but i'll take gilliam's side. he says: i think my priorities are right. i will sacrifice myself or anyone else for the movie. it will last. we'll all be dust.
SPECIAL TO THE STAR
On Sept. 10, an article appeared in the Globe and Mail headlined "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." It was about Terry Gilliam's latest film Tideland, starring 10-year-old Canadian actress Jodelle Ferland. It touched upon his past use of a Canadian child actress.
Globe writer Gayle MacDonald stated, "Filmmakers like Gilliam keep coming to the Canadian talent trough for child actors because our kids, by all accounts, tend to be easy to direct, manage, and mould. Chalk it up to our easy-going, accommodating national character."
Or you could chalk it up to ACTRA's child-labour protections, which are much weaker than American counterparts.
But there's a lot in that paragraph which makes me shudder. The implication that our children being "managed and moulded" is a good thing makes me very uncomfortable.
And then there's the fact that, 17 years ago, I was the first Canadian little girl Gilliam used in a film. I'm always amazed when people don't question the repercussions of children being managed and moulded in an environment as perverse as a film set. The experience of working on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, in particular, was traumatic to say the least.
When I first heard that Terry was shooting a film here with a Canadian little girl, I immediately called ACTRA and asked them to keep a special eye on Jodelle. I also sent Terry an email that I should have sent a long time ago. What follows is the correspondence between us:
Hi there, Terry.
I hear you're making a film in Saskatchewan this summer. I hope you have a great time — there are some great crew people you'll probably be using from Winnipeg who got into making films because of you. (It's actually pretty bizarre — I worked out there this winter and at least five people told me that Baron Munchausen was the film that made them choose to be in film.)
I guess I just wanted to touch base and share a few things about my experience working on that movie. I know you'll be working with a young girl and I realize we've never had a chance to talk about that time — or I guess I mean I haven't communicated to you what my experiences were, or how I remember them now, or how I feel they affected me. I know you've heard varying reports (I can't remember who told me that) and I realize that it's not really fair for me to not communicate it all to you directly. Especially since the only people who I hold responsible (and who, by definition were supposed to be responsible) are my parents.
Basically, I remember being afraid a lot of the time. I felt incredibly unsafe. I remember a couple of trips to the hospital after being in freezing water for long periods of time, losing quite a bit of my hearing for days at a time due to explosives, having my heart monitored when one went off relatively close to me, etc. I remember running through this long sort of corridor where explosives went off every few feet, things were on fire, etc. I cried hysterically in my dad's lap and begged him to make sure I wouldn't have to do it again, but I did. I think I did it quite a few more times. I remember the terrifying scene where we were in the boat and the horse jumped out and ended up surfacing a plastic explosive that went off right under my face. I remember being half trampled by a mob of extras and then repeating the scene several times. I remember working very long hours.
I know I had some fun as well, but it's pretty much obliterated by the sense of fear, and exhaustion, and of not being protected by the adults around me. And again, the adults who should have been there to protect me were my parents, not you. This, of course, took some time to arrive at. I admit I was pretty furious at you for a lot of years.
What I went through is nothing compared to what many kids in the world suffer. But it certainly was unusual for a middle-class kid in Toronto, and it hardened and isolated me for many years, I think. It also created a pretty substantial lack of trust in my parents (again, not your fault, but a by-product of the experience).
This — contrary to how it may read — is not meant to be a guilt trip. You were always fun and fascinating, and you gave me a ton of confidence. You're a genius and it was a privilege (no matter what my age) to watch you make a great film. I think that film was hell for you, too, and you had enough responsibility just keeping it going without having to be a parent to someone else's child. I believe that you felt that if there was something that was particularly traumatic to me, that my parents would have informed you and pulled the plug. Of course, this is what should have happened on many occasions. I don't think my parents were monsters, by any stretch of the imagination. I do think, though, that you can't underestimate how in awe of you people like them can be. I think they were so shocked and thrilled to have their daughter in a Terry Gilliam movie that they couldn't see past that. They didn't want to be an annoyance or an inconvenience to anyone, and it must have been daunting to imagine holding up 100 people for your kid.
So here's my point: who knows whom you'll cast and what their parents will be like. My suspicion is that you might need to be constantly analyzing whether you would put your own 9-year-old in the positions you'll be putting this kid in. Because it's entirely likely that the child's own parents will be (for whatever reason) incapable of making the right call. This is a huge responsibility but I'm starting to think (from watching other kids and parents) that this is a fundamental part of the job when you're working with kids who should really be in school anyway.
Here's some unsolicited advice:
Try to keep a close eye on the mood of the kid, ask them a lot of questions about how they're doing, if they want to stop doing what they're doing, etc. if they seem uncomfortable, afraid, take it upon yourself to make the call as to whether or not it's best to stop or keep going.
If there are water scenes in this one — make sure it's warm!!!! If there are explosions in this one — I really can't emphasize enough how much better it would be if you could do reaction shots separate from the explosions themselves. I still duck when a car door slams too close or too loud.
I know it's probably a sucky way to shoot it — but it might save you another email like this one.
Sorry for the babbling. I just realized I wasn't doing either of us any favours by not letting you know this stuff. And I really think you're a decent person so hearing this might have an impact without being too alienating (I hope).
Good luck with the film. I know it'll be brilliant.
Ever since I started this Canadian project, your name has been at the forefront of most of my Toronto conversations. Every potential crew member I interview ends up including you in the chat. You are ubiquitous. How many people get that adjective thrown at them?
I also hear you are about to direct your first film. Congratulations. You've done brilliantly. You've continued to be a wonderful actress and I'm certain you'll handle directing just as well.
As far as the scars of Munchausen go, I had no idea that they were that deep. What always impressed me from my side of the camera was how professional you were ... always prepared and willing to dive into anything, no matter how difficult, that we organized (possibly that should read, disorganized). In fact, I started taking for granted that you could always be counted on, unlike some of the adults. You seemed so focused, I had no idea you were having such a terrifying time.
For what it's worth, we were always concerned to make things safe for you (you were too valuable to the production to allow anything to happen to you). Although things might have seemed to be dangerous, they weren't.
The only time events got close to trouble was when the horse jumped from the boat. We all were terrified, however I knew that Angelo Raguzzo was one of the most brilliant horsemen I had ever seen and that he would make sure none of you in the boat were harmed. Nevertheless, the explosion was a f--- up and I apologize.
One thing I'm curious about: Can you tell, when you see Sally in the film, in which of the shots it's you ... and which ones are your double?
Do you remember that the shots of you in the boat were right at the edge of the tank with stuntmen in the water next to the boat? I only ask, not to minimize your bad memories, but to try to understand the differences in the way you and I remember the events ... especially since you were so young and impressionable and sensitive, and yet seemed to be so wise and about 30 years old.
Luckily, for the girl in the film we are starting, there are no physically dangerous or terrifying scenes. I grant you there are some disturbing ones for adults, but I don't think so for her.
Like you, she is in every scene. It's her film. She's 9 years old and has been acting since she was 4. Extraordinary! Luckily for her, I'm much older now. And a lot more tired. Possibly a bit more wise, as well. And I will take to heart your suggestions.
Thanks for making contact. Hopefully, next time I'm in Toronto we can manage a dinner together. I'm curious to learn who you are now.
Thanks a lot for getting back to me. I do know in retrospect that many things that terrified me were not as terrifying as they seemed then (and I definitely remember that the boat was in a tank) — and I'm pretty sure I know which shots were the double (specifically an overhead shot where little Kiran [stunt double Kiran Shah] is running like the graceless 35-year-old midget he was. I was pretty bitter about this loping run being attributed to me in my girly teens). However — it does raise a question of what I remember vs. what happened. It's like this with photographs. Whole memories get built around them, which is sometimes a reflection of a general sense of things as they felt at the time, as opposed to what actually occurred.
So I'm willing to accept that my impressions may have been unlike what an adult might have. I think that's sort of the point. It wasn't a good environment for a kid because there were things that could easily be interpreted as dangerous without actually being dangerous. I think it's harder to make those distinctions as a child, and I didn't have a lot of support in trying to make them. The really traumatic things that happened are distinct memories that gave me nightmares well before the film came out, so confusion between what the stunt double was doing as opposed to me didn't really play into my bad memories, I don't think.
I really appreciate you responding. I wasn't sure how you'd react. I hope the film goes really well. I'd love to get together when you are next in Toronto.
I've really appreciated this exchange.
Postscript: At a film festival event a few weeks ago, I saw Terry for the first time in 17 years. We had a friendly chat and spoke about Jodelle. He said, "She had a great time, you could tell she really loved it, she knows this is what she wants to do, and she was happy to be there ..."
"Then again," he said, "I remember thinking the same thing about you ... that's why I was so surprised to get your emails." He looked confused.
It would have been difficult for anyone to see how unhappy I was at the time. Like many kids, I was eager to please and good at adapting to difficult situations, storing them away to unpack later. When it came time to publicize The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, I spoke glowingly of Terry and making the film.
In every interview I've read with Jodelle Ferland, she talks about shooting Tideland as a very positive experience. Though she's still a child, it's important to respect her impressions of her own film-set experiences, as they stand now. Yet, based on my own experiences, I'm curious about whether her impressions will change. Perhaps I'll drop her a line in a decade or two to find out.
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