In the 1991 film The Fisher King, Robin Williams sees New York City as the stuff of legend, a place where dreams and nightmares lurk around every corner — including Grand Central Station at rush hour. The most enchanting moment of Terry Gilliam’s one-of-a-kind drama is a spontaneous waltz between train commuters, which takes place in the fevered imagination of Williams’ half-mad character, Parry. Surprisingly, the scene wasn’t in the original script, but sprang from Gilliam’s imagination during location scouting. How did the filmmaker manage to pull off a large-scale dance number in one of Manhattan’s busiest transportation hubs? It wasn’t easy. Here’s a look back at how Gilliam conceived and shot the best-loved scene in The Fisher King, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this fall.
The Fisher King tells the story of misanthropic radio DJ Jack (Jeff Bridges) who befriends Parry, a homeless man whose life he indirectly ruined. Jack believes that if he can help Parry win over the woman he loves — an introverted office worker named Lydia (Amanda Plummer) — then he will have made amends. But Parry has only seen Lydia from afar. Every evening, he watches her race through Grand Central Station to get to the subway. One day, he takes Jack along, and when Lydia arrives, the film’s score swells into a waltz. The bustling crowd of businesspeople, sailors, tourists, and nuns silently begins to pair off and dance, until the whole train station becomes a ballroom, its iconic clock topped with a spinning mirror ball. Parry follows Lydia around the swirling dance floor until she vanishes into the subway tunnel, at which point the music ceases, and the waltzing couples immediately revert to being ordinary, jostling commuters.
In the original screenplay by Richard LaGravenese, the Grand Central scene was a very different kind of musical moment: It focused on Bridges, rather than Williams. “The original scene was just a homeless woman singing in Grand Central Station and Jeff Bridges’ character stopped whatever he was doing and was captivated,” director Gilliam wrote in his 2015 memoir Gilliamesque. “I looked out over the Grand Central Station concourse and thought, ‘All these people in the rush hour are moving faster and faster, trapped in their own worlds — wouldn’t it be wonderful if they looked at the person they were passing and fell in love and started dancing?’” LaGravenese agreed, and the scene was added into the story.
But filming the dance was more of a challenge than Gilliam expected. The city allowed the crew just one night to shoot in Grand Central, from the moment the trains stopped at 11 p.m. until they resumed at 5:30 the next morning. A thousand extras had been recruited from dance schools around Manhattan, and several choreographers were on hand to coordinate them into a synchronized waltz. As soon as the clock struck eleven, Gilliam set up the scene… and discovered that most of the extras had no idea how to waltz. “We’d been lied to, we’d been cheated!” the director told Vulture. The shooting stopped, the extras were divided into five groups, and the choreographers spent three precious hours teaching them to dance in three-quarter time.
Finally, at 3 a.m., the cameras went on. “We just shot like mad for two hours. We got enough dancing,” he told Vulture. “And now it’s five o’clock… At that point, real commuters are arriving. A lot of our extras had to go.” With his time at Grand Central technically up, Gilliam scrambled to get one last shot of Robin Williams, and began “pushing all the members of the crew into the shot” in order to create a crowd. “It’s a pretty terrifying way to work, because you know you’ve got to be out of there at a very specific moment,” the director said in the film’s production notes.
In the end, the shoot went 45 minutes over its allotted time — but when Gilliam looked over the footage, the dancers still seemed too sparse. Nowadays, digital effects would make it easy to insert additional waltzing couples. In 1991, however, Gilliam solved the problem by superimposing two different takes over each other, effectively doubling the number of dancers. As a side effect, the dancers in the superimposed footage took on an otherworldly translucent appearance. “They’re basically transparent. And that’s what’s interesting,” Gilliam told Vulture. “’How clever, how magical that looks,’ someone must have said. It was just desperation!”
The Fisher King opened to critical acclaim — it would be nominated for five Oscars — and earned $42 million at the box office. While that’s a modest hit by most standards, it was a smash success for Gilliam, whose oddball films had never before found such a large a commercial audience. He has boasted that the Grand Central scene is his lasting contribution to New York City culture. “On New Year’s Eve, they have an orchestra playing and people dance like right out of that scene,” he told The Playlist last year. “It started a year after Fisher King came out so we must have had some big influence.” (According to listings in New York magazine, ballroom dancing at Grand Central was introduced as part of the city’s ‘First Night’ celebration in 1991. “You haven’t lived until you’ve seen 3,000 New Yorkers dancing in Grand Central… Even if you don’t waltz, it’s a sight to see,” the event’s director said in 1995.)
Looking back at the film, , it’s notable that the Grand Central waltz is one of the few fantasy moments seen through Parry’s eyes that isn’t tinted with medieval imagery. (Williams’ character fancies himself a knight in search of the Holy Grail.) Instead, it’s like something out of a fairy tale, grounded in the banal reality of modern city life — which is just how Gilliam likes it. “Everything I do is ultimately about the conflict of fantasy and reality, between beauty and grotesqueness, between serious issues and the comic,” he told Art and Design in 1997. “I don’t know which is winning at any one point in my work. There’s one side of me that’s totally cynical, that wants to pack it in; then there’s this irrepressible kid in there who wants to believe that things are better, who is always looking for surprises.”
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