Fear and Loathing in America: Terry Gilliam’s Tideland

In late 2006, a surreal film about an inquisitive girl escaping from her harsh life and into a fantasy world captured the imagination of critics across America. It was called Pan’s Labyrinth. Yet while Guillermo del Toro’s movie bathed in ecstatic praise, the similarly themed work of one of cinemas true originals — Terry Gilliam — was loudly dismissed as a misjudged blunder into taboo nightmare. As Tideland finally arrives in limited release, we wonder: could the movie really be that hideous, or was it the victim of stubborn moral disgust?

October, 2006. A disheveled, slightly crumpled-looking man with a graying rat’s tail is standing on a Manhattan sidewalk holding an empty plastic cup and a scrawled cardboard sign imploring bystanders for spare change. Not an uncommon sight, except that the man in question is Terry Gilliam, visionary director of such films as Time Bandits, Brazil and 12 Monkeys, and the sign reads: “STUDIO-LESS FILM MAKER. FAMILY TO SUPPORT. WILL DIRECT FOR FOOD.”

The begging, it turns out, is really a stunt designed to promote Gilliam’s latest project Tideland, which — by his usual catastrophic production standard — was a swift, uncomplicated shoot that should have him feeling relieved. Unfortunately his distributors lack the marketing muscle to push the controversial film to an audience, and, making matters worse, Tideland is being met with an avalanche of punishing reviews from incensed American movie critics.

“Gruesomely awful,” hisses Entertainment Weekly. “A flirtation with pedophilia… a splatter painting of disgust.”

“Creepy, and not in a good way,” adds The New York Times, while Variety summarises the prevailing sentiment by calling the film “Way too disturbing for kids and too weird for most grown ups.” Tideland rates a miserable 24 per cent on online review meter Rotten Tomatoes — nestling uncomfortably alongside such modern classics as Big Momma’s House 2 and Little Man.

——

April, 2006. It’s six months before Tideland’s US release, and I’m talking to a buoyant Terry Gilliam — who’s already watched the film split festival audiences wherever it plays. “Half the audience should not like the film,” he assures us, almost proudly, “and the other half will. But that’s the idea. The film is divisive in that sense; it’s not trying to be divisive, it’s trying to make people think. I’ve just gotta push buttons. Some people won’t be able to take it and some people will.

“I remember the time I used to describe Brazil as a ‘cinematic mugging’,” he continues, referring to the infamous response to his dystopian 1985 classic. “People would just be so angry afterwards. I haven’t done one of those movies in a long time and I think Tideland might be one of those.” Then, with a rueful hint of exhaustion, he adds: “It may be my last.”

The majority of people, it will later turn out, couldn’t take it. So what went wrong? Was Gilliam again the misunderstood genius, as he’s so often portrayed by apologists and fans, or had he, as might also be claimed, deliberately brought the controversy — and thus misfortune — down upon himself?

——

If Terry Gilliam was looking to return to critical and commercial favour after a spell in the wilderness (1995’s 12 Monkeys was his last hit), he sure had a twisted sense of humour when it came to selecting his next property. A Southern Gothic story by way of Lewis Carroll and relayed in dreamy first-person narrative, Mitch Cullin’s 2000 novel Tideland tells of Jeliza-Rose, a young girl left alone in a dilapidated Texas farmhouse one summer after her heroin-addicted parents take a permanent vacation. With only doll’s heads and daddy’s decomposing body to keep her company, Jeliza-Rose constructs an elaborately schizoid fantasy world and endures strange, morally ambiguous encounters with her mentally troubled neighbours.

Hoping for an autograph, Cullin mailed a copy of his book to Gilliam, who would soon be wandering the cinematic wastes after the collapse of his adaptation The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Instead, the author got a personal reply from a newly energized director desperate to make Tideland into a movie.

“I hadn’t seen anything as unsentimental and unromanticised about a child,” Gilliam remembers. “I just knew a lot of people would climb up the walls when they saw it, so I said, ‘We gotta go out and make this.’”  But even Cullin had reservations about how audiences would respond to a precocious young girl in what might be seen as ‘questionable’ situations. “The sexuality,” Cullin would reflect, “is the thing that worried me the most. When it came down to the reality of [the film] even I was thinking, Shit — how are they gonna do this?”

Undeterred — hell, jazzed by the prospect of pushing all those buttons — Gilliam and his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas screenwriter Tony Grisoni went ahead developing the project, as a low budget respite from the rigours of studio filmmaking. “It’s just this one book I really wanted to make,” Gilliam explains, that trademark sparkle of enthusiasm — or madness — illuminating his face. “It was a really beautiful book. I’m maybe overplaying the disturbing, dangerous nature of it. Maybe it’s not as dangerous as it is. But it’s a film you have to submit to. If you bring all your shit with you, you won’t enjoy it; but if you let it take over you, it does something.”

When production on his troubled Brothers Grimm went on hiatus after a besieged Gilliam clashed with the brothers Weinstein, the director decamped to Canada to shoot Tideland. “It’s dark the way the Grimm’s fairytales ought to be,” he says, ironically, of his little side-project. “It’s the thing we seem to be so frightened of these days. Children aren’t supposed to be frightened? Of course they’re supposed to be frightened!”

Finding the right actress to be sufficiently petrified would prove to be a challenge. As the deadline for filming approached. Tideland was still without a leading lady — “Isn’t Dakota Fanning wonderful?” went the standard advice — and Gilliam had become concerned that the movie would not go ahead.

“What we should be doing,” he later joked to an audience, “Is reading the newspapers and looking for a car crash where the whole family is wiped out, except for one little girl. We needed scared children, people who had such depth of pain and anguish to do this. We’ll go to orphanages. We need troubled kids!”

The film at last found its haunted girl in Canadian actress Jodelle Ferland — “a very strange child,” according to Gilliam — who, though just nine years old, was already a seasoned veteran of movie and TV parts. Still, Gilliam had to deal with concerns that the role exploited his young actress by placing her in risqué scenarios.

“She knew exactly what was going on,” Gilliam counters when asked. “She was nine-and-a-half but I think she was actually 35 years old inside this tiny little body.” He grins. This being Gilliam, he can’t resist adding: “Her mother was with her the whole time and her mother was just fantastic — she knew how to prepare heroin and a needle…”

Whatever Gilliam’s trick was, the onscreen results are captivating. Ferland’s performance, both whimsical and disconcerting, is beyond her years. Gilliam has always identified with his movies’ protagonists and there’s clearly chemistry between director and star in Tideland. As he later tells reporters: “I didn’t really direct Jodelle; I would watch with amazement at what she did.”

——

Signs of Tideland’s ability to divide — and disgust — surfaced in early screenings. Recalls Gilliam: “I wanted to show it to people in an informal kind of testing. I found with this [film], people didn’t want to talk about it. They didn’t know what to say. [Fellow Monty Python] Mike Palin saw an early cut if it and he left — straight away. I called him the next day and said, ‘Okay Mike, what do you think?’ and he said it’s either the best film I’ve ever made or the worst film I’ve ever made. And I like that, you know. I haven’t felt that kind of response since I made Brazil.”

Tideland’s opening scene finds Jeliza-Rose helping her dad, played by Jeff Bridges, cook up heroin for his “holiday” while mum (Jennifer Tilly) flails comically in the throes of a fatal overdose. Gilliam smiles at my suggestion that many in the audience will be racing for the exit at that moment. “That’s right,” he laughs. “If you can’t deal with that, then get out now.”

——

As the polarizing response continued, Tideland managed to secure a limited theatrical release through small distributor THINKFilm (“Independent distributors ran a mile,” Gilliam claims). The film opened in the US October 13, 2006, on one screen, and closed just four weeks later — with a paltry box office total of $66,453.

Not surprisingly, the scathing criticism leveled at Tideland was loaded with moral indignation at the supposed despoiling of Jeliza-Rose’s innocence. So, how was it that the work of a respected filmmaker got trashed with such hasty zeal?

“It’s going down lines,” Gilliam explained. “What do we hear about? Little girls in difficult or disturbing situations. What does that mean? These are buzzwords: pedophilia is with us everywhere now. People are reacting in a certain way because we are so programmed now with hysteria. ‘Little girls in disturbing situations’ is something you don’t do in films. This is not a horror film, but things are in there that you don’t normally see, You’re seeing this little girl just floating through it, and surviving.”

Later, his defense would pointedly turn more petulant. “There’s not an ounce of pedophilia in it,” he said in a press conference to respond to the media backlash. “Media hysteria… sensationalises children as innocent victims, not the strong, resilient people they are. I think adults are frightened to admit what children are; I really do.”

——

Back on that Manhattan sidewalk, Tideland may be dying a limp death in cinemas, but at least Terry Gilliam’s plastic cup is stuffed with dollar bills. As he will later write in a sardonic letter to his distributor: “Not only did it work — we managed to get a large enough opening to generate a second and third week in the cinema — but I also made $25.”

Jester or genius, the fantasist continues to dream.

April 2007

Originally published in Empire

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