Sarah Polley: ‘It took me years to see how responsible Terry Gilliam was for my terror’
When I was four years old, I treated my junior kindergarten class at North Toronto Christian School to a raucous rendition of Sit on My Face by Monty Python. It was show and tell, after all, so I sang them my favourite song, which included the lines: “I love to hear you oralise / When I’m between your thighs / You blow me away!”
I knew the song because among my father’s most treasured possessions were the albums of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Over and over we would listen, as a family, to the Lumberjack Song, the Dead Parrot sketch and the Argument Clinic and watch The Meaning of Life, Life of Brian and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. By the time I was four, I could recite most Monty Python sketches and scenes by heart.
In 1987, when I was eight and already a child actor, Monty Python member Terry Gilliam came to Toronto to do a screen test with John Neville for the title role in his new fantasy-comedy film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. He was auditioning girls all over the world for the part of Sally Salt, the Baron’s trusty sidekick. The collective blood pressure in our house almost exploded over my getting the chance to meet Terry, let alone a chance to work with him.
Terry was giggly, fun, rambunctious. He reminded me of the kind of disobedient, unregulated child I had avoided in school in order to keep out of trouble.
When my mother got the phone call that I had got the part, I saw her cover her mouth in what looked like a mixture of shock, excitement and fear. I witnessed in my father a pure, unmitigated elation, which was simultaneously exhilarating and daunting. I had been cast in a movie directed by Terry Gilliam, in which Eric Idle, another former Monty Python member, would also perform. The pinnacle of my success, and of my father’s pride, had been reached. I was eight years old.
Production would begin in three months’ time in Rome, primarily at the legendary studio Cinecittà, where Fellini had made his movies, as well as two locations in Spain. I began counting down the days until my departure.
Our apartment in Rome was in a tiny little square called Largo dei Librari, just off the Campo de’ Fiori. Almost every night, my mother and father and I ate dinner in the same small restaurant courtesy of my per diem. On days off, my family went sightseeing. We went to the Pantheon, the Colosseum, Piazza Navona. We had at our disposal a driver and a stretch-limo Mercedes. My siblings all came over on first-class tickets. This glamorous life we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of was a shock to our family’s system, although not an unwelcome one.
The cast included Alison Steadman, Bill Paterson, Eric Idle, Jonathan Pryce, Oliver Reed and a 17-year-old Uma Thurman, who was appearing as Venus in her first major film role. As we rehearsed, Terry’s insane hyena giggle would greet me whenever I said or did something he found funny.
As we went into production, things quickly began to fall apart. Terry was erratic, a dreamer, someone who didn’t live in the world of “logic and reason” – just as the Baron himself didn’t. I would overhear the crew complain that plans, months in the making, would suddenly be replaced at the last minute with wild, ambitious impulses that put enormous pressure on the crew, the budget and the schedule.
Sarah Polley: her career so far
There were many special effects in the film; scenes of battle, exploding bombs, space and moonwalking. As we were about to shoot a sequence involving explosives, Terry led me down a route I was to run through – the set of a bombed-out city. I was told there would be explosives going off as I ran, but I wasn’t concerned. It would all be perfectly safe, I was told. I was given two cotton balls to put into my ears in case the sound was too loud for me. After Terry yelled “Action!” I began my run as instructed. Blasts of debris exploded on the ground around me, accompanied by deafening booms that made me feel as if I myself had exploded. A log I was to run under was partially on fire. The gigantic blasts continued and shook everything around me. I ran, terrified, straight into the camera, tripping over the dolly tracks.
Terry laughed and looked perplexed. “What happened?” he asked, as though I had just run screaming from a slow-moving merry-go-round. I couldn’t breathe. It didn’t seem possible that this could have been the plan, that things hadn’t just gone terribly wrong. But they hadn’t. This was the plan. And I had just ruined the take. I was mortified. It took a long time to reset the take and while Terry didn’t show any frustration about the delay, he also didn’t seem to notice how scared I was.
I had to do it again. I had to do it until I got it right. I went cold with fear, shaking. I sobbed in my father’s arms in between takes and pleaded with him to intervene. He held me close, soothing me. But when an assistant director came over to say they needed another take, my father said, with genuine remorse: “I’m afraid they have to do it again, love. I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do.” And so I ran the gauntlet of explosives again. And again. And again.
There were many subsequent scenes in which explosives were used. One took place in a rowing boat, which was placed in a giant tank of water to mimic the sea. Jack Purvis, Eric Idle and I were seated in the rowing boat behind Angelo Ragusa (John Neville’s stuntman), who sat astride a large Arabian horse. As I remember it, a series of smallish explosions were to go off beside the boat, followed by a larger explosive that was so powerful, it was placed deep underwater at the bottom of the tank. On the first take, the small explosions scared the horse and it began backing up into us. Angelo forced it to jump overboard into the water to save us from being trampled. As the horse hit the bottom of the tank, its hooves pulled the larger explosive up and as it surfaced, it detonated quite close to me.
I remember not hearing anything, Eric’s terrified face, the crew looking panicked at the edge of the tank. I remember a hard, crushing sensation in my chest and being carried towards an ambulance as the crew looked on, alarmed. I remember that the doctors were kind, that my parents were told there was nothing wrong with me and that I went back to work the next day. The scenes with explosions continued, each one terrifying me more than the last.
We shot quite a few scenes in that same giant tank of water, wetsuits under our costumes. Once, we shook with cold in the tank for several hours, until Eric Idle yelled at Terry and I was taken out early. In another scene, I dangled from the underside of the Baron’s hot-air balloon high above the ground in the parking lot of the studio. I was very scared and at one point I screamed as I heard a loud ripping sound that I thought was my harness coming loose. It turned out to be a minor rip in my dress. Terry giggled at my fear, telling me I was fine. “Don’t worry!” he yelled up. “We can’t afford to lose you!”
The hours were crushingly long sometimes. I started drinking coffee. A lot of it. I sneaked it from the craft services truck. If I had coffee in me, I knew I could do what was asked of me, even if my body was resistant. My heart might beat too fast, but at least I wouldn’t fall asleep standing up.
There was chaos, almost daily. Between the problems with the producers, the studio and Terry, the production always felt on the brink of disaster.
After the production moved to Spain, I came down with an illness that had me vomiting and feverish for days. I listened, through a haze, as my father explained that there was no choice but for me to work. The next day, legs shaking, fever raging, I ran with hundreds of people out of the gates of the town, in the last scene in the film. The war against the Turks, which is the main struggle of the film, had been won. I had to look happy. And I did, between rounds of barfing.
When the film was finally released into the world, it came out with a deafening thud. It was a bomb for the ages, right up there with Heaven’s Gate in terms of ill-fated, budget-bloated failures. It was too closely associated with outgoing executive David Puttnam, who was leaving Columbia Pictures on bad terms, and the release was purposefully botched. I was stunned that after about $46m spent, horror endured and survived, and a pretty great movie made, a production’s fate could be reduced to the outcome of a petty studio squabble.
When I was in my mid-20s, I met a nine-year-old actress on a film set who I will call Sandra. Sandra’s mother, who I will call Jessica, clearly had big ambitions for her kid. One day, she emailed me to say that her daughter was close to landing a part in Terry Gilliam’s new film, Tideland, which would be shooting in Canada. Was there anything I could do to help or put in a good word for Sandra? I gagged when I read the email. I told her how big a mistake I thought it would be for Sandra (who I happened to be very fond of ) to work on a Terry Gilliam production. I told her about my experiences on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and how lightly my safety and sense of security had been taken. None of it got through to her. In a panic, I finally wrote to Terry hoping it might spare another kid from the kind of traumatising experience I had had. Here is our email exchange.
Hi there Terry
I hear you’re making a film in saskatchewan this summer. i hope you have a great time – there are some great crew people you’ll probably be using from Winnipeg who got into making films because of you. (it’s actually pretty bizarre - i worked out there this winter and at least 5 people told me that Baron Munchausen was the film that made them choose to be in film.)
I guess i just wanted to touch base and share a few things about my experience working on that movie. I know you’ll be working with a young girl and i realise we’ve never had a chance to talk about that time – or i guess i mean i haven’t communicated to you what my experiences were, or how i remember them now, or how i feel they affected me. I know you’ve heard varying reports (i can’t remember who told me that) and i realise that it’s not really fair for me to not communicate it all to you directly. especially since the only people who i hold responsible (and who, by definition, were supposed to be responsible) were my parents.
Basically, I remember being afraid a lot of the time. I felt incredibly unsafe. I remember a couple of trips to the hospital after being in freezing water for long periods of time, losing quite a bit of my hearing for days at a time due to explosives, having my heart monitored when one went off relatively close to me, etc. I remember running through this long sort of corridor where explosives went off every few feet, things were on fire, etc. i cried hysterically in my dad’s lap and begged him to make sure i wouldn’t have to do it again, but I did. I think i did it quite a few more times. I remember the terrifying scene where we were in the boat and the horse jumped out and ended up surfacing a plastic explosive that went off right under my face. i remember being half trampled by a mob of extras and then repeating the scene several times. i remember working very long hours.
i know i had some fun as well, but it’s pretty much obliterated by the sense of fear and exhaustion and of not being protected by the adults around me. And again, the adults who should have been there to protect me were my parents, not you. This of course took some time to arrive at. I admit i was pretty furious at you for a lot of years.
what i went through is nothing compared to what many kids in the world suffer. but it certainly was unusual for a middle-class kid in toronto and it hardened and isolated me for many years i think. it also created a pretty substantial lack of trust in my parents (again, not your fault, but a byproduct of the experience).
this – contrary to how it may read – is not meant to be a guilt trip. you were always fun and fascinating and you gave me a ton of confidence. you’re a genius and it was a privilege (no matter what my age) to watch you make a great film. I think that film was hell for you too and you had enough responsibility just keeping it going without having to be a parent to someone else’s child. I believe that you felt that if there was something that was particularly traumatic to me that my parents would have informed you and pulled the plug. of course this is what should have happened on many occasions. i don’t think my parents were monsters by any stretch of the imagination. i do think, though, that you can’t overestimate how in awe of you people like them can be. i think they were so shocked and thrilled to have their daughter in a Terry Gilliam movie that they couldn’t see past that. they didn’t want to be an annoyance or an inconvenience to anyone and it must have been daunting to imagine holding up 100 people for your kid.
so here’s my point. who knows who you’ll cast and what their parents will be like. my suspicion is that you might need to be constantly analysing whether you would put your own nine-year-old in the positions you’ll be putting this kid in. because it’s entirely likely that the child’s own parents will be (for whatever reason) incapable of making the right call. this is a huge responsibility but i’m starting to think (from watching other kids and parents) that this is a fundamental part of the job when you’re working with kids who should really be in school anyway.
here’s some unsolicited advice:
try to keep a close eye on the mood of the kid, ask them a lot of questions about how they’re doing, if they want to stop doing what they’re doing, etc. if they seem uncomfortable, afraid, take it upon yourself to make the call as to whether or not it’s best to stop or keep going.
if there are water scenes in this one – make sure it’s warm!!!! if there are explosions in this one – i really can’t emphasise enough how much better it would be if you could do reaction shots separate from the explosions themselves. I still duck when a car door slams too close or too loud.
i know it’s probably a sucky way to shoot it – but it might save you another email like this one.
sorry for the babbling. i just realised i wasn’t doing either of us any favours by not letting you know this stuff. and i really think you’re a decent person so hearing this might have an impact without being too alienating (i hope).
good luck with the film. i know it’ll be brilliant.
He wrote back the very next day.
Ever since I started this Canadian project your name has been at the forefront of most of my Toronto conversations. Every potential crew member I interview ends up including you in the chat. You are ubiquitous. How many people get that adjective thrown at them? I also hear you are about to start your first film as director. Congratulations. You’ve done brilliantly. You’ve continued to be a wonderful actress and I’m certain you’ll handle the directing business just as well. As far as the scars of Munchausen go, I had no idea that they were that deep. What always impressed me from my side of the camera was how professional you were …always prepared and willing to dive into anything, no matter how difficult, that we organised (possibly that should read, disorganised). In fact, I started taking for granted that you could always be counted on, unlike some of the adults. You seemed so focused, I had no idea you were having such a terrifying time. For what it’s worth, we were always concerned to make things safe for you (you were too valuable to the production to allow anything to happen to you). Although things might have seemed to be dangerous, they weren’t. The only time events got close to trouble was when the horse jumped from the boat. We all were terrified, however I knew that Angelo Raguzzo [sic] was one of the most brilliant horsemen I had ever seen and that he would make sure none of you in the boat were harmed. Nevertheless the explosion was a fuckup and I apologise.
One thing I’m curious about. Can you tell, when you see Sally in the film, in which of the shots it’s you … and which ones are your double? Do you remember that the shots of you in the boat were right at the edge of the tank with stuntmen in the water next to the boat?
I only ask, not to minimise your bad memories, but to try to understand the differences in the way you and I remember the events… especially since you were so young and impressionable and sensitive and yet seemed to be so wise and about 30 years old.
Luckily, for the girl in the film we are starting, there are no physically dangerous or terrifying scenes. I grant you there are some disturbing ones for adults but I don’t think so for her. Like you, she is in every scene. It’s her film. She’s nine years old and has been acting since she was four. Extraordinary! Luckily for her, I’m much older now. And a lot more tired. Possibly a bit more wise as well. And I will take to heart your suggestions.
Thanks for making contact. Hopefully, next time I’m in Toronto we can manage a dinner together. I’m curious to learn who you are now. Terry
thanks a lot for getting back to me. i do know in retrospect that many things that terrified me were not as terrifying as they seemed then. (and i definitely remember that the boat was in a tank.) and i’m pretty sure i know which shots were the double. however – it does raise a question of what i remember vs what happened. it’s like this with photographs. whole memories get built around them, which is sometimes a reflection of a general sense of things as they felt at the time as opposed to what actually occurred. so i’m willing to accept that my impressions may have been unlike what an adult might have. i think that’s sort of the point. it wasn’t a good environment for a kid because there were things that could easily be interpreted as dangerous without actually being dangerous. i think it’s harder to make those distinctions as a child, and i didn’t have a lot of support in trying to make them. the really traumatic things that happened are distinct memories that gave me nightmares well before the film came out so confusion between what the stunt double was doing as opposed to me didn’t really play into my bad memories i don’t think.
i really appreciate you responding. i wasn’t sure how you’d react. i hope the film goes really well. i’d love to get together when you are next in toronto. i’ve really appreciated this exchange.
In the end, Sandra wasn’t cast in Tideland. The part went to 10-year-old Jodelle Ferland. When Tideland was released, the Globe and Mail published an article called “Twinkle, twinkle little star.” The writer, Gayle MacDonald, wrote: “Film-makers like Gilliam keep coming to the Canadian talent trough for child actors because our kids, by all accounts, tend to be easy to direct, manage and mould. Chalk it up to our easygoing, accommodating national character.”
Unsettled by MacDonald’s framing, I asked for Terry’s permission to publish our email exchange as part of an article I wrote for the Toronto Star in response to MacDonald’s piece and, to his credit, without hesitation he agreed. (One of the things I still admire about Terry is this lack of fear, this lack of an instinct to hide and protect himself from exposure or attack. I think most people would have refused to let their emails be published this way.) I wrote the following conclusion to the piece:
At a film festival event a few weeks ago, I saw Terry for the first time in 17 years. We had a friendly chat and spoke about Jodelle. He said, “She had a great time, you could tell she really loved it …and she was happy to be there …” He paused, and looked at me thoughtfully. “Then again,” he said, “I remember thinking the same thing about you . . . that’s why I was so surprised to get your emails.” He looked confused.
It would have been difficult for anyone to see how unhappy I was at the time. Like many kids, I was eager to please and good at adapting to difficult situations, storing them away to unpack later.
In every interview I’ve read with Jodelle Ferland, she talks about shooting Tideland as a very positive experience. Based on my own experiences, I’m curious about whether her impressions will change. Perhaps I’ll drop her a line in a decade or two to find out.
I wrote this conclusion to the article in another time, in another political climate. Here’s what I left out: when Terry first saw me at that film festival event, he grabbed my shirt “playfully”, turned me around, tried to pull it up and said: “Come on – show me the scars! Where are the scars?!” I actually have a really long scar on my spine from scoliosis surgery and, not understanding that he was speaking in metaphor, I said: “Um. It’s right there.”
I asked him how Jodelle Ferland had fared on set. I told him I had called my union to ask them to visit the set often to check on her, given my own experience with him. He laughed and said: “They came once or twice. She was great and we worked overtime a lot. No one paid much attention!”
I felt sick to my stomach. Despite my emailed pleas to him to be careful with children, a big part of me felt, deep down, that it was hopeless for me to imagine him taking responsibility.
When I was in my late 20s, an assistant director on a film I was acting in said to me: “Our special effects guy really wants to introduce himself to you, but he’s scared you might hate him. He did the special effects on Baron Munchausen.”
Later that day, when I reintroduced myself to special effects icon Richard Conway, who I hadn’t seen since I was a child, his eyes filled with tears. He said: “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry about what happened to you on that movie.”
I replied, in earnest: “What did happen to me?”
“A lot of things went wrong,” he said. “Everyone in my job carries around an image that haunts them of something that went wrong at work. For me, it’s the look on your face as you were carried out of the water tank and into the ambulance after the explosive surfaced so close to you. You were crying. No – you weren’t crying. You were hysterical. Screaming in terror.”
As Richard and I got to know one another better, he suggested we watch the movie together. “It would be a kind of exorcism, maybe. For both of us.” Neither of us had watched the film in many years, fearful of how it would make us feel. One evening after wrap, we watched it together at the hotel. During the scenes that had been most terrifying to shoot, my breath caught in my throat. Richard said: “Can we hold hands?” I reached for his hand and held it tight. During the scene in the boat, I felt him squeeze my hand harder and turned to see tears streaming down his face. “I’m so, so sorry,” he said. I hugged him, so grateful for the apology, even though I didn’t think it was his to make.
At one point, as the Baron and Sally make their way up into the sky on their way to the moon, we found ourselves marvelling at the artistry of the film, the hand-painted backgrounds, the meticulously crafted analogue illusions. As the Baron and Sally sail through a sky of perfect clouds, Richard said, “I spent weeks with my crew making those clouds by hand. No one gets to do anything like that any more. No one gets to feel what it’s like to create a magic image with your own hands. Since CGI, it’s all a lost art.” We watched as Eric Idle and I climbed along the edge of a perfect crescent moon, watched horses and tigers materialise out of the stars, were swallowed whole and stayed intact in the belly of a sea creature. We watched together in wonder, holding hands until the end.
In 2018, when Terry was in the middle of a firestorm of controversy over comments he had made about the #MeToo movement, someone tweeted out the old email exchange between Terry and me as evidence of his subpar character. In response, Eric Idle, who I hadn’t heard from since I was a child, tweeted a response:
“She was right. She was in danger. Many times. It was amazing we never lost anyone.”
She was right. She was in danger. Many times. I read these nine words over and over again. Someone who was there was appearing from out of nowhere to confirm my memories and verify my version of events.
I swear it was around that time that I stopped ducking for cover when I heard the sudden noise of a car door slam.
Because he was so childlike and full of genuine wonder, it was hard for me, for many years, to see how responsible Terry Gilliam was for the terror of being on that set. And so I blamed my parents. I’m struck by how many times in my emails to him I make sure to tell him I don’t hold him responsible and lay the blame at my parents’ feet. No matter how much I thought about him over the years, Terry still stubbornly lived in my memory primarily as someone who was brilliant and who had also had that look in his eye that is precious to children: the look that says, “I’m glad you’re here.” Because he had never really removed himself from a state of childhood himself, he was just like a playmate with a very large stash of expensive, dangerous toys.
I think the truth is that I let Terry off the hook in part because, even as a child, I had bought into the glamour of the idea of the enfant terrible director, the out-of-control mad white male genius – a myth that has dominated the film industry’s understanding of what brilliance must necessarily look like. As an adult, I find myself wholly intolerant of the fetishisation of this archetype of genius, having seen, first-hand, great works made by decent, conscientious people, and having witnessed sharp impatience with female or Bipoc [Black, Indigenous and people of colour] film-makers who show any similar signs of irresponsibility. Terry lived for so long in the film world’s imagination as a “mad genius” whose madness and recklessness somehow elevated his work.
I don’t blame my parents as much as I used to, understanding more now how hard it would be to stand up and stop an enormous production under dire financial and time pressures. As the years go on and Terry makes more and more comments that demonstrate not just a childlike incapacity for understanding grown-up problems but a wilful dismissal of movements that seek to claim equality and acknowledgment for past harms, I see him, and the role he played in the mayhem back then, differently. I see it in the context of a cultural phenomenon of what many white men have been allowed to get away with in the name of art. Though he was magical and brilliant and made images and stories that will live for a long, long time, it’s hard to calculate whether they were worth the price of the hell that so many went through over the years to help him make them.
The other day, my child Eve raised the idea of watching The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Eve is now the exact age I was when I made the film. As we watch, I find myself grateful for the comparatively predictable nature of my children’s childhood. At nine, there have been no great adventures for Eve, and no great traumas. Eve is captivated by the film, and finds it hilarious, mesmerising, and strange to see how much we look alike. Halfway through, when the characters’ lives are in danger for the eighth or ninth time, Eve gets scared and wants to stop watching. Just before I press the power button, Eve grabs the remote from me and says, “Actually, let’s watch to the end. I have to know if it turns out okay.”
It does. When we arrive at the last scene, there I am, smiling in a crowd of hundreds of people. The war is won, the adventure over. Sally Salt can now go back to her regular life, and the Baron says goodbye. If I try, I can conjure up the feeling of what it was like to shoot that last scene; that harrowing day, when I was so ill and forced to work anyway. But the memory loses its power in the presence of my child’s delight at having discovered a joyful ending, worth waiting for.
- Edited extract from Run Towards the Danger by Sarah Polley published by September (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply