Back in the 1990s, Terry Gilliam provided a commentary track for The Fisher King, which has since gone out of print. Now, thanks to the magic of YouTube and MP3s and internet tubes, it’s possible to listen to this commentary track even if the disc itself is hard to come by. Not only does this commentary give an intimate look into one of Gilliam’s best, it also lives on in cyberspace to allow film nerds like us to learn more about the production.
Due to differences in running time, you can’t simply synch all versions of the video with Gilliam’s commentary. For example, the Netflix version of The Fisher King runs 131 minutes instead of the unaltered 137-minute disc and theatrical presentation. Still, with the background soundtrack intact, you have a pretty good idea of where he is in his own timeline.
The Fisher King (1991)
Commentator: Terry Gilliam (director)
1. Gilliam had three rules in life when it came to filmmaking: 1) he’d never do anyone’s script but his own, 2) he’d never work for a major studio, and 3) he’d never work in America. He violated all three of these rules to make The Fisher King.
2. Gilliam had Jack Lucas’ (Jeff Bridges) radio booth made with sloped walls to force perspective of the character in a cell, further designed with bars of light to show him trapped and sealed away from humanity.
3. Originally, Gilliam had planned to shoot various shots around the city of people waking up to Jack’s show. However, he scrapped the idea so he could present Jack hermetically sealed away from the rest of humanity, yet still having a huge influence on people’s lives, playing into the theme of isolation and influence of the media.
4. For the video footage of the crime scene that Jack sees on television, Gilliam hired news crews and people who reenact real crime scenes. He did this so the footage wouldn’t look too good or well lit, making it look like authentic news footage.
5. Gilliam felt Mercedes Ruehl was meant to pay Anne partly because she actually wrote a thesis on the Fisher King while she was in college.
6. Jack’s line “Suicidal paranoiacs will say anything to get laid,” was added by Gilliam on set because he was afraid that the character would have a tiny shred of likeability left in him.
7. The Pinocchio doll symbolizes Jack trying to become a real human.
8. Both Gilliam and Robin Williams were worried that Parry’s intro and reveal would be too silly for the film, so they held back as much as they could. Audiences, however, were thrilled to see Williams show up because they had come out to see a humorous Robin Williams movie and felt trapped in a dark and depressing film up to this point.
9. Gilliam originally chose the song “Groovin’” by The Young Rascals for the homeless men to sing to Jack. However, he chose “How About You” at the suggestion of Harry Nilsson (who sings the song over the end credits).
10. To handle Williams’ desire to improvise and improve lines in the script, Gilliam regularly shot each scene a few times as written and always gave one or two takes for Williams to try things.
11. When Parry uses the analogy of taking the world’s greatest shit, Gilliam wanted Williams to stretch out the constipated noises as much as possible. Williams would only take it so far, so Gilliam used multiple takes to make that part of the scene linger as long as he could.
12. This is the second film Gilliam made about the Holy Grail, the first being Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He does not see the Grail as a Medieval concept, but rather something that pervades everyone’s life. In this film, Gilliam feels the Grail represents love.
13. There was supposed to be wife heard off-screen in the scene in which Jack leaves the basement, but Gilliam dropped the character because he felt she would be too Pythonish and silly.
14. Various elements of the script, as well as some props, evolved in rehearsal and on set. One was Parry’s chrome sword and Jack’s comment that he looks like a hood ornament, as well as Anne (Ruehl) dropping a cigarette into a juice glass that Jack ponders as the Holy Grail, which soils the concept.
15. Initially, Gilliam didn’t see Jeff Bridges in the role of Jack, but after seeing him in The Fabulous Baker Boys, he realized that Bridges could play a darker, more subdued character.
16. Gilliam wanted to shoot the first half of the film in the style of a Sergio Leone western, but in modern New York City. Once the movie shifts into a story about Jack trying to get a date for Parry, he started shooting it like a rom-com.
17. Initially when Gilliam met with Amanda Plummer, he thought she was a bit too much for Lydia and feared she’d take the role too far into weirdness. He had his heart set on a British actress, but when leaving the editing studio one day, at the last minute he found a video of another audition for Plummer. After watching the tape, he realized she was the right one for the role.
18. Gilliam struggled to avoid putting anything too fantastic or grotesque in the movie like his other work. However, people on the crew kept pushing him to do more mythical elements. For example, he originally did not want to house the Grail in the Medieval castle in New York City, but the other people in the production pushed him to do so.
19. The first time you see green and vegetation is when Parry starts to chase the Red Knight in Central Park, making it look like he’s in Medieval woods.
20. The crew shot much more footage of the Red Knight than what is seen on screen, but Gilliam found that the more he took out of the film, the more powerful these scenes became.
21. Gilliam felt it was important for Jack to reconnect with humanity by touching them. However, some people interpreted the scene in which he holds the bloody and beaten body of Michael Jeter that he was at risk of getting AIDS. This notion shocked and offended Gilliam.
22. The impromptu fantasy waltzing in Grand Central Station was not in the script. Gilliam was inspired to do this when he was scouting the location.
23. While shooting the nude scene in Central Park, a mad man named Mercury rode around the production on a bike, shouting for Robin Williams. This held up production for hours while they waited for the police to arrive, and Gilliam took it as a reminder that there were, in fact, real people out there with mental illness living on the streets.
24. Gilliam sees Jack – not Parry – as the real Fisher King because he has lost the ability to love (which he gains by the end of the film).
25. The studio was concerned that Robin Williams would lose fans because his nude body had so much hair on it. Seriously.
26. Jack’s theme song “The Power” was brought to Gilliam by Bridges before it was officially released.
27. Michael Jeter’s drag outfit was inspired by Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again.
28. The production had been trying to get Steven Sondheim to allow them to rewrite the lyrics to his songs for the film, but they had no success. However, because Jeter was good friends with Sondheim, he was able to get him to allow a re-write of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” for his drag scene. When Jeter sang the song on set, all the takes cut together perfectly because he was perfectly on pitch in each one.
29. Gilliam originally thought the “Holding My Penis” song was too crude for the film, so Williams improvised singing, “Brassiere! I want to fondle your brassiere!” to the tune of “Brazil,” connecting it to Gilliam. However, Ruehl became worried they were making fun of her, so they went back to “Holding My Penis.”
30. Another on-set improv was having Jack use a staple gun to hem Parry’s suit sleeves. Gilliam wanted a reason for the sleeves to become unraveled when he ran away from the Red Knight, making him look like Dopey from Snow White.
31. The cast came together for two weeks prior to shooting for rehearsals, which is extremely rare to do for any movie now.
32. The only completely improvised scene in the film was at the Chinese restaurant. It was raining so they had to shoot indoors quickly. It ended up being a favorite scene for many audiences.
33. When New Yorkers got tired of the lights and noise from the night shoots, they’d call the fire department with fake reports of fires, delaying shooting for hours.
34. Many argued that showing Parry’s wife’s blood and brains splatter on his face was too graphic. Gilliam fought to use Williams’ reaction shot instead of making it more poetically suggested.
35. Gilliam specifically wanted a female editor (Lesley Walker) to work on the film in order to balance his testosterone. Because it was a character piece, he wanted to make sure all the characters were equally represented.
36. Because Williams had shot Awakenings shortly before this, he had done a lot of research on mental illness. So Gilliam relied on him to answer any question he had on set.
37. Bridges trained to be a DJ for the role, even going as far to doing on-air appearances as Jack Lucas.
38. Michael Jeter was not originally scripted to return at the end of the film, but Gilliam wanted to bring him back because the character was so strong. He considered this scene in which Jack ignores him to be analogous to Peter denying Jesus three times.
39. Because he was worried that the movie would be accused of being insensitive to the homeless, Gilliam added the scene in which Kurt Fuller pitches the homeless sitcom to Jack. Also, in this scene, when Jack looks out the window at a building off camera, its’ street number is 666.
40. The mental hospital where Parry ends up was shot in a warehouse where walnuts were stored, so it was literally a nut house.
41. Around the 1:50:00 mark in the film, you can see a man in the mental hospital whose profile resembles that of Baron Munchausen. Gilliam suggests this is where the Baron eventually ended up.
42. The tear that falls from Jack’s eye after Parry wakes up is fake, resulting from Bridges taking eye drops.
43. Gilliam promised Ruehl that he would keep the scene with Jack and Anne at the end of the film because that’s the core of what the movie was about, even though some people thought it should end with the mental patients singing “How About You?”
44. Gilliam never expected the final scene of Bridges and Williams naked in Central Park to make it into the film, but it worked so well in the rough cut that they left it in. As originally scripted, it showed that Jack was able to transform the clouds with his mind.
Best in Commentary
- “I come from television. I know the power of the medium, and it scares me. I find it’s misused too often… We’re the beneficiaries. We’re the victims of it. It’s a dangerous, dangerous animal that has to be dealt with.”
- “I was working very hard making the character of Jack a totally unredeemable character. There’s nothing good about him. There’s not a good sign. There’s nothing that’s allowing you to feel any warmth towards him, except the fact that I cast Jeff Bridges in this part.”
- “He’s not even certain what’s going to come out. That’s the wonderful thing about this machine called Robin Williams because it spews out things that astound him.”
- “I get away with pulling off some rather grotesque things and disturbing things because the characters in all my films, I like them a lot. Even the monsters in my films.”
Gilliam is and always was a fascinating director because his vision is so enormous yet his productions are often so scaled and troubled. It’s clear by his calm and pleasant demeanor during this commentary that he had a wonderful time making The Fisher King.
In the commentary, Gilliam wonders aloud if he would continue to break his rules. Oddly enough, Gilliam continued to break these three rules of filmmaking with his next two movies. 12 Monkeys was shot in America for Universal with someone else’s script, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was based on Hunter S. Thompson’s book with Gilliam as one of four writers on the script. That was also produced in America by Universal. Arguably, this is Gilliam’s strongest run as a serious filmmaker.
Too bad he had to follow those up with The Brothers Grimm.
Ultimately, Gilliam gives a great commentary and offers plenty of insight. Plus, if you queue up to the 54:00 mark, you an hear him spectacularly fail to do a Tom Waits impression.