‘The Fisher King’: A Sobering Fairytale that Radiates with Trauma, Warmth and Humanity

Terry Gilliam and Robin Williams on the set of The Fisher King. Production still photographers: John Clifford & Stephen Vaughan © Columbia Pictures Corporation, TriStar Pictures, Gracenote—All Rights Reserved

By Sven Mikulec

When Robin Williams died, the feeling that shook the filmgoing community, and was instantly shared by us here on C&B, wasn’t the same emotion of sadness and respect that people usually feel when someone that prominent passes away. We felt as if we lost someone we had personally known, someone who had influenced us and without whom our worlds would somehow not be the same. This was the quality of Robin Williams, the comic legend who also left a deep mark in, let’s say, “serious” acting. When he took his life a couple of years ago, along with the rest of the world we learned of the man’s inner demons, the Red Knights that haunted him, forcing him to a battle that he, exhausted and depleted, finally lost. It was then that many grasped the meaning of The Fisher King, Terry Gilliam’s heartbreaking drama that can be probably rightfully considered Williams’ greatest performance ever delivered. The film introduces us to a failed radio jockey who inadvertently caused tragedy when he encouraged one of his listeners to mass homicide, an event that, among others, completely ruined the life of a college teacher who witnessed the brutal murder of his wife. Upon the event, this teacher crumbled into catatonia, soon becoming an eccentric homeless person plagued by tormenting visions of the Red Knight and passionately devoted to finding the Holy Grail. Gilliam, the master of the fantastic who made his filmmaking name with projects like Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, decided to do something completely different, more modest in scale and more in touch with real, present-day life. Even though he promised himself never to make a film based on someone else’s writing, the imaginative script of then relatively unknown writer Richard LaGravenese forced him to change his mind. The result is simply captivating, as it was the first time Gilliam’s fantastic world merged with “ordinary“ life. The streets of New York became the setting of a harsh, traumatic, sometimes humorous and fairytale-like story where the wreckage of people, the burden of personal histories and the tragedy of life helped make one of the most memorable and touching movies we’ve ever seen.

Soon after Williams’ death, Terry Gilliam went back to The Fisher King and observed it in a different light, finding unsettling similarities of the teacher-turned-homeless-visionary character and the man who played it. “I didn’t have to push him because he believed that was true. He knew the darker side and what it means to have demons,” Gilliam said. According to him, it was Williams, with his utter and self-harming dedication to the job at hand, that elevated the role and the whole film into something much darker than it was envisioned in LaGravenese’s script. The Fisher King was Williams’ masterpiece, but the greatness of the film is equally owed to Gilliam himself, LaGravenese’s original and profound combination of the world of fairytales and harsh reality, as well as the masterful work of cinematographer Roger Pratt, who previosly filmed Batman and Brazil, both offering plenty of magic, and Mel Bourne, the production designer who specialized in finding and working on New York locations, which is something Woody Allen knows a thing or two about. With George Fenton’s music and Lesley Walker’s editing, The Fisher King was well-received by the critics, and even gathered a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for Mercedes Ruehl, who played the girlfriend of Jeff Bridges’ atoning radio jockey.

The Fisher King is one of those very special films we’re unable to forget or even describe objectively. It’s a dreamlike, magical episode cut out of the lives of ordinary people, deeply moving and sobering, and yet uplifting and tear-jerking in the best way possible. The reason why it resonates so powerfully not only with us, but with millions of people around the world, is probably the fact that, everything put aside, it’s a film that radiates so much with humanity and warmth. A rare and precious find in a world that keeps getting darker.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay for The Fisher King [PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation. We also recommend you to listen a wonderful and fascinating scene-by-scene audio commentary by director Terry Gilliam. There’s so many levels to a Gilliam picture and it’s fascinating to have him open the layers of creativity.

Loader Loading...
EAD Logo Taking too long?

Reload Reload document
| Open Open in new tab

Interview with Richard LaGravenese by David Morgan. Copyright by David Morgan. For related articles on The Fisher King by David Morgan: The Terry Gilliam Files.

LaGravenese: I didn’t think anybody would make it; I thought it would be either a writing sample or a very, very small independent kind of thing. And that Terry was interested really was a surprise and it sounds—I hate to be effusive because he doesn’t like American effusiveness—but I’m so grateful I can’t even form the words. He’s creating a whole world here, and he’s adding an edge to it, a visual edge that is so important because the script to me could have been so sentimental and icch! that it makes your teeth hurt, you know? And so, that’s the part of it that I don’t like, and that’s the part of it that he just will solve, you know? I’m really, really happy about that, and I was so happy to get his influence and start working with him on rewrites and stuff because we put back a lot of the edge and the things that previous regimes had made me take out. So the first thing he did was make me put back everything that my first development process had made me take out, which was great. A lot of the odd stuff, the weird shit, you know. So I’m really happy, and grateful.

How did the story come about originally?
I wrote two other, three other drafts with the same two characters but completely different stories and completely different supporting characters. And all I knew was that I wanted to write a story about a narcissistic man who by the end of the film commits a completely selfless act. And I didn’t have the story, and I couldn’t figure it out. It took a while. And then I read the book ‘He,’ which is this Robert Johnson psychology book, where this Jungian psychologist takes the Fisher King myth and he parallels it to male psychology. It’s a wonderful, wonderful book. He did a series—‘He,’ ‘She,’ ‘We’ and ‘Ecstasy’; I haven’t read the others, I just read ‘He,’ but it’s a wonderful book—and that was very inspirational on finding the throughline for Jack a little bit more. Once I found out he was a DJ, then it sort of wrote itself. But finding the story was hard.

This is your first produced script, isn’t it?
My first original, my own, yeah. I finished this and I didn’t want to give it to anyone, I’m just going sort of keep it in my drawer. My wife made me send it out. And it was right in the middle of the writers’ strike. So I like busted my butt for a year and a half, and then no one could buy it. That was a little frustrating.

What do you tell them, how critical have you been?
It really wasn’t even about “critical.” It was much more the feeling, and this is what Terry sets; he sets this tone and this energy of total space for everybody to share ideas and throw things in. But it’s never criticism; it’s more like exploration and finding things out, and ‘That was better than that’ and ‘That was stronger than that.’ It was like we were this whole unit, all of us, it was wonderful. I once asked Terry about the ideas from his crew and all that, all the people around him, and he says he feels that the director’s main job is basically to field all these ideas that come in and to pick and choose.

He terms himself a filter of other people’s ideas.
Absolutely. Even though he comes up with the most original.

So has this turned into a case of, it’s unlike what you would have imagined yet it totally fits with how you might see this yourself?
It’s everything I had hoped it could have been.

So having worked with Terry, someone who can take your text and make some very visual from it, how do you think it may be changing or expanding your writing? Is that expanding the sort of limitations you put on yourself, thinking that nothing is impossible?
Absolutely. Well, I’ve never looked at it this way before. You know, he’ll look at a scene and he’ll look at it as part of a sequence of several scenes where he sees sort of a universal tone, which I’ve never done before.

And he keeps reintroducing elements from earlier in the film.
That whole thing, exactly. And we’ve like cut things that maybe on their own were great but in context of this whole sequence just stuck out like a sore thumb. And I’m starting to see it more in those terms, and it’s been a real valuable lesson.

Having been able to filter the script through Terry, have you been able to add things to it further?
Hmm, let’s see… A lot of it came out of rehearsals, like the Fisher King monologue has gone through many, many transformations.

Where Robin explains the myth to Jeff Bridges?
Yes. And I’m still in the process of molding, we’re supposed to film it on Friday, and I’ve gone through a few drafts with that now and I’ve really been taking Terry’s lead on that. Because right now what it turned out to be was more like an explanation of the title, and as Terry said it should really be suddenly he just tells the story, so it’s now trying to make it sound just like a story—

By the fireside—
Exactly, and then tying it in to all the layers. I mean I didn’t know, he just brought out a lot more layers and connections that I had never seen before. Like at the end of the film, Carmichael the old man who’s sitting there is also The Fisher King. And at that moment Jack is his Fool. It just starts to unravel and all these other things that I had never meant to be, he saw. The monologue is a big thing. And of course with Robin and Jeff a lot of ideas come out.

During shooting, is Robin improvising a lot or is he staying to what has been written?
He comes up with a few ideas, and he tries them out. And he’ll do like, you know, a simple version and he’ll do a more exploratory version. But he always checks, and he always come up, ‘Is that too much?’ ‘Is that in keeping with what we all see this is about? Is it getting too far out?’ He’s really, really conscious of it. He’s not irresponsible about it at all. He’s just being wonderful. And of course he’s coming up with a lot of great lines that the script really needed. I mean, we shot something last week which was always the hardest scene for me, which was his entrance. I could just never come up with bizarre, funny enough stuff, and so I laid the groundwork and then he came up with all these great lines and now we saw the dailies and it’s just a question of picking and choosing.

They’re shooting the climb tonight, which Jeff had a great idea for, for as he’s climbing. You know how when Popeye’s doing something and he sort of doesn’t like it he grumbles? It’s like grumbling and every once in a while a word pops out? He wants to do this sort of mumbling monologue kind of thing which is a really funny idea. He comes up with a lot of wonderful things.

In the script it has, “Why am I even doing this?”
Exactly. It was more linear. So coming up with something a little more—that’s something I’m learning, to be a little less linear.

Well, the script is pretty linear; there’s not a lot of fat on it. It’s very straightforward.
Right. Thanks. I have a tendency to go on a bit! I have that insecurity that people aren’t getting what I mean, you know? So I’m learning that—it’s a cliche that less is more, but it really, really is. I mean I’m on the set and I’m the first one wanting to cut the dialogue, because you don’t need as much, you really don’t. I based Mercedes [Ruehl]’s character, Anne, on a woman that I know on Second Avenue who runs a video store, and Michael Jeter came into the auditions and read the script and said, ‘Oh, I know this woman, this is Annette! She’s on Second Avenue!’ He just got it right away. Weird things like this.

Does Annette know about this?
Yes! I’ve been telling her all along. She’s a wonderful woman. We lived in that neighborhood. I used to come into her to rent a video and she’d be like, ‘Darling, how are you?’ Like I was her son. It was so funny, a wonderful woman.

Did you have in-depth conversations with the actors about their characters?
I had dinner with Jeff about a week before we had rehearsals and we were there for hours going over the whole pile of script, page by page. He’s very good like that, very methodical when he goes over everything, and any questions he had. It’s a real honor, I can’t even describe it, it’s been such a honor to do that.

Where he created a history for this character, how he would get to this stage, why he would do these things?
What happened in the interim between the First Act and later, exactly what he’s been doing. Back up the story even on little bits here and there.

I like how things were so tied up, like the fact that he was up for this TV show, he didn’t get it, and then he gets to gloat over the fact that the guy who did get it is arrested in a men’s room. There is justice in the world!
Of course, there is order in the universe. I believe that!

Have you become more interested in the technical area, cinematography, editing?
I just listen. I don’t understand a word they say, but I love to listen and try to figure out what they’re doing. I have no understanding about lenses and things like that.

Now Anne was inspired by somebody you know. Was Perry inspired by anybody you know in particular?
It’s actually, this whole thing started when I went to the movies one night alone, and I saw this couple, this sort of retarded man and this very nice looking guy together, and I started, that really set something off.

What brought them together?
I don’t know, they were just walking, and they seemed very close, and that touched me. And then I wrote, and I started writing, and then I heard about RAIN MAN and I found out that what I had been writing was almost exactly like RAIN MAN so I threw all of it out and started over. That’s how the evolution began. It’s funny how you can have an idea, and somewhere across the planet someone has the same exact fucking idea! It’s so infuriating, that cosmic consciousness thing! —Richard LaGravenese by David Morgan

Terry Gilliam discusses bringing a myth to life in New York City. Published in Millimeter Magazine by David Morgan, March 1991. Copyright by David Morgan. For related articles and eye-opening conversations with the visionary director, as well as behind-the-scenes stories documenting his films’ production: The Terry Gilliam Files.

When we last spoke near the completion of shooting BARON MUNCHAUSEN, I asked what you had to look forward to. After contemplating suicide, you said you wanted to do something small, perhaps a film with a couple of people in a room, and that’s it. And now you seem to have gotten your wish—although you haven’t gotten to the room just yet.
The room’s always still in the future, yes. I really ran out of steam after MUNCHAUSEN. I think I had reached the point where I was ready to pack in filmmaking, I just was terrified of the whole process. Then my agent had sent THE FISHER KING along. He said, ‘It’s a really interesting bit of writing.’ And after the first couple of pages I thought, Jesus this is terrific. It looked really simple. With all the attitudes, the characters, I just simply understood [the piece]. Like this medieval element, which is a strange thing because I think it could have been done totally mundane.

But you’ve opened up whatever subtext the writer himself may have been unaware of, but which seems totally truthful.
At some point, I said that I thought that Richard didn’t really appreciate or understand the totality of what he had written, of all his themes. But he did, on an instinctive, subconscious level. But I sort of pushed it. I’ve just pushed everything further.

Do you feel more secure in pushing it because it’s not your own material? Like you’re testing to see how far you can stretch it?
No, actually I feel that I’m trying to be terribly responsible and loyal to the script. I said to Richard, ‘You know, all I can do now is fuck it up for you.’ I don’t want to do anything [he] wouldn’t have wanted. And it’s that kind of responsibility that is something I’ve never experienced. It’s really weird; I don’t like feeling that I could make a mess of somebody else’s idea, and the first couple of weeks I was feeling maybe that’s what I was doing. But we’re getting on somehow.

How is the film meeting your expectations?
My expectations were really just to have an easy time. And I failed at it. I really just wanted to do something very simple and I find that I can’t. No matter how hard I try, to simplify it and do it direct, I elaborate it somewhere, and put the camera in a funny position, make it more of this or more of that.

Yet your elaborations are not taking the story away from what it really is?
I hope not; I mean we’ll find that out when I stick it all together.

Is it progressing in terms of the story that, as Jack becomes totally drawn into Parry’s world, effectively becoming Parry, the film gets more and more skewed towards that point of view, where it doesn’t show New York for what it is but as Parry himself sees it?
That’s what I’ve been trying from the beginning; the minute Jack steps out of the protective confines of his girlfriend’s video store, it goes pretty weird very quickly. It’s like in the Parsifal myth: as a boy he sees the grail, but when he gets to the grail castle, he doesn’t do the right thing. There’s a clarity of vision when you’re young and then you lose it as you go on, and then you find it at the end hopefully; that’s what making the film is like. It was really clear in my mind early on, and now that I’m into it I’ve lost it, so I’m stumbling through the forest blind at the moment. I’m doing a lot of it by instinct. It’s true, that actually is what happens. I’m on auto-pilot right now.

And where are your instincts taking you?
I don’t know. We’ll find out. I mean, what you do is you make a lot of decisions early on, and set a lot of things in motion, but what happens is then other things start affecting those things you started out with; your original plan is maybe not corrupted but confused by reality. And that’s where we’re at now. I go stumbling on blindly, and everybody says it’s terrific, so I trust that it seems to be working.

You’ve worked before with a couple of members of the crew, but most are not experienced to working with you—a situation similar to that of MUNCHAUSEN. How are they (and you) getting used to it? And are you getting back into the drive of being able to shoot and work very quickly?
Not yet. Not the first couple of weeks. It’s going rather slowly. The team is coming together. It’s a strange situation; to save money they ended up splitting the show between New York and L.A., which ends up that all of the team doesn’t play all of the way through the film. I haven’t seen what the results of that are going to be yet. And I don’t like it because I’ve never done that before; I mean, you get a team and you go. The key people stay with it, but some of the lesser characters don’t, and I’m worried to see about that; I don’t know what’s going to happen. What I wanted to do was fight my fantastical side, and I wanted people who were really well-grounded in New York. Like Mel Bourne, the designer: he’s done Woody Allen films, he knows the nuts and bolts of New York, and that’s why I wanted to work with someone who grounded the thing.

You’re bringing out a lot of the medieval elements in New York: locations, the design of costumes, the character of the Red Knight, the castle serving as the millionaire’s townhouse. Are you finding other elements of New York to put in?
Not enough. I mean, they’re there but we’re not getting them on film. One of the most frustrating parts about this is that all my ideas of gargoyles and bits and pieces—it’s all around, it’s really easy [to find] in New York, there’s “tons” of it—we lose it; we can’t go to enough places and shoot enough things quickly.

Can a second unit do that while you’re in L.A.?
Uh, I’d want to do it myself. We’ll see what happens. I mean the film’s not over until it’s over. I might be back with a tiny group and get a few goodies. We shot under the Manhattan Bridge, at the base of that bridge, and it’s—well, it’s actually not medieval-looking but it’s sort of somewhere between Piranesi and Goya. So it certainly doesn’t look like New York as we [usually] see it. At an entrance to the side of the bridge there’s a great arch, which we use as Jack’s passage into Parry’s underworld. “Abandon all hope ye who enter here” is what it should have over it. We were getting very worried that some of the stuff that we were doing is a bit zany. And we keep trying to insert ugliness in it, and a certain brutality. At times the thing is like Alice in Wonderland and Dante and Virgil, it’s all these things. There’s a statue of Dante right outside my hotel. I can see him when I look out my window, in a little square right opposite Lincoln Center—there stands Dante.

Is that an omen of some kind?
Of course!

Are you buffered from the studio by the producers?
Yeah, they seem to be very supportive. I can’t complain at all. I wish I could. But I can’t. The important thing is that what they’re seeing has impressed them and they like it, and that’s the proof really. I mean, they were very nice at the beginning; I think they were very wary because of the MUNCHAUSEN debacle.

What did you learn from that?
What, MUNCHAUSEN? Not to make BARON MUNCHAUSEN again. I learned not to work with a particular producer again. No specific things, there’s no grand wisdom that’s acquired by that. You’ve just got to be more careful. But on the other hand, if we had been more careful we wouldn’t even have started the process, and there’s a film there at the end of it, which is important. So you can’t really say [the experience] was bad because if we had been more reasonable and careful and intelligent we wouldn’t have gotten the thing off the ground. [On this picture] we’ve had certain problems in the first couple of weeks, it’s just been really rough here; New York is impossible to work here, and we’ve, uh, slipped a bit. I began to think, ‘Oh it’s MUNCHAUSEN all over again.’

But you also have a much tighter budget this time, whereas MUNCHAUSEN started off with a blank check.
No, it didn’t. Starting off it was very carefully budgeted except totally unrealistically. The figures didn’t match the reality of what we were doing.

Is this budget realistic even though it is tight?
It better be. I don’t know. I am slightly at a disadvantage having never worked here, I don’t know what the money buys, but we’ve gone through it and it seems to be right. To be fair they, meaning Debra and Lynda, have not produced a film as ambitious as mine normally are. And I think it’s hard for people; they don’t seem to understand what it means when I say ‘I want something like this. Even I don’t; that’s one of the reasons I ask for it. But a certain naivete makes you think you can do it and if you think you can do it, you have a go. The last couple of days were very silly where we’re doing a close-up of Jeff in front of Carmichael’s townhouse, against those stairs which were built in California, with all of Madison Avenue behind us, with buses. The noise is unbearable, it’s ruining sound takes, and I’m shooting stuff like that. And I used to laugh at people who did things like that, it’s ridiculous; you could do that close-up in L.A.—just bring the wall back. But we end up doing it because everybody’s fired up, you’ve got to do it. Yesterday we did [close-ups] with the Knight on Fifth Avenue, and what you see on film, I’m not sure if you know it’s Fifth Avenue, which is very, very bad. But it’s to do with the fact that you get away with it, is why you do it. [The Manhattan Bridge location] again is a silly thing. We just stood here and said, ‘Oh wouldn’t that look nice as a background?’ Well what is involved in making it a background is crazy, and for somebody to say ‘You can’t do that’ would have saved us a lot of trouble; you could have done this scene just on a corner somewhere, but nobody said ‘no,’ so here we are. This little idea came up, I was watching rush hour traffic in Grand Central. There’s a scene that took place at rush hour, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if all these people suddenly started waltzing?’

And people took you seriously.
[shrugs] Nobody said no.

Are you expecting that one day somebody will come in and say ‘No’? Because on MUNCHAUSEN, nobody told you ‘No’ until it was too late to do anything about it.
Way out of control, yeah. The problem is the ideas seem to capture people, and everybody—not just me but everybody else—falls victim to these things. It’s weird; ideas do this. Then you discover, it isn’t just the waltzing; the pictures have got to look right. Then I want the lights in a certain way. It’s all the details. That is the difference in shooting it with bad lighting and shooting it with good lighting; good lighting costs more money. What’s interesting, when you work with good people, it doesn’t really come out cheaper because their demands are greater. Really good people are full of ideas and they work to a higher standard. And you pay for it; it costs money. It doesn’t come really cheap.

How is your working relationship with the department heads you’ve not worked with before?
The interesting thing with films is that the pattern is very quickly established. And because everybody knows that I’m involved in the design of everything on my films, when they walk in they know they’re going to be involved with me. I stick my nose in much more than a lot of other directors might.

So you’re not frightening them away?
No, I don’t think so. Good people, at least most of the ones I can think of, really like input. My problem is that I just have pretty clear ideas about a lot of things. And until I sort of get them I don’t let up. But there’s no way that I can credit myself for all this stuff. Like with the costumes for Jeff’s character: I wanted Versacci clothes because I wanted the most expensive, sleekest stuff at the beginning. Jack’s a guy who’s really a product of America’s materialism, all style and fashion—the best, slick, cool. But everything is monochromatic with him; there’s blacks and greys, no color. And I like the idea of trashing his Versacci clothes when he becomes a bum, which is really silly when you’re paying two thousand dollars for a suit and you’re trashing it.

Jack’s lost his job, he’s lost his home, but he doesn’t want to give up his clothes so he wears them into the ground.
Uh-hmm. I also like the idea of seeing these very expensive clothes look like shit. It’s been slightly harder on costumes for me because they’re contemporary things and I don’t have any great feeling [for them], and so Beatrix Pasztor and I would just spend a lot of time together, and Jeff is very full of ideas. Everyone’s got ideas, that’s what’s nice about it, and I just become the guy who sort of guides it through and says ‘I like that’ and ‘I don’t like that.’ Basically Jeff’s costumes are Jeff, Beatrix and I sitting in a room for hours on end, all shifting around. Robin, the same thing: Parry had to have this medieval aspect, and what’s nice is that it’s all real modern stuff. With that cape and that poncho and hat, he really comes out of a Bruegel painting. And underneath it he’s got this bit of gold lame, looks like some golden fleece or a bit of chain mail. And all that’s been good fun, to try and assemble what is believable and yet has this total medieval quality to it. It’s nice working like that. You know, I think a lot of directors just don’t do any of that stuff. They just hire the costume people, the costume people say, ‘Bum bum bum, this is how we’re gonna do it,’ the financing’s all right and that’s the end of it. I just think that takes the fun out of it. It’s always like doing a painting. You just want to have all the parts the way you’d like them in a painting. I mean, on this one, I’m paying much less attention to background than I normally do because it doesn’t seem to be what this film is about.

This isn’t a case where there’s always something going on very deep in the frame?
No, I’m not doing that on this one, I’m just tired of looking back there any more. I don’t want to lose the characters in that sort of deep photography; I want to keep them in the center. I hope I pull it off.

Are you finding that here, among the crew, you can be the team player you’ve been before, as opposed to being thrust into the position of “Director-God” as you were by the Italian crew of MUNCHAUSEN?
Yeah, I’m very much a team player, but because people don’t know me they don’t say ‘No’ early enough; they don’t say ‘Wait, hold on a minute, are you serious about that?’ or ‘Have you considered maybe there’s another way of doing it?’ One of the problems here is that they seem to respect me too much. The people I’m working with like the films I’ve done, and they think I know what I’m doing. In England people are much better about saying, ‘Well, why do you want that? Do you really need that? Hold on a minute, wait wait wait, let’s talk this through.’

There are no Devil’s Advocates in America?
Not as many as there are in England. I think that’s why I was lucky to have ended up in England, because they’re less impressed. Here people really are excited about films. And they do love this thing about Terry wants something! so then everybody runs to make it happen. And they don’t always think, ‘Is that an intelligent thing he was asking for?’ And that’s the problem of getting older and making more films, too—’The guy clearly knows what he’s doing; we’ve seen these films, and are impressed with them.’ The fact is, he doesn’t know as clearly as they think he knows what he’s doing. I think I’ve got to go back and do one in England where people know me better; because people learn as they go along but it’s all too late, they’ve got involved with it. So many people are trying so hard to get themselves nervous on this film. I keep trying to convince myself that it’s still a little film. This isn’t a difficult film really, but because they’ve seen BRAZIL and MUNCHAUSEN they want to work on something like that. And when I say, ‘No, we really just need that little thing,’ they don’t really believe it.

Are the people on this film trying to make this like BRAZIL and MUNCHAUSEN when it’s not?
Well at times it feels like that; I mean, I keep telling people it’s… I don’t know. I’ve given up trying to understand anything! —Terry Gilliam, Millimeter Magazine, March 1991

Terry Gilliam breaks down a particularly hard night with Robin Williams on The Fisher King.

This scene wasn’t a challenge to shoot as far as effects are concerned, but it was very hard from an acting point of view, because Robin was tearing his guts out emotionally. The interesting thing about Robin in all of those scenes was that he always wanted to do another take. He felt he had even more anguish and pain to spill out of the character. And I had to really stop him. I had to say, ‘Robin, you’ve reached a point here, way beyond what we expected. We’ve got what we needed. Now you’re just hurting yourself.’

That happened a couple of times while we were shooting this scene. The most worrisome moment for me was after he’s been chased by the Red Knight, when he’s running through the streets, and then he comes to the river, where the teenage punks arrive and knife him. We had to do other things on that night shoot, too, and things were going very slowly. Suddenly, we realized that we had like an hour until the dawn [would arrive].

The last shot we had to do was Robin running at the end of this scene, in this hysterical state. You can even see the light ever so slightly beginning to come on the river in the background. But Robin was so angry because it was such a crucial moment, and he felt he’d been cheated of his ability to really give this moment his all. And Robin was an incredibly strong guy: When he’d worked himself into this state of madness for the part, nobody could approach him. The first assistant, the stunt guy… nobody wanted to get near him. They were terrified.

So, I had to go up there and tell him, ‘Robin, what we have here is very good. And if we look at the rushes and it isn’t, I promise you I will reshoot it.’ And I had to hug him basically, and hold him. I could feel these muscles that were so tense and so strong, they felt like they could easily rip my head off.

But that’s what was so extraordinary about him—how he would commit everything and more to what he had to do. That’s also why I think his character in The Fisher King is in many ways the closest one to Robin, just that range—the madness, the damage, the pain, the sweetness, the outrageousness. That was the role I think that stretched him to the limits. —Terry Gilliam

The legendary cinematographer of The Fisher King, Batman, Brazil, and 12 Monkeys gave a masterclass at the 15th Raindance Film Festival in October 2007 in London.

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King. Production still photographers: John Clifford & Stephen Vaughan © Columbia Pictures Corporation, TriStar Pictures—All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Gracenote, Jeff Bridges: SET SHOTS, Everett Collection. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or donate directly below:

Spread the love