• Interviews

Terry Gilliam on the 4k Restoration of “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”

A cinematic Peter Pan gifted with seemingly eternal youth and endless enthusiasm, it’s difficult to believe that writer/director Terry Gilliam is 82. He was at Ora!Fest in Monopoli, Puglia, the first week of June to talk about the restored 4k version of his 1988 retelling and reinvention of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. The film is about the fantastic travels of a bizarre 18th-century aristocrat and his theater company staging the adventures of Baron Munchausen through war-torn Europe.

In the film, one of the stage performances is interrupted by an old man (John Neville) who claims to be the real Baron Munchausen. He protests the many inaccuracies in the show. Then he begins to recount his exploits, helped by his companions in his adventures: Bertoldo (Eric Idle), Adolfo (Charles McKeown), Albrecht (Winston Dennis) and Gustavo (Jack Purvis). When a battle erupts, the Baron manages to escape in a hot-air balloon with a young girl (Sarah Polley). Together they embark on a journey that takes them to the moon, the bowels of the earth, the depths of the sea, among monsters, eccentric royals, and ancient Roman gods. The film was shot between 1987 and 1988 in Spain and on the sound stages and backlots of Cinecittà, Rome.


As a director, Gilliam is also known for cult movies such as Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), The Fisher King (1991), Twelve Monkeys (1995), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) and The Brothers Grimm (2005). More recently, he wrote and directed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018). He was a member of the British comedy group Monty Python with Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and John Cleese. With them, he wrote, co-directed and acted in Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975) and The Meaning of Life (1983), among others. He’s been living in London since the 1970s.

Gilliam talked to us just before the screening at the fest in Monopoli about the beautifully restored film.

Is it true that you didn’t see The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in over 20 years, before this restored 4K version?

True. I saw it once again when we were finalizing the 4K version. As I was watching it, I thought, “This is a fucking great film!” It felt as if I hadn’t been involved in the making of the film. I thought everybody involved was so wonderful, and it’s my one Italian movie.

What’s the Italian aspect of it?

I was invited to come to Rome by the producer Thomas Schühly because I was a huge worshiper of Italian cinema, Fellini, De Sica, Rossellini, and others. And it was my chance to be in Rome and to work with the great talent that Fellini had assembled before. So I got to work with [production designer] Dante Ferretti, [costume designers] Gabriella Pescucci, and [cinematographer] Giuseppe Rotunno. These were gods to me. And so, I said, “Yes, let’s go to Rome.”

What were your memories of shooting that movie? Did you really incur as many difficulties as was reported at the time?

My memory of shooting the movie is that it was a nightmare. We had raised $23.5 million from Columbia Pictures. I had story-boarded the entire film. The first accountant said, “This is going to cost 60 million.” He got fired. The next one said, “Impossible with this budget”. He got fired. Eventually, we found an accountant who said it will cost $23.5 million.

What a great coincidence!

Right. So we began, and the shoot was 21 weeks long. By the end of the sixth week, all of the money was gone. The bond company and the insurers closed the movie down. And they said, “The Baron cannot go to the moon.” There was supposed to be 2,000 [people] on the moon, and the king of the moon was Sean Connery. And when they said the Baron couldn’t go to the moon, I became difficult to deal with. And in the end, I just removed three zeroes and made it with only two people on the moon. But then Sean Connery says, “Being a king of two people is not very important.”

What happened then?

Eric Idle was very good friends with Robin Williams. Robin was interested, and he came and saved the movie. But his agent said we couldn’t use Robin’s name in the promotion or posters of the film. Another problem we had was that Dante Ferretti had designed beautiful, huge, big sets that we were going to be building. We had all these beautiful drawings but we had no money to build these sets. So what I did is take the drawings, the plans, and we blew them up to about this high, about a meter high. We cut them out, put them on plywood. We colored them with felt tip markers. And we put them on little rollers on wheels. That’s what you see in the film. And it’s actually better than what it would’ve been if we’d built the whole thing. 

How was the arrival on the moon?

It was an almost surreal experience. And Robin was brilliant. He ad-libbed a lot. He was about 34 at that time. Valentina Cortese played his wife and she was 72 years old! But it was a beautiful marriage. It works beautifully on film. But the bonds company and the insurance were getting more and more crazy and threatened to sue me.


This is a good one. They threatened to sue me for fraud and misrepresentation.  They were going to seize all of my assets. My wife was in London, she was pregnant with our third child, and they were going to seize our house. That was just one of the interesting pressures on me when you were shooting.

Going back a second to Robin Williams, you said he ad-libbed a lot. Wouldn’t you rather he stick to the script, as a director?

Yes, I do, but if an actor comes up with a better idea, then we use it. But Robin was very unique. Robin was extraordinary. He was brilliant, and there’s so much of his performance in Munchausen that was not in the script. The film I did after Munchausen was The Fisher King with Robin Williams again. The reason I wanted Jeff Bridges in that film is because he functioned as the anchor to keep Robin and me on the ground. That’s one of the great things about doing what I do for a living. You get to meet and work with geniuses. Somebody like Robin Williams is utterly unique and I’ve never met anybody with a mind and talent like his.

Going back to the financing problems: it’s s incredible to think that Terry Gilliam – with his body of work – has difficulties in putting together the money for a film. Why is that?

I think most filmmakers are not as crazy as I am. Especially if you’re dealing with Hollywood. At any time in that little village of Hollywood, which is 5,000 people that matter, is that everybody seems to have, at any one moment, the same idea. I am perverse and want to do the other idea that they don’t want to do, so that’s why I make my life difficult. I think I’ve decided my job is to make all the films that nobody else wants to make.

You still have that passion and enthusiasm. Are you still working on something new?

Yeah. I’m always working on something to distract me from real life. I have a new script that we’ll see if we get it financed, but it’s about the world we live in now, which I find very absurd. The idea in the movie is God has decided to eliminate humanity from his beautiful garden which they have fucked up. The only person trying to save humanity is Satan. Without humanity, he doesn’t have a job. We’ll see what happens if we get the money and we make it. I’m excited about trying to make it, that’s all.

What’s your relationship with the movie industry now? Especially after the pandemic, the lockdown, the theaters closing, the rise of streaming platforms. How is cinema evolving? How is it changing?

I really don’t know because I haven’t been to the cinemas for quite a while. But I do think in the last couple years, the best work has been done at Netflix. There’s more interesting stories being told without big stars, and really good actors. Streaming has provided a lot of work for good writers, good directors, and good actors. So that’s not bad. I think the bad thing about Netflix is they’ve allowed Martin Scorsese, Alejandro Iñárritu, and a couple other people to make three hour-plus movies. Especially when you’re old and your bladder is not what it used to be! [laughs].

But you can pause…

At home, yeah. But I’ve seen each of those films on the big screen and it was painful! [Laughs.] There seems to be a tendency to make longer and longer movies these last few years. It’s very funny because I saw Bardo, Iñárritu’s film, which is over three hours long. There’s probably 30 or 40 minutes of utter brilliance, some of the most beautiful stuff I’ve seen onscreen for ages. But it goes on and on, and at a certain point, I start getting bored. I actually saw him after a screening and I said, “Alejandro, I think what you’ve done is made a film of all the films you’ve ever wanted to make, and you put it into one film.” Some of it is so brilliant. And it’s sad, because it minimizes the power of the film by spreading it.

Looking back at your incredible career, what are some of the other highlights for you, the films that you really look back with affection and love?

The film that made a huge difference in my career was Time Bandits. A film that when we wrote the script, no studio wanted to do it. We made the film, and no studio wanted to release it. And finally, we found a small distributor and they put it out and it went to Number 1, it was there for five weeks. And it was so fun to make. In the end, we defeated the system.

You had George Harrison financing one of your films, is that true?

Yeah. George Harrison came into our life when we were making Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and the head of the studio in England had agreed to make the film. At the last moment, when I was already in Tunisia preparing, building sets and everything, the head of the studio finally read the script and said, “This is blasphemy” and they pulled the money out. George Harrison was a huge Python fan, and he came to the rescue and he put his own money in. He actually mortgaged his office building and put the money in to make the film.

What are other films that you really wanted to make and couldn’t and you still have that dream?

There was a script that Richard LaGravenese, who wrote The Fisher King, which I think is still locked in the basement at some studio. The studios don’t like letting scripts go because somebody else might make it and it might be a good film, and then they will look ridiculous because they didn’t make it. And so it’s been in the prison of the studio for about 30 years now.

Is the studio system still the big devil? Is independent cinema the way to go?

I will work for anybody. Films are expensive. That’s the sad thing. I wish I was a musician or a better artist. You can produce things cheaply. Films cost millions of dollars, and that means you’ve got to work wherever you can get that money. I’ve been just very lucky because I had enough successful films at the beginning that people thought I knew what I was doing. But after Baron of Munchausen, all that changed. It had terrible distribution. At that time in the U.S., films were released with 2,000 prints. The studio did 117 prints for Munchausen. I got very depressed at that point. I was giving up. And then one of the studios offered me Fisher King, but I was the little worm on the end of the hook to get Robin Williams. That was my function. I always said I would never do a script that I hadn’t written, and I always said I would never work for Hollywood studios, and that’s exactly what I did.

Was it also a battle?

There’s always the final battle. You finish shooting the film, you edit the film, and then you show the studio and they say, “Ah, can we lose this? Can we change this? Can we fuck the film up somehow?” And the trick is to make sure that your stars are with you in the foxhole. As a director, I have only this much power. But with The Fisher King I had Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams in the foxhole with me. They couldn’t touch us. And it was the same for Twelve Monkeys, because I had Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis with me, they had more power than me.

There was a time when big power was with the director, right?

I don’t think that’s the way it is anymore, it just isn’t. There’s maybe Marty Scorsese, maybe two or three others. That’s it. The rest of us directors, we have to have powerful friends, which usually are great actors.

What would you like to say to the audience who is now going to see The Adventures of the Baron Munchausen, and why is this film still working today?

My films are like good wine, they get better the older they are. I think the Munchausen story is wonderful. I think the cast is wonderful. And it’s beautiful to look at. So you put all of that together and it’s like a fairy tale. And fairy tales are always wonderful. When the film first came out, I loved watching the audience come out of the theaters, and it was the children who were dancing. They were having so much fun. If you can inspire children, then occasionally the adults will follow.