‘I Couldn’t Breathe’: Sarah Polley Says Terry Gilliam Created Unsafe Conditions on ‘Baron Munchausen’ Set

"It didn’t seem possible that this could have been the plan, that things hadn’t just gone terribly wrong," Polley wrote. "But they hadn’t. This was the plan."
Sarah Polley
Sarah Polley

Sarah Polley has built an admirable career as an actress, director, and Oscar-nominated screenwriter, but her show business career began in earnest when, at the age of eight, she was cast in Terry Gilliam’s “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.” But despite the opportunities that the film created for her, and the movie’s cult classic status, the actress is still haunted by the film’s harrowing shoot.

In her new book, “Run Towards the Danger,” Polley accuses Gilliam of creating an unsafe environment on set, particularly for a child. In an excerpt published in The Guardian, she goes into detail about the highs and lows of the experience.

Polley writes that she was ecstatic to have the opportunity to work with a legend like Gilliam, and was initially enamored with him upon meeting him. But once they began working on the film, Gilliam’s flaws began to emerge.

“As we went into production, things quickly began to fall apart,” Polley wrote. “Terry was erratic, a dreamer, someone who didn’t live in the world of ‘logic and reason’ – just as the Baron himself didn’t. I would overhear the crew complain that plans, months in the making, would suddenly be replaced at the last minute with wild, ambitious impulses that put enormous pressure on the crew, the budget and the schedule.”

But those inconveniences were nothing compared to what would happen next. Polley believes that Gilliam staged certain scenes with little regard for her safety, often placing her in danger on set.

“As we were about to shoot a sequence involving explosives, Terry led me down a route I was to run through – the set of a bombed-out city,” she wrote. “I was told there would be explosives going off as I ran, but I wasn’t concerned. It would all be perfectly safe, I was told. I was given two cotton balls to put into my ears in case the sound was too loud for me. After Terry yelled ‘Action!’ I began my run as instructed.”

“Blasts of debris exploded on the ground around me, accompanied by deafening booms that made me feel as if I myself had exploded,” she wrote. “A log I was to run under was partially on fire. The gigantic blasts continued and shook everything around me. I ran, terrified, straight into the camera, tripping over the dolly tracks.”

Things go wrong on film sets all the time, but Polley said the most upsetting part of the experience was realizing Gilliam had planned for the take to go exactly the way it did.

“It didn’t seem possible that this could have been the plan, that things hadn’t just gone terribly wrong,” she wrote. “But they hadn’t. This was the plan. And I had just ruined the take. I was mortified. It took a long time to reset the take and while Terry didn’t show any frustration about the delay, he also didn’t seem to notice how scared I was.”

Years later, when Polley confronted Gilliam about the experience of working on the film, the director apologized for scaring her but denied she was ever in real danger. But as time went on, both her co-star Eric Idle and Richard Conway, who created the film’s special effects, publicly agreed with Polley’s assessment of the experience.

Polley wrote that as she gets older, she blames Gilliam more and more for what she experienced on his set, though she still acknowledges his creative talent. She now tries to balance the two truths to shape her view of the “Monty Python” star.

“Though he was magical and brilliant and made images and stories that will live for a long, long time,” she wrote. “It’s hard to calculate whether they were worth the price of the hell that so many went through over the years to help him make them.”

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