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A new book about the making of The Brothers Grimm
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A review of Dreams and Nightmares
Terry Gilliam's films have a reputation for having behind-the-scenes production
stories almost as interesting as the movies themselves. The director's latest,
The Brothers Grimm, was no exception. His authority as chief creative
decision-maker on the project was challenged by the studio before, during
and after the production. Gilliam lost several of the battles, and the picture
suffered as a result.
One key area of contention was Matt Damon's appearance in the picture. Gilliam
wanted to place a little bump on Damon's nose to add to his character, but
Miramax's Weinstein brothers threatened to shut the film down if Damon's
face was different from what the public were used to seeing. Gilliam is
normally happy to discuss creative decisions with his production team and
negotiate: he is more the rational, thoughtful filmmaker than his anarchic
image suggests. But on this picture he became more and more frustrated as
the studio prevented him from doing what he wanted, and it was unable to
convince him of the sense of its vetoes.
The Brothers Grimm hit the screens this Autumn. A complex and rewarding
picture, it has a wonderfully peculiar mix of comedy, fantasy and Grand
Guignol. Yet the critics and box office returns suggested it was not
to everyone's taste. It starred Damon and Heath Ledger as the eponymous
brothers, who operate as conmen in Napoleonic Germany, fooling villagers
into believing that they are haunted by monsters, then extorting money by
pretending to exorcise them. The first scene demonstrates the absurd and
the macabre elements in the film. We see the two brothers as children: one
of them sells the family cow for "magic" beans rather than the
hard cash that is needed to buy medicine to save the life of his ill sister.
The picture was shot in Prague in 2003 with Gilliam's biggest-ever budget.
Not only was there was the battle of Damon's nose, but also there were casting
disagreements such as Miramax's insistence that Gilliam's choice of actress
Samantha Morton was not in the film. And also Nicola Pecorini - Gilliam's
preferred cinematographer - was fired and replaced by the Weinsteins, three
weeks into shooting.
Normally such quarrels are brushed under the carpet in Hollywood. People
want to work again, naturally, and therefore they don't elaborate on the
problems. Most of the time those involved in conflict like to accentuate
the positive aspects of having worked together, even if it is through gritted
By contrast, a new book by Bob McCabe - Dreams and Nightmares - contains
a great deal of entertaining comments, quotes and rumour to satisfy those
seeking a warts-and-all story about a difficult production shoot. It contains
the diaries of Nicola Pecorini, Nikki Clapp (Script Supervisor), and Bob
McCabe, a writer who was on set following events for much of the time. It
is McCabe who has edited all of these diaries together to make a single
timeline, and writes a brief introduction and conclusion. From the book
we learn much, since McCabe has access to Gilliam, designer Guy Dyas, acting
coach Stephen Bridgewater and actors Matt Damon and Mackenzie Crook. There
are several interviews too, and one in particular with editor Lesley Walker
is very revealing about the postproduction of Gilliam's pictures.
The most enjoyable entries are Pecorini's diaries, largely unedited by McCabe
in this book. They are bitchy and partial but always entertaining and illuminating.
Unfortunately, as Pecorini was sacked a few weeks into filming, his voice
does not feature in the second half of the book.
Much of what Bob McCabe writes is interesting, as he manages to point an
ear at many heated exchanges. A fax that Gilliam sent to Bob Weinstein during
production is included:
|"Once again you have made an arbitrary decision which has harmed
the film I am trying to make. From the beginning of this project I
have said that our tastes are very different - with each of you acts,
from the forcing of Lena Headey on me to the willingness to close
the film down because of make-up on Matt Damon that made him look
right for the character of Will Grimm, to the criticism of Peter Stormare's
performance to the present firing of Nicola Pecorini, I am convinced
the film in your head is a different one from mine. In the case of
NP, I think you fired the wrong man - his work was beautiful, dark
and magical - exactly what I wanted. Exactly right for the story."
The making of Grimm might have been a wonderful opportunity for someone
to write a quintessential tale about how creative tensions erupt on a major
motion picture, but this book is frequently an exasperating read. The major
problem is that the book lacks something vital: a single, independent, narrating
observer, which is necessary in tales of complex conflict. This is for the
reader to determine a view of what's going on, and instead we get seemingly
random diary entries.
Poor editing leaves us with repetition. On page 79 we learn from Pecorini
the coincidence that Lena Headey's stunt double is called Samantha Martin!
And on the next page, in Bob's diary we read that "...it turns out
that Angelika's stunt double is called Samantha Martin".
Further, a reflection of the lack of care taken in the book is the annoying
number of spelling mistakes, especially of names. And some of the events
are labelled as happening on the incorrect day.
Also there are very many irrelevant entries, including how an actor is five
minutes late for a meeting, and many quips from actors and crew are as pointless
as they are unamusing, and which would surely have been excised from a descriptive
account of what happened. Also we read an uninteresting story about how
an actor's double "got laid". In particular, Nikki Clapp's diary
entries offer little in the way of information or interest.
To McCabe's credit, as someone who has worked with Gilliam on books before,
he has included much that is critical of the director. This book certainly
reports many incidents regarding the clashes that happened on set, and
contains many absorbing anecdotes to satisfy both Gilliam fans and those
eager to look at the detritus that normally is safely concealed under
the rug. But it's a frustrating read and a missed opportunity.
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