On the eve of the Cannes premiere of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Don Groves looks at the myriad misadventures that have plagued the film\'s director, Terry Gilliam, in his career.
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19 May 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

Is Terry Gilliam the world's unluckiest filmmaker, a perpetual victim of Sod's law?
Or is he his own worst enemy, an out-of-control egomaniac who strives for the impossible?

No director has butted heads more often or so publicly with studio chiefs on everything from casting and budgets to running time, than the 68-year-old former Monty Python star. “I always start with the best intentions, but then the money disappears,” he complained to the BBC a few years ago. "I want to put things on screen that are visually elaborate, but I\'m getting tired of how complicated that is to do. Every few days you have to compromise just to keep the film going. You\'re constantly shifting, just to appease the money people.”

Critics and writers who've observed the writer-director's oft-blighted career since his first solo directing effort, 1977's Jabberwocky, ignited controversy, are divided over whether lousy luck or human failings are primarily responsible.

“Terry Gilliam has had the most consistent luck of any director working today,” observes Film School Rejects.com. “Unfortunately, that luck has always been bad, catastrophically bad, earth-shatteringly awful, the kind of setbacks that any average filmmaker would curl up and die in the face of. Yet, Gilliam continues to create astounding pieces of art that echo through in creativity, and he still manages a blockbuster every now and again.”

The New York Times' Charles McGrath was less sympathetic, declaring, “Mr. Gilliam\'s critics believe that he brings some of his bad luck upon himself - by wishfully imagining that he can make movies for less than they cost and by seldom holding his tongue – and there is probably something to this. Mr. Gilliam admits to being combative, and he can be a little childish. (His production company is called Poo Poo Pictures.)”

If many executives in Hollywood can't stand Gilliam, the feeling is mutual. “It\'s an abominable place," he told the Times. "If there was an Old Testamental God, he would do his job and wipe the place out. The only bad thing is that some really good restaurants would go up as well.”

\"\"Gilliam and fellow Python Terry Jones co-directed the 1975 hit Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but that wasn't a happy shoot: the pair had some major artistic differences and other cast members had reservations about Gilliam's methods.

He feuded with the US distributors of Jabberwocky, rightly demanding they change the title from Monty Python's Jabberwocky, to no avail.

After 1981's Time Bandits apparently went smoothly, Gilliam was at loggerheads with Universal, which rejected his 142-minute cut of Brazil (1985). Eventually the studio relented and released a 138-minute version in the US but didn't support the film and it died quickly. Gilliam was vindicated by Fox's decision to go out with the director's cut overseas, where it did hit business.

His next film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen(1988), ranks as one of cinema's most famous fiascos. The budget virtually doubled after Sean Connery bowed out as King of the Moon and was replaced by Robin Williams, most of the cast and crew were violently ill, inept German producer Thomas Schuhly under-resourced the movie and elephants and tigers turned on their trainers. All that prompted Eric Idle to quip: “Up until Munchausen, I'd always been very so smart about Terry Gilliam films. You don't ever be in them.”

Gilliam rebounded with The Fisher King(1991) and Twelve Monkeys (1995), but Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) bombed. He then set out to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, shrugging off the fact that Orson Welles struggled in vain for 25 years to create his version of Miguel de Cervantes' classic novel.

\"\"On the first day of shooting, lead actor Jean Rochefort suffered a prostate infection and couldn't ride his horse. On the second day, a flash flood washed away the set. “It was like a punishment for everything bad I had ever done in my life,” said Gilliam, “It was like Job.” Co-stars Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis had to bow out due to scheduling conflicts, and the entire production collapsed in 2000, later superbly chronicled in the documentary Lost in La Mancha. “I always find that the process of making a film tends to echo the actual story,” Gilliam said, “And, in this case, I started to feel like Quixote, always tilting at windmills.”

Gilliam hasn't given up on the man from La Mancha. Variety reports Gilliam and screenwriter Tony Grisoni have rewritten and updated the script, and they hope to start filming next northern spring. Jeremy Thomas' Recorded Picture Co. will serve as the producer. Gilliam is in talks with Depp to play a modern-day advertising executive who travels back in time and is mistaken for Sancho Panza by Don Quixote.

The Brothers Grimm (2005) saw Gilliam battling with the notoriously feisty brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein over the lead actress (the Weinsteins vetoed Samantha Morton, who was replaced with Lena Headey), choice of cinematographer, Gilliam's plan to fit Matt Damon with a bumpy prosthetic nose, and final cut. The result was another B.O. disaster.

During a break in shooting that film, Gilliam made Tideland, a dark tale about a 10 year-old girl who's abandoned in a dilapidated farmhouse by her heroin addict parents. Trying to drum up interest in the movie, Gilliam stood outside The Daily Show With John Stewart studio holding a sign reading: “STUDIO-LESS FILM MAKER – FAMILY TO SUPPORT – WILL DIRECT FOR FOOD”.

Fate struck again in January 2008 when Heath Ledger died during filming of Gilliam's fantasy The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Production resumed with Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Ferrell representing the alter egos of Ledger's character. Hoyts will release the film in Australia in September.

Could this movie signal a change in the fortunes of Terry Gilliam? Maybe – although the fact that no US distributor has yet offered to release the film may not be a good omen.

View a brief clip from the film here (at 21:27)
(footage screened as part of the opening ceremony of the Cannes Film Festival)