MUNCHAUSEN At The Starting Gate

Three weeks before the beginning of shooting in September 1987, Terry Gilliam spoke of the impossibility of recreating the Baron's impossible adventures. Little did he know ...


Morgan: When we last spoke you said you had gotten the script to be as concise as possible, and then with the storyboards you were elaborating everything. I'd like to know how the present vision of the film differs from your original storyboard phase, now that such practical matters as budgets and shooting schedules have come into play.

Gilliam: Strangely enough we're still pretty much there. I've got to redo certain things — say we've got a city under siege. I drew the storyboard before we had the city. And we started designing it and we were going to build it. And then in the end we found a city which had been destroyed in the Spanish Civil War that's still standing — or semi-standing. That's what we're using now. So what it does, you get there, and 'Oh, that building, that'll work as the theatre.' Or 'That building will work as that.' And you start changing things due to specific circumstances.

We had one thing, a long sequence with the Baron we were going to do at place called Villa d'este in Rome, which is this incredible place with all these fountains. Now the original thing had no fountains in it, the way I was doing it; there was just a ballroom. And we found this location with incredible fountains so I've been changing it so the Baron and Venus are dancing amongst the fountains but in the air. [Then] what happened was we didn't get permission to use the place so we've now built a set, but rather than going back to what we were originally talking about we've built a set with fountains in it. So that's something that has been changing and growing. And that really is what keeps happening. You find something specific and it's nicer and you get new ideas.

Something was bothering me about the physical location of the place where the Baron and Vucan are supposed to sitting around the table with goblets of wine quaffing down. And as I was sitting there it was bothering me because it wasn't quite right. Suddenly it hit me that rather than quaffing out of goblets and 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 and I rather than swilling wine he's having them drink out of these little demitasse cups. Everything has become delicate, it's like it's become feminine. So it starts getting better and more interesting. And that's the result of a physical place you're sitting there and you're trying to force the physical place to behave as you originally conceived this thing and it doesn't quite fit and you fight this for a long time and eventually give in and let the place dictate a few ideas. And that's what's been happening. It is changing in little ways like that. And yet it's still the same film. The details alter and improve (hopefully), but the idea's still there.

I am a bit lost at the moment as to where I am, because I am daily go through all the movements and deciding this, that and the other thing, and once we get through it a little bit further I'll be able to look back through the wreckage and see what's really been happening!

Was there something you learned from the experience of BRAZIL that is being applied here?

Well, I just learned again how complicated doing that sort of thing is, and how much time it takes, and I learned that one should never do it again! And foolishly I'm doing it again! I'm convinced that I'm a real fool, I never learn the really important lessons. It's very strange. I have this ability to kid myself, to convince myself that this time it's going to be different and easy and we'll learn from past mistakes and organize it this way, and the reality is it never changes. It stays the same.

We're arranging this thing strangely enough with less planning than we had on BRAZIL, for a variety of reasons. And it's a much more complicated film, so I really don't know what's going to happen at the end. But I have a feeling that something's going to give in, and I'm not sure what it is. What happened was, we were very late in getting all of the money together. We thought we would be underway months ago with all the money, and it didn't happen. A lot of things have been delayed that should have started 20 weeks ago. So we suddenly find ourselves back in the same position as doing one's first film all over again with the same mistakes.

Is your cast settled?

Yes, that's all done. The Baron is played by John Neville, John has basically been running the Stratford Ontario Shakespeare Festival for the last couple of years. He's an English actor who went to Canada in 71 and has basically been working in provincial theatre, building up these theatre companies, and really hasn't been seen much in films for a long time. And there's an 8-year-old Canadian girl named Sarah Polley who is playing Sally, the girl. Jonathan Pryce is in this, Eric Idle.

Is Michael Palin in this as well?

We're negotiating with Michael at the moment; if his price comes down he'll be in it! But if he continues on his approach of ultimate greed I'm afraid we can't work with people like that! He's gotten far too expensive for the kinds of films we make. We're in a funny, strange situation — it's like negotiating with yourself. But Mike I'm sure will end up in it.

There's an American girl named Uma Thurman playing Venus. A lot of the others are the same sort of people we've worked with in the past. It's a really good mix, not a lot of big names, but Sean Connery is playing the King of the Moon. What it is, it's a bit of an anthology of everything I've done before, fathering the same gang together that made previous films.

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

  • "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

  • 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 1987, 2009 by David Morgan
    All rights reserved.