Actor Sarah Polley got the chance of a lifetime when she was cast in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen. Then a 9-year-old Monty Python fan best known for her performance of the group’s song “Sit On My Face” at her Toronto kindergarten classroom, Polley and her Python-loving parents were ecstatic to work closely not just with Gilliam but the film’s star Eric Idle. Things didn’t go according to plan.
In an excerpt from her recent memoir, Run Toward The Danger, published by The Guardian, Polley details the traumatizing shoot she endured at the hands of a “mad genius” director, who was notorious for demanding dangerous stunts and effects at the last minute. She recounts her childhood memories running through controlled blasts that left her trembling as the director laughed and called for another take.
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.
In later correspondence with the director (also published in The Guardian excerpt), Gilliam conceded that some stunts did not go to plan. For example, one water-based stunt spooked a horse, which surfaced an underwater explosion that detonated next to Polley. The stunt terrified co-star Eric Idle and nearly hospitalized the young star. Nevertheless, Polley was back to work the next day.
Years later, having heard that Gilliam was working on another child-led film, Tideland, Polley reached out to the director with her experiences on Munchausen. Despite having her memories confirmed by Eric Idle on Twitter and special effects professionals who worked on Munchausen, Gilliam questioned Polley’s account. He wrote:
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.
Directing, like acting, is a job. And part of that job is keeping your crew safe. This is especially true for children, who probably shouldn’t be working in such high-stress and high-danger situations anyway. However, Polley believes that the system that rewards “out-of-control mad white male genius” directors regularly fails those placed under their care. She concludes that the “fetishization” of reckless auteurs has created a society too accepting of blatant disregard for performers.
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.
Read the whole excerpt at The Guardian.