After being a cast member of Monty Python ceased to be a full-time job in the 1970s, Terry Gilliam moved into the director’s chair: Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen depicted a kind of magical realism and visual care that became a trademark of the former cartoonist.
Unfortunately, Gilliam’s sensibilities are sometimes seen as a bit too peculiar for mainstream tastes. Owing to a lack of money, scheduling, or sheer bad luck, he averages only three films per decade—a glacial pace that even Gilliam has a sense of humor about: he was seen with a “Studio-Less Filmmaker … Will Direct for Food” sign in 2006. Have a look at seven movies he’s tried to get made, to no avail.
1. THE DEFECTIVE DETECTIVE
After the success of 1991’s Oscar-winning The Fisher King, Gilliam and writer Richard LaGravenese collaborated on a script about a neurotic New York City detective flirting with a nervous breakdown. To track down a missing child, he enters an Oz-like fantasy realm full of knights on horseback and floating trees. Gilliam had Nicolas Cage interested in starring and figured the considerable success of his 1995 film, 12 Monkeys, might sway a studio into putting up the estimated $60 million budget. It didn’t. Investors, he said, were apprehensive that it couldn’t be classified as distinctly a children’s film or one for adults. Calling Detective one of the “long unclotting open wounds I carry with me,” Gilliam might rework it as a miniseries under his new production deal with Amazon.
2. A TALE OF TWO CITIES
Charles Dickens’ novel about class struggles during the French Revolution is one of the best-selling books of all time. It was the subject of several silent films and miniseries, but Gilliam’s interpretation was typically snake-bitten: having interested Mel Gibson in a leading role, the director saw the project collapse after Gibson grew distracted by his own directing efforts (The Man Without a Face, Braveheart) in the 1990s. To salvage the idea, Gilliam recast with Liam Neeson and sliced the budget in half—with no takers.
Perhaps tired of taking on directorial responsibilities that never come to fruition, Gilliam elected to become more of a creative inspiration with 1884, an ambitious animated feature about an alternative 19th-century London with a steampunk aesthetic. In a mirror of George Orwell’s 1984, which was published in 1949, Gilliam and director Tim Ollive planned to present the film as though it had been made in a more technologically-advanced 1848, with puppets and superimposed faces. Despite a modest (for Gilliam) $8 million price tag and a positive response to leaked test footage (above) in 2009, 1884 has yet to see the light of day.
4. GOOD OMENS
Another expensive Gilliam package—based on Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s 1990 book of the same name—Good Omens features an angel and demon who team up to prevent the apocalypse. At one point, Robin Williams and Johnny Depp were interested in appearing in the film together. Gilliam expressed frustration at the limitations of a two-hour film, telling the Gilliam fan site Dreams that the script is "proving to be [expletive] difficult to reduce to the [multiple expletives] limitations of a two [one more expletive] hour film.” Having once referred to it as the most expensive proposition he’s ever offered to studios—Gaiman estimated it at $70 million in 2007—Gilliam failed to find financing. Omens eventually became a BBC radio serial in 2014.
5. THESEUS AND THE MINOTAUR
Possibly the dustiest of Gilliam’s unmade projects, Theseus and the Minotaur's development began after the director finished his second film, 1977’s Jabberwocky. A story of the titular hero trying to live a normal life following his slaying of the mythological beast, it was shelved after production on Time Bandits gained momentum. In a change of pace, money was not the source of the problem: it was because Gilliam was never entirely satisfied with the script, declaring it one “that’s never been ripe” in a 2009 interview.
6. TIME BANDITS 2
Gilliam had one of his biggest hits with 1981’s Time Bandits, about a team of dwarves who plunder treasures in a series of time-traveling heists. In the late 1990s, he began tinkering with a script for a sequel that involved the daughters of the characters from the first film. He later reworked the project as a series of made-for-television films that were going to be produced by Hallmark Entertainment. This never came to fruition, though Gilliam did revisit the movie in a different way: for a 2013 DVD release, he had effects artists digitally remove a piece of masking tape that was visible in a shot.
7. A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT
Mark Twain’s time-shifting novel about an engineer spirited back to the Middle Ages who uses his knowledge of technology as “magic” was appropriately anachronistic for Gilliam: the director once lived without electricity for seven years to distance himself from modern conveniences. The adaptation looked promising until money became an obstacle. Undeterred, Gilliam took some inspiration from the story and reworked his long-gestating Don Quixote feature to include a contemporary sidekick played by Johnny Depp. That film began production in 2000, but it only lasted five days before the bond company insuring the project put a stop to it: nearby planes were disrupting sound, weather was uncooperative, and leading actor Jean Rochefort was suffering considerable back pain (all of which is seen in the 2002 documentary, Lost in La Mancha). In Gilliam’s world, even the start of shooting is no guarantee of a finished product.