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7 Movies Terry Gilliam Just Can't Seem to Make

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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.


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.  


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.  

3. 1884

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.


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.


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.  


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.


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.

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Pop Culture
5 Killer Pieces of Rock History Up for Auction Now (Including Prince’s Guitar)
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If you’ve ever wanted to own a piece of rock history, now is the time. A whole host of cool music memorabilia from the 20th century is going up for sale through Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles as part of its “Icons and Idols” sale. If you’ve got the dough, you can nab everything from leather chairs from Graceland to a shirt worn by Jimi Hendrix to never-before-available prints that Joni Mitchell signed and gave to her friends. Here are five highlights from the auction:


Elvis’s nunchucks
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Elvis’s karate skills sometimes get a bad rap, but the King earned his first black belt in 1960, and went on to become a seventh-degree black belt before opening his own studio in 1974. You can cherish a piece of his martial arts legacy in the form of his nunchaku. One was broken during his training, but the other is still in ready-to-use shape. (But please don’t use it.) It seems Elvis wasn’t super convinced of his own karate skills, though, because he also supposedly carried a police baton (which you can also buy) for his personal protection.


A blue guitar used by Prince
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Prince’s blue Cloud guitar, estimated to be worth between $60,000 and $80,000, appeared on stage with him in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The custom guitar was made just for Prince by Cloud’s luthier (as in, guitar maker) Andy Beech. The artist first sold it at a 1994 auction to benefit relief efforts for the L.A. area’s devastating Northridge earthquake.


Kurt Cobain wearing a cheerleader outfit in the pages of Rolling Stone
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

The Nirvana frontman wore the bright-yellow cheerleader’s uniform from his alma mater, J.M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Washington, during a photo shoot for a January 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, released just a few months before his death.


A white glove covered in rhinestones
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

A young Michael Jackson wore this bejeweled right-hand glove on his 1981 Triumph Tour, one of the first of many single gloves he would don over the course of his career. Unlike later incarnations, this one isn’t a custom-made glove with hand-sewn crystals, but a regular glove topped with a layer of rhinestones cut into the shape of the glove and sewn on top.

The auction house is also selling a pair of jeans the star wore to his 2003 birthday party, as well as other clothes he wore for music videos and performances.


A piece of wood in a frame under a picture of The Beatles
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

You can’t walk the halls of Abbey Road Studios, but you can pretend. First sold in 1986, the piece of wood in this frame reportedly came from Studio Two, a recording space that hosted not only The Beatles (pictured), but Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and others.

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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.


Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?


This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.


An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.


Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.


Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.


Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.


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