler James Cole, Pitt plays a fellow mental patient with delusions of idealistic grandeur, and Stowe is the psychiatrist who comes to believe that Cole is the man he says he is.
The post-viral apocalypse underworld, designed as a claustrophobic environ that might only exist in a tormented mind, seems to have been shot in the decayed bowels of “Brazil’s” Ministry of Information. It is a busy, colorless dungeon, inhabited by drones subject to the tyranny of a committee government, and its technology--built from the debris the survivors brought with them--is strictly 21st century Rube Goldberg. There are probing camera eyes, panel inquisitions, inefficiency and arrogance in lock step.
And the story, written by the gifted David Peoples (“Unforgiven,” “Blade Runner”) and his wife Janet Peoples, walks those same thin lines between madness and sanity, fantasy and reality, that made “Brazil” a dizzying delight to its fans and an incoherent mess to others.
“That there were similarities between ‘Brazil’ and ’12 Monkeys’ is probably the reason I ended up doing it,” Gilliam says. “The script struck a lot of chords with things I wanted to say, or believed in, or am excited by, but which were said in different ways. When I read it, I said, ‘This is extraordinary. A studio has this thing and they’re actually, seriously thinking of making it?’ ”
Not only that, but actually, seriously thinking of doing it with Gilliam, who played David to Universal’s Goliath in one of the most public battles ever waged over the release version of a film. Sure, Gilliam became a hot director with the success of the 1991 TriStar film “The Fisher King,” but those wounds of a decade ago were deep.
To recap that battle, Gilliam made the $15-million “Brazil” for Universal in the United States and for 20th Century Fox in the rest of the world. A two-hour, 22-minute version of the film had already been released by Fox in Europe, to good reviews and modestly successful business, when Sheinberg overrode the judgment of his own film executives and demanded that “Brazil” be trimmed and re-edited, with a happier ending.
“[Sheinberg] said, ‘If you make this happy ending and more people come to see it, isn’t that good?’ ” Gilliam recalls. “I said, ‘No, it’s not good because we agreed to tell a story. We’re storytellers, that’s what we’re about. If you change the ending, you have violated everything you’ve set up.’ ”
After weeks of behind-the-scenes feuding, during which Gilliam says he was told that the film would be changed with or without his cooperation, he and producer Arnon Milchan took the bold step of calling Sheinberg out in a full-page ad in Daily Variety. It read: “Dear Sid Sheinberg. When are you going to release my film, ‘Brazil’?”
Sheinberg took the bait, and for several months he and the filmmakers slugged it out in the media. Critics, sensing a textbook standoff between art and commerce, rallied to Gilliam’s side, and after seeing a print at a series of clandestine screenings, the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., in perhaps the most audacious move of any critics group ever, voted the unreleased “Brazil” awards for best picture, best director and best screenplay of 1985.
Sheinberg threw in the towel, and the film he had called “interminable to sit through” was soon playing to full-house crowds in New York and Los Angeles.
With neither the controversy nor major advertising support to help it, “Brazil” quickly faltered in general release and is regarded as a box-office failure. But fighting the good fight was counted as a rare victory for the artist over the system, and Gilliam says that it has made a lasting impression on the people he deals with.
“Since ‘Brazil,’ I’ve had this reputation of being troublesome, yet there are enough people in Hollywood who either want to tame the wild beast or want to have some sort of artistic credentials, which they think I’ve got, that I keep being offered things. There are left-wingers who think they’re changing the system in some small way by encouraging people like me to work. I can’t explain it. I just sort of wallow in it now.”
Gilliam got right back into controversy when his next film, “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” ran into devastating production problems, and was taken over by the insurance company guaranteeing the budget to its investors. Gilliam was allowed to finish the movie, but with a severely restricted budget and with an auditor serving as a producer, and it was a punishing experience.
“ ‘Munchausen’ reminds me of ‘The Magnificent Ambersons,’ it’s about getting your comeuppance,” Gilliam says, referring to the Orson Welles film taken over and reedited by RKO Pictures the year after “Citizen Kane.” “I got away with murder with ‘Brazil.’ We beat the studio at its own game. Then we made ‘Munchausen,’ it went out of control and, suddenly, everybody was happy. The smart-ass Gilliam was getting what was coming to him.”
“Munchausen,” a wildly inventive fantasy about a legendary medieval storyteller and liar, cost nearly twice its $23.5-million budget but earned good-to-ecstatic reviews, and had a solid opening in 52 theaters before Columbia Pictures decided not to expand its release and essentially killed it. Gilliam hasn’t forgiven Dawn Steel, though he no longer believes that it was her decision.
“She said it was her decision, and that’s all that counts,” he says.
As for how his bitterness toward her affects his relationship with her husband, he says, “It’s no problem, we don’t talk about her.”
His reputation as a maverick and spendthrift aside, the images from “Time Bandits,” “Brazil” and “Munchausen” marked Gilliam as a rare talent and he continued to get offers on elaborate film projects. He was to have directed a film version of the comic book “Watchman” for Joel Silver, but the financing fell through. A similar fate halted plans for a version of Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” for producer Jerry Weintraub. Then Gilliam got hooked up with writer Richard LaGravenese and the producer team of Lynda Obst and Debra Hill on “The Fisher King,” and Gilliam found himself firmly on the directors’ A list.
He says he spent the next couple of years in “development hell,” working for six months with British screenwriter Don McPherson on a version of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” that would have starred Mel Gibson. After Gibson pulled out to do “Braveheart,” he gave up on it himself and accepted the assignment on “12 Monkeys.”
Gilliam, who lives with his wife and three children in a 17th century home he restored in London’s Highgate Village, is working on another script with LaGravenese. This one, titled “The Defective Detective,” is about a middle-aged New York cop who’s having a nervous breakdown and ends up in a fantasy world. He’s also still interested in directing “Theseus and the Minotaur,” a project he’s talked about for 20 years, and he is planning to produce a sequel to “Time Bandits,” though he will not direct it.
The oddest thing about his post-”Brazil” reputation, Gilliam says, is dealing with the exaggerated stature it has given both him and the movie.
“I keep hearing that ‘Brazil’ is taught in film schools,” says the 55-year-old filmmaker. “I’d love to go to one of those classes and see what’s being taught. . . . When I started making films, there were auteurs out there and I was always intimidated by the fact that theyseemed to know everything. Of course, they didn’t. Now, I have this terrible feeling that ‘Brazil’ is being turned into one of these classics. It’s all nonsense.”
Nevertheless, the irreverence that made Gilliam a feisty underdog against Universal and a champion for artists rights 10 years ago remains. The mention of mainstream Hollywood product--the notion, for instance, that “12 Monkeys” would have been much easier viewing had it been made by a conventional director--sets him off.
“I hate the assumption that people don’t want to think, that people just want to be entertained,” he says. “Now, there’s no question that most people probably do just want to be entertained. But there are an awful lot of others who want something different. Unless people make these films to find out what they want, nothing changes.”
Gilliam was to appear this weekend at a retrospective of his work at the American Museum of the Moving Image in New York. The only film bearing his name that will not be shown is the “Sheinberg version” of “Brazil,” the one being prepared by Universal editors when the Los Angeles critics pulled the rug out from under them.
The Sheinberg version, which is the one shown on television, did away with all of the film’s fantasy sequences, simplified its bleak political messages and became a straight-ahead love story with the happiest ending imaginable. Gilliam says he has a copy of it at home, but has never watched it.
“I don’t think about [Sheinberg’s version] much,” he says. “The reality is it’s out there, it exists. When they first released it, using critics’ quotes from the [theatrical release] to promote the syndication, I thought about suing them. But it’s history now.”
Still, Gilliam can’t resist taking a last shot at Sheinberg, who left Universal after the Seagram’s takeover to form his own production company, the Bubble Factory.
“How can this dignified head of a major studio leave and start a company called the Bubble Factory? Hmmmm.”
Reminded that his own company still bears the name Poo Poo Pictures, Gilliam laughs and says, “Well, that’s OK for me. That’s the thing I judge myself by. As long as I can maintain a letterhead that says Poo Poo Pictures, then I’m doing all right.”