Terry Gilliam is a filmmaker of grand ambition but limited output. In three decades, the former Monty Python animator has completed only...
NEW YORK — Terry Gilliam is a filmmaker of grand ambition but limited output.
In three decades, the former Monty Python animator has completed only eight features, his perfectionism slowing his productivity. More often than not, the quality of the films compensates for the long wait between releases. Gilliam’s catalog includes such unique visual-satirical fantasias as “12 Monkeys,” “The Fisher King,” “Brazil” and “Time Bandits.”
The Minnesota native, now 64, has been off the box-office radar since 1998’s poorly received “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” The ensuing years were spent developing films that never came to fruition for various reasons.
The 2002 documentary “Lost in La Mancha” chronicles the surreal chain of events that halted production on his “Don Quixote” update. Other coulda-been projects include an adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s novel “Good Omens,” a new twist on “A Tale of Two Cities” with Liam Neeson, and a television sequel to “Time Bandits.” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” was briefly on Gilliam’s directorial plate, but he lost the gig to Chris Columbus.
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The dry spell ends
The filmmaker’s seven-year dry spell ends tomorrow with the release of “The Brothers Grimm,” a whimsical adventure that depicts the story-collecting siblings (Matt Damon, Heath Ledger) as con men who find themselves battling the supernatural. Two weeks after “Grimm” debuts in theaters, another new Gilliam effort, “Tideland,” will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Two debuts within such a short time span is unprecedented for him.
“I’m just being perverse,” says Gilliam, unwinding with a whiskey sour at an Upper East Side hotel bar. He punctuates the remark with a helium giggle and a spin of the snack bowl on the table. “The idea that after such a long gap two films come out in the same year, it makes me smile.”
He may be smiling now, but the circumstances that led to the cinematic double-shot weren’t pleasant. “The Brothers Grimm” has been delayed in release for nine months so visual effects could be fixed and the structure reshuffled.
While technicians were tweaking “Grimm,” Gilliam rechanneled his energy into “Tideland,” an indie adaptation of a novel by cult author Mitch Cullin.
The movie, shot in Saskatchewan, centers on a preteen girl (newcomer Jodelle Ferland) whose vivid daydreams help her cope with the behavior of her drug-addict father (Jeff Bridges). It is being shown in Toronto to lure distributors.
The PG-13 “Grimm” is Gilliam’s most family-oriented picture since “Time Bandits.” “Tideland,” meanwhile, skews toward a narrower demographic with nightmare imagery and a disturbing story line.
Bridges, who played a shock-jock in “The Fisher King,” reinvents himself as a junkie rocker in “Tideland.”
Treats for the audience
“[Gilliam] has a very free imagination,” says Bridges. “There’s nothing you feel you can’t do as an actor. The audience can always be surprised going to a Terry Gilliam film. You think you might have him figured out, but he’s going to give you some new treats.”
Ever since his high-profile clash with studio bosses over the ending of 1985’s “Brazil,” the specter of creative strife has loomed over his epics. He went famously overbudget on “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” and most recently locked horns with Harvey Weinstein during the production of “Grimm.”
In his mind, there’s a correlation between angst and art.
“Everything in this business conspires to make you bitter and twisted and tough,” says Gilliam. “I’ve always tried to keep a toughness on one side and complete vulnerability on the other. To me, if you get a thick skin, you might as well give up directing.”
Gilliam doesn’t mince words describing the challenges he faced with “Grimm.” He says he was hesitant to make the film because he didn’t care for the original script (screenwriter Ehren Kruger was unavailable for comment).
“The basic shape of the story was right, but it didn’t have magic or the true sense of fairy tales or characters who were fun to be with.”
Gilliam and his writing partner, Tony Grisoni, finessed the screenplay, amplifying the humor and incorporating references to such Grimm staples as “Snow White,” “Cinderella” and “The Frog Prince.”
The tumult continued into preproduction, as MGM backed out because of the escalating budget. Gilliam promptly found a new home at Dimension Films, a Miramax affiliate that specializes in the horror genre. Reportedly costing $80 million, “Grimm” is Dimension’s biggest production to date.
Gilliam knew that working under the supervision of Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein was unlikely to be smooth sailing, given the mogul’s reputation for micromanaging.
He fought and lost several fights with the studio. His choice to play the romantic heroine was Samantha Morton, but the higher-ups insisted he find a more conventionally attractive actress. Lena Headey, a British performer with a long résumé of TV and indie credits, was hired in Morton’s place.
Headey says she was “terrified” to step on the set with Gilliam.
“Everything matters to Terry. There’s palpable tension because he’s a deeply passionate filmmaker. Everything has to be right and beautiful and complex. I haven’t been with filmmakers that yell at you. He likes to shout, he likes to be loud. Well, I don’t know if he likes shouting, but he does it.”
The production was almost shut down because of a disagreement over a prosthetic nose Gilliam wanted Damon to wear. He says the actor looked like a young Marlon Brando with the added bump.
“I like taking [movie stars] and letting them be something very different,” says Gilliam. “Actors love it because it’s an escape from having to be that character that the public wants them to be. I don’t direct them so much as provide extra space to play in. Studios get very nervous about this. They want to hand out the same Big Mac each time, but I want to turn the Big Mac inside out.”