Terry Gilliam, then and now. ...

For, Friday, June 7, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: A new book by David Morgan is on the shelves, ‘Monty Python Speaks,’ comprised of a variety of interviews conducted over many years with the six members of the comedy team. It’s funny, as you would expect, but also quite poignant, as when the surviving five discuss Graham Chapman, who died 1989. Which got me thinking about my own interviews with the Pythons over my 20-year tenure as the movie critic for the Deseret News in the ’80s and ’90s. So I’ve been sharing them here. Following stories about the group together, and Chapman and John Cleese solo, we wrap up this series with the group’s only American member, Terry Gilliam, in an interview published in the Deseret News on March 23, 1989, under the headline, ‘Director says his “Baron Munchausen” is 80% his own fantastic invention.’ This was during the run-up to the Pythons’ 20th anniversary, before Chapman’s death. In October of this year, the comics will celebrate 50 years since the debut of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” on British television. (Take note in the story of the film’s $40 million budget, which, in these days of $250 million productions seems like a pittance, and the observation that in 1989 movies with extravagant special effects were a rarity. My, how things change in 30 years. Also, ‘The Watchman’ was finally made into a movie in 2009 but without Gilliam’s participation, and his Jason movie never materialized.)

OK. There’s no pretense here. This interview is to allow writer-director Terry Gilliam to extol the virtues of his new movie “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” a nearly $40 million fantasy that Columbia Pictures is releasing rather quietly and slowly across the country. (It opens Friday in Salt Lake City exclusively at the Mann Cottonwood Mall Theaters.)

But there’s another issue most of Gilliam’s fans are much more concerned about — will the Monty Python sextet ever get back together again?

The answer is yes and no.

Yes, Gilliam will likely team up once more with fellow ex-Pythons John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Graham Chapman. But no, it won’t be for a film, and it will doubtless be for the last time.

The possible reunion would probably be for a one-time live show to celebrate the comedy troupe’s 20th anniversary.

“Mostly what we’ve talked about is making a compilation show with new links that we’d write and perform,” Gilliam explained by phone from a Columbia studios office on a recent Saturday afternoon.

When told that Cleese, in interviews for “A Fish Called Wanda” last summer, seemed much more optimistic about the possible reunion, Gilliam just chuckled and said, “Well, that’s surprising because John has always been the one most dead set against getting together again. I think he’s just saying that to keep people happy.”


The Monty Python comedy troupe, from left: Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam

That taken care of, we return to “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” a film notable on several counts.

Taken from German folklore, based on tales about a real-life cavalry officer who fought the Turks with Frederick the Great and then would spin bizarre tales about his exploits, “Baron Munchausen” has the title character spiriting a young girl off to a series of fantastic adventures.

Heavily laden with special effects and quite magical in its own right, “Baron Munchausen” has its share of black humor in the Python vein, but more often the film is decidedly upbeat and distinctly Gilliam — and those who have seen his earlier post-Python films, “Time Bandits” and “Brazil,” know what that means: A unique vision in every way.

Gilliam, who was the Python’s manic animator, has the wildest imagination in movies today, and “Baron Munchausen” quite naturally features the baron traveling through space by clinging to a cannonball, has the fastest man in the world (Eric Idle) chasing down a bullet, Robin Williams as the king of the moon detaching his head from his body and much, much more.

“The vast majority, probably 80 percent, is (co-writer) Charles McKeown and my invention,” Gilliam explained. “The original stories are just a series of tales with no narrative connection. The characters in the original story are just the baron, his dog and horse, and in one of the stories were these four fabulous servants (each with his own odd magical power). And the sultan (a villain in the film) was in one story. But that’s it. From there we went to town.”

From his early script drafts with McKeown, “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” has taken up four years of Gilliam’s life. And mounting this film was hardly a joy ride.

“We had terrible problems. The film basically was not produced. There was no organization at all, no control over the money. In the seventh week of production we found the money was gone, and we still had 14 weeks to go.

“I felt like the trials of Job, boils and blisters and terrible pestilence were being heaped on this film. But looking back, it all came together surprisingly well, considering that so much of it was so last-minute.”

Ultimately the film was completed, but for nearly twice its initially allotted $23 million — just under $40 million. “Well, right or wrong, at least the money is on the screen,” Gilliam said philosophically. And he’s right — the film is an extravaganza of special effects, the likes of which we seldom see these days.

“We certainly wouldn’t want to let people down who are trying to destroy our careers by doing something simple.”


Valentina Cortese, with director Terry Gilliam (center) and co-star Robin Williams on the set of 'The Adventures of Baron Munchausen' in 1988.

Asked why Robin Williams is billed in the credits as “Ray D. Tutto” instead of Robin Williams, Gilliam said, “That’s just Hollywood nonsense, basically. Robin is a friend of Eric and mine, and he was keen to be in the thing.

“When we got into financial trouble we had to rewrite the moon sequence, which originally had thousands of people with detachable heads and a majestic king in the center of all this madness. That king was to be Sean Connery, but it was eliminated. So we came up with this new ‘King of the Moon’ concept and Robin was perfect.

“But this was happening at a time when adverse reports (about ‘Munchausen’) were being spread around in Variety and other trade papers, and he’d just won the Golden Globe (for ‘Good Morning Vietnam’) and was about to get an Academy Award nomination, and his managers didn’t want his name to be used to save a sinking ship.

“Now that the film is done and he’s terrific and gives such a great performance, it all seems pretty silly. But there’s still this contract that says he can be in the film but his name can’t be used to sell it.”

Gilliam also contends that “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” is the last part of a trilogy begun by “Time Bandits” and “Brazil,” though there are no linking characters or story elements.

“The connection is really in the main characters. All three are dreamers, fantasizers, creators of incredible worlds. It’s really me at different stages of my life, from boy to man to old man — all great imaginers. But that’s only in retrospect, I suppose, and I thought it would sound terribly pretentious.”

As for “Baron Munchausen,” which is bright and much more upbeat than the earlier two films, Gilliam said, “It was really made for my daughters, who were 10 and 6 at the time. However intelligent and sophisticated great chunks of the film are, it’s for kids. It doesn’t matter how old the kids are, it’s for kids. Some people have found it hard to understand, but that’s because they’re adults, and intelligent and sophisticated. What I know is that in fact kids enjoy it more than adults. It’s like a great picture book and you’re turning the pages. But adults are quite happy with it too.”

Next up is Gilliam’s first movie for hire — he’ll direct, but did not create it himself. “It’s called ‘Watchmen,’ and it’s this big cult comic book. It’s about these middle-aged superheroes who’ve been banned for many years. It’s all very realistic. And that’s what’s interesting … it’s actually fairly gritty, not in some never-neverland setting.

“I like to project and I like the script and I wanted to be able to jump right into something after spending almost four years on ‘Munchausen.’

“But I do want to do another film of my own fairly immediately about Jason and the Minotaur.”