The Mad Adventures of Terry Gilliam

Filming MUNCHAUSEN, And Living To Tell The Tale

Originally published in Sight and Sound, Autumn 1988.

Editors of the DSM-IV are debating how to classify directing 'The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.'

"I get the feeling that, a bit like BRAZIL, the making of the film is going to be like the film itself, where one is trying to do something impossible. Whereas BRAZIL was about a nightmare, this one is about impossibility and overcoming it, and trying to push through a lot of things and a lot of people who don't think they can do it, cause they're realistic."

Terry Gilliam obviously knew, perhaps better than anyone, the impossibility of creating his latest film, THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN. Just before shooting began last September, the director admitted what everyone has been trying to tell him ever since: the film just cannot be done. But Gilliam went and did it anyway.

Delays in the pre-production period only foreshadowed the greater financial and logistical difficulties once shooting started at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, and later during location work in Spain. Originally budgeted at approximately $25 million, the film has faced problems which were substantially worse than those of most other big-budget productions, and which seemed even moreso because of the press reports those problems generated. Being the largest movie to shoot in Europe since CLEOPATRA led to many unflattering comparisons to that troubled film, but because MUNCHAUSEN is an independant production — caught without the built-in safety net of an in-house studio film — Gilliam found himself struggling to complete his dream project while up against the same Hollywood bureaucracy he has repeatedly criticized and fought since before his much-publicized fight to save his cut of BRAZIL from that film's U.S. distributors.

As the film's insurance company halted filming for two weeks last November in order to reign in the spiraling budget and shooting schedule, Gilliam and producer Thomas Schuhly were threatened with dismissal. Rather than have the film taken away from him, Gilliam found himself forced to make drastic cuts in the screenplay, in order to eliminate or pare down the more expensive sequences. Even given the slicing and hacking, which couldn't totally prevent a budget overage of about $10 million, Gilliam is convinced that MUNCHAUSEN still stands as a film far more elaborate, more difficult and more uncommon than anything he's ever experienced or imagined.

It is certainly far removed from the quick, frenzied shoots to which he has accustomed himself, having to work now with new talent not used to dealing with special effects — or, for that matter, with Gilliam himself. An apt example of the kind of troubles this production has faced is the difficulty of communication on the set, which sometimes finds Gilliam on one side and the Italian crew on the other, with a harried interpreter in the middle.

On the set of Vulcan's arms factory during the last week of shooting before Christmas break, the smoke-filled atmosphere lit by the fiery yellow and orange glow of the furnaces is deceptively arctic, as Gilliam tries to get a single take to his satisfaction. John Neville, as the Baron, is sprawled out in front of the camera, being pushed along a track towards a pool of water. While the camera and Neville run through the shot Gilliam, wearing a beat-up down jacket, watches a TV monitor which shows the camera's POV. After yelling action, Gilliam's eyes are glued to the screen. He silently mouths the dialogue as Neville speaks. His eyes are wide and filled with glee; he looks like a child watching his favorite Saturday morning cartoon show. But his happiness turns to dismay and disgust as the take continues, and the camera moves just don't match what he wants to see. He huddles again with the camera crew. While his interpreter stands among them, Gilliam speaks animatedly, his frustration clearly visible.

The shot is run through over and over again. As Gilliam examines the monitor on each take, his happiness with Neville's reading evaporates shortly theareafter. He goes back to the crew even more incensed.

"It's nothing like in rehearsal," he yells. "I want the shot done right here as it was done. It is now 11 o'clock in the morning. You don't have a director. You don't want to turn over? I go home!" Gilliam storms off the set, with the actors sitting nearby looking somewhat shocked, though not too surprised.

"He knows just what he wants," says Winston Dennis, a huge, cuddly giant playing Albrecht (he also appeared in TIME BANDITS and BRAZIL). "It's the first time I've seen Terry blow his top." Neville's stand-in has taken the Baron's place, as the crew reviews the moves they're supposed to make.

"Of course, on the set, we're two little angels," says Dennis, nodding towards Oliver Reed. Reed rolls his eyes in amusement.

The next day, as Gilliam walks past Moo Moo — a cow tethered to a tree awaiting her call ("It was actually written as a herd of cows," he remarks) — towards the Cinecitta lunchroom for the only hour of peace he seems to have each day, he speaks spiritedly and enthusiastically, even when talking of events he would prefer to forget. Though visibly exhausted, burdened with the size and weight of the production (which is still only halfway over), he constantly illustrates his speech with an infectious giggle, sounding like a tenor Woody Woodpecker.

Morgan: How have you had to adjust your working habits since coming to Rome?

Gilliam: For people here the concept of the maestro is very important — this one man, from which all knowledge and wisdom flows — and I don't like to work that way. I really like working as a team, where people come up and say, 'What the fuck are you doing, that is really dumb! Why don't you do this? Or here's another idea.' People here aren't used to working that way, at least the people I'm working with aren't used to working like that. Visconti, Fellini...

Do they honor or expect a dictator type?

I think it's a Catholic thing. You see, if the director can be made God, then people can be popes and cardinals and bishops, and so the greater the director, the greater your popehood is or your bishopric is. It really is like that. So they elevate the director.

It's more of a team in England. Basically people have an attitude [there] that they are more or less equal, and people just always come up and say, 'Why are you doing that?' Or, 'What about doing this or that?'  I get a lot of feedback, a lot of information, and I know they give me ideas that are better than my own ideas. I become a filter of a lot of ideas, and certain things spark me off and give me a new idea. That's the way it works, it's this give-and-take.

Here I have to place the camera exactly, and if I don't say something, it doesn't happen generally.

It's loosened up a little bit. People come forward to me more but not to the extent that I'm used to, so I feel I start getting lost, because I don't get feedback. I begin to go crazy, because I only control my madness with a lot of feedback on how the world really is. And if nobody tells me what they think the world is, I have no idea what the world is. My problem is, I know what the schedule is, I know what the budget is, and all these things have gone wacko! Now, I don't know why I even worry about it because it is so far out of line, so over budget, so over schedule, so everything! But it worries me, and I get a feeling other people aren't worried about this. They don't see it as their job where, again, I'm used to people who would worry about that, [where] everybody is more involved in the total film as opposed to just their bit of the film.

But here it's only the bishop who worries about the money, while it's the pope who directs?

No, no, I'm the God, not the Pope. I won't tell you who the pope it. There's a definite pope. No, I've gotta be God. When I started here I said I was going to do the Cult of the Director-God. And when the Director-God is happy the sun shines, when He's unhappy it rains. And I started this thing as a joke, and it started coming true! That's what was really weird. When I was in a bad mood . . .

Is that why it's been raining the past few days?

You got it! Also, when I'm making a film, I can only see the bad things. I don't spend a lot of time congratulating everybody on all the good work they've done. And people in Italy are really great enthusiasts. They like encouragement and they like, you know, 'Ah, wonderful!' And I'm all glowering.

A balloon made from ladies' silken underwearAfter working for years with the same people, they got used to me because, I dunno, I think I'm communicating though clearly I'm not. We got used to working together, so that you could communicate in Neanderthal grunts and it works. But here, because everybody's new, it's a big problem, a big problem I didn't really worry about early enough. You see, I get very impatient. I want to do things fast, explain things fast. When you do that, nobody knows what the fuck you're talking about, and because people aren't used to complicated ways of making special effects, they're very worried so they want to work slow until they understand. And it slows the process down and I get frustrated and then I go crazy, and then I get pissed off because I'm screaming. [shrugs] We're still going.

We're in a strange situation. The film has gone way over budget, all sorts of internal political problems. Also the studio isn't a problem, because they made a contract, they're gonna stick to their contract. They've got the best deal, of this or many years to come. We've cut the film a lot. We've done a lot, a lot, a lot of cuts in this film, even before we started shooting. We've been trimming it down and trimming it down.

And I've up till now really avoided looking at the film. The first time in my life, I've never gone to rushes on this film. I go to the cutting room and see it on the editing machine, and we go through it in little sections. But I'm trying to stay away from it for some reason, I don't know why.

Is it that you're afraid you'll want to reshoot things?

Yeah, I think so. The most frightening thing is when you actually get close to doing something good, it's terrifying because then, you can just make a little mistake and it's destroyed. That's my feeling. It's like it's so delicate, and just one wrong turn and the whole collapses.

I don't know. Something about it that I keep drawing back from, and hesitating about this film — partly because I'm doing something that's public domain, it exists in a lot of people's minds. They have their own idea of Munchausen, and I worry I'd disappoint those people, because they've got their idea and mine is different.

Is that because this is the first time you've haven't done something that was your original story?

Yeah, well, that's the problem. That sort of responsibility of taking public things and using it, I don't like. But I worried about it for a long time and now I really just ignore it. We invented most of this film. He's Munchausen but I'm using him for my own purposes. It was too restrictive to just do the original, and the original has no narrative to it — they're just stories. There was no shape to the whole thing, other than this incredible liar telling these amazing tales.

I'm beginning to think everybody is getting a little bit bored with science-fiction and the same creatures that keep popping up all over the place, and what's nice about MUNCHAUSEN is that it's 18th century science-fiction. So it has a different attitude about things. The imagery is quite different than what people are used to seeing at the moment. It gets a bit closer to things like THE THIEF OF BAGDAD where it isn't about machinery — it's about people and gods and mythological things.

I just got more hooked on again my same old theme, Fantasy/Reality. Lies and Truth is an extension of that, and uh, it's about Old Age and Youth, also Death, Birth. All these things. I think that's what it's about . . . It might be about that. I never know, especially at this stage. I don't know, what the fuck is this? This thing's growing.

Do you think there will be more cuts in the script?

I don't know. We've just had another session this weekend where we had to give another little bit away because the film is being taken over by the completion company, and they need their little pound of flesh to go back and show that they're on top of it. And so we keep giving them flesh. We're down to the bones now. I mean, luckily we started with such an extravagant piece, there's room to trim, but the terrible thing is that the stories that I was most interested in were cut out very early on. There was a whole thing about a horse being cut in half that's wonderful. It's a great sequence. That was one of the main reasons I wanted to make this film — it's not there. It's still the same film somehow.

That happened on BRAZIL, but the cuts were made under less threatening circumstances. And I was in a position where I could decide for myself that we were going over budget and time, and we'd stop and make trims. This has been these "crisis meetings" where we've got 48 hours to come up with the answer, and 36 hours later there's no answer. So, 'That's it! Call the lawyers, it's all over, the film is dead, the Baron is buried finally.' And then, Bingo! At the last minute we've found an answer every time.

How is it comparing to the film that was in your head when you started out?

I don't know, it's much weightier in a strange way. It's not as fantastic; I mean, the original script is so baroque, it's so over-elaborate, it might be too much for people! I don't know. You sort of find things along the way and certain things change.

When you storyboard and design a film, do you take into consideration how much something might cost, or how difficult it might be to film? Or do you let your imagination take you away and worry about logistics later?

No, I sit there and I really think about it and I work out, 'It'll only take me a day to do that,' and then I think I know what I'm doing. And I've always been wrong. And each time I can convince myself that, 'No, I am right this time despite the past.' And strangely enough by then, because I believe it's possible, I am able to convince other people it's possible. So we venture forth on these adventures that are just totally impossible. But it's too late by the time people have discovered the truth, and we're sort of in it. It's very dangerous. I need people around who will question these things and I've gotta try to convince them.

One of our problems is, we spent so long on trying to deal with some of the special effects and the set-ups that the actors don't have any time to work. John Neville has been here every day for months now and he's worked only in little bits. And this is really depressing, because he has a really extraordinary character: He runs the Stratford Festival Company, he's got a hundred actors and they do 15 productions in one season, and he directs, he acts, he's an incredibly organized, wonderful man. And he's caught in this nightmare where he has to sit in makeup hours and hours and then doesn't get to work. And he sees around him disorganization, inefficiency and just chaos, day after day. It just baffles him, it's really rough for him. Because he's stayed away from films for years, he's concentrated on theatre. Finally we lure him back into films and it's like The Nightmare Come True. Everything that's wrong with Cinema, one poor guy is stuck in it. I don't even know what to say to him anymore, because I can't justify it.

I really like actors. This started on JABBERWOCKY right after HOLY GRAIL, working with Python. I went and did my first film on my own with actors, and suddenly discovered how wonderful they were. A good actor is incredibly vulnerable, and if you don't take advantage of their vulnerability — in fact you encourage them and give them confidence, laugh when they're funny and cry when they're tragic — it's quite easy and people start trusting you. I like working with British actors in particular because I think they're technically wonderful and then they're less 'Methody' than American actors. So you can be sitting chatting about the last football game and then say, 'All right, here we go' and Boom! They're right immediately into the character. They do the scene, it might be a fairly emotional scene, and at the end of it, it's over and we're back to talking about football. It makes it for me easier to work doing these technically complex films, working with people like that.

On the Vulcan dining room set, they are filming Uma Thurman's entrance as the goddess Venus. Standing naked on a giant clamshell, posed to mimic Botticelli's painting, the young actress is understandably nervous about her scene. In between takes, she keeps her composure by dancing a silly little dance on the shell. Her surreal act resembles a Monty Python cartoon, and the connection of this image is not lost on Gilliam, who stands dumbfounded, watching Thurman inadvertently recreate a piece he had animated before she was even born.

How did you get involved with filmmaking in the first place, in particular with animation?

That was just a fluke really. I was on a program ["We Have Ways of Making You Laugh"] doing caricatures of the guests, and they had some materials they didn't know how to present, and I suggested I make an animated film, and they let me. And overnight I was an animator. So they started offering me work as an animator. And then when HOLY GRAIL came along, Terry Jones and I decided to be film directors. We had never done that before. We make these quantum leaps and once your name is up there with the credits and all, people believe it.

I always drew when I was a kid. I did cartoons because they were the most entertaining. It's easiest to impress people if you draw a funny picture, and I think that was a sort of passport through much of my early life. The only art training I had was in college where I majored in Political Science. I took several art courses, drawing classes and sculpture classes. I'd never taken oil painting, any of those forms of art, and I was always criticized because I kept doing cartoons instead of more serious painting.

My training has actually been fairly sloppy and I've been learning about art in retrospect. In college I didn't take things like Art History courses. I didn't like the professor and it was a terribly boring course, so I didn't really know that much. But I've always just kept my eyes open, and things that I like I am influenced by.

How is your work with Production Designer Dante Ferretti?

Ah, it's great. I mean, Dante is fantastic. This is one of the reasons that I came to Italy, just the artistic side of things. I don't think the film would look nearly as good as it does were we back in England, because everybody has such an incredible sense of color and form and, it's wonderful. That's one of the good things about being in Rome, is that the film has been influenced by being here in Rome. It's a different quality.

Something was bothering me just about the physical location of the Dining Room, where the Baron and Vulcan are supposed to be sitting around a table with goblets of wine; it wasn't quite right. So something hit me that, rather than coughing out of goblets of wine behaving in a really butch manner, Vulcan is now in a room that's like an 18th century salon, and it's very delicate. This is partly because of this location we were sitting at. We changed it around, having him drink out of these little demitasse cups. Here's this rough, crude, brutish man having to behave in an 18th century civilized manner. It starts getting better and more interesting. And that's the result of a physical place.

Rehearsals of Venus's Handmaidens in their flying
harnesses, while Uma's stand-in takes his place on the half-shell.

You're sitting there and you're trying to force the physical place to behave as you originally conceived the scene, and it doesn't quite fit. You fight this for a long time, and you eventually give in, and let the place dictate a few ideas.

Dante is an incredibly hard worker. He just never stops. At first of course it was difficult because he wants to do his job and I want to do his job. But we reached a really good working relationship. It's great. He has incredibly good ideas. He's funny. It'd be nice if we spoke the same language. No, we actually do speak the same language. It's not Italian or English; it's images.

And your relationship with DP Giuseppe Rotunno?

He's incredible. His sense of light is fantastic. He's reached the stage where he's so good that he concentrates on fine points like one-tenth of one percent difference. He can actually just walk through this thing without thinking, I think, if he wanted to. I don't think he's used to someone like me, unfortunately. He has worked with more controlled directors. On the other hand, he's worked with Fellini, but Fellini plays in a different way. Fellini does have total control of the thing and I keep wanting just to be one of the team members. And Peppino wants me to be God.

Is one influencing the other more?

No, because he's making it as beautiful as I want it to be. I get frustrated because I want it to be beautiful but I also want it to be fast. And Peppino gets frustrated because he wants it to be beautiful and he will hold out to get it the way he feels it should be. So in a way Peppino benefits me enormously because he's holding out for what I really want, but how this actually works with the schedule is something else.

I get totally schizoid when I'm making this thing because I'm on two sides: one hand, I've gotta get the thing done in the time and money available, and on the other hand, I want it to be an incredibly beautiful thing. Because a lot of the time, what we're doing is telling cheap jokes, but they're dressed so beautifully they really don't look like cheap jokes anymore.

There's this one scene in this destroyed city, and the little girl's father in the film is this theatre manager and he wears this great long blue dressing gown. Standing in front of the theatre, he's sort of desperate because she's disappeared. There's bombs falling everywhere, and the other group of actors are around him and the little girl appears and he rushes out to get her. Now what happens, one of the actors steps on his robe, and he rushes out and gets caught and has to come back. Now it's sort of a cheap comic thing, but somehow because everything is so beautiful and stunning- looking, it's wonderfully funny, whereas it would be like a titter otherwise. It's a big laugh because of the contrast, because of this incredible scene and something as silly as that destroying it. It's a great moment. I quite like that. I think that's what a lot of it's about. You can tell the same joke, and if it's done like REVENGE OF THE NERDS, nobody'll think it's funny, it's just crummy. But if you actually surround it with beautiful costumes and sets, brilliant lighting, you set this stage and then you have this silly little thing happen; it moves up to another level. It's very strange, the way it works.

Well, that goes back to Python.

It's the deflating of something, and the bigger it is, the littlest thing deflates it. It's wonderful!

It was one of those things that was done, at the time it looked a bit silly, but when we actually saw it all together, it's wonderful. You lead the audience in one direction, their expectation is going, 'It's beautiful,' and then suddenly, whoop, somebody trips. Slips on a banana skin. It's the same old thing except you've been raised into a different world where it happens. It's funnier when it happens to the gods than when it happens to the man on the street. That's the way it works. I think all Greek myths were based on this.

The post-production and effects work is going to be handled in England?

Well, yeah, I'm bringing the model shooting back to England. We'll put it all in one place, so I can keep working with the editor and keeping an eye on the models. That's the part I really like, doing that. It'll be a smaller group of people, we'll have more control.

And you'll be home.

Yeah. And that's, sadly, the strange thing. In a way I'm gonna miss Rome. But at least back in London it will be stuff that people are experienced in and then you work with more confidence.

[Associate Producer] David Tomblin, the Experienced One [his credits include THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and GANDHI], he came on and he said it was one of the most complicated films he's ever seen. And to choose to come to Italy is a very bizarre thing to do. I mean, they don't have the experience. The Americans and the English are the only ones with the kind of experience that's necessary to make this sort of film.

When I came to Rome I was determined it was going to be an adventure, this thing. And there's a wonderful book called "Water Music"* about Mungo Park, who was a late 18th century explorer who found the River Niger. And in history books he's this sort of glorious character, one of the great adventurer-types, and he came back [from Africa] and was a great hero. And this book is about the reality of what it was like. Most of the time he was being eaten by flies and starving to death and having just a miserable, most awful time of your life. And then, you get back and you're a great hero and the press writes you up and even after a while he begins to believe that his was a great, glorious adventure full of swashing and buckling and wonderful things. And I think that's what this one's like. There's an adventure going on, but it's all tse-tse flies and leeches, bogs, and it's awful. There's nothing glorious about it, there's nothing in any way elevating. It's just a sort of strange struggle for survival.

*by T. Coraghessan Boyle, available in paperback from Penguin, and recommended.

And the English special effects guys are here, and it doesn't quite blend, because the Italians have one way of working, the English have another way of working, and when you try to force the two together — I mean, it works a lot of the time and other times it just collapses. Try to make a difficult film, plus try to invent a new system, plus trying to work with new people, is mindless. I don't know what possessed me. I think it was midlife crisis, it must have been, and something came apart. Something went wacko. Let's clamp on every instrument, the bag over our head, the left leg tied behind our back and, that's what it feels like. It's just foolhardy by all standards. I'll be glad when it's over, I say. But it won't be over for another six months.

Do you have anything to look forward to after MUNCHAUSEN?

Death. Always an optimist!

It's the first time I never actually had another thought in my head about what to do next. This may cure me of filmmaking for all I know.

What else would you pursue?

I dunno. I don't really know. I mean, it's actually reached the point where I don't know anymore actually what I'm doing. I'm just, I'm lost in the middle of it. I'm just going through this thing.

I think it would be nice to do something just smaller with a group of people that I really feel close to and all. My real problem is that I'm caught with these images that I want to put on film, and they're very complicated, expensive things, and I don't know how to get around that.

Is it about time for you to film a Harold Pinter play?

Yeah. I think you could put a couple of people in a room, that's it, and let it go. Or do Beckett, which would be even more spare.

No sets, a blank screen . . .

Yeah. Radio, I think. "Radio for Cinema."

Animation doesn't look very likely. I wouldn't doubt that I will oil paint one day. A painter, yes.

Actually one of the things that came out of this is that we've been doing a lot on this stage with sets that are just painted sets, and it looks wonderful. I keep thinking I want to make a film that's like that — everything's painted. It's totally artificial and yet totally credible. So it'll be really my animation and live action put together. I keep wanting to go in that direction. The stuff we did on the stage was so interesting because it was so effective, so magical in a way I haven't seen very often. And it would be nice to do that because it could be done cheaply. You just paint things, you do false perspective things.

That's similar to what Georges Melies did.

Yeah, well it would be really exactly what he did in that sense, only a modern version of it. It really sort of bridges theatre and cinema because it's artificial and yet believable. And people are so literal now and so into naturalism or realism. Theatre and cartoons have always been abstract things. Films are abstract but people think they're realistic or naturalistic; people seem to think you've got to have things that look real to be real.

I mean we're pushing this one into sometimes a very theatrical way or into the way of old films, like old 1930s or '40s films, that sort of stylization of things. But a lot of those films, when they start playing with style, they do everything heavy-handed and pretentious, but this is fairly non-pretentious.

I think that might be the next way to work. Really cheap. The cheapest film ever made.

On the studio backlot, the second unit is preparing a gag shot involving a seagull carrying a bone in its beak. Before the bird had to catch the bone; now it has to drop it. "The seagull's great!" gushes Catherine, the assistant director.

As the crew suffers the noxious black smoke coming from nearby burning tires and smoke flares, the bird (held onto by a nylon thread) swoops down in a wide arc over the camera, and lands about 40 feet away, amid debris left behind from a dozen previous Cinecitta productions. Catherine asks of the visitor, with a sort of laugh, "I hope you don't write how THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN went from financial disaster to end up in a garbage dump!"


The creators of THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN would go through many more mis-adventures before the picture was finally released (some might say, dumped) on the American market in Spring of 1989. Despite breaking house records in the (very) few places it played, its overall box-office gross was low, and even with cable, syndication and homevideo revenues it will not recoup its cost. Nonetheless the film — which is both spectacular and heartfelt — has earned a loyal following, as well as four Academy Award nominations (best special effects, art direction, costume design and makeup).

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 "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

  • Interview With Eric Idle — The fellow Python talks on the set about surviving a Gilliam shoot

  • 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 1988, 2009 by David Morgan
    All rights reserved.