Not so much a making-of, but more a how-we-got-away-with-it docu, “The Hamster Factor” is an entertaining chronicle of the borderline loony genius of Terry Gilliam at work on “Twelve Monkeys.” Distilling some 135 hours of Betacam footage into an hour-and-a-half of fly-on-the-wall reportage, tyro Philadelphia filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe have come up with a document that should educate general viewers as well as please buffs. Result is set for small-screen transmissions and also goes out on the movie’s collectors’ edition laserdisc in January.
As Gilliam jokingly admits near the start, the idea of having the making of the pic documented was more a personal insurance policy in case he and the studio later came to blows. The double irony of a maverick director making a “European art film” with Hollywood money — and for the same studio, Universal, with which he’d openly clashed over “Brazil” a decade earlier — is the back story behind the docu.
The film is very much made from the point of view of Gilliam and his loyal co-workers, as they battle to stay within the terms (nothing over $29 million, an R rating, and 135 minutes) by which Universal agreed to give him the rare privilege of final cut. The perspective of the studio (which did its best to oppose the making of the docu) is largely unrepresented, apart from interviews with the often edgy producer Charles Roven: “L.A.” is portrayed as an unseen, faraway corporate menace given to panicking at the last moment and a butt for Gilliam’s ongoing jokes.
After briefly recapping Gilliam’s up-and-down career on his six previous pics, the film follows the shooting in guerrilla style, more an observer of the process than a card-carrying member of the production team. Bruce Willis (mostly), Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt are shown at work — and tensions between Willis and Gilliam hinted at — but there are none of the chummy direct-to-camera star interviews that usually populate making-of documentaries. Willis reportedly demanded a two-minute cut (of Gilliam raging about his perf) before signing off on it.
From the testimonies of his co-workers, Gilliam emerges in his familiar guise of a spacey genius ill-equipped to handle the pressures of a large shoot and much happier during the post-production period, when it’s just him and trusted editor Mick Audsley quietly mulling over the results in a U.K. editing suite. It’s this part of the film that proves the most interesting, as Gilliam has time to reflect on the production so far, refine his vision and (accurately) predict that the studio will be surprised by the finished product, panic and try to push it as a star movie.
In a first for this kind of docu, Fulton and Pepe show the audience at the first test screening, in Washington, D.C., with Gilliam and Audsley giggling nervously in the back row — an obviously staged moment but one that gives the docu a real sense of “being there.” Despite subsequent poor tests, Gilliam made only minor changes, and was eventually proved right at the box office.
Title comes from the crew’s name for those moments during shooting when Gilliam became obsessed with small details at the expense of the bigger picture. Gilliam’s supporters say it’s a clue to his genius. But the real genius that emerges from Fulton and Pepe’s enjoyable film is Gilliam’s ability to tweak the tiger’s tail and constantly get away with it.