Interview with Actor Eric Idle

The sole Python member who made it into the cast of Terry Gilliam's MUNCHAUSEN spoke about that particular honor on the set at Cinecitta Studios in Rome in December 1987, and of how the troubled production was limping along toward completion.

eric idle

Morgan: Could you please describe your character, Berthold, the fastest man in the world?

Idle: I'm one of the Baron's gang he has to go and round up to try and defeat the Turks, and he finds me in a prison on the Moon, where he left me [while engaging in] his flirtatious behavior [with the Queen], which is a recurring theme with the Baron. But you see Berthold as this sort of younger man in the Sultan's Tale. He has to go and get a bottle of Tokay wine from Belgrade, come back in a hour, before the Baron gets his head cut off. He runs very fast like the Road Runner — his legs are like the Road Runner, and the top half is me. He screetches in, he plows up the whole floor, just digs a straight hole, he's running so fast.

Is he the sidekick, the comic relief?

Yeah, he's really funny. He complains a lot.

In Python you played a lot of characters who complained a lot.

Yes, it's close to my real character. There's quite a lot to complain about on this film anyway, so it's perfect!

How is it working with Terry as a director?

I was always smart enough to avoid his films before, but I guess with old age and sentimentality I thought, wouldn't it be nice to be on a Terry Gilliam film? Big mistake! He's very good, Terry, when you get to work, he's fine. The chaos of this film! We've been here since August the 31st, dragged in, had your head shaved, two hours of makeup, then you sit around for four hours, so it's a sort of Zen job — you keep going.

It looks great, I mean it really does look great. I always thought at the beginning of this film this would either be a CLEOPATRA or a very good film — and I think it's becoming both.

How is the working relationship on the set? Is he able to communicate through all the highly technical business that's going on?

Oh, on the set, it's pretty clear what you have to do; from an actor's point of view it isn't difficult. It's very simple, clear. The actors are the least of the problems on this film. In fact whenever there's a scene with just acting it always goes much quicker. The difficulties [are] with the special effects and lighting and smoke; the actors are absolutely easy. In fact we had three weeks of rehearsal before we started, so that any little wrinkles or problems people had were ironed out then.

Are the Pythons continuing to work together as a group?

Not as a film, but what we did this year, we got together again and formed a film company called Prominent Pictures. We just negotiated a big deal with MGM, they're funding us, and our first film is A FISH CALLED WANDA, a Cleese film, and this is our second movie, we're only vaguely involved in this, not as much as we'd like or should be, but that's mainly because of the circumstances of being in Rome.

Terry Jones is doing one, and we're just trying to make films out of London, using our sort of ability to criticize each other's work, which is the sort of most powerful thing from Python. You can actually trust somebody to read a script and get an honest opinion and a sensible read on it. And so we're just trying to keep that sort of thing going, along a slightly mature way.

What criticisms did you give Terry on this project?

On the script level, none at all. I read it about a year ago, and he was in a down period about it, because naturally being writers you always hate what you've just finished. Usually you go through a stage, 'God it's terrible.' So I was able to read it and say it's great, it's a wonderful screenplay, it's really brilliantly done. And you can't make a good film without a good script, it seems to me.

That's half the battle.

Yeah. You're starting off from somewhere good, you can improve upon it. So really, this script hasn't needed any help. What it's had is a series of revisions, mainly due to the shrinking budget, or shrinking possibilities of doing some of the most outrageous things he wanted to do.

I understand Michael Palin was supposed to be on the Moon.

Michael got cut, yes. His was a character that was an embellishment, so what's happened is the script has had to be pared more down to the bare bones of the story. Naturally you can't really afford embellishments. And what's the sense of, it's going to be a long film anyway. So that was a sort of sensible cut. It's not good for Mike, who was looking forward to being here. I told him last night he was very lucky!

So do you make contributions to the editorial process now to make up for the cuts that are being dictated due to the budget?

Yes, I do. The trouble with being an actor is it just takes up your entire day, and not because you do much more than two or three minutes of work a day, but because you're entirely at the mercy of other people. I spent the weekend writing an opera which the Sultan is now going to do in his Harem, a lot of fun, with Michael Kamen, called "The Torturer's Apprentice." The Sultan is going to be playing selections of this music, while the Baron waits for this bottle of wine to come back from Belgrade. And that was fun. It's nice, writing. I'll go back to doing that.

Do you prefer writing to acting?

Well, whenever you're acting you think, 'Wouldn't it be nice to be writing?' Just stay home, read the paper. And when you're writing you think, 'God, wouldn't it be nice to be acting?' To be told what to do, put into the costumes, got up in the morning, taken in a car, wrapped sandwiches.

The grass is always greener.

Quite true. So right now, yes, I'd like to be writing.

Were you familiar with the Munchausen legend before this?

I wasn't really, I was vaguely familiar with it, I'd seen the German film. George Harrison kept showing me bits of it, because he's a big Munchausen fan. He'd like to be the producer of this one, he's probably glad he isn't!

He kept giving Terry Munchausen books, but I'd never actually read the stories. What attracted me to the screenplay was just the very clever way he'd taken the stories and put them together as one tale. Because you don't know where one begins and one ends. They've woven that nicely through the screenplay, which I think is hard to do, to do very well.

I also think the WIZARD OF OZ did that; weren't there several stories? I mean this film if anything seems to be having that same quality THE WIZARD OF OZ had, this little girl and a fantasy, strange characters.

They've cleverly interwoven them, so you don't feel it's several stories. It's just drawn on the sources. So he goes into the whale, and he goes to Vulcan, and you do feel it's going somewhere because of the context in which Terry's set the whole thing, which is the conflict with the Turks and this little troupe of actors playing this awful version of the Munchausen story. When you first see Munchausen, he's played by this very awful actor with a silly nose, and you think, 'Oh no, it's not going to be this' — and it isn't ! The Baron comes up out of the audience, and goes, 'No, it's not like this at all.' And takes you off into fantasy. So it's good the way the fantasy and the reality keep [overlapping], so you're never quite sure whether the Baron — in one scene for example, we've finally beaten the Turks, and we win, and then he's shot dead. And we're going to a funeral and everything for him, and we cut back to the stage and the Baron says, 'That was just one of the many occasions on which I've met my death!' It's a nice joke. Very strange.

So I think it's going to be rather strange and extraordinary. Oliver Reed has been terrific, a wonderful performance. His Vulcan is really funny.

What has been the most fun of this experience?


Have you had any fun?

I think we had some fun in the early days. We did. Had some fun when Robin Williams came and visited. It's not really fun, it's a job, you know — it's not supposed to be fun. We're supposed to be giving fun. But it isn't the sort of thing that you can feel you work on a scene, because they're such big scenes.

Acting is always like that in films — not always, but frequently.

Can you look back and judge your performance at all?

Not really. I mean, it's just so diffused, that you don't get any sense of, there's a scene here and then they've shot a bit in Spain and some in the studio, so I mean, the characters themselves are quite strong to grip ahold of, but that's okay from an acting point of view, you know who this person is when this scene actually gets to you on camera. But you can't tell whether it's good or bad; you can never tell that.

[There's] a scene, you think it's acting, but a thousand horses have just gone right past my face! SHIT! It's like re-acting, you know? Here's one coming straight at me or what?

Because of the effects work, Terry has to convince you of what your character may be facing while standing on a bare stage, which may not be filled in till months later, right?

Well, he doesn't even have to do that now. What he really has to convince you is that this pole, which is the angle you can't really see cause in fact they're coming right through here, this pole is my lifesaver. The horse is just trying to avoid the pole and not the human being on the ground. So Terry came and moved it a bit. And I said, 'This is how John Landis started.' You just move the pole a foot.

Directors are like that really; you can die on films much more easily than people realize, because they really want the shot, you know? Actors are like cardboard, they move them around in a scene. It's not a medium for actors really. I like the theatre, or opera. Now they treat you very well in opera!

And there are fewer chances to die doing opera.

Yep! There are. It all helps motivate us. I'm playing vaguely a coward, [and] it's very easy to convince yourself you're terrified when the entire Spanish Cavalry is standing at your head!

But Terry doesn't really have to spend his time talking to the actors. His main obsession is, am I getting the scene right? Or what camera moves will he use, is there enough smoke, is it looking great? He gets great performances in his films but sort of peripherally, I think. The films are the stars, and what Terry's doing, and I think rightly so. He has a good eye. He'll never make a film about four people emoting very heavily in a room, not unless he had them covered in blood and put five buckets of smoke in.

So I mean our job basically is to reassure Terry at the end of the day; we go and have dinner with him and cheer him up. Will we get out of this alive? Some days you think you will, and some days you wish you wouldn't!


In addition to his acting roles (including NUNS ON THE RUN, THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, and in Hollywood paychecks like CASPER, Idle was the Pythons' key to conquering Broadway with his Tony Award-winning musical lark SPAMALOT, adapted from MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL.

For Related Articles on THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN by David Morgan:

  • "MUNCHAUSEN At The Starting Gate" — September 1987 interview with Gilliam, before the madness set in

  • "The Mad Adventures Of Terry Gilliam" — On Location at Cinecitta (Sight & Sound Magazine, Autumn 1988)

  • The "Real" Baron — What do you do if you embezzle from royalty and flee the country? You write a book about a Baron who tells bigger lies than you do

  • Script Development — Analysis of Gilliam and McKeown's screenplay

  • "Shout For Your City!" — Even cities under siege need bureaucrats

  • Composer Michael Kamen on MUNCHAUSEN (1998)

  • Publicity — How do you sell a film about a character no one in the States had ever heard of?

  • Market Research — Audiences at test screenings gave their verdict: What happened to Sting?

  • Litigation — Losing millions of dollars at the box office is no guard against people suing

  • Essay — Cover notes for the Criterion Collection's 1992 special edition laserdisc

    copyright 1987, 2009 by David Morgan
    All rights reserved.