Dreams: The Fisher King

Edited by Phil Stubbs

The Red Knight, the manifestation
of Parry's pain
The Fisher King is a romantic fantasy set in New York City at the end of the twentieth century. It features Jeff Bridges as a cynical "shock-jock" whose faith in life and love is nurtured by a mad individual played by Robin Williams.

Probably the most intimate of Gilliam's pictures, the director benefits from a strong script and a cast who worked together well. Gilliam succeeded in presenting a unique view of Manhattan, in particular presenting a medieval feel to Central Park.

This webpage contains the first part of the film's official production notes. Also immediately below are links to the rest of the production notes and also a Dreams guide to the locations within Manhattan used within the film.

The Fisher King features within Dreams...

The Fisher King's Manhattan Locations
A guide by Craig J. Clark

The Fisher King Production Notes part 2 - The Filmmakers
more offical notes

The Fisher King Production Notes part 3 - The Cast
the final part of the production notes

The Fisher King Production Notes

The Fisher King is a dramatic comedy that concerns one man's attempt to redeem himself from a life of fatal cynicism through his unlikely alliance with a visionary street person.

Robin Williams portrays Parry, a former professor of medieval history, who lives in a remarkable world of his own creation in order to insulate himself from a tragedy in his past. He now sees a singular New York and has the charismatic ability to permit others to see the world as he does - full of turrets and castles, terrifying Red Knights and damsels in distress.

Jeff Bridges portrays Jack Lucas, a man who has always managed to look down at life from the top. He is the menace of Manhattan's airwaves, the city's No. 1 shock DJ, but his off-handed arrogance triggers an incident which derails him from the fast track and sends him on a precipitous decline through the looking glass into a whole other world he had never imagined. Penniless and without prospects, Jack finds himself plucked from disaster by the most improbable of saviors... Parry.

It is the beginning of an amazing friendship. Parry needs love. Jack needs hope. And the key to their redemption lies in the quest to win the heart of Parry's imperfect perfect vision of a woman.

Shy and inhibited by notions of chivalry, Parry dares not approach Lydia until Jack takes it upon himself to bring the two together. By helping Parry win the heart of the lonely woman he secretly loves, Jack hopes to redeem himself and erase the blight from his own soul. Jack's self-serving deed, however, leads to a more profound result, in which the bruised cynic and his pure-hearted friend both discover the nature of true love.

Portraying the girl of Parry's waking dreams, his perfect maiden - a vision unique to him - is Amanda Plummer.

Mercedes Ruehl is Anne Napolitano, the worldly video store owner who provides solace to Jack after his fall from grace.

Directed by Terry Gilliam, The Fisher King starts Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges in a TriStar Pictures presentation of a Hill/Obst Production written by Richard LaGravenese. Also starring in the Terry Gilliam Film are Amanda Plummer and Mercedes Ruehl. The producers are Debra Hill and Lynda Obst.

Several years ago Richard LaGravenese sat down to write his first solo screenplay, one that would incorporate elements of the mythology that he is so passionately interested in. The best he hoped for was that The Fisher King which he acknowledged as 'offbeat', might be made as a small independent feature film. Instead, the script attracted the attention of producers Debra Hill and Lynda Obst.

When she first received the screenplay, Obst says, "I had to go on an errand and I couldn't stop reading the script. I was driving in the car with the script on my lap. I thought, this is unbelievable. It was a Sunday, but I had to find the agent because the possibility that this script would be made without us was unacceptable."

The producers wanted Terry Gilliam to direct the film and began their campaign to secure the services of the innovative director.

Gilliam confesses to an ulterior reason for being drawn to The Fisher King.

"I made the film to discover whether or not I was a film director. This may seem an odd statement from someone in middle age with several film credits to his name, but it's true. All my other films had initiated with me, had sprung from ideas of mine that had insisted they be made into films. I saw myself as a filmmaker, not a film director. The directing bit was just one of the jobs along the way to getting an idea from brain to script to budget to film to final cut to cinema audience to, finally, out of my hair."

But when The Fisher King arrived on his doorstep, Gilliam found himself tempted to direct it.

"The ideas were totally familiar to me. Here was a writer who saw the world through very similar eyes to mine. On top of that it was brilliantly written. It was funny, sad, surprising. It had wonderful characters, it was emotionally powerful and it had a Holy Grail in it... and I've had some experience with films with Holy Grails," says the co-director of the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Making The Fisher King was an interesting experiment for Gilliam, he says, because of his previous penchant for making films dependent on special effects.

I think for a lot of people, my reputation is one of making big, spectacular special effects films... visually complex films where the characters were secondary to the world in which they existed. The Fisher King is just the opposite of that. That's one of the reasons I wanted to do it - to show that I can actually work with just four people and out of that create a good film."

LaGravenese's role in the production didn't end when he sold the script. Throughout preproduction, rehearsals and filming, he worked with Gilliam and the cast, collaborating on the making of the film in a way that is rare for screenwriters.

"It was terrific having LaGravenese aboard," Bridges says, "because he was the guy who thought up the whole story, and to ask his opinion was very valuable. It was a very close company, and we all helped and used each other in a most positive way."

"The Fisher King," Gilliam says, is "about the search for the Holy Grail in New York City in the second half of the 20th century." It could also be described as "about a guy trying to get a friend a date so he can feel less guilty. It's about redemption, and what's good about the whole thing is you can't describe it simply."

The Myths Behind The Fisher King

The Fisher King is the guardian of the Holy Grail, which, in medieval legends, is the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper and which was used to collect drops of his blood at the Crucifixion.

"The Fisher King is dying, his kingdom is dying around him," Gilliam says as he describes the various myths surrounding the Fisher King and the Grail. "He's a man who's probably seen too much of life - he's experienced betrayal and tragedy. His life is slowly crumbling, and his kingdom goes barren. He's also lost the Grail. It's the one thing that can save him, but he's lost the ability to see it and experience it. A fool comes along and finds the Grail right next to his bed and restores the king."

The fool, a pure and innocent soul, demonstrates the kind of compassion that can free the king from mortal anguish. Although aspects of both Williams' and Bridges' characters correspond to the fool, it is Parry, in retreat from his reality, who is clearly the more innocent soul.

"Parry is a man with a previous life that was so damaged that he had to create another personality," Williams says. "It's like post-traumatic stress syndrome: Some people respond to traumatic or tragic events by withdrawal; some even create other personalities. Parry is a creation - somewhat Don Quixote, somewhat Groucho Marx - but he's a creation designed to avoid a past event."

In contrast to Parry, Jack is "a cynical fellow who, underneath, is a romantic who's been crushed or hurt in some way," Bridges says. "At the core, he has a lot of goodness that just kind of pops out of him... he can't help it. The film's about redemption, about healing wounds and how giving and getting are really pretty much the same thing. My character really gets the ultimate gift by his giving, not by his receiving."

About The Production

The Fisher King began filming exteriors in New York, then moved to Los Angeles for the interiors. With the exception of the Central Park scenes, Gilliam says, he was trying to show a New York that was "heavy, stone, monumental... as in a fairy tale. In my mind I was making a fairy tale of people like Lydia imprisoned in this great stone tower working in this publishing house, and bums living under the arches of Manhattan bridge in a setting that's Dante-esque."

In the myth, the Fisher King's kingdom is dying, just as he is, "so I pictured New York as all stone and brutal buildings, with no living things like trees and birds. I put Jack Lucas, who's actually the Fisher King, up in the most minimalistic, severe, cold building I could find."

To help him get the look he wanted, Gilliam turned to New York-based production designer Mel Bourne, two-time Oscar nominee who has worked on numerous Woody Allen films.

One of the film's most overtly fairy-tale-like locations is millionaire Langdon Carmichael's 5th Avenue townhouse. A massive, castle-like structure, it houses the Holy Grail, or so Parry imagines. The townhouse is actually the Armory, at 94th Street and Madison, which was made even more imposing and medieval-looking by the addition of stained-glass windows and gargoyles. Bourne also supervised the construction of an elaborate entryway and double staircase in California, which were shipped to New York and added as a facade to the Armory (Bourne, incidentally, takes a turn in front of the cameras as Carmichael).

In the interest of accuracy, the filmmakers even reversed the flow of vehicles on Madison in font of the Armory, because traffic on 5th Avenue, where the townhouse is supposed to be located, travels in the opposite direction.

In another scene, Gilliam choreographed commuters, not traffic, when he had 1,000 extras spin around the floor of Grand Central Station in a stately waltz. Parry has been following Lydia through the rush hour pedestrian traffic in the station when suddenly all these disconnected souls join in dance.

"The waltz is the only thing that I would claim total credit for because it wasn't in the script," Gilliam says. "A scene takes place at Grand Central Station, so I was there watching the rush hour develop, watching the swarm begin. It started slowly, then the tempo increased and I thought, 'My god, wouldn't it be wonderful if all these thousands of people suddenly just paired up and began to waltz?' And the producers foolishly enough said, 'What a good idea!' Bingo, it's in the film."

To film the scene, the production was able to take over Grand Central Station for two nights from 11pm to 6:10am, when the first commuter train arrives.

"It's a pretty terrifying way to work," Gilliam says, "because you know you've got to be out of there at a very specific moment. In fact, there are shots that we got right as the 6:10 train was arriving."

In spite of the production's good luck at Grand Central Station, filming in New York didn't always proceed smoothly. The filmmakers had found a trash-strewn location off FDR Drive for a scene in which Jack is about to drown himself in the river.

"We asked the city to leave these abandoned card and garbage piled under there," production designer Bourne says. "Wouldn't you know it, they swept the area clean, so we had to bring in, at major expense, a load of trash and cars and refrigerators, stuff that had been there to begin with."

Parry's mystical New York also harbours evil and terror, which is personified for the former history professor in the Red Knight. Astride a giant horse and emitting what looks like the fires of hell, the knight stalks Parry through the streets, a dark element in a film that, "however funny it is, however outrageous it is, is based on pain, on a tragedy, on loss," Gilliam says.
A cabaret singer, as played
by Michael Jeter

Keith Greco and Vincent Jefferds of R&R Design in Los Angeles built the Red Knight's armor, working overtime to realise the vision of Gilliam, Bourne and costume designer Beatrix Pasztor.

"The concept was of a 500-year-old incarnation of evil, of corrupted chivalry, that's disintegrated and smouldering inside - a Red Knightmare," says Jefferds. "Our idea was of an illuminated manuscript of a knight with all the flourishing heraldic fabric, so from the front he looks like he's swimming in burning fabric."

Beneath the Red Knight's frightening armour - made from foam latex - was stunt co-ordinator Chris Howell, who carried a 16-pound flame thrower atop his head that shot fire from his helmet. Creative special effects consultant Robert E. McCarthy designed the flame thrower, which used compressed gas and air. In addition to playing the part of Parry's worst nightmare, Howell was responsible for orchestrating all of the stunt work on The Fisher King, which entailed a lot of difficult "near misses" on the streets of New York.

Two horses were used, both Percheron geldings - Lightning, who weighs 2,200 pounds, and Goliath, who weighs in at just under a ton. They are circus horses owned and trained by James Zoppe of Southern California. Each horse was "made up" daily by animal colorist Douglas J. White, who uses non-toxic, vegetable-based, hypo-allergenic paints applied to a natural henna base (both horses are white). Every aspect of the Red Knight was fully supervised by the ASPCA.

LaGravenese, speaking of the experience of making this special film, says: "At times it appeared that for some people working on the movie, individual journeys were being made towards their own particular Grails. This was certainly true for me. I hear it is common; that a movie you're working on can begin to reflect the life you're having around it. For that experience, and for the gift of working with such extraordinary people, I am deeply grateful to those who made it all possible."

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