Terry Gilliam Terrified A Young Sarah Polley With His Chaotic Use Of Explosives

In 2023, many of Terry Gilliam's old fans have been forced to face some of the director's questionable behavior, dark opinions, and irresponsible filming style. Briefly: in 2020, Gilliam said in public that the #MeToo movement was a witch hunt, downplaying the widespread sexual abuse the movement sought to highlight. Gilliam followed those statements with a defense of Harvey Weinstein, a defense that fell in line with a notorious petition he signed a decade previous seeking to exonerate Roman Polanski. Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, Pedro Almodóvar, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Wong Kar-Wai, and David Lynch also signed the petition. So did Harvey Weinstein, who asked many for support. 

Famously, Gilliam's films have almost all had troubled shoots, and each one comes prepackaged with a chaotic story about its making. "Brazil" was infamously recut several times, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" briefly didn't know which script it was supposed to use, his lead actor died during "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus," and the problems he had with "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" are detailed in the documentary "Lost in La Mancha." 

His 1988 film "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," based on Rudolf Erich Raspe's 1785 novel "Baron Munchausen's Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia," is a strange and whimsical adventure about the titular Baron (John Neville) who, after a lifetime of adventures, is now looking death in the eye. When his city is attacked by Turks, he leaves in a hot air balloon looking for old, superpowered friends to band together to stop them. A young girl named Sally (Sarah Polley) stows away to witness the adventure. 

Polley has nothing but bad memories of the time. Indeed, there was one day when she legitimately thought she was going to die.

The battlefield scene

In a 2022 article written for the Guardian, Sarah Polley detailed her entire experience working on "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" when she was only eight years old. She was a Monty Python fan since a very early age, and she was elated and a little daunted to be working with Gilliam and Eric Idle, two members of the famous comedy troupe. She moved to an apartment in Rome and shooting began. 

Almost immediately, the young Polley could see that something was ... off about the production. She admired Gilliam's own childlike energy and capacity for giggling, but also overheard crew members complaining that Gilliam would erase long-held filming plans with some brand-new, difficult caprice. 

There is a scene in "Baron Munchausen" where young Sally had to run through a battlefield. Gilliam's plan was to set off bombs and set real fires while the young actress sprinted down a set path. Polley wasn't afraid prior to filming, as she was assured it was all perfectly safe. All she would need was earplugs in case the bombs were too loud. Being eight, Polley had no reason not to believe the adults. When the actual scene began filming, however, the bombs rattled her to her core. Polley describes her fear as overwhelming as she ran through the fires. At the end, Gilliam appeared confused that Polley should be afraid at all. 

She did trip over the dolly track during the shot and would have to do it again. Gilliam was patient and reset for another take. Polley said he seemed unconcerned with her fear. She had to do the bomb run several more times, terrified each time. 

Those weren't the only bombs used on the set. 

More bombs

Sarah Polley recalled many more explosions. She related a story wherein a large bomb was meant to be exploded underwater beneath a small rowboat she was sharing with Eric Idle and a real horse. The smaller bombs spooked the horse enough to leap into the water, dislodge the underwater bomb, and it exploded very close to the young Polley. She was rushed to the hospital but was luckily uninjured. She was merely living in abject fear. 

In a scene where Polley had to dangle from a cable high above a parking lot, she heard a rip and assumed she was going plummet to her doom. It was only her dress, but Gilliam did not stop to address her terror. Polley says she started sneaking cups of coffee from craft services, knowing that the caffeine would keep her awake during the long, long, long grueling shoots, and also keep her hyped up to take direction when required. Polley recalls the arguments and the chaos. She recalls getting very sick. 

"The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" was a bomb itself. After all that, it was a disappointment. The film made only $8 million on a $46 million budget. 

Polley continued to act and has since become a celebrated filmmaker. Her 2022 film "Women Talking" was just nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It took her years to understand just how deeply traumatized "Baron Munchausen" was to her. The understanding became clear when a friend of hers asked Polley to talk to Gilliam on her behalf. Gilliam was making his 2005 "Tideland," another film starring a young girl. Polley found the news triggered a trauma response. 

She decided to reach out to Gilliam.

The Tideland e-mails

In a long e-mail, Sarah Polley described to Terry Gilliam that she mostly remembers being sick and afraid during the shooting of "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen." She had good memories of Gilliam as a person but had also come to realize that neither he nor her parents really had her safety and emotional well-being in mind. Polley was careful not to sound accusatory, but, knowing that Gilliam was about to work with another young actress again, to film under different circumstances. Notably, to keep kids away from actual bombs, and to warm the water actors swim in to prevent illnesses. The entire e-mail can be found printed in the Guardian, as can Gilliam's response. 

Gilliam's response was measured and apologetic. He admitted he didn't understand how scared she was, recalling only her enthusiasm. He apologized for the boat bomb incident. He also asked to clarify which shots she meant. Polley, after all, had a double, and Gilliam wants to parse out who was whom. 

It all seemed well and good until she met Gilliam in person some years later. They talked about "Tideland," and she initially recalled that the film's star was treated well ... before Gilliam joked about her working overtime for free. He also made a crack about Polley's scars which confused her. She understood that Gilliam was, once again, not paying close attention. 

Later on, after Polley's story was printed, she met with Richard Conway, the special effects coordinator on "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen." Conway apologized profusely for what Polley experienced, explaining that "A lot of things went wrong." It was Conway who remembered Polley's legitimate terror. 

The memories come out

Years later, when Gilliam said that dumb crap about the #MeToo movement, others began to come forward about how he had been repeatedly irresponsible on his films. Eric Idle finally confirmed that he, too, saw that Polley was in danger. "She was right," Idle said. "She was in danger. Many times." It was a moment of vindication for Polley. It wasn't just her misremembering things. Others had seen it.

Polley said in the Guardian that it took her a long time to see how much Gilliam was responsible for her terror on set. He was a "fun adult" when she was a kid, and she trusted him. She also, for many years, bought into the stubborn Hollywood myth of the "dangerous artist," That is: the "brave" film director who deliberately does dangerous things to get the shot, proving that they are rogues, are mavericks. 

Polley doesn't really buy that anymore. 

For the many who grew up enamored of "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" on home video — it's even been released on a Criterion Blu-ray — Polley is no longer ambivalent. While she has only bad memories of the film and doesn't want to vaunt the personality of the "maverick" version of Gilliam, she also wants others to see the imagination and visual wonderment of the flick. In 2022, Polley released a statement giving audiences her "unconditional permission to still love this movie." 

She still thinks it's good.