Terry Gilliam Breaks Down a Particularly Hard Night With Robin Williams on The Fisher King

Robin Williams in the darkness next to a line of parked cars in a scene from the film 'The Fisher King', 1991.
Robin Williams in the darkness next to a line of parked cars in a scene from the film ‘The Fisher King’, 1991. Photo: Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

Terry Gilliam, whose new film The Zero Theorem arrives on VOD next Tuesday and opens in theaters on September 19, spoke with Vulture yesterday about the most difficult scenes and shots of his career, for a feature we’ll run soon. One of the movies he discussed with us is The Fisher King, in which Robin Williams played a homeless man whose life as an academic had been destroyed by the trauma of witnessing his wife’s brutal murder. The role may have been Williams’s greatest and most-challenging performance, and Gilliam singled out a scene from late in the 1991 drama as being particularly painful to remember in the wake of the actor’s passing. In this excerpt from our long conversation about his work, the director talks about the challenges of filming that critical scene, which finds Williams’s character, seized by memories of that tragic final night with his wife, tormented by the Red Knight, a demonic (and very Gilliam-esque) vision that appears to him in moments of extreme anguish, a symbol of his madness and despair.

“This scene wasn’t a challenge to shoot as far as effects are concerned, but it was very hard from an acting point of view, because Robin was tearing his guts out emotionally. The interesting thing about Robin in all of those scenes was that he always wanted to do another take. He felt he had even more anguish and pain to spill out of the character. And I had to really stop him. I had to say, ‘Robin, you’ve reached a point here, way beyond what we expected. We’ve got what we needed. Now you’re just hurting yourself.’

“That happened a couple of times while we were shooting this scene. The most worrisome moment for me was after he’s been chased by the Red Knight, when he’s running through the streets, and then he comes to the river, where the teenage punks arrive and knife him. We had to do other things on that night shoot, too, and things were going very slowly. Suddenly, we realized that we had like an hour until the dawn [would arrive].

“The last shot we had to do was Robin running at the end of this scene, in this hysterical state. You can even see the light ever so slightly beginning to come on the river in the background. But Robin was so angry because it was such a crucial moment, and he felt he’d been cheated of his ability to really give this moment his all. And Robin was an incredibly strong guy: When he’d worked himself into this state of madness for the part, nobody could approach him. The first assistant, the stunt guy … nobody wanted to get near him. They were terrified.

“So, I had to go up there and tell him, ‘Robin, what we have here is very good. And if we look at the rushes and it isn’t, I promise you I will reshoot it.’ And I had to hug him basically, and hold him. I could feel these muscles that were so tense and so strong, they felt like they could easily rip my head off.

“But that’s what was so extraordinary about him — how he would commit everything and more to what he had to do. That’s also why I think his character in The Fisher King is in many ways the closest one to Robin, just that range — the madness, the damage, the pain, the sweetness, the outrageousness. That was the role I think that stretched him to the limits.”

Terry Gilliam on a Hard Scene for Robin Williams