This remarkable letter is old—2005—but I just became aware of it, and it is an important document in the ongoing problem of the mistreatment of child performers.
I am a fan of film director (and Monty Python member) Terry Gilliam, and a great admirer of Canadian actress/director/political activist Sarah Polley. So naturally I love “The Adventures Baron Munchausen,” Gilliam’s epic fantasy that starred Polley when she was the tender age of 9, and gave one of the most impressive performances of any juvenile actress, ever. In 2005, Gilliam was filming another movie with a young star, and 17 years after working with him, Polley felt obligated to write this letter, which speaks for itself, and eloquently too:
Hi there, Terry.
I hear you’re making a film in Saskatchewan this summer. I hope you have a great time there are some great crew people you’ll probably be using from Winnipeg who got into making films because of you. (It’s actually pretty bizarre I worked out there this winter and at least five people told me that “Baron Munchausen” was the film that made them choose to be in film.)
I guess I just wanted to touch base and share a few things about my experience working on that movie. I know you’ll be working with a young girl and I realize we’ve never had a chance to talk about that time or I guess I mean I haven’t communicated to you what my experiences were, or how I remember them now, or how I feel they affected me. I know you’ve heard varying reports (I can’t remember who told me that) and I realize that it’s not really fair for me to not communicate it all to you directly. Especially since the only people who I hold responsible (and who, by definition were supposed to be responsible) are my parents.
Basically, I remember being afraid a lot of the time. I felt incredibly unsafe. I remember a couple of trips to the hospital after being in freezing water for long periods of time, losing quite a bit of my hearing for days at a time due to explosives, having my heart monitored when one went off relatively close to me, etc. I remember running through this long sort of corridor where explosives went off every few feet, things were on fire, etc. I cried hysterically in my dad’s lap and begged him to make sure I wouldn’t have to do it again, but I did. I think I did it quite a few more times. I remember the terrifying scene where we were in the boat and the horse jumped out and ended up surfacing a plastic explosive that went off right under my face. I remember being half trampled by a mob of extras and then repeating the scene several times. I remember working very long hours.
I know I had some fun as well, but it’s pretty much obliterated by the sense of fear, and exhaustion, and of not being protected by the adults around me. And again, the adults who should have been there to protect me were my parents, not you. This, of course, took some time to arrive at. I admit I was pretty furious at you for a lot of years.
What I went through is nothing compared to what many kids in the world suffer. But it certainly was unusual for a middle-class kid in Toronto, and it hardened and isolated me for many years, I think. It also created a pretty substantial lack of trust in my parents (again, not your fault, but a by-product of the experience).
This, contrary to how it may read, is not meant to be a guilt trip. You were always fun and fascinating, and you gave me a ton of confidence. You’re a genius and it was a privilege (no matter what my age) to watch you make a great film. I think that film was hell for you, too, and you had enough responsibility just keeping it going without having to be a parent to someone else’s child. I believe that you felt that if there was something that was particularly traumatic to me, that my parents would have informed you and pulled the plug. Of course, this is what should have happened on many occasions. I don’t think my parents were monsters, by any stretch of the imagination. I do think, though, that you can’t underestimate how in awe of you people like them can be. I think they were so shocked and thrilled to have their daughter in a Terry Gilliam movie that they couldn’t see past that. They didn’t want to be an annoyance or an inconvenience to anyone, and it must have been daunting to imagine holding up 100 people for your kid.
So here’s my point: who knows whom you’ll cast and what their parents will be like. My suspicion is that you might need to be constantly analyzing whether you would put your own 9-year-old in the positions you’ll be putting this kid in. Because it’s entirely likely that the child’s own parents will be (for whatever reason) incapable of making the right call. This is a huge responsibility but I’m starting to think (from watching other kids and parents) that this is a fundamental part of the job when you’re working with kids who should really be in school anyway.
Here’s some unsolicited advice:
- Try to keep a close eye on the mood of the kid, ask them a lot of questions about how they’re doing, if they want to stop doing what they’re doing, etc. if they seem uncomfortable, afraid, take it upon yourself to make the call as to whether or not it’s best to stop or keep going.
- If there are water scenes in this one make sure it’s warm!!!!
- If there are explosions in this one I really can’t emphasize enough how much better it would be if you could do reaction shots separate from the explosions themselves. I still duck when a car door slams too close or too loud. I know it’s probably a sucky way to shoot it but it might save you another email like this one.
Sorry for the babbling. I just realized I wasn’t doing either of us any favours by not letting you know this stuff. And I really think you’re a decent person so hearing this might have an impact without being too alienating (I hope).
Good luck with the film. I know it’ll be brilliant.
Perhaps you can appreciate why I admire more than Polley’s talent. It would be hard to write such a letter any more ethically. She informs Gilliam without blaming him, placing the responsibility on her parents, who indeed failed her. She is not harsh or accusatory, and accepts blame herself for waiting so long to make her experiences known. It is a caring letter and a constructive one, prompted by concern for another young actress.
Gilliam responded, thanking Polley for her frankness while protesting that she was never in the danger she apparently thought she was. This is, of course, beside the point: it is not enough that a child be safe; she should also feel safe. The director also made a statement that is true, candid, and creepily accurate about how directors think about their casts: he said that he was very concerned about her safety, not because she was a vulnerable child, because she was so critical to the project. Sort of like an expensive prop.
Once again, I direct readers interested in the issue of child abuse in show business to visit Paul Petersen’s organization’s website, here, and send it a donation if you can. A Minor Consideration’s work on behalf of children’s rights and against exploitation really is heroic. You can also find posts on the topic here, here ( a guest post by Paul) , here, here (a post about Miley Cyrus, and another one here that is interesting in light of where the ex-Disney star’s career has gone), here, where I argue that child stars should be banned (Paul does not agree, but then, he was one), here, and here (about now former “Two and a Half Men” star Angus Jones). This is a show business industry ethics problem that few want to acknowledge, and that keeps claiming victims.
Ethics Alarms is committed to helping responsible ex-victims like Petersen and Polley spread the message. Maybe some day enough people will care to start changing things.