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Rattling the 'Monkeys' Cage

MOVIES

'The Hamster Factor' reveals just how 'harrowing' making a movie can be.

April 27, 1997|Steven Smith | Steven Smith is a frequent contributor to Calendar

The studio haggled over budget. The star stormed off the set and locked himself in his trailer.

And that was just on the documentary that chronicles Terry Gilliam's tense production of "12 Monkeys," the surprise 1995 box-office hit starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt.

Just as Gilliam's dark visions aren't like anything in the movie mainstream, the 90-minute "making of" film, titled "The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys," isn't your usual look at a Hollywood production, filled with approved sound bites and happy actors.

Instead, Philadelphia-based documentarians Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe offer a rare inside look at the conflicts raging just outside the frame of a feature.

"We wanted to show people how harrowing a process filmmaking can be," says Fulton. "No matter how much money you earn, or how much fame you have, there's still a terror of making something people won't like."

"Hamster's" existence is all the more surprising given that the film, now getting raves at festival screenings and available on laser disc, is distributed by Universal Pictures--the same studio that fought Gilliam over the final cut of his 1985 fantasy "Brazil."

A decade after Gilliam won that battle, he returned to Universal for "12 Monkeys" (a new regime was calling the shots). He also scanned film schools around his Philadelphia location shoot to find "witnesses" who'd document what was about to happen.

Enter Fulton, 31, and Pepe, 30--graduates of Temple University--whose movie profiles of local eccentrics included a look at Benjamin Franklin impersonators and an essay on road-kill enthusiasts.

Recalls Pepe: "Terry said, 'I don't want you to make something the studio could produce. I really want your point of view.' "

Two years and 130 hours of footage later, Gilliam got something more different than even he'd expected: a film that, while sympathetic to his passion and creativity, shows his petulant, combative side as well.

"We saw him not be able to maintain his composure," says Fulton, who watched one day--without his camera--as Gilliam tried to quit and stormed off the set. "[He could] be very petty, picking a [crew member] as a butt for his aggression. Our view of Terry is sort of the way the documentary views him, as someone with a lot of built-in paradoxes, and no less charming for them."

Although Gilliam had approval over "Hamster's" final cut (an irony they appreciated), the director didn't ask for a single change.

"He joked that the parts he liked most are the ones that make him look ridiculous," says Pepe. "He loved any scene that made him seem like a pain in the ass."

Which presumably includes the section demystifying "Hamster's" cryptic title.

"The Hamster Factor is a term the crew came up with to describe Terry's obsession with detail," Pepe explains. "There's a brief scene in '12 Monkeys' where Bruce Willis is sitting naked in a laboratory. It was filmed in an abandoned power plant; it was freezing cold, Bruce is sitting naked, waiting--and Terry is obsessed with a hamster on a treadmill in a corner of the frame.

"And he did the shot over and over until the hamster was running. Terry has the guts to do things like that . . . he'll do it on the chance that there's a payoff, and there often is."

Perhaps the documentary's most extraordinary sequence takes viewers to a place rarely, if ever, shown onscreen: a movie test screening--in this case, the first recruited audience showing of "12 Monkeys."

Luckily for Fulton and Pepe, it was a disaster.

The documentary cross-cuts the sight of Gilliam--babbling with desperate enthusiasm in the cinema lobby--with the downbeat responses of viewers inside the theater. We then move to a claustrophobic hotel room where Gilliam, his producer and his screenwriters sit stone-faced.

So how did Fulton and Pepe get such prize footage?

By emulating their subject. "When we started shooting the test screening, we didn't totally have permission," Fulton says, with a Gilliam-esque chuckle.

"After the preview, the tapes were taken from our hands and locked in a vault in Los Angeles. We weren't even let at them for three months; a studio executive was panicked about it.

"What worked to our advantage was, we spent every day of production on the set, three weeks in England during editing, and this test screening followed immediately after that. By that time, we'd developed a relationship of trust."

Even Universal eventually warmed to the project, after the studio saw a 15-minute promotional version (in fact, some of Fulton and Pepe's work was later used on "12 Monkeys' " press kit for broadcast media).

But, despite their many victories, the pair half-jokingly admit to a "flood of bitterness" over the obstacles they claim the studio put in their way, and what they perceive as its neglect of their opus.

"The people at Universal kept referring to it as the 'making of' featurette, the supplement," Pepe says caustically. "We were really convinced this was a film. It stands on it own. But making a film about making a film doesn't have much prestige to it."

According to Fulton and Pepe, Universal eventually paid them $138,000 for their documentary, but not until "12 Monkeys" had successfully opened. ("Hamster" ends by noting that Gilliam's grim thriller has grossed $160 million worldwide.)

Fulton and Pepe admit that the documentary has opened doors and given them their greatest success--but moments later, they're blasting Universal again for not selling their work beyond the laser disc and film festival crowd.

"They see us as cocky East Coasters who don't know anything about how Hollywood works," says Pepe, with a derisive laugh.

You'd never guess he's just spent two years hanging out with Terry Gilliam . . . .

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