The Fisher King
A fairy tale grounded in poignant reality, the magnificent, Manhattan-set The Fisher King, by Terry Gilliam, features Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams in two of their most brilliant roles. Bridges plays a former radio shock jock reconstructing his life after a scandal, and Williams is a homeless man on a quest for the Holy Grail—which he believes to be hidden somewhere on the Upper East Side. Unknowingly linked by their pasts, the two men aid each other on a fanciful journey to discovering their own humanity. This singular American odyssey features a witty script by Richard LaGravenese, evocative cinematography by Roger Pratt, and superb supporting performances by Amanda Plummer and an Oscar-winning Mercedes Ruehl, all harnessed by Gilliam into a compassionate, funny modern-day myth.
Previously released on LaserDisc by Criterion, Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King now comes to Blu-ray from them in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a 2K scan of a 35mm interpositive.
Disappointingly the transfer doesn’t look too different in comparison to the previous Image Entertainment Blu-ray released a few years ago. Image’s Blu-ray was certainly solid and a huge welcome after I was stuck with Sony’s original non-anamorphic DVD for years, but there is that slight tinge of disappointment, even if I can’t say anything truly bad about it.
There didn’t appear to be any print flaws or marks, at least that I recall, the restoration work being quite thorough, and the transfer itself doesn’t deliver any glaring imperfections. It still looks filmic, grain is there and appears decently rendered (not perfect, though, a bit noisy and clunky in places), and detail levels are very good. Detail was the aspect that most impressed me with the Image Blu-ray and it’s no different here. Though Gilliam states (many times) in his commentary he was really trying to hold himself back, he of course had his flourishes throughout, whether it’s Parry’s (Robin Williams) “home” —which looks like a janitorial closet from Gilliam’s Brazil—or the eye popping Red Knight that comes in and out of the film. These heavily detailed additions are rendered so far cleaner and sharper in comparison to the previous DVD and VHS copies of the film I had, and there are tight little details on the Knight I never noticed before. The colours are also far more striking (the reds of the Red Knight in particular) and black levels look rich without crushing out detail.
Yet despite all of the good things I can say about the colours and the level of detail, the detail really only improves upon previous incarnations of the film on home video: it could still be better, and that’s probably where the disappointment lies. Despite my general satisfaction with detail the really fine details, and some textures, are still a little bit on the muddy side. They’re not as crisp as they maybe could be, and maybe a newer transfer (from the negative preferably) would have remedied this.
The film comes with lossless 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio track that also sounds fairly similar to the Image Blu-ray. For a Gilliam film it’s fairly grounded (as grounded as a Gilliam film can be at least) and more character driven than maybe some of his other films, so its sound design doesn’t call for something as active or full as, say, Baron Munchausen. But the sound track still has its flourishes, primarily during the more fantastical elements like the Red Knight chase or some of the trippier sequences like Jack being carried off to the homeless colony under the bridge or the grand central sequence, where sound effects and action seamlessly move around the viewer. Audio is nicely split between the speakers and dynamic range is superb, with superbly balanced volume levels that make sure nothing gets drowned out. The all lends nicely to the film’s music, like Snap’s The Power and the film’s score.
The track also sounds clean, with no damage, drops, pops, or clicks, but that’s not too surprising for what could be considered a newish film (it’s now over 24 years old, which admittedly feels very odd to me). Overall it’s a clean, nicely dynamic track.
Criterion manages to port most of their material over from their Laserdisc edition, released more than 20 years ago, starting with Terry Gilliam’s audio commentary. Gilliam first starts off by talking about how this film breaks his own rules: it’s a for-hire studio film, it was made in the States, and it was from someone else’s script. Though other features explain that the producers had to work really hard to get Gilliam to do the film, here he says he had no issue breaking his rules after the stressful experience of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: he wanted something smaller and he felt he had to prove he could still do a small movie like this. It also doesn’t hurt that he fell in love with the script. He also states that he really tried to restrain himself here (other features reveal that others on set had to work hard to convince him to go with some of his more fantastical ideas) but as he goes on in the commentary you realize this was really hard for him to do since he was putting so much thought and detail into the film, whether he means to or not, from the creation of the set for Jack’s studio, to Jack’s apartment, to the video store, to the costumes, to the Grand Central scene (which was made up while scouting and was not part of the script) and so on. He talks about the performances, praising Mercedes Ruehl (who wouldn’t have yet won her Oscar when this was recorded) and expressing his joy at working with Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges, Bridges apparently made all the women swoon just by standing on set (this is another common theme throughout the features). He does get a little self-congratulatory when he mentions how this film would have turned out if another filmmaker made it (would have been straightforward and dull he feels, though adequate enough) but I had to admit he’s probably right. With a few amusing and bizarre anecdotes tacked on (the studio execs were scared Williams was too hairy, for example) and Gilliam’s usual flair, it’s an incredibly entertaining and informative track, and I’m glad it finally broke free of the old LaserDisc edition.
Also carried over are five deleted scenes. The scenes, running a little under 9-mintues total, all come from a work print and are presented with bookends from the finished film to give an idea of where the scene was to be placed. The scenes are actually all pretty good, though you can see why Gilliam cut them, and he confirms as much in the optional commentary that plays with them. He cut scenes mostly from the beginning and end because he first needed to get the story going and then feared the audience would become restless when they got to the home stretch. There’s also a scene showing how Jack finds out where Lydia works, which is somewhat skipped over in the film. There sounds to be more material that was cut but it’s a good compilation here.
Criterion next includes a number of new features going over the film’s production, the history of which turns out to be quite surprising. Gilliam of course talks about the production to an extent in the commentary but it appears he left out a number of details. Most of Gilliam’s films run into production problems and setbacks and screaming executives but I always figured that since this was a for-hire job for the director this was probably one of the more easier-going films for him, yet this wasn’t the case. It turns out it was though through no fault of his own, though, as it was having issues well before he became involved.
The film’s production is covered rather extensively in two new featurettes: The Fool and the Wounded King and The Real and the Fantastical, running 30-minutes and 31-minutes respectively, with the option of both being played together or separately. Fool focuses mostly on the surprisingly long history of just getting the film off the ground, and includes interviews with Gilliam, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, producer Lynda Obst, and actors Jeff Bridges, Mercedes Ruehl and Amanda Plummer. LaGravenese talks a bit about the various drafts of the screenplay (which sound completely different from one another) and what influenced him to write the story, and then we move to Obst, who talks about coming across the script and immediately buying it (well, she actually forced her boss to buy it for her). From here the film got stuck in a development Hell for years with Disney first holding the project. The execs proved especially difficult, and wanted to completely change the script to make it far more commercial. At one point LaGravenese was asked to rewrite Parry’s role for Richard Pryor and capture the “black experience” of being homeless, which LaGravenese was uncomfortable doing since he had no idea what that “experience” was like. Eventually the script was sold to Tri-Star and the nightmare only continued from there as they tried to assign “terrible” directors (according to Obst) to the film. Relief only came when James Cameron (yes, that James Cameron) expressed interest in directing. Though Obst knew it wouldn’t pan out (The Abyss was eating up too much of his time) she used it to keep Tri-Star from fast-forwarding the project until they got the right director. Eventually they convinced Gilliam to do it, feeling he was perfect, though after Baron Munchausen studio execs were really fighting to keep him off.
I found all of this rather fascinating on its own but the story continues on with Fantastical, which picks up after Gilliam joins, moving on to the process of casting. Interestingly there was the idea at the studio that this would be a Robin Williams/Billy Crystal vehicle, which Gilliam resisted: though he was fine with Williams he was picturing more of a Jack Nicholson type in the Jack role. It was when he saw The Fabulous Baker Boys that Jeff Bridges became a possibility. Bridges talks about his preparations for the role of the shock jock, and everyone of course talks about working with Robin Williams and the energy he brought to the production. Bridges, holding back tears, talks about the moment when he realized Williams was a genuine actor and not just a comedian like he thought first going in. Thrown into the mix are some amusing anecdotes about filming in New York, where the residents were rarely pleased in having their daily routines interrupted, even mildly, by filming, and this caused a few setbacks and interesting encounters.
Though its production history is still mild compared to Gilliam’s other films I still found it all intriguing and Criterion has edited together a rather engaging overview about it.
Following this is The Tale of the Red Knight, a 23-minute presentation featuring artists Keith Greco and Vincent Jefferds rooting through some of their old prototypes and designs for the Red Knight, recalling the rather grueling and stressful time period. They talk about their pitch meeting to get the job (which doesn’t sound to have gone well yet they got the job), and then go over the many difficulties they ran into creating the knight and the various fire effects that needed to be used, admitting that nowadays it would all probably be done with CGI. The job was particularly stressful because the knight became incredibly important for the director (more than likely because it was the most overtly fantastical element to the film) and when they were brought on to do the work this aspect of the film was already far behind in terms of timeline so they felt the crunch. It’s another intriguing and somewhat surprising aspect to the film’s production, and, mixed with some test footage of the Red Knight in action, makes it another worthwhile inclusion for those curious about the film’s production.
Jeff’s Tale is a 12-minute interview with Jeff Bridges, who goes over a number of photos he took on set with his “trusty Widelux camera,” something he has done on most, if not all, of his films (if you can track it down, Bridges talks to Conan O’Brien about an amusing prank played on him while he was taking pictures on the set of The Big Lebowski—currently it can be found here). For 12-minutes he goes through a number of them, giving back story to each image and talking about the people that appear in them, even getting somewhat sidetracked when he talks about Michael Jeter. A much more personal presentation than a standard photo gallery, with Bridges in full “Dude” mode.
Following on from that is Jeff and Jack, which is about Bridges’ preparation for becoming a shock jock, working with acting coach Stephen Bridgewater. There were hours and hours of sessions recorded and Criterion provides a compilation of that footage here, showing Bridges build up his confidence and skill. There’s a lot of improvisation here and some of the material even made its way in one form or another into the film. Another fascinating little aspect to the film’s production that I’m glad was included here.
Criterion then provides an interview with Robin Williams under Robin’s Tale. The interview was recorded in 2006 and it appears it was intended for a possible special edition of the film to be released by Sony, though I’m guessing it was abandoned since we never saw it. It’s a funny but informative interview as Williams talks about what drew him to the project and how much he loved working with Gilliam (he claims he just loved making Gilliam laugh since he has what he considers a great laugh, which we get samples of here). He covers various sequences and expands on some of the issues they ran into with locals that were hinted at in other features. I was a little surprised Criterion didn't include more about Williams since these supplements we're being put together just after his death, though maybe they felt it inappropriate. But they do present a compilation of outtakes featuring Williams on set, which appears after the credits of this feature, working as a kind of loving tribute.
Also carried over from the LaserDisc are 3-minutes' worth of costume tests, simply featuring the actors trying out their costumes. The disc then closes with almost 10-minutes' worth of theatrical trailers: three domestic and two international.
This release then comes with one of Criterion's large foldout inserts featuring an essay on the film by Bilge Eberi, who talks about how this film differs from Gilliam's other works (it's more of a crowd pleaser and has more modern stylistic choices) though still features his unique touches (scewed camera angles, fantasy touches, and so forth).
Though the supplements yet again lack in anything scholarly the supplements are still all rather good, giving a rich and detailed look into the making of the film.
Though the release offers a substantial improvement over Sony's very barbones "Deluxe Edition" DVD in all areas, I felt a slight edge of disappointment that it looks as though the transfer found here is the same one used for the original Image Blu-ray, offering no real improvement in presentation over that edition. Still, fans of the film will want it for the supplements, which extensively cover the film's surprisingly interesting production.