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Movie Review: 'American Splendor'

Film critic David Edelstein reviews the new film American Splendor.


Other segments from the episode on August 15, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 15, 2003: Interview with Mike Judge; Review of Macy Gray's new album "The Trouble With Being Myself;" Interview with Terry Gilliam; Review of the new film "American…


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Mike Judge discusses "King of the Hill"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, sitting in for Terry Gross.

The first season of the animated television series "King of the Hill" is now
out on DVD. Mike Judge is the creator of "King of the Hill." There was a
time in the mid-'90s when many parents considered Judge public enemy number
one. He was the man behind Beavis and Butt-head, two trash-talking, metal
rock worshiping cartoon characters who were stars of MTV programming and later
of a hit feature film. "King of the Hill" aired on Fox. It's about a
conservative-minded, decent and utterly uncool guy who lives with his family
in a small town in Texas and faces the bewildering twists of modern culture
with the help of his trio of misfit pals. "King of the Hill" premiered in
January 1997. Since then, Hank Hill has had to deal with his wife Peggy's bid
to become state Boggle champion, his live-in niece's conversion to Christian
fundamentalism and his son Bobby being picked by Buddhist priests to be the
next Dalai Lama.

In 1999, the show won an Emmy for outstanding animated program. Let's hear a
clip from the first season. In this episode, Peggy has just been hired as a
substitute teacher for Bobby's fifth-grade sex ed class. Here she is standing
in front of the mirror practicing some anatomical terms.

(Soundbite from "King of the Hill")

PEGGY: Happiness, hap-piness, hap-pi-ness, hap-piness, ha-penis. I did it.
Ovaries, uvula, uterus, vagina. Hey, hey, I just did it.

HANK: I heard you. The whole neighborhood can hear you cussin'.

PEGGY: It's not cussin, Hank, to say the name of a God-given body part.

HANK: Well, it is if it's a part of the body that was meant to be concealed
by an undergarment. You're dealing with organs that people just don't want to
know about.

PEGGY: Well, Bobby ought to know about them. We don't want him growing up as
repressed as we did.

HANK: Sure we do. I'm drawing the line here, Peggy. My son is not going to
learn this crazy crap. It says right here he can't take the class without
permission of both his parents.

PEGGY: Now just hold on. Are you saying I am not good enough to teach my own

HANK: If you do not approve, you do not have to sign, and I do not approve.
Permission denied.

BOGAEV: Mike Judge, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. MIKE JUDGE ("King of the Hill"): Thank you. Good to be here.

BOGAEV: What I really like about Hank Hill is that he's this conservative guy
trying to make sense of things and treat people with humanity in a world that
just has gone terribly wrong.

Mr. JUDGE: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. I mean, that's what's fun is to have the
world be wrong and Hank be right, you know? Even though he's not king of the
world, he's maybe king of his block.

BOGAEV: Hank's pals are really a wonderful trio. One's an exterminator
consumed by conspiracy theories.

Mr. JUDGE: Yeah.

BOGAEV: Another's a barber in the Army with very low self-esteem, and then
there's Boomhauer, who you also supply the voice for.

Mr. JUDGE: Yeah.

BOGAEV: And he's sort of this rockabilly type and he's known for being
completely unintelligible.

Mr. JUDGE: Yeah.

BOGAEV: Can you do some Boomhauer for us for people who are not familiar with
his garbled speech?

Mr. JUDGE: Sure. Well--yeah, Boomhauer--I wanted to do an animated character
like this for a while whose accent was so thick that you couldn't follow him
'cause I'd known--there's a guy I knew in Dallas that--especially after he'd
been drinking you kind of knew what he was talking about but you didn't know
what he was saying. And it's also based on a guy who called to complain about
"Beavis & Butt-head" who left a voice message and...

BOGAEV: That got replayed and replayed around the studio.

Mr. JUDGE: Yeah, that I listened to many times. Yeah, and he was--I don't
know if you can say this on NPR, but you could bleep it out, I guess. He
thought the name of the show--for some reason he thought the name of the show
was "Porky's Butthole." I don't know how he got that out of "Beavis &
Butt-head," but his phone call, he was--I don't know what--he was saying, `And
I've been calling you-all about a month now about you-all every time that damn
"Porky's frigging old Butthole" come on. You-all been jiving them damn
commercials on, on and on every time, time after time, like you-all do last
time, you know?'

And I also was calling a guy for directions once in Oklahoma City and got a
Boomhauer kind of guy who's just, say, `Hey, you know, come on on that
overpass and, you know, coming off on the off-ramp and you turn right and it's
just gonna be right there, you know?' And so, it's you know, that sort of

He's also like--Boomhauer, I think of him as--like if he'd grown up in
Southern California, he probably would have been a surfer for life, you know,
and he's one of those guys everybody likes. He doesn't say much, but girls
like him and guys like him, you know? He's kind of a good-looking guy, kind
of mysterious.

BOGAEV: How has the series changed or developed in a hundred episodes?

Mr. JUDGE: A lot of the characters have developed in a really good way. You
know, it's taken on a life of its own and it's all through just--you know,
it's a big collaborative process. There's writers, and I think the voice
actors actually have a lot to do with it. Peggy has developed into one of my
favorite characters when in the beginning it was one of those things where I
wasn't quite sure, you know, like how do we--what do we do with her? And I'm
not great with female characters anyway, and it just kind of
happened--something--it takes on a life of its own and it's just a grand sum
of all the people who are working on it, really.

BOGAEV: Peggy is wonderful. She's a Boggle champion, she has a lot of skills
under her belt. She's a real feminist, too...

Mr. JUDGE: Yeah.

BOGAEV: ...self-actualized, even though she lives in Arlen, Texas.

Mr. JUDGE: Yeah. Actually, when Greg Daniels came onto the project after I'd
done the first draft of the pilot, that was one of the things, you know,
saying, `Help me out with this. I can't figure this character out.' And what
he did, he started asking me questions about--he's, like, playing
psychologist. He said, `OK, describe your mother, describe your'--and my mom
was actually a Spanish teacher in high school and a substitute for most of the
time I was growing up. Then my grandmother, she actually--she had a degree in
Spanish, but she's from Montana, and she used to--she was always writing. She
got published, like, in Atlantic Monthly, but they were all very kind of
like--she got published as this mountain woman, you know, who's writing about
her--you know, they were homesteaders, you know, up in Montana, her family.
And so we just kind of started talking, and so a lot of that stuff made it
into the show.

I mean, Peggy's from Montana in "King of the Hill" and she's a substitute
Spanish teacher and--I should probably be careful what I say here. My mom may
be listening. But, I mean, it's not--my mom's actually very different because
she pronounces Spanish perfectly, and Peggy Hill pronounces horribly. She's
probably closer to my grandmother.

BOGAEV: You have kind of an eclectic background. You were a physics major in
college. You worked as an engineer. And then you also performed in bands.
How'd you get interested in animation?

Mr. JUDGE: Well, I've always been interested in animation since high school
and I didn't--I guess I was just too much of a wuss to actually commit to it
ever and to really try to--you know, like I--in college I just thought, well,
you know, I don't want to waste four years of tuition on a film degree or
something, you know, 'cause it just seemed like back then it was all science.
You know, if you ever want a job, you've got to have a science degree, and
math and physics came fairly easily to me, and so I did that. But, you know,
I mean, in the back of my mind, my pipe dream was always to go into comedy in
some way. But I knew I couldn't be a stand-up comedian or anything. But, you
know, I wanted to write and do this and that, but, you know, you just--how do
you do that? I had no idea how you become one of the guys on "Second City TV"
or "Saturday Night Live" or anything.

And so I finally got the idea to do animation. I just thought--when I
realized that one person can animate like a two-minute short, it just takes
you like six or seven weeks to do, but then I thought, wow, this is something
I can do on my own. I don't need anybody. I don't need to get a bunch of
people together and try to do sketches or something. You know, I guess it
just took me a while to realize that, but I'd always been interested in it,
and I've always done imitations and done drawings since high school.

BOGAEV: Do you write jokes for "King of the Hill," one-liners, gag lines?

Mr. JUDGE: Oh. Well, I personally don't like doing that, and a lot of times
we end up having that and I'm always the guy who kills it, you know? To me, a
lot of what--the reason a lot of sitcoms go bad is they kind of deteriorate
into every character becoming a smart-aleck because I think that's just easier
to write than to come up with situations where the comedy comes out of just,
you know, the characters and observational kind of things, you know? That's
actually like my--I guess the thing that I--I don't know why. I just don't
like--I guess it's because normal people in everyday life aren't constantly
saying smart-aleck comebacks that it took a Harvard lampoon guy three hours to
come up with, you know? It just breaks the reality of it, and I just don't
like that. I lose interest in shows where some, you know, 14-year-old
hot-looking underwear model girl says, `Yeah, last time you brushed your teeth
there were five more communist countries in the world.' You know, it's just
like that--I just have no--I just don't care about those kind of characters.

BOGAEV: That's funny, though, to imagine you killing all these jokes. Does
your heart ever sink? At least I should leave one in?

Mr. JUDGE: Not usually. Once in a while, to me if it's funnier than it is
unrealistic, then it's OK. But on "Beavis & Butt-head" there was one--I
remember this, I guess, just because there was a journalist in the room who
wrote about it where somebody had written Beavis saying, `Yeah, that guy, he's
gonna have Beavis envy,' like a penis envy joke, and I just...

BOGAEV: Got it.

Mr. JUDGE: ...thought, no, Beavis is not gonna--Beavis isn't that clever, you

BOGAEV: Let's talk about Beavis and Butt-head. For people who don't
remember, they were a sensation on MTV, I think over seven seasons in the
early '90s.

Mr. JUDGE: Something like that. The seasons were--we'd do two a year
sometimes, so who knows? Yeah, early '90s to--went off the air in--I want to
say '97. Yeah, November '97.

BOGAEV: They were quite repulsive 14-year-olds who sat on a couch in front of
the TV and made fun of everything. They also ventured forth once in a while
to work part time at a burger joint. I want to...

Mr. JUDGE: Yeah.

BOGAEV: this clip from an episode called "Blackout" because it has
one of my favorite made-up names for a TV drama series: "Asbestos in
Obstetrics" starring Melissa Gilbert.

(Soundbite from "Beavis & Butt-head")

BEAVIS: Hey, Butt-head, what is ostesbis?

BUTT-HEAD: Ah, it's like health food or something.

BEAVIS: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MELISSA GILBERT: Tell the commissioner we need that helicopter. I don't
care what it costs. No, I'm not chipping in.

BEAVIS: This sucks!

(Soundbite of TV exploding)


(Soundbite of laughter)

BEAVIS: Yeah. Huh? Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BEAVIS: Hey, Butt-head, what's wrong with the TV?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BUTT-HEAD: Ah, I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BUTT-HEAD: Let's kick it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BEAVIS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, let's kick it. Let's kick it, kick it!

(Soundbite of laughter and kicking noises)

BOGAEV: That's from "Beavis & Butt-head," which aired on MTV in the '90s,
produced and created by my guest, Mike Judge, and Mike Judge also was the
voice of Beavis and Butt-head.

Who were these guys? Where'd you cull them?

Mr. JUDGE: It started out as drawings in my sketch book, and I'm not sure
what I was going for. I hated being 14 and being in junior high. And I
remember thinking around that time that I drew them that there are
14-year-olds kind of looked the same then as--you know, this was like 1990 or
whatever--as they did when I was in high school. They were still wearing
AC/DC T-shirts. And my high school reunion had actually just happened, and a
friend of mine was talking about this guy I knew in high school who's actually
very different from Beavis and Butt-head--he was a straight A student--but he
kind of had a spastic laugh that was--it was a little deeper than Beavis. He
was always just--he was sitting at the front of the class kind of sucking up
to the teacher all the time and laughing at everything the teacher would say,
and his laugh was kind of (laughs).

And so I made two attempts at drawing him. I actually tried to draw him,
like, four times and none of them looked like him, but a couple of them became
Beavis and Butt-head. But I guess they're kind of like--I don't know. They
started out as being completely repulsive characters, definitely. I mean,
that was the point. Completely moronic. The way I think of it, in the
beginning anyway, was I remember--I'm always struck by how out of touch it
seems that people in entertainment and in the news are, and I remember hearing
one of these statistics you always hear, like 80 percent of high school kids
in some town couldn't locate the United States on a globe if it wasn't marked.
And, you know, the news reporter was shocked. I wasn't that shocked. I
was--and, you know, I mean, 'cause I remember junior high and I--and so to me,
they're like that 80 percent, you know?

BOGAEV: The thing that a lot of people liked about Beavis & Butt-head was
that they were really stupid, but they'd sit there and they'd watch TV.
They'd watch American popular culture and they'd know it was so stupid.

Mr. JUDGE: Yeah. That's what was really fun was to have, like--also I think
when you--sometimes if you free your mind of intellectual matters, a lot of
truth can come out that just comes out from some gut level, and that's fun,
you know? And it was also--like, actually very early on when MTV first bought
it, they showed my original shorts to a focus group and sent me a tape of it.
And right before mine, the tape had--you know, it's like, a one-way mirror.
You're looking at, like, 14 mall rats just sitting there watching stuff, you
know? It was really funny. They'd show them something like "Beyond
Flux,"(ph) which is this really intricate Japanese animation style, real--you
know, they'd show them really artsy stuff and these kids would just go, `Well,
that was dumb,' you know? And there's something really funny about that, you
know? Everyone's efforts, you know, making these videos and all these kind of
high-concept things and just the reality that the real audience is a couple of
14-year-olds just going (laughs) you know? So by the way, that wasn't the
Butt-head laugh. That was my own laugh right there.

BOGAEV: Thanks for clarifying.

Mr. JUDGE: That was my own dumb laugh.

BOGAEV: You do a lot of the writing and you're doing the voices on "King of
the Hill," but you're pretty affluent by now after all is said and done. Is
there a place you go, like the local bar, to, you know, keep your ear fresh?

Mr. JUDGE: Well, I can always go to Home Depot, hang out there, get some
inspiration. I still have a thing about grocery stores. I like going to the
grocery store. Grocery stores are, like--it's like when I saw "Breakfast at
Tiffany's" and she's talking about how nice it is in the jewelry store, I
thought, yeah, that's how I feel about grocery stores. You know, it's all
this food, they try to make it a nice environment, and it really is. So the
grocery stores in New York always smell like rotten meat, but down here in
Texas and LA, I don't know, somehow they manage to make them smell nice. But
I got sidetracked there.

I actually--the neighborhood I live in in Austin is--yeah, it's pretty
affluent, but no so much that--it's one of those typical things that's
happened in the suburbs where there's, like, brand-new houses and then the old
hillbilly guy who's lived there forever lives right next door to me. And so I
still--you know, I put gas in my car. I go to the grocery store. I go to
Home Depot. It's not like I'm in a castle somewhere. And Austin is--although
it's not a typical Texas town at all, parts of it are, you know? Parts of it
are--you know, there's also lots of artists and filmmakers and musicians, but
there's also regular people there, too.

BOGAEV: Which character on "King of the Hill is most like you?

Mr. JUDGE: Probably Hank. I mean, friends of mine have said that Hank's
probably the closest of all the stuff I've done, including "Beavis &
Butt-head" to me, although my roommate in college insists that Butt-head is
the closest to me.

BOGAEV: Mike Judge, creator and executive producer of the animated TV series
"King of the Hill." The first season is now out on DVD.

I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "King of the Hill")

HANK: Hey, there, Bobby, I guess they found a cure for the cooties.

BOBBY: I don't know. What are cooties?

HANK: Well, when I was a boy, that's what we called the germs you got from

BOBBY: Oh, you mean like chlamydia?

HANK: Huh?

PEGGY: What on earth are you two talking about?

HANK: Bobby was invited to his first boy-girl party.

PEGGY: A boy-girl party? Already?

BOBBY: Well, I don't think I want to go.

PEGGY: Well, that's just fine, Bobby. Would you like a juice box?

BOBBY: Wait a minute. Son, why would you not want to go to a boy-girl party?

LUANNE: Parties are fun, Bobby. Everybody dresses up, and you get to touch

BOBBY: Touch dance? I don't know. What if I get felt up?

LUANNE: Oh, you just need some practice.

HANK: Luanne's right. All you need is practice. Do you think Jeff Foxworthy
just woke up one day and took some funny pills?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Macy Gray's new album "The Trouble With Being Myself"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.

Macy Gray's 1999 debut album "How Life Is" was an immediate success, selling
over four million copies. But after so-so sales of her follow-up, "The Id" in
2001, Gray seemed in danger of becoming a one-hit wonder. Rock critic Ken
Tucker says Gray's new album, "The Trouble With Being Myself," should do a lot
to re-establish Gray as a unique pop voice.

(Soundbite of "When I See You")

Ms. MACY GRAY: (Singing) It's been three days since I screamed and hung up on
you. And all I wanted was to hold you tight. I'm sorry, baby. Never meant
to be mean to you, and I hope you call me back tonight. You're hesitating
'cause you...

KEN TUCKER reporting:

To call Macy Gray's new album "The Trouble With Being Myself" delightful is to
minimize its sensual intelligence and considerable emotional depth. But let's
hear it for delight first anyway. Gray's third collection is crammed with
easy-going rhythm section grooves topped by chicken scratch guitar riffs,
plonking piano chords and nimble horn charts that span '60s soul and the
jauntier aspects of present-day hip-hop. This is the most loose, yet
disciplined, music Gray has made, whether she's singing about the joys of
making up after a fight on that lead-off cut "When I See You," or extolling
the virtues of good sex in a frolicsome, innocent way on "Screamin'."

(Soundbite of "Screamin'")

Ms. GRAY: (Singing) Don't hear nothing but bad news lately, and all my family
has gone crazy, but I guess it don't matter since the world is gonna end.
Gonna make a change--at least I'll try to. Will they notice when I do, and
if I don't make it, will you still be my friend? So tell me when I'll see you
again. It'll all be better. ...(Unintelligible) when you're on top of me
loving me, not making a sound, and it's so good, I am screamin'.

TUCKER: Gray's previous effort, "The Id," was, well, an effort, the
overwrought, overproduced work of an artist coping with debut album
mega-success. "Trouble," by contrast, could've been called "The Super Ego."
It's all strut and confidence, full of advice for a happier life. This,
itself, is bracing since Gray can come off on stage as a likeable nut case,
scattered and distracted. There's a tradition for that sort of image in R&B,
of course. Al Green can seem addled in his pursuance of the divine, and
George Clinton's P-Funk is, among many other things, an elaborate excuse to
behave wackily on stage. And Gray's hard-core devotees understand this pose
as a way to cope with fame and perhaps her genuine shyness. Others, however,
to judge from the relatively weak sales of "The Id," wrote her off too soon,
as it turns out from the evidence here.

(Soundbite of "She Don't Write Songs About You")

Ms. GRAY: (Singing) There's a place that's good for me. Got (unintelligible)
skies and ...(unintelligible) trees. And trust me, love is on the way. Baby,
baby, satisfaction fills the air and holds me close (unintelligible) there is
a sunshiny day. Even when it's cold and dark outside, inside the sexy people
screaming that they love me 'cause I'm Macy Gray. Baby, baby, when the party
never ends and all the ...(unintelligible) all my friends, they see me, they
say, `Hey, hey.'

TUCKER: The title of "The Trouble With Being Myself" tips off the listener
that Gray hasn't lost any of her self-absorption. A song called "Jesus For A
Day" should be enough to rest my case. But the song I just played, "She Don't
Write Songs About You," is primarily why a guy who's not reciprocating should
love her simply for the reason her die-hard fans do, quote, "Because I'm Macy

To be sure, no Gray release would be complete without at least one song that
rattles her audience a little. That tune here is "My Fondest Childhood
Memories," a peppy, Latin-inflected melody written in the first person whose
lyric describes the way a young Macy killed tempters who she believes slept
with her mother and her father. Gray cheerfully announces that she was let
off for her crimes because of her youth. Here's a measure of the universal
honesty of her imagination. Who among us hasn't had such vindictive thoughts
of someone who may have wronged us and further dreamed of getting away with

(Soundbite of "My Fondest Childhood Memories")

Ms. GRAY: (Singing) When I was 10, I had a live-in baby-sitter. She had a
pet kangaroo, all big breasts and heather. She gave me ice cream every time I
screamed and hollered. I loved her till I caught her sexing with my father.
She gonna hurt your daddy never again. She wasn't a friend, so I killed her.
She gonna hurt your daddy never again. She wasn't a friend, so I killed her.

TUCKER: The depth I referred to earlier can be found on this album's nuanced,
varied theme of how deeply love cuts and heals. You can hear it in the aching
plaintiveness of "She Ain't Right For You" and "Speechless," in her insistence
that contentment is best enjoyed with an equal partner on both "Happiness" and
"Screamin'." These add up to a remarkable cluster of songs, entrancing in
their mastery of styles from Sly Stone party music to Stevie Wonder balladry.
From its shrewdly knowing title to the barbed hooks that snag you into nearly
every song on "The Trouble With Being Myself," Macy Gray is in complete,
serene control.

BOGAEV: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly.

Coming up, "Lost in La Mancha." Director Terry Gilliam tells us about his
biggest fiasco. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Terry Gilliam talks about his dream of making a film
of "Don Quixote" and how the film eventually collapsed

The documentary film "Lost in La Mancha" is the story of director Terry
Gilliam's disastrous attempt to adapt Cervantes' "Don Quixote" to the screen.
It's just out on DVD. Gilliam says he knew before he started that the project
had a cursed history. Orson Welles had also tried to make a film version of
the novel, only to have his starring actor die before the movie could be
completed. But the odds didn't daunt him. As a director, Gilliam has always
pushed the limits. He started out as an animator for "Monty Python's Flying
Circus" and co-directed "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." He went on to
direct "Brazil," "Time Bandits," "12 Monkeys," "Fear and Loathing in Las
Vegas," "The Fisher King" and "The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen."

"Brazil" and "Baron Munchhausen" earned Gilliam the reputation in Hollywood of
a visionary and battler of windmills, so it seemed a perfect match that
Gilliam would take on "Don Quixote," until it all went wrong. How wrong?
That's the subject of the documentary "Lost in La Mancha." I spoke with
Gilliam last January when the film was in theaters.

(Soundbite of January interview)

BOGAEV: So you worked on this film, "Quixote," for 10 years, and you went
through two producers; you tried to start the film twice, and this is all
before the attempt portrayed in the "Lost in La Mancha" documentary. But
finally, you pulled together a production team from all over Europe--you had
no Hollywood backing--and you all assembled in Madrid for pre-production. How
did things go at that point?

For instance, one problem you had--your star is Johnny Depp, who played Sancho
Panza, and the French actor Jean Rochefort, who plays Don Quixote--they don't
show up for pre-production costume fittings or rehearsal. In fact, I think at
one point in the film, it seems as if you can't get Johnny Depp on the phone
at all.

Mr. TERRY GILLIAM (Writer and Director): Correct.

BOGAEV: That must have been disconcerting. I mean, how worried were you?

Mr. GILLIAM: No, I mean, there's no question--no, I'm not worried about
Johnny and I wasn't worried about Jean, either, to be honest, I mean, because
the one thing--having worked with Johnny, I know this is a guy who can turn up
five minutes before you start shooting and it'll be amazing. He doesn't--that
doesn't worry me. It gets frustrating because there's always things you want
to talk about, and you start tearing your hair out because you kind--and
Johnny was busy doing the film "From Hell," and he was in Prague, so he was
under the gun because they were running late. And I was worried that he
wasn't going to get there in time. And, in fact, he was so exhausted, he did
take a week off before he finally got down there. But the fact is, he was

But with Jean, because he'd--I don't know; he'd achieved a hernia about, I
think, a month before I started shooting, and the result of that was that it
was starting to press on his prostate, and the prostate became infected. And
what was shocking is when he did turn up--'cause he did not get on a plane and
then he got down there--was that I suddenly was dealing with a man that was
about 20 years older than I'd last seen him a month earlier. It was quite an
experience, because he's 70 years old. He raises show jumping horses. The
man has never lost a day of shooting in his life. He's far more fit than I
would ever hope to be. And this nasty little organ became infected, and he
literally went from what seemed like a 50-year-old man to a 90-year-old man
almost overnight.

BOGAEV: He did show up for filming. You began filming the movie, and the
first day of shooting, the troubles seemed to begin. What went wrong right
from the start?

Mr. GILLIAM: Well, there was a little problem about the extras not being
rehearsed in a particular fight sequence. That was the moment I went berserk
because, again--what happ--here's--it's a problem in films because especially
on something like this, I was working with some people I hadn't worked with
before, so you're relying on other people's knowledge of them. And there are
always some people on the film that spend most of their time trying to impress
the director by being incredibly charming, rather than going out and doing the
hard graft work. And I stumbled on one of those people, unfortunately, and
something hadn't been done. Rehearsal hadn't taken place. And we're out in
the middle of this hot desert area with always a limited amount of time, and
nobody's prepared themselves properly for that moment. And that was a huge
shock. I mean, I did go crazy 'cause it was something I didn't expect. And

BOGAEV: I think the words you used are, `You need to tell me if I'm going to
be'--expletive deleted--`beforehand.'

Mr. GILLIAM: Beforehand. Yeah.

BOGAEV: `I need to know if I'm'...

Mr. GILLIAM: `If I am, I want to know in advance. That's all I ask.'

BOGAEV: That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GILLIAM: And that's--I mean, it's very funny, because I think the
four-letter F-word I use more than, you know, a thousand times in the
documentary. I think I was quite amazed at how limited my dialogue had

(Soundbite of laughter)

BOGAEV: The second day of filming was the real disaster. And in the
documentary, it looks as if a hurricane blew in while you were shooting on
location in the Spanish desert. It really looks like a storm of biblical

Mr. GILLIAM: No, it was. And...

BOGAEV: What was it like on the set?

Mr. GILLIAM: It was like--well, I was exhilarated, frankly, because suddenly,
a lot of my concerns about our production problems and potential future
problems had all been taken away from me by this hand of this rather violent
God. It was quite extraordinary the way it built, because it was a slow
build, and we thought, `Oh, there are some clouds coming. Oh, there's a
little problem.' And when it hit, it was literally like the beginning of
"Wizard of Oz." And, in fact, I'm running around trying to decide whether I'm
in "The Wizard of Oz" or if I'm playing King Lear--in "The Tempest" in the

And it was quite extraordinary because what, in fact, I did--we were under
this marquee and all the equipment was there, all the people were there, and I
just walked out into the storm. I was so crazed at that point, howling, and I
found a large overhanging rock, which I crouched under as this storm started
building, and it got bigger and more spectacular. It was absolutely beautiful
in its anger, I think. And little by little, I started watching water pouring
down these mountainsides, which were dry, and suddenly they became waterfalls.
And then there was a rush of water, and then hailstones started crashing down.

And eventually, after about 45 minutes, it ended. And I had been under this
rock, looking away from the set. And I crawled out from under my rock and
looked back, and there's nothing there. A sea of mud is all that's left.

BOGAEV: You did regroup and began filming again. And I suppose this is when
the most ironic misfortune happened, something that truly elevates this "La
Mancha" story to a fiasco, and that's that your star, Jean Rochefort, fell ill
and he couldn't ride a horse. Now we have a clip from the movie. It's from
the day of shooting that you realize Rochefort is too ill to ride. Let's
listen. And here, you've just filmed a take and noticed something is wrong,
and you're on the set talking to your first director, Phil.

(Soundbite of "Lost in La Mancha")

Mr. GILLIAM: Cut! We're (censored). Did you see him sit...


Mr. GILLIAM: Did you see him sit on the horse? The pain when he sat down?

Mr. PATTERSON: (Censored) crazy? He can't (censored) connect. He can't do

Mr. GILLIAM: Yeah.

Mr. PATTERSON: It ain't gonna happen.

Mr. GILLIAM: I was watching his face very carefully when he got on the horse,
and it was just--oh, (censored).

Mr. PATTERSON: He can't ride like that, he certainly can't act like that and
he certainly can't jiggle hand props with that, you know. Honestly, I want to
go to the French and say I'm going to refuse to shoot with Jean Rochefort on a
horse until he's medically fit.

BOGAEV: That's a scene from the documentary, "Lost in La Mancha" about my
guest Terry Gilliam's failed attempt to adapt "Don Quixote" to the screen.

So here you have a Don Quixote who can't ride a horse. Did you know at that
point just how physically impaired Rochefort was?

Mr. GILLIAM: I think we did, because the irony was that when I had been
hunting for a Don Quixote who had to look a certain way, be a certain height
and a certain age, always the problem was that you could find an actor who
looked right but couldn't ride a horse. It was the one thing that Jean was
absolutely expert at. He's a brilliant horseman.

So on that day, when he was on that horse and you realized--looked in his face
and you saw the pain he was in, we knew we were in trouble. I mean, I didn't
know how bad the trouble was because we broke for lunch, and Phil Patterson,
the first assistant director, said, `I'm not going to let you put him back on
the horse. I mean, the man's in real trouble.' And I said, `Well, no, no,
no, no. We better talk to Jean.' And then Jean said, `Listen, I've been here
all week. I've been able to do nothing. I don't think I'll be able to get
through the weekend unless I'm able to do a scene. I've spent seven, eight
months learning English to do this, and I'm going to do it.' And then the
producers had said, you know, `He must go back on his horse,' and then talked
to Johnny Depp and said, `What do you think, Johnny?' And Johnny said, `Well,
if he really wants to do it, I mean, you can't say no.' And I--he's an adult.

So we put him back on the horse, and all we did--he was on the horse for about
45 minutes, just walking. And at the end of it, it took two people to lift
him off the horse, and he was in bad news on the plane the next day to Paris.
It's that thing with actors, and that's why I love them, but they can, you
know, almost kill themselves in trying to do their work, and Jean almost did

BOGAEV: Well, Rochefort left after that day's shooting, and he promised to
return in two days. He was seeing doctors in Paris. But two days became four
and then 10 and then, I guess, maybe never. What was going on while you
waited in limbo to find out your star's prognosis? Were producers coming to
you, saying, `Why can't we recast? Find a different Quixote. Bruce Willis.'

Mr. GILLIAM: There was all of that going on. The insurance company in
particular said, `Recast,' and I said, `Well, we spent almost a year trying to
get to this point. How do you just suddenly recast, 'cause there aren't many
people out there that fill the bill.' And I said, `We've also got very
complicated schedule problems. To reschedule is going to be very difficult
and costly.' And because we were, you know, an independent production, there
was no fat in the budget. And I said, `I don't know how we can do all of

Johnny felt very strongly as, indeed, did a lot of the cast and the crew,
that, `Let's wait for Jean. Maybe it'll only be a month. Maybe it'll be two
months. We'll all go away. We won't charge any money for waiting. And when
he's well, we'll come back and continue the film.' And I was on that side.
That's what I wanted to do. But we were given a deadline to come up with an
answer, either recast or reschedule or whatever, or they'd pull the plug. And
I just felt we couldn't, in the time, put it together in a new form, and so
they pulled the plug.

BOGAEV: At some point in the documentary, you're on the phone and you're
explaining to someone that you've just lost all sense of what the film was,
that you had the whole film in your head, you carried these images around in
your head, this vision of it all, for a decade, and it's just dribbled out of

Mr. GILLIAM: Well, I think it's, you know, become such a--I don't know, maybe
it's a way of surviving. Maybe my system just shut down and sort of closed
the door on it. Maybe that's what it was, because having spent--you're torn
because, on one hand, you've spent so long at it, you're tired of it, you hate
it and you're worn out with it. On the other hand, you know, you just want to
get it up on the screen. And so your system is doing bizarre things. And I
think physically, I was so exhausted, and then you had the emotional
exhaustion on top. It was kind of like on one level, there was a relief, `Ah,
the nightmare's over. I can go back to some other kind of life.' But--and
you think you've got over it, and then it would hit you like a month later
what a complete and utter waste of, you know, years of your life this has
been. And it comes and goes. But it's why I am still going to make the film
because this is the only way I can deal with these problems is to convince
myself that, yes, we will do it, and we'll do it in a year or two.

BOGAEV: What occurs to you when you watch the documentary?

Mr. GILLIAM: Well, it occurs to me that I should never watch it again is what
occurs to me.

BOGAEV: Did you watch it?

Mr. GILLIAM: Yes, I've watched it several times, and I can't stand it. It
leaves me depressed for a couple weeks, and I'm trying to get my life back.

BOGAEV: Terry Gilliam, it was such a pleasure talking to you today. Thank
you very much.

Mr. GILLIAM: Thanks.

BOGAEV: Director Terry Gilliam. When we spoke, he was in negotiations with
the insurance company to get back the rights to his script, "The Man who
Killed Don Quixote." The documentary about the making of the film, "Lost in
La Mancha," is now out on DVD.

Coming up, a review of the new film "American Splendor." This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: New film "American Splendor"

The new movie "American Splendor" is an adaptation of the comic book series of
the same name. The comics are autobiographical stories by Harvey Pekar, which
document his drab, daily life as a file clerk in a VA hospital. "American
Splendor" stars Paul Giamatti as Pekar and Hope Davis as his wife, Joyce
Brabner. The movie won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film
Festival. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.


Millions of people have been helped by the newest class of antidepressants,
but I'm glad that those drugs weren't around in the '70s and early '80s when
Harvey Pekar was at his lowest ebb in Cleveland. Successfully medicated, he'd
still have had his whiny sense of entitlement, but possibly not that last,
punishing drop of misery that drove him to make something beautiful and
enduring: the series of underground comics he called only half ironically
"American Splendor."

In the early '80s, when the agenda was suddenly set by Reaganite yuppies, and
it wasn't hip to be a sad-sack malcontent railing against the government and
hanging out with poor people, Pekar's was a voice of consolation. Along with
his illustrators, most famously R. Crumb, he found the tender mercies, the
moments of transcendence in the mingiest places. He consciously invoked the
great American naturalist writers like Theodore Dreiser, but the story, he
maintained, didn't need to end with the hero being crushed by a convergence of
character flaws and social forces. It could end with the hero sniffing a
fresh loaf of bread and living to mope another day, or even having his life
turned into a delightful movie.

The new film, directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, isn't in
quite the same key as Pekar's work. The tempo is buoyant and self-conscious
with the one step back level that we nowadays call netta(ph). "American
Splendor" isn't framed as the story of a lonely, self-styled shlub who works
as a hospital file clerk, collects old jazz LPs and searches for meaning.
It's the story of a lonely, self-styled shlub who gets famous, meets the mate
he deserves, then bumps up against his own mortality. Licking cancer, for the
time being, Pekar gets to hang out on this very movie set and bask in his own

"American Splendor" glides in on that celebrity. In the early scenes, it
gives you the man himself. Interviewed in a studio against a white backdrop,
Pekar says of Paul Giamatti, the actor who's playing him, `He don't look
nothing like me, but whatever,' which might have killed the illusion in the
cradle if the actor weren't as nervy as Giamatti, who goes Pekar to Pekar with
the real McCoy and doesn't blink. But Giamatti isn't really playing Pekar.
He's the alter ego Pekar concocted for his comic, a sad-eyed misanthropic
humanist, like Eeyore in "Winnie the Pooh," only surly.

You watch him as he trudges around the city hunched over, a chip on his
shoulder the size of Cleveland, and wonder how a man could survive under the
weight of so much suris(ph). Yet he's strangely open to everything, and so is
this movie. It has scratchy, animated frames and captions that evoke the
comic's edginess, and a free-floating jazz score by Mark Suozzo that might
remind you of "Peanuts," which was also about a bunch of neurotics disguised
as kids hanging out and griping and developing odd fixations.

About a third of the way in, Pekar meets Joyce Brabner, played by Hope Davis,
in the Hope Davis performance we've been waiting for. As Joyce, she has a
sort of radioactive drabness. The dull brown hair hangs defiantly limp, the
glasses are freakishly oversized, the voice is a postnasal drip that somehow

Joyce and Harvey's first date is a getting-to-know-you scene that will enter
the annals of American weirdness.

(Soundbite from "American Splendor")

Mr. PAUL GIAMATTI (As "Harvey Pekar"): They got a lot of meat on this menu.

Ms. HOPE DAVIS (As "Joyce Brabner"): You're a vegetarian?

Mr. GIAMATTI: Kind of. You know. I mean, ever since I got a pet cat, you
know, I've had a lot of trouble eating animals.

Ms. DAVIS: Hmm. I support and identify with groups like PETA, but,
unfortunately, I'm a self-diagnosed anemic.

Mr. GIAMATTI: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DAVIS: Also, I have all these food allergies to vegetables which give me
serious intestinal distress. I guess I have a lot of borderline health
disorders that limit me politically when it comes to eating.

Mr. GIAMATTI: Wow, you're a sick woman.

Ms. DAVIS: Not yet, but I expect to be. Everyone in my family has some sort
of degenerative illness.

EDELSTEIN: You'll have even more fun seeing that scene. Davis doesn't flinch
as she recites her litany of illnesses, and Giamatti looks at once smitten and
sick, as if Cupid's arrow had been tipped with a gastrointestinal virus. When
the movie ran actual footage from Pekar's famously antagonistic appearances on
"Late Night With David Letterman," I was reminded why I hated them back in the
'80s. Letterman's shtick was making fun of the folks back home, whereas
Pekar's comic barrels through ironic derision and comes out the other end into
acceptance. The movie makes that contrast clear in every spacious,
compassionate, un-Lettermanlike frame.

"American Splendor" opens with a scene in which the young Pekar goes trick or
treating without a costume, as himself, and is taken aback when people regard
him as peculiar, beside all the kids in superhero get-ups. And now we have a
movie that's more thrilling than "Daredevil," more powerful than "Hulk," more
freaky than "X-Men." Proof that so-called ordinary people can hold the comics
and the screen even better than superheroes. This Halloween, I want to be
Harvey Pekar.

BOGAEV: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.


BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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