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The Misadventures of 'Munchausen' : How a $23.5-Million Fantasy Film Turned Into an Over-Budget Nightmare

January 14, 1988|MICHAEL CIEPLY and JACK MATHEWS | Times Staff Writers

ROME — Your "reality," sir, is lies and balderdash, and I'm delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever.

--Baron Munchausen

By legend, the 18th-Century German storyteller Baron Karl Friedrich Hieronymus von Munchausen always preferred a vivid lie to the drab truth. This is a story about the making of a movie about Munchausen. Not surprisingly, it is a slippery and difficult tale.

On paper, "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen"--a big-budget, independent production to be distributed by Columbia next Christmas--was cautiously designed by experienced film makers and some of Hollywood's most conservative studio executives.

In reality, the spending on "Munchausen" quickly spiraled out of control and the film threatened to become that most dreaded of Hollywood monsters, a rogue production capable of seriously damaging companies and careers with runaway costs.

At one point early in production, accountants estimated that "Munchausen" might run $8 million to $10 million over its original $23.5 million budget.

The sudden overage cast a serious pall over the biggest and potentially showiest project endorsed by David Puttnam, who was forced out as chairman of Columbia when the parent Coca-Cola Co. decided in September to merge Columbia with its Tri-Star Pictures.

A British movie producer, Puttnam had lectured Hollywood about the evils of excessive cost when he took charge of Columbia just 15 months before. Ironically, he and his cohorts soon became embroiled in "Munchausen's" budget problems--although his wary approach to movie finance has protected Columbia by shifting any direct responsibility for cost overruns from the studio to insurers.

Because Columbia constructed a deal that removes it from any financial liability for "Munchausen," which is being shot in Spain and Italy, the film cannot become a fiasco on the order of "Heaven's Gate." That 1980 film, directed by Michael Cimino as an in-house production at United Artists, ran more than $30 million over its original $11.6-million budget and made barely over $3 million at the domestic box office.

"Heaven's Gate," a phrase that has entered the film vocabulary as a synonym for financial irresponsibility, contributed to Transamerica Corp.'s decision to sell off the studio.

If "Munchausen" is less threatening to Columbia than, say, "Ishtar"--an over-budget disaster produced by Puttnam's predecessors at the studio--it remains an extraordinarily troubled movie.

According to the director, the producer, and others, production hold-ups and a morass of deal-making delays nearly destroyed the picture before it was half-finished. At one point, the director was about to be replaced when he agreed to major changes in the script. And with months of work remaining to be done, sources close to the production say the producer and director no longer talk to each other, while Sean Connery, its best-known actor, has walked away from his role.

Spending on "Munchausen" is now being supervised by Film Finances, Inc., the company that insured the budget, and sources say that the payroll is now being met by agents assigned by Lloyd's of London, a company whose services are usually not required until the ship has sunk.

Fact and fiction have occasionally become as muddled in the making of the movie as they were in the 18th-Century nobleman's fantastic yarns.

Asked at a press conference last September about claims that Marlon Brando would appear in "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," writer-director Terry Gilliam playfully replied, "We were lying about Marlon Brando. . . . Everything we are saying about this film is a lie."

In fact, they were not lying about Brando. Gilliam said Brando had considered playing a key role in the film, but ultimately declined and the part went to British actor Oliver Reed.

But the gap between words and reality has grown wide on a film that lurched out of fiscal control.

At the end of July, "Munchausen" had been promised to its financiers for $23.5 million, a figure that included a $2-million contingency fund to cover unforeseen expenses. But expenses consumed $2 million before the first frame of film was shot Sept. 21, and the production was spending at a rate that would have driven the final budget figure to an estimated $32.5 million or more.

In an unusually drastic move in November, the company that had insured the film's budget took over the production and shut it down. A handful of key crew people were kept on the payroll, but the rest--perhaps more than 100 persons--found themselves taking a two-week unpaid vacation while representatives of the bonding and production companies wrestled over ways to trim the budget.

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