When you look back Terry Gilliam’s embattled, Sisyphean career, documented in films like “Lost In La Mancha” or chronicled in stories of the filmmaker taking out an ad in Variety against Universal for holding “Brazil” ransom” and eventually winning that battle, one generally doesn’t think of the mythic comedy “The Fisher King.” Critically acclaimed, universally loved, and nominated for five Academy Awards including a Best Actor nomination for the late Robin Williams (it won Best Supporting Actor for Mercedes Ruehl), “The Fisher King” is generally not the film one thinks about when they think “beleaguered Terry Gilliam movie”.
But it’s interesting to hear its narrative in the context of those that were there at the time looking back on getting the film made. Out on DVD/Blu-Ray this week thanks to the Criterion Collection, the DVD extras paint a lesser-known picture: Terry Gilliam close to being locked in director’s jail after what “Fisher King” screenwriter Richard LaGravenese described as the “traumatic, devastating experience” of making “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” which went badly over budget.
In fact, “The Fisher King” was Gilliam’s first Hollywood experience and the first film he did not self-generate, a rule he broke for himself. According to the DVD extra interviews, producer Lynda Obst had to fight Tri-Star tooth and nail to hire Gilliam because the same exec had worked with him on ‘Munchausen’ and said “over my dead body” would he land the gig. Eventually, Obst, producer Debra Hill and screenwriter LaGravenese got their man, got their way, and were part of what’s become a classic and magical touchstone in Gilliam’s career.
Set in a fairy tale New York that’s ultra grim and highly stylized, “The Fisher King” centers on a disgraced radio deejay (Jeff Bridges) who finds personal salvation after he is saved from death by a strange vagabond (Robin Williams) who takes him into a dark, extraordinary quest for the Holy Grail. The fantastical movie also features two romantic subplots with Mercedes Ruehl and Amanda Plummer and could arguably be called Gilliam’s most creative and yet crowd-pleasing film despite its lack of his trademark visual effects. “Fisher King” is his most humanist, most soulful film, mostly a four-hander about damaged people with a compassionate worldview. On the eve of the Criterion release, we spoke to Gilliam about the making of “The Fisher King,” working with the late Robin Williams, his butting-heads relationship with Hollywood and much, much more.
Gilliam: Where are you calling from?
New York, which is a good segue since its such a quintessential New York movie, though not the in a Woody Allen sense. More in the way you celebrate its dilapidated corners and are eager to explore its steamy and sweaty underbelly.
Is it all sunshiny and happy and sweet and pastel colors now?
Not quite, but it is Starbucks-ified and commodified obviously. Your vision of New York has a lot of character.
The one thing we thought we’d done to make New York modern is the dance in Grand Central Station. They actually do that now: on New Year’s Eve, they have an orchestra playing and people dance like right out of that scene. It started a year after “Fisher King” came out so we must have had some big influence.
Absolutely. That scene is now iconic. “Fisher King” is such a Terry Gilliam Film, but it’s interesting to be reminded that you were hired for the gig and it wasn’t one of your own creations.
Yeah. I was in a depressed mood because I’d made ‘Munchausen’ and the studio basically dumped it. So I thought my film career was finally over and I’m finished. My agent started sending me scripts and they were trying to get me to do the “The Addams Family” [but] they kept delaying sending the script until it was perfect. And it didn’t make a difference, I wasn’t interested. And he sent this other script, an interesting bit of writing. I started reading and I stayed up till—I don’t know what time in the morning it was— I thought this is really great writing. That was Richard LaGravenese’s first ever script. He had written it on spec. I said, “I really like this, I like these characters, I understand what it’s all about.” That was the beginning of it.
But I had to say, “Okay, I’m going to put my head in the lion’s mouth.” Because I swore I’d never work in Hollywood and so I did it: I broke all the rules I’d set myself and off we went.
Considering some of the stories, I’d then imagine this one was of your better Hollywood experiences.
It was great because it was so easy. Sure, there were special effects and stuff for the Red Knight and the horse, but it was basically, four wonderful actors, [and] including Michael Jeter, five. In that sense it was really easy.
And the script! Let me tell you, the script that I read had so many stupid things in it in their attempt to get the film greenlit! They turned it more into a caper, a robbery; stealing the grail on roller skates. There’s all this nonsense in there: “what is this crap?” It just didn’t make any sense. So I got a hold of Richard, I said, “What’s this all about?” He explained to me that these [parts] were some studio notes that they had insisted on. I said, “Let me see your very first script,” which he sent me. And it was great. “We’ll make this one instead!”
Robin Williams, his memory, his presence obviously hangs over this film in a different way now that he’s gone. What are your recollections working with him?
You know, when we were doing this newer, cleaned up Criterion version, I had to look at the movie again and it was literally just a couple weeks after Robin died. I was not looking forward to it. I just thought, “Oh, this is going to be a killer.” But I came out, I was just grinning and smiling. Robin’s alive, he’ll be alive forever with this film. That character, Parry, is so Robin, he’s such a complete cross section of who Robin was. It was joyous watching it again. In the end, I thought, “Wow, this is a great monument to Robin.”
Working with him… I think the real reason they hired me, was that I was the bait to lure Robin in. We just worked together on ‘Munchausen.’ I was the honey trap. That was easy. Robin was right there for the get-go. To me then the biggest thing was to make sure Robin and I didn’t float off into the ether there. We just could wind each other up brilliantly and just get extremely silly. Jeff was the anchor, that’s why Jeff was so important; he became the anchor to keep the whole film, Robin, myself grounded.
So you had to curb your improvisational and manic tendencies? Rein Robin in a bit?
Oh yeah. With Robin, there was this volcano of ideas and stuff all ready to pour out all the time. I’d would find that sometimes after about five or six takes I’d say, “Okay Robin just go for it, just do whatever you want.” Then he’d get it out of his system, that was the good thing. I said, “Well, let’s do one more take, leave one or two of those things in, I’ll tell you which one and then we’ll go back to the script because the script is still the bible of this baby.” It was really important because Robin, always felt he had to give more because I think the fans expected more. They wanted all the facets of himself. I could say, “No, come on you got to stick to character here.” And he did. Jeff was such a good balance for him because Jeff never would break character and Robin would always watch Jeff and always be, “Okay, okay I’ll keep calm here and stop trying to be funny for the sake of being funny, just be true to the character.” We got through it, it was wonderful.
Actually, one night Robin was finished early so he went uptown to do a comedy set. “I’m going to be up on the east side, I just got to do a stand up routine, just to get the stuff out of my system.” I was in disbelief, so me, Jeff, his brother Beau Bridges and an unsuspecting audience were treated to a surprise 45-minute impromptu stand-up. He was brilliant. He had to get all these ideas out of his system every so often otherwise he’d explode.
In the Criterion extras, LaGravenese remembers you saying something to the effect, “this was not a Terry Gilliam film,” you were making someone else’s script, someone else’s story. But it is still very much a Terry Gilliam film.
I just loved those characters when I read Richard’s script. I know these people, I understand them. I’m really a bit of all of them. Richard, this is his first film and I him kept around the set the whole time, I said, “Rich, this is your film and I don’t want to fuck it up. Every time I have an idea I’m going to throw it past you and if you’re comfortable with it, we will go, but otherwise you got to be the one monitoring what’s going on here.”
That’s unusual and very generous on a Hollywood production.
Having been in Monty Python and all the writers being first, you just appreciate what writing is about. I know how the system really doesn’t respect writers: at least Hollywood doesn’t. Directors tend to be ego maniacs who are trying to make their film, so everything in me was rebelling against who I was supposed to be. It was a nice way of working because I felt it was a true collaboration. That was the key thing with the cast, with Mercedes [Ruehl,] Amanda [Plummer] and Robin. They just held the whole thing together and I tried to just be there to support them and not impose myself on it, but I failed. Obviously it’s me is all over that picture.
Afterwards, Mercedes wins an Oscar, Robin is nominated for Best Actor and the movie gets five nominations total. Did that put you back in the good books with Hollywood?
Oh yeah. I mean Hollywood loves success. It’s as simple as that. “Brazil” was my Gilliam-the-bad-boy-who-took-on-the-studios and won [movie], which is not allowed. So ‘Munchausen’ was my comeuppance and I think it was like Orson Welles “Magnificent Ambersons.” So “Fisher King” was my chance to be redeemed.
That’s how it works. We were number one for, I don’t know how many weeks, and that makes a big difference. You’re on an easy path, going to do whatever else you do next. That’s the irony of the whole thing, because I’ve never been a great fan of Hollywood and yet the films I made in Hollywood, “Fisher King” and “Twelve Monkeys,” are the easy ones. Because I had the money, I wasn’t scrambling around and they were well supported. They were both big successes. My relationship is a bit strained, probably self-destructive, when it comes to dealing with Hollywood. I should relax, embrace the place and continue.
Much has been written about it, but to be fair, would you characterize your relationship with Hollywood over the years, maybe as being antagonistic?
Oh yeah. I mean, I hated Hollywood and it was always like that. That was the result of having grown up in South Fernando Valley. I’m seeing Hollywood over the hills there and longing for it, and yet hating the way the system works and a lot of the kind of films that were heralded. It was only after “Time Bandits” which we made completely outside of the system that I went to Hollywood. “Time Bandits” in America is still the biggest hit of any of the films that I’ve done in America profits-wise.
It was only after the success of “Time Bandits” that I went up to Hollywood for the first time. I rang up all the heads of most of the studios and said, “Hi, I’d like to come and have a talk.” Of course, they couldn’t wait to talk to the guy who just had this huge success. Then I’d sit and talk to them and they kept waiting for me to pitch my next movie, they were really dumbfounded that I had no movie to pitch. I said, “I just want to meet you, so when I have to pick up a phone and talk to you in the future, I know what you’re like.” They really thought I was mad.
Have your films have been embattled because you’re almost square pegging it, like you’ve got these ideas that are grand and big and Hollywood is small, in terms of their vision?
My problem always is just that I really want to control what I do, it’s a simple fact. My argument has always been: my mistakes I think are more interesting than studio executive’s mistakes. It just seems, if you’re going to hire someone, trust them. It’s like with me directing, the people I hire or choose to work with, I then let them do what they do, what they’re good at. I don’t try to control it. I mean, I work in a totally collaborative way. I find the studios are basically peopled by very nervous executives who are paid much more than their worth and they’re terrified in being involved in something that doesn’t succeed. They’re all over you the whole time. I find it very difficult to work like that.
How much do you think Hollywood has changed?
It’s terrible. I mean, I used to complain about them, but now it’s just they’re so frightened. I think they’re worse now, even when we were doing “Fisher King,” there were people there with real character, interesting people running studios and working there. Now I find there’s just drones, there seems to be nobody with any big ideas, it’s just repetition, repetition. Throwing huge amounts of money at things.
And now you have this whole system where everyone wants to do the cinematic universe thing because of Marvel.
Yeah, I know. Listen I love comic books, but when they dominate cinemas, like they do now, just the Marvel universe taking over, I just find it ridiculous. The difficulty is if you’re outside the system or doing smaller films, they’re really hard to get through because you’re competing with $80 million in advertising. That’s why the really talented people are now drifting towards TV.
Do you ever regret agreeing to be part of the documentary “Man Of La Mancha” which documented in excruciating detail the failure of “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”? Maybe in a way it crystallized your narrative—the “mad man,” the “risk taker” or however some might see it? How do you feel about that movie?
Well, I think the narrative… listen those stories are waiting there all the time. Especially Hollywood which loves to put you in a box with these kinds of stories. I’m apparently trouble, I’m Quixote-esque and mad, ridiculous, and a talent that should be doing many more Marvel films. I don’t really worry about it, I don’t think about it. The ‘Quixote’ thing is my madness, there’s no question about that. It’s been twenty-five years and I’m still on course to make it. [ed. Note, you can read more about ‘Quixote’ here]
When you look at the standards of Hollywood acceptance and success, “Fisher King” kind of looks like your most Hollywood effort in comparison to the others. Relatively of course.
It was perverse. It was interesting: the producers were two women, it was a script written by a first time script writer. It was me going into Hollywood just out of sheer perverseness, to break all my own rules. Then we ended up with something that was just beautiful. The heart of it was that script, Richard’s script was there and I always said, casting the right people would be the trick for it. I just hope I didn’t fuck up everybody else. I kind of think I didn’t fuck up too badly.
Is there a film maybe that you think is overlooked in your body of work that you think that could use a second chance in this kind of Criterion setting? Because these releases gives the audience a second chance to reevaluate things and also a critical reevaluation.
Oh yeah. I’ve, well I’d be quite happy if they did “Tideland,” ‘Parnassus’ and ‘Zero Thereom.’ Get on with it guys. I think [“The Imaginarium of Doctor] Parnassus” is the one that I feel got some, got short shrift. It was handled so badly by Sony [Pictures] Classics. In Italy they made twice the money than they did in the U.S., which is impossible. It was interesting to see how the selling of the film really seemed to make all the difference in people’s perception of something.
It reminded me a little bit of ‘Munchausen’ because again, the studio effectively dumped ‘Munchausen.’ They did a hundred seventeen prints in all. But over the years, I bump into people it’s one of their favorite films of mine. I think most of my films tend to age well. “Fear And Loathing In Los Vegas” was a box office disaster, ten million dollars is all it made. But it’s considered a classic now [laughs].
What about director’s cuts? Are there any in the vaults? Maybe something like your version of “The Brothers Grimm”?
‘Brothers Grimm’ was so an unhappy experience. I really don’t even approve of the idea of going back and doing a director’s cut. Either you do it properly the first time or you don’t. Don’t put your name on it if you don’t believe in it. I think we did about as good as we could with it, however the shooting is where the problems lay. There is a book about [the making of ‘Brothers Grimm’] which is basically relying a lot of the diaries of Nicola Pecorini [an Additional Photographer on the film] and my continuity girls. I skimmed the book recently and I realized I was completely crazed making that movie, I was really miserable. I wasn’t out of control, but I just wasn’t enjoying it. So going to work each morning was an effort as opposed to pleasure.
It wasn’t a good situation, right?
No it was really bad. The main reason I think that I continued is the crew was really good. I just loved working with [Matt Damon and Heath Ledger] they were brilliant and a joy. I just wish I had ended up able to overcome my unhappiness with the situation. That’s one of the things I know, I’ve got to have enough air to breathe when working. If I don’t, I just don’t work well. I think I’d put that film lower down on my lists.
We talked a little bit about Marvel. You know they’re doing new “Star Wars” films now and it’s franchise, franchise, franchise. What would it take for you to be involved in one of those things? Would you even want to?
The idea of dealing with a sequel doesn’t interest me. I just think, what bothers me about them is they just an example of how the audiences have been so trained, dumbed down to just go and see the same thing again and again, rather than being adventurous and discovering new things. The system has been pretty successful in getting people to march in lock step, much more than ever before. That’s, it’s like the McDonald-ization of Hollywood. You know exactly what you’re going to get when you see “The Avengers,” it’s neither wonderful or … it’s just a Big Mac. You know what you’re going to get. That’s I think really sad. That’s why the cable stuff is so popular, so good because people do want to see other things. Here’s their chance to do so. What’s better than bingeing on “Breaking Bad”?
Next up for Gilliam? He’s still tilting at windmills and attempting his umpteenth making of “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” over at Amazon Studios and will be making some long form mini-series’ there as well, possibly his long-gestating “The Defective Detective.” You can read more about that here.
The Criterion Collection’s “The Fisher King” is available on Blu-Ray and DVD as of right now.