Everything That Can Go Wrong: A Look at Terry Gilliam's Productions

Terry Gilliam has had the most consistent luck of any director working today. Unfortunately, that luck has always been bad. In fact – not just bad, but catastrophically bad, earth-shatteringly awful, the kind of setbacks that any average filmmaker would curl up and die in the face of. Yet, Gilliam continues to create astounding pieces of art that echo through in creativity, and he still manages a blockbuster every now and again.

Recent news has him working on his next project, The Zero Theorem, but also on the front burner is another crack at tackling The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a production that seemed doomed to failure from some other power beyond human control. Gilliam seems unafraid, but we Rejects would like to take a look at his past productions and their hardships in order to ultimately predict what will go wrong with his latest adventure tipping at windmills.

Brazil (1985)

Brrrrrraazil!

This is probably Gilliam’s most well known fiasco (aside from killing Heath Ledger, of course), and it serves as a warning for all the creative souls with pipe dreams hoping to work in Hollywood someday. Brazil is a brilliant satire on bureaucracy, idiocy, and totalitarian governments, which is ironic and greatly enhances the nightmare that followed the film’s completion.

Gilliam turned his 142-minute cut of the film into Universal and was immediately told that it needed editing before it would see a U.S. release. “Too long!” yelled the suits at Universal. “Too dark!” whined the test audiences. (Cole just informed me how similar that sounds to dialogue from Black Dicks, White Chicks Vol.5…) Gilliam flipped both groups the bird and refused to compromise so dramatically. He even took the fight public with a full-page ad in Variety. Universal responded by preparing their new 94-minute cut of the movie behind his back resulting in the infamous and thematically unidentifiable “Love Conquers All” version. Gilliam’s equally sneaky next move was to hold secret screenings of the complete film, and when Brazil was named Best Picture by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (even though it had yet to officially see any domestic release) Universal finally buckled. Not completely of course… but they did allow Gilliam to release a slightly edited 132-minute version. The entire debacle is detailed nicely on Criterion’s 3-disc DVD release of the film.

An interesting side note, 20th Century Fox handled international distribution and released Brazil in its entirety to both critical and commercial acclaim. A nice reminder that Fox didn’t always suck.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

Is it weird that Sean Connery could have been The King of the Moon?

The time-line for what went wrong with Munchausen is a little fuzzy, but the trouble started almost immediately. Gilliam came out of his experience with Brazil furious and set up a poorly-chosen partnership with producer Thomas Schuhly. It was Schuhly who set up the production in Italy, failing to get anything properly prepared and severely underestimating the cost of the film. Production was moved to Spain, but the financier began growing rightfully concerned, and saddled Gilliam with a production drop dead date.

Later, they would threaten to sue Gilliam when the film wasn’t finished on time, also threatening to replace him in the director’s position – which was absurd because they didn’t have contractual power to do so. With that problem solved, cue the discovery of close to $5 million in unpaid bills being hidden by Schuhly.

The rest of the production was scaled down dramatically as a result, and Sean Connery dropped out of a decent cameo part (he was replaced by Robin Williams who took the role while declining to have his name on the film anywhere). When all was said and done, Columbia reduced the release and Munchausen only saw $8 million in revenue from the US.

Time Bandits 2 and A Tale of Two Cities (Never)

What Might Have Been

In 1994, Gilliam was set to direct Mel Gibson as the lead in an adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, but Gibson pulled out deciding instead to direct a little film called Braveheart. Despite Gibson being replaced by Liam Neeson, Neeson on the verge of stardom with his role in Schindler’s List, and Gilliam cutting the budget in half, the studio wouldn’t give the go ahead.

After the critical and commercial success of The Fischer King in 1991 and Twelve Monkeys in 1995, Gilliam had his eye on creating a sequel to his 1981 hit Time Bandits despite the deaths of several of the main cast including Dave Rappaport, Jack Purvis and Tiny Ross. Gilliam went to collaborator Charles McKeown, and a story dealing with God ending the world at the millennium was fleshed out. Then the pair ran into trouble securing the rights back from Canadian-based Paragon, and the project lost steam. Every few years, rumors about it being picked up by Gilliam or being created as a BBC serial pop up, but so far nothing has come of it. Very likely, Gilliam lost interested in retooling it after the year 2000 came and passed.

These are just two projects in a long list of aborted productions including The Defective Detective (which would have starred Nicolas Cage), an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, Theseus and the Minotaur, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, adaptations of the comic Elektra, novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and, of course, Watchmen. This list is in no way exhaustive.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2000 and Forthcoming?)

He seems fine on that horse despite the herniated disc.

If there was ever proof that there is a higher power and that it hates Terry Gilliam, the epic fail of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is it. After two years spent searching for an actor to play Don Quixote, Gilliam chose Jean Rochefort who then spent seven months learning English in order to play the part. Financing seemed solid – especially on the back of Johnny Depp’s involvement – and shooting started in October of 2000. On day one, jet fighters doing drills for a nearby military base made the sound unusable. On day two, a flash flood destroyed the set, a ton of equipment, and the previous days visuals were worthless as the landscape had changed drastically. In the first week, Rochefort experienced pain on set while riding a horse and was diagnosed with a double herniated disc. Foolishly continuing to shoot scenes that didn’t involve Quixote, the project’s death knell came when it became clear that Rochefort wouldn’t be able to continue. Production ended in November 2000.

The only positive thing to come out of the experience was that it was all documented in one of the most bittersweet pieces of film you might ever watch – Lost in La Mancha. Gilliam might as well have been attempting to drag The Fitzcarraldo up a steep cliff on the Amazon river.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009)

Whither Ledger?

Of all Gilliam’s troubles and tribulations, this one was the least entertaining. And by least, I mean it was a tragic loss of life that offers very little fodder for porn jokes. Star Heath Ledger died during production, but the film was too far along to simply replace him. What to do? Gilliam (no doubt with pressure from the film’s bonding company) had a radical idea…Ledger’s character steps through a mirror at a certain point of the story to find an alternate reality, and the scenes that were reportedly finished prior to his death included everything before and after he enters that other world. So Gilliam brought in Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law to all take a crack at playing variations of the character beyond the mirror. Or something. The solution was rather ingenious actually, although we’ll reserve judgment until the movie is released.

And now for something completely different… Our list of Ten Things That Will Go Wrong with Gilliam’s Next Attempt at Quixote:

10. Johnny Depp will suffer a triple herniated disc and be replaced by Colin Farrell.

9. Vendors, actors and crew will complain when foreign financial backers attempt to pay costs with Monopoly money.

8. Gilliam will be unable to afford using windmills as they are all owned by T. Boone Pickens, a man who also doesn’t accept play money as payment.

7. Colin Farrell will be killed in a freak accident involving prop windmills and be replaced by Gary Coleman.

6. Sandworms!

5. Clumsy midgets from the future will travel back in time to the set, and one of them named Vermin will infect the craft services table with E-Coli.

4. Gary Coleman will be incapacitated in an accidental shooting when he’s confused for one of the hilarious, time-traveling, virus-spreading midgets. He will be replaced by Jude Law.

3. The Ghost of Graham Chapman, who has haunted every Gilliam production since 1980, will be forced off the production by a studio hoping to attract the much larger marquee name of The Ghost of Heath Ledger.

2. Jude Law will not die.

1. Production will end, post-production will go swimmingly, and the film will gross less than Tideland did.

Editor’s Note: This list was lovingly compiled by Cole Abaius and Rob Hunter. Hunter contributed the funny paragraphs while Abaius’s are informative and probably involve obscure Werner Herzog references.

Second Editor’s Note: This feature would have been published two weeks ago, but there were several hangups. We’re contemplating doing a feature on all the things that went wrong while attempting to create this feature.


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