13 Crazy Terry Gilliam Stories to celebrate the Time Bandits anniversary

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Jul 10, 2017

From being the only American in Monty Python to becoming the only director to, ummm, to take 17 years to film Don Quixote, Terry Gilliam has lived a unique life. For the anniversary of Time Bandits, I took a look at some of the most wacky and charming tales from Gilliam's storied career.

The Squishing of Shelley Duvall

Time Bandits' was considered Gilliam's first hit film, at least as a solo director. It was also Shelley Duvall's first role after her demanding performance in the Shining. Certainly, Duvall must have been anticipating a much less physically arduous shoot than her Kubrick-fueled nightmare, but things didn't exactly go as planned. One scene involved actors leaping from a scaffold and landing next to Duvall and fellow thespian Michael Palin. Gilliam was adamant that the leapers take careful aim so as not to land on their fellow actors. To show what he meant, Gilliam climbed the scaffold, jumped off, and landed directly on Shelley Duvall.
 
While this story seems humorous, it was anything but lighthearted to Duvall. She told Roger Ebert, "I could have been paralyzed. As it is, there's just a pain that comes through my ears to my eye, then goes away." This symptom, fortunately, faded after several weeks. I had the exact same thing happen to me while watching Shelley Duvall's Popeye, but the pain faded within two hours and only returns when I think about Shelley Duvall's Popeye.
 

Taking George Harrison's Money and Leaving Him Gently Weeping

In the late 1970s, Gilliam was having an understandably tough time acquiring funding for a film about time-traveling robbers starring a child and a troupe of little people. Gilliam was a fledgling director yet to earn Hollywood cred, despite being almost a household name back in England. Luckily fellow Brit George Harrison had his own film production company. It was created to fund the Monty Python flick, Life of Brian. Still, Harrison didn't exactly have the $5 million required sitting in his pocket. So the ex-Beatle took a big risk: Mortgaging the film company's offices, in order to have the scrill to make Time Bandits.
 
Such a great gesture requires a symbolic Thank You, and being polite Brits it was only natural that Harrison expected Gilliam to use some of his songs in the movie. In fact, Harrison went so far to write some new compositions, which his co-producer championed as the perfect soundtrack for the film. Gilliam disagreed, prompting a miffed Harrison to jab, "you remind me of John Lennon, you're so difficult, so bolshie." Gilliam agreed to run exactly one Harrison tune, but instead of being featured in a major dramatic scene, it would just be run over the end credits. In response, Harrison picked up a pen and wrote a biting series of lyrics about his true feelings on the situation:
 
I've got my mind set on you
I've got my mind set on you
I've got my mind set on you
I've got my mind set on you
 
Or wait, that wasn't about Gilliam. It was this song:
 
Greedy feeling wheeling dealing
Losing what you won
See the dream come undone
Stumble you may with the elementary
Lucky you got so far
All you owe is apologies
 
It's no "Something" but in terms of "songs that George Harrison wrote about people who eventually hurt him," it is definitely in the Top 20.
 

Crazy Plastic Surgeon Based on Real Life

In Gilliam's dystopian masterpiece, Brazil, Jack Purvis plays a plastic surgeon whose tool of choice was acid. Sickeningly enough, this was based on an actual surgical experience which happened to Gilliam's own dad.

"In the late Seventies, my dad had been through a nightmarish experience when a patch of skin cancer was discovered on his ear," explains Gilliam, "a highly recommended surgeon applied acid to it."
 
That reminds me of my surgeon (well maybe he's not highly recommended, but Dr. Van Gogh is the only one who will accept my insurance.) The doctor then "put a compress over the top and advised him to go sit outside the park for an hour or two while the acid worked its magic" (honestly probably one of the least weird things ever seen by denizens of an urban public park) "by the time my dad came back into surgery, the very edge of his ear was still there, but the whole lobe had been eaten away." Similarly, I had a time in grade school when my teacher told me coca cola makes your teeth fall out so I fell asleep with a mouth full of it as my science project.
 
Results were inconclusive.
 

Huge Man on Campus

Gilliam grew up in Minnesota, and moved to Los Angeles when he was 12.  There, in La La Land, he attended Birmingham High School. This Van Nuys school has had such distinguished alumni as Sally Field, Lisa Bonet, Jermaine Jackson, Michael Richards, and Sally "I went to freaking outer space" Ride. It was in high school where his unique predisposition for success fully began to manifest.
 
A straight A student, Gilliam proved to be as popular as he was academically successful. Despite attending a high school with so many shining personalities that their Friday night football games probably didn't even need stadium lights, Gilliam still managed to stand out enough to be voted "most likely to succeed" and Prom King. 
 
Adding to his already-stuffed high school resume, Gilliam was also voted senior class president. Yet more proof that a love of sci-fi is a ticket to popularity. 
 

River Phoenix

Naturally, Brazil garnered fans among ordinary viewers and Hollywood royalty alike. River Phoenix was one of these fans; Brazil fast became his favorite movie.
 
In 1993, Phoenix was working on a film called Dark Blood with Jonathan Pryce. Pryce, of course, was one of the featured players in Brazil. As a fun gift for his coworker, Pryce arranged a meeting between Phoenix and Gilliam.
 
The night before he was to meet, Phoenix went to a Los Angeles nightclub to play some songs with friend Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It was outside this club that a coke and morphine-fueled Phoenix collapsed and died. Why does everything bad always happen to Terry Gilliam?
 

Death Hoax

"Director Terry Gilliam, the only American member of the Monty Python comedy troupe and an Oscar nominee for the screenplay to his film Brazil, has died," read the obituary published in Vanity Fair in September of 2015. "Gilliam directed 12 feature films, often with baroque or surreal themes, including Time Bandits, Brazil and The Fisher King. His films inspired intense reactions; several were cult classics with devoted followings, but they were generally flawed enough to inspire loathing from those not on the same bawdy, anarchical comedy wavelength."
 
Naturally, this mistake prompted such fan reactions as, "he's just pining for the fjords," and "it was merely a flesh wound." Gilliam himself even quipped an apology to fans who had already bought tickets to his upcoming show. I know it's tasteless to use someone else's death to promote your rehash tour, but what are the ethics of using your own death?
 
Lack of self-promotion is probably why nobody shows up to Stevie Ray Vaughan shows, anymore.
 

Film School Subterfuge

While filming Brazil in Southern California, Gilliam was asked to guest lecture a film class. He readily agreed, and decided it would be best to bring an "audio visual aid" which was simply a not-yet-released copy of the film. Naturally, stuffed shirts at Universal had issue with this leak, and attempted to bar its showing. 
 
Gilliam pleaded with studio execs, who were so insistent that they called to check on things during his actual leacture. Finally, an agreement was made: Gilliam could show a clip of his film. Taking a liberal definition, Gilliam's "clip" was actually "the entire film."
 
The gambit worked well for Gilliam, who was in a constant struggle with studio heads over exactly what would and wouldn't be shown in the final cut. Gilliam began showing illegal screenings all around the city. A group of film critics saw the film, and awarded it Best Picture of the Year. This gave Gilliam the leverage he needed to get the film released in the way he wanted.
 
Sometimes, acclaim saves a film from a cheesy re-edit, which is why the world never had to sit through the "wacky buddy comedy" version of Moonlight.
 

Guerilla Promotion

Despite his popular acclaim, Gilliam had trouble finding an audience for his 2005 film, Tideland. It seemed like a teenage coming-of-age flick, but it had overtones too dark for the usual tween audience. Without a major studio backing the film, Gilliam knew that getting promotion would prove difficult. So he tried a few publicity stunts to garner awareness of the film. One of the most notable acts involved Gilliam walking up to a crowd standing in line for The Daily Show and doing a meet-and-greet.
 
"Studio-Less Film Maker, Family to Support, Will Direct for Food," read the sign Gilliam held as he shook hands and posed for pictures.
 
Unfortunately, the gambit proved insufficient as the $20 million Tideland managed to rake in only about half a million in revenue. Maybe hitting up a line of people waiting for free tickets wasn't the best way to recruit paying viewers.
 

A Shooting Disaster

After years in the works, Terry Gilliam is finally ready to his unveil take on the first (and maybe best) novel of all time. The specific details of the film's production is a comedy of errors that would have been lost to time... had Gilliam not hired a second crew to film the filming of the film back in 2000. That documentary, Lost in La Mancha, is available in full on Youtube and documents the various crazy things that happened on this film:
 
- On the first day of shooting outdoors, sound control was plagued by a next-door NATO aircraft target practice area. Undaunted, Gilliam decided to film on, and figure out the audio issues in post production. 
 
- This angered the skies, who said, "If shooty shoot airplanes aren't enough, then we'll unleash a torrential storm," (exclusive quote DO NOT STEAL). The result was a flash flood which rushed through the set like extras rush to the craft services table.
 
- The same week, lead actor Jean Rochefort suffered a herniated disc. 
 
The good news is, the film was insured for $15 million and there was a video documentary record of everything that went wrong. I do film the making of everything I produce, and I relish the thought of insurance adjustors having to look through 10+ hours of footage should they ever reject my claim for colon cancer.
 

Tragedy at the Imaginarium

Gilliam's curse of "actors dying/getting seriously injured" was yet to feature it's biggest victim.
 
In 2008, filming was well underway for Gilliam's mouthfully-titled The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Things were working great, the lead actor had even taken a special interest in putting in the extra hours to make this film special. Unfortunately, this main performer was Heath Ledger, who of course passed away that year. 
 
Ledger's acting buddies stepped in to pick up the slack. Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law all portrayed different "states" of Ledger's character. They even donated their proceeds from the film to Ledger's daughter. 
 
No doubt, Gilliam's spirits were buoyed by this display of teamwork. Maybe he even figured the weird curse that seemed to plague his productions has been lifted. No doubt, his step was a bit lighter, until he walked into the street and got hit by a bus.
 
The impact broke Gilliam's back more than any arbitrarily strict executive meddling ever could. Still, Gilliam pushed on and finished filming. He may have thought he was out of the woods, but he wasn't, as producer William Vince died from cancer before post-production could get underway. I don't know if you expected a punchline here, or something, but I got a joke out of cancer to end that last entry, and I'm not about to draw from that well twice in a row.
 

Taking Personal Battles to the Press

Brazil has mystified its share of viewers, and studio exec Sid Sheinberg was not immune to bafflement. When Gilliam's cut of the film came in six minutes longer than it was supposed to, Sheinberg took it as an invitation to utterly reshift the focus of the film, in a series of drastic re-edits with the schmaltzy theme of "love conquers all."
 
Needless to say, Gilliam didn't take well to having his well-orchestrated work of art see more shuffling than a casino dealer with Parkinson's. When Sheinberg dug in his heels, Gilliam undertook a full offensive.
 
First, Gilliam took out a full-page ad in Variety. Designed to look like a funeral invitation, the text of the ad simply read, "Dear Sid Sheinberg, when are you going to release my film, Brazil?" Gilliam then directly called out Sheinberg on a Today Show appearance. Sitting next to Brazil actor Robert DeNiro, Gilliam held up a photo of Sheinberg. Eventually, due probably more to Gilliam's illegal screenings generating a positive buzz and less to his shenanigans, Brazil was released as Gilliam wanted it. The Sheinberg edit is still intact on the Criterion Collection DVD set. Just in case you left Brazil feeling like, "this film was good, but what would have made it better is if it were a lot worse."
 

The Ledger Connection

The last line Heath ledger ever spoke on camera was an improvised "don't shoot the messenger," for the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Following Ledger's tragic-yet-extremely-calm-death, the film went into limbo for over a month. When shooting resumed, Johnny Depp took over the scene Ledger had been shooting. 
 
When shooting resumed, Depp needed to redo Ledger's unwitting swan song. Depp stopped after a take, thought for a moment, then asked Gilliam if he could improv the line, "don't shoot the messenger."
 
Many would have chalked this up as a crazy coincidence, but not Gilliam, "Heath is still out there. Johnny's channeling Heath somehow. I mean, Shirley MacLaine would love all this," he remarked. But really, the sarcastic Gilliam was probably thinking, "you guys are all unoriginal hacks."
 

Breaking Brad

One of the most brilliantly frantic performances since all those bath salts videos, Brad Pitt's short-but-memorable role in Twelve Monkeys did not come about easily. First, Terry Gilliam sent him to a speech coach... which makes me wonder what kind of career is available for a speech coach whose job is to make actors seem less intelligible.  
 
At the shoot, Gilliam still didn't feel the scene had enough manic desperation. So he hatched a plan to remove Pitt's cigarettes from the set. The plan worked, with Pitt coming through and showing an acting performance worthy of the tweaker hall of fame.
 
Of course, was it nicotine withdrawals that facilitated his performance, or was it the motivation to get his smokes back? I mean, if I were a speed addict and you offered me some crystal meth if I did a good job acting, you know I would be a 100% method-head actor.
 
With Don Quixote finally wrapping, we can look forward to a great dear more nutty Terry Gilliam stories in the future. Maybe a fan will quote Monty Python to him one too many times, and Gilliam will punch them. Maybe I will punch them. The point is, Terry Gilliam has been the perfect Hollywood royalty on which to project my anger issues.