Dreams: On the set of The Brothers GrimmPart One... by Phil Stubbs
Film director Terry Gilliam is back to work. This is a good thing. After all, it's more than six years since his last film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas started shooting. In recent months, he has been making a picture called The Brothers Grimm at the Barrandov Studios in Prague, with a sizeable budget and an enviable cast. Loosely based on the stories collected by the real Brothers Grimm of the nineteenth century, the film features Matt Damon, Heath Ledger, Jonathan Pryce, and Peter Stormare. I paid a visit to the Czech Republic set in September. I was to visit a couple of night shoots. "Bring warm clothes and be prepared", I was warned, "for cold and wet weather".
It's 8pm, and I'm collected at my Prague hotel to be taken to Barrandov in Gilliam's black Mercedes. Whisking straight past security and the studio buildings, we stop in a car park full of trailers. I am met by Terry's daughter Amy who is working as his assistant, and I'm escorted to the set. I am instructed to remain very quiet during shooting, to have my phone turned off and never walk in front of the camera while it's shooting. Sensible advice indeed. Equipped with a tight-fitting pair of Wellington boots borrowed from the director's trailer, I head towards the studio backlot. It's day 51 of the shoot.
We are on a hill overlooking the city of Prague, with its romantic attractions shimmering in the distance. As I approach the set, my eyes are drawn to a delightful constructed village to my left. It is extremely bright, since it is floodlit by enormous lights on my right, which are themselves just in front of a forest of very tall trees. I say a forest... it is in fact a thin stretch of imported trees giving a good impression of being a forest. In the middle is an acre or two of grassland where the members of the film crew are standing, setting up the first shot of the night. I'm told that not only has the village been built, but the trees and the grass have been brought in to create this external set.
It's cold, it's dark, and it's damp. I lurk behind the monitors where the acting talent have their seats, not that any of the stars are here at the moment. The food tent is pointed out to me, and it's not long before I help myself to something to get me through the night. The first of many visits.
I see dozens of people working hard setting up the first shot of the
evening. And in the middle of everything is the director of the project,
Terry Gilliam. It's not been an easy road for Gilliam over the last few
years. After his last film was released in 1998, Gilliam threw himself
into a project The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which came a cropper
after just a few days, due to bad weather and injury - the events of which
were captured in the documentary film Lost in La Mancha. Then he
spent a year on Good Omens, and a number of other potential projects
which came to nothing. Not having been able to get any of his own movie
projects off the ground, he's taken on a studio project, a script by Ehren
Kruger with Dimension Films providing funding. Gilliam fans will be cheered
by the news that he and his co-writer Tony Grisoni have been given some
freedom to rewrite the script, to shape the material in a more Gilliamesque
The second shot of day 51, ready for shooting half an hour after midnight, features an aging one-legged night watchman - on crutches - looking into the distance and asking, "Who's there?" Not only is he on his crutches, but the poor chap carries a lantern which acts both as a prop and also as a source of light for the shot. While setting up the shot with his DP, Gilliam jokes "Make sure there's plenty of light behind him. So they know we've gone to the trouble of getting a man with one leg." Gilliam's not satisfied with the first take, but just before the second take, the actor loses his grip on his crutches and falls backwards out of view. Probably on account of having one leg strapped up. For a few moments, nobody knows what's happened. After a few guys go into the village entrance to find out where he's fallen and how he is, he reappears unharmed for several more takes, until the director is happy.
The rest of the night is taken up with four shots from a scene featuring Will and Jake, the two Brothers Grimm (Damon and Ledger), Angelika (Lena Headey) and Cavaldi (Stormare). The shots are from the same scene, where the brothers and Angelika appear from a haunted wood whereupon they are confronted by Cavaldi. It's indeed a tough night for the actors. Into the middle of the night and it's getting colder and damper. Once the set-up is complete on each shot, all eyes are on the actors, and they have to perform complex scenes perfectly. So much pressure. Both of the lead actors give strong performances, the like of which I've seen from neither of them before. And Stormare is menacing.
Matt Damon's character Will is trying to convince himself that there has to be a rational explanation for the horrors they've undoubtedly seen, in a similar way to Madeleine Stowe's character Dr Railly in Twelve Monkeys. Will tries to control his brother Jake's freaked-out behaviour as a parent would a wayward child.
Damon sits in front of me between shots, as his cut hand is being treated. He is concentrating and not letting anything from the outside world influence his thoughts. He appears dedicated and professional. With blond hair coming over his forehead he resembles a young Malcolm McDowell...
Heath Ledger - Jake - wears spectacles in the film. He goofs around a lot between takes. At the end of each take on shot four, he tries something amusing. He simulates a pair of scissors with two fingers in front of the camera at the end of some shots to suggest someone is to shout "Cut" imminently. Between takes he pulls the hood of his jacket completely over his head and face. Ledger also improvises - his words change from take to take. One or two of his improvs are quite inventive.
In between shots at about 4am, Bob McCabe offers to take me on a brief night-time tour of the village. Intricately constructed little buildings, designed by art director Guy Hendrix Dyas. The insides of the huts are just as detailed and fascinating as they are externally. Bob and I peer into one which is a bakery, with loaves of bread inside. There's a small church in the village too. Some parts of the village set are not well lit in the early hours, which means that Bob and I struggle at times to safely make our way around the set. There's lots of mud. And hidden cables. But we manage to manoeuvre our way around the set without damaging anything, cutting the power to anywhere on set and (far less importantly) injuring ourselves.
We come back to find Matt and Heath lying down on the damp ground next to each other looking up at a gun-toting Cavaldi. This shot is first taken from Cavaldi's point of view and then from the brothers'. The final shot of the evening is then of Heath, who treads a narrow path between an absurd comedy performance, and portraying a character who appears to be really quite disturbed. He pulls it off.
The shoot finishes just after 5am. Bob and I find a lift back to our Prague hotels from the set. Collecting the call sheet for the next day's shoot, I notice a requirement for many soldiers and horses, and details of some shots that are eventually going to need some rather ingenious CGI. And Jonathan Pryce will be performing. So plenty to be excited about. I arrive at my hotel to find the bar still open. After a quick Czech beer I notice that dawn is approaching. I try to get some sleep before subjecting myself to another day on the set of The Brothers Grimm.
Read Part Two...