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Terry Gilliam Working On An Adaptation Of Paul Auster's 'Mr. Vertigo'

by Kevin Jagernauth
July 28, 2011 1:45 AM
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Perhaps no other filmmaker in recent memory is as talked about for the films they didn't make, as opposed to the ones they did, than director Terry Gilliam. But, you have to admire the man's perseverance. We're now coming on two years since "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" and Gilliam has yet to mount another film, not that he hasn't been busy. He's done a couple of food and drink sponsored short films -- "The Legend of Hallowdega" and "The Wholly Family" -- knocked out a webcast for Arcade Fire, and more recently put on a terrific stage version of "The Damnation Of Faust." But it's those old projects that keep coming back to the surface.

Back in May, Gilliam revealed he was taking another look at "The Defective Detective," a script he co-wrote with Richard LaGravenese just after "The Fisher King" and last month, he candidly said that's he going to keep trying to get "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" off the ground because "it’s still the best script that I’ve got.” But even Gilliam knows there is only so much kicking of the tires he can give to past projects, and he's now working on something new.

During a Q&A at Era New Horizons Film Festival (via The Real Gillliam Fan) a couple of days ago, the director revealed, "I got a book. It's called 'Mr. Vertigo' by Paul Auster. And I'm actually working on a script of it at the moment. Doesn't mean it will be a film; but I'm working on a script."

Gilliam's note of caution is well taken considering his history, but the material is firmly within his wheelhouse with a mix of fantasy and history. Published in 1994, the 1920s set story follows an orphan who is trained to levitate by a mysterious person known only as Master Yehudi, and they travel across the United States as part of circus sideshow, showing off the wondrous feat. It's a bit of a road saga, as the orphan encounters the Americana of the era, dipping into everything from the Lindbergh's flight, the development of the automobile, the Mob and more. Here's the synopsis from Amazon:

It will come as no surprise to the gifted Auster's ("Moon Palace"; "The Music of Chance") many fans that walking on air, the implausible premise of his marvelously whimsical seventh novel, is treated with convincing gravity. Walt Rawley recounts his life: an orphan born in 1924 with "the gift," he was seized by his master, Mr. Yehudi, a Hungarian Jew who taught him to levitate. Yehudi takes the boy from St. Louis to his own Kansas menage, which consists of Mother Sioux and Aesop, a young black genius. (Also influencing Walt's life is classy, henna-headed Marion Witherspoon, a seductive mom figure from Wichita.) After harsh training, Walt tours with his mentor as "the Wonder Boy," aka Mr. Vertigo. Crammed into this road saga is the potent Americana of myth: the 1920s carnival circuit, Lindbergh's solo, the motorcar, the ethnic mix, the Ku Klux Klan and the Mob, baseball and Kansas, "land of Oz." Diverse mishaps descend, but eventually Walt glides into old age and writing. The characters speak a lusty lingo peppered with vintage slang, while a postmodern authorial irony tugs their innocence askew. The prose grows particularly electric when demystifying "loft and locomotion." Implicit is an analogy between levitation and the construct of fiction: both require fierce discipline to maintain a fleeting illusion.

Given the rich source material based on the work of a highly acclaimed author, it's no surprise that a movie adaptation has been in the works previously. Back in 1997, Agnieska Holland ("Copying Beethoven," "Europa Europa") was attached to direct, while in 2000 "Run Lola Run" helmer Tom Tykwer was said to be considering it as well. But it has been a decade since then so perhaps Gilliam will be able to crack the proverbial nut in order to get this one on the big screen. It's definitely an intriguing prospect so let's hope the pieces start coming together for this to happen.

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More: Films, Terry Gilliam, Mr. Vertigo

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