LOS ANGELES — Poor Terry Gilliam. People say that about the 64-year-old director so often you'd think "poor" is Gilliam's first name.
Now the question is whether his latest film, The Brothers Grimm, changes his image as a gifted but commercially hard-luck auteur.
Gilliam, an American who was raised in Los Angeles but now lives in England, has been acclaimed as visually imaginative since he started doing the surreally wacky animation sequences for Monty Python's Flying Circus in the 1970s. Moving into motion-picture directing, first for the Python comedy troupe (of which he was a member) and then on his own, he has made some influential hits: Time Bandits, The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys.
But he's also made others that have only achieved cult followings at best because of their peculiar, eccentric sensibilities: Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He tends to play with fantasy and reality in ways that can confuse or exhaust viewers reluctant to go on his trip. Since Hollywood is wary of eccentrics, he has had trouble getting movies made or being approved by studios for projects. (See the acclaimed 2002 documentary, Lost in La Mancha, which follows the eventually aborted filming of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, for an example of his hard luck.)
"In this argument about commercial films, what they really mean is a box-office smash.
But I've made nothing but commercial films — all my films have made a profit," says Gilliam, loudly and forcefully, to a table of several journalists at a hotel here. "That seems to me to be (the definition of) a commercial film — if everybody got paid, nobody lost any money and there's a profit." He then makes a disparaging remark about Hollywood's idea of a commercial film — Michael Bay's expensive bomb The Island — and laughs.
Here to promote Brothers Grimm, he's a boisterous and exuberant sort, frequently laughing and smiling at his own comments. He's dressed casually and with a sense of youthful hipness — a tiny ponytail hangs from the back of his head of short, graying hair.
Gilliam acknowledges most of his movies have made money because they've been tightly budgeted. By those standards, Grimm represents an exception. Its cost is in the $80-million range because of the elaborate special effects. Thus, it is a greater risk.
Actors and producers want to work with him because he is, in the words of Grimm producer Charles Roven, "Gilliamesque."
"All the movies he does have his sensibility," Roven says, during a separate interview. "He uses very wide angling; an intimate lens size for Terry is a 20. He goes from wide to wider to widest, so he packs a tremendous amount in the frame as a result of that.
"And (he) has either grossly or slightly skewed visual senses of reality. He loves to mix a certain amount of drama with a certain amount of comedy, and he loves playing with insanity versus sanity, magic versus not magic."
With that in mind, Grimm — starring Matt Damon and Heath Ledger — should be a perfect comeback project for Gilliam. His last film was 1998's Fear and Loathing, which received bad reviews and did poorly in theaters. This is designed to be more of a family fantasy/adventure picture, perhaps in the spirit of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings.
The actual Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm collected often-dark Germanic folk tales and published them in the early 1800s. This film is basically an original story (by Ehren Krueger) that turns the brothers into characters in a woods haunted by figures from their own stories. Some of it is very creepy — as when a monster in a well steals a little girl's face — and some of it is comic.
Yet Gilliam is in trouble again. The production first was approved by MGM and then taken over by Miramax Films' Dimension arm, which specializes in genre fantasies like Spy Kids, and slated for a late 2004 release. But Dimension disliked Gilliam's finished cut, and he disliked some of his FX shots involving models.
So it was shelved while he made an upcoming film, Tideland, a contemporary drama about a young girl whose behavior suffers after her mother dies of a heroin overdose. He then went back to Grimm this year to add computerized effects and re-edit the film.
Meanwhile, as part of a separation agreement between Miramax's founders, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, and parent company Disney, Grimm became one of several films that have to be quickly released before the Weinsteins leave to start their own company. As a result, it has the aura of a "dump" about it.
That's not the case, Gilliam emphatically states. It just took until now to finish the film. But apart from all this, there is the question of what about The Brothers Grimm appealed to Gilliam in the first place.
"One reason I tried to keep Grimm as close to the original as possible was because those stories frightened me as a child — but all had happy endings," he says. "But now kids are being protected from Grimm fairy tales as they were originally written. I hate the fact kids are being protected from fairy tales. They are an exercise to understand that the world is full of strange and dangerous and wondrous things, and you've got to learn to distinguish." ©