Terry Gilliam is one of Hollywood’s most unique visionaries, who began as an animator working with the Monty Python troupe, before embarking as one of the world’s most idiosyncratic filmmakers.
For most of Terry Gilliam’s early career, fans of the popular comedy show Monty Python’s Flying Circus assumed that he was British, since Python’s other five members were natives of Britain. But the innovative animator and future director, who spent more time behind the scenes than in front of the camera, was actually the troupe’s only American member. Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on November 22, 1940, Gilliam was briefly employed by Mad Magazine as a writer/illustrator before he emigrated to England in 1967.
Soon after he arrived in the U.K., he began working on Do Not Adjust Your Set, a popular children’s TV show, developing his eccentric animated cartoons, which put into motion a hodgepodge of images, including photographs, cut-outs from magazines, and famous works of art. Gilliam’s contributions to the show were geared more toward adults, as his surrealistic stream-of-consciousness segments, drenched in black humour, were beyond the grasp of most children.
In 1969, Gilliam was asked to join the absurdist comedy troupe Monty Python. In addition to writing for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Gilliam also contributed his animated interludes, for which he was pretty much left to his own devices; the other Pythons just told him how much time he needed to fill and never gave him any narrative direction. Gilliam began offering his iconoclastic vision to moviegoers with the comedy troupe’s first original film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), which he co-directed with fellow Python Terry Jones.
An instant cult classic, the movie contained all the requisite Python elements: absurdist humour, self-referential parody, and extremely quotable dialogue. The following year, Gilliam had his first outing as a solo director with Jabberwocky (1976). Based on the poem by Lewis Carroll, the film featured a medieval setting similar to that of Holy Grail and starred Pythonite Michael Palin. Along with Python’s brand of irreverent hum or, the film featured glimmers of the visual resplendence that would become the director’s trademark. But critics found it awkward and repetitive, and audiences largely stayed away.
Following Jabberwocky’s relative failure, Gilliam regrouped with his fellow Pythonites, co-creating The Life of Brian, the tale of a man with the misfortune of being confused with Jesus Christ. He left the directing duties to Terry Jones, focusing on animation, screenwriting, and acting. Gilliam returned to directing with Time Bandits (1979), a surreal journey through history led by a small boy and several dwarves.
After co-directing with Terry Jones the third and final Python film, Monty Python’s the Meaning of Life (1983), Gilliam made what many people consider his masterpiece, the satiric Brazil (1985. A failure at the box office, Brazil has made up for that disappointment with its cult status. In addition to critical praise and a Los Angeles Film Critics award for Best Film, Gilliam received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
It was four years before Gilliam stepped behind the camera again, for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989). Returning to historical fantasy, Gilliam tells the unlikely tales of the title character as though they really happened. The Baron explores the inside of a volcano, takes a hot air balloon to the moon, gets swallowed by a whale, and quells a war that he himself started. Munchausen’s stories were less well known to most Americans than to audiences in Britain, where the film won British Academy Awards for Best Production Design, Best Makeup, and Best Costume Design.
Gilliam followed Munchausen with his most accessible work to date, 1991’s The Fisher King. Foregoing much of his usual ornate visual style, the director focused on characters rather than flashy spectacle; the relationships among a depressed former DJ (Jeff Bridges), his enabling girlfriend (Mercedes Ruehl, in an Oscar-winning performance), and a homeless man (Robin Williams) who saves him from suicide are intertwined in a riveting, funny, and ultimately heart-warming way. He received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director, and the movie won the Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival.
Gilliam returned to the director’s chair in 1995, achieving his biggest box office hit with the science fiction epic 12 Monkeys. Starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and Brad Pitt (in an Oscar-nominated performance), the movie tells the story of a prisoner from the future sent back in time to save the world from a catastrophic virus. The film was a critical and commercial success despite its hard-to-follow plot, allowing Gilliam the freedom to take even more creative risks. His next project, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 novel, was the ultimate “trip” movie. Detailing Thompson’s drug-addled journey to the gambling capital of the world, it starred Johnny Depp as the author’s alter ego, Raoul Duke.
In 2000, the director began working on Good Omens, a comedy/fantasy based on the book Good Omens: or, The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, a humorous story about the apocalypse. That endeavour fell by the wayside, however, when Gilliam attempted to film his lifelong dream project, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, in late 2000. From injured actors to faulty props to inclement weather conditions, the $30 million shoot became a textbook example of Murphy’s Law, and was shut down despite pleas from the haggard director.
In 2003, however, the project found new, unexpected life in Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s /documentary Lost in La Mancha, a comic tale of cinematic defeat. Intended as a “making-of” featurette to be included on the finished film’s DVD, the documentary chronicled the morose fate of Gilliam’s botched production in all of its painful, hilariously unbelievable glory, and became a minor art-house attraction. Gilliam subsequently fought to buy back the rights to The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in light of all the renewed interest, but it remained to be seen whether the director would get a chance to finish what he started. But as Gilliam explained to Garth Franklin while discussing his Brothers Grimm, it appears that Quixote is far from over.
Question: WHEN THEY WERE DELAYING THE FILM, WERE YOU SAYING OH NO, NOT AGAIN?
Gilliam: Not really. I mean what happened is we reached that point that one always reaches as you finish a film, where you’re getting close to the end, with the studios, it happened in August, as so they can say well, but what about if, or why not that, and I was just, no.
I always end up at that point on every film, and this time, because I was dealing with slightly more combative people, people who really are stronger in their feeling of what they want done, and I tend to be that kind of person. I thought probably the wiser move, is that we just all go back to our corners and cool down for a bit, and the fact is, I had this whole timeline all ready to go, and I was going to do that film, so I said you know, rather than getting into a big moment here where we either, we do a big compromise and nobody is going to be happy, or we just get into a head butting contest, which again nobody is going to benefit, and the film is gonna suffer, I said, let’s breathe. So I went up to do ‘Tideland,’ and then came back in January when I was starting to edit ‘Tideland,’ and I came back ? finish your film!
Question: DO YOU FEEL TO SOME DEGREE THAT THIS IS A SELL OUT MOVIE?
Gilliam: [laughs] Yes. Because, if you notice the lead actors’ teeth are pretty clean. It’s the first time I’ve done a period film where your lead actors have got decent teeth.
Question: HOW DID YOU OVERCOME THAT FEELING?
Gilliam: I actually set out, when actually, this project was, I actually did say I wanted to make a commercial film, whatever that means. And then you start finding, well who knows what a commercial film is? Then you get in arguments with people, you know, that’s not commercial if I do that, well, I’m sorry, I’ve got to do that! And then I think it was Matt [Damon] that said, you know, he doesn’t know how not to do a commercial, or how to do a commercial film, he said, all I can do is do what I actually believe it when I’m doing it, and if somebody says well that’s not gonna work because then the public won’t like it, I go well how do you know? And so, I ended up just doing what I do. And I mean, hopefully it’s something, there’s enough people that will come to see it, that will pay for it. I mean, it’s hard enough, a commercial film, what they really mean is box office smash. Because I’ve made nothing but commercial films, all my films ran a profit, and that seems to be a commercial film, where everybody got paid, nobody lost any money, and there’s a little profit. So that’s it. So always figure you’re going to a bigger budget, you’re under more pressure, and I’m sure Michael Bay succumbs and did a commercial film with ‘The Island.’ And I think ‘Van Helsing’ was a commercial film, wasn’t it? [laughs]
Question: THE IMPRESSION IS THAT ‘FEAR AND LOATHING’ WAS NOT A HIT.
Gilliam: It wasn’t a hit, it made its money! It was made cheaply. It was always going to be a limited release, not a release, it was also the worst campaign I’ve ever seen, to sell that movie. What it has ? here’s what particularly about ‘Fear and Loathing,’ you know, the Criterion Collections, the DVD’s? They’ve finally broken into Wal-Mart, they’ve never been sold in Wal-Mart, the first one of the films to be sold in Wal-Mart is ‘Fear and Loathing.’ It’s actually, the success has been at the DVD level.
Question: WHY DO YOU THINK, IS IT BECAUSE HUNTER THOMPSON RECENTLY DIED?
Gilliam: No, I think they fucked up, the technical term is fucked up, the release of the film. I mean, they just sold it as two wacky guys on a wild weekend in Las Vegas, that’s just ridiculous, that’s not what it is. And also, and a lot of people didn’t like it [laughs].
However, I can tell you that at Eton, the school of the royals in England, it was the most popular film, so we were busy corrupting the youth of England, at least. I think it’s how bizarre it is, you do the work for studios, and Johnny [Depp] and I were doing promotions for ‘Fear and Loathing’ and we were in Boston, and the Harvard newspaper, we were talking to them, and we said, because we ? the film came out in May, and we said, you know, we were doing a work at the end of April, I said when’s this coming out? And they said, oh, it’ll come out in August, I said why August? Well we’re closing down for the summer, when the film comes out, so we discovered that all the colleges which we thought would be the beginning of the campaign for ‘Fear and Loathing,’ the core audience, when the film came out, most of them were on holiday. And I talked with the distribution people at Universal afterwards and said why did you do this? Well we thought they’d have time on their hands because they wouldn’t be studying and they could go to the movies. And the idea of a college is, it’s critical mass, you can reach critical mass really quickly there, the word of mouth is there. So these are the people that are releasing films and don’t even understand what a college audience means. I’m always shocked and surprised when I learn these things.
Question: HOW DIFFERENT IS YOUR NEXT FILM?
Gilliam: It’s all children, it’s fantastic. I mean, it’s got Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Tilly, and it’s a phenomenal little nine and half year old girl that plays the lead, she’s in every scene. And it’s about what happens when you put a kid with an imagination in difficult circumstances. It’s really about resilience of childhood, and I’m so bored about hearing about these little children that are so victimized and are so weak. Children are the toughest creatures on the planet, and they’re being protected, it’s partly one reason why I tried to keep ‘Grimm’ as close to the original tales as possible, because those stories, you know, as a child I remember they gave me nightmares, they frightened me, but they all had happy endings, and now kids are being protected from the Grimm’s fairy tales as they were originally written.
Question: SO WITH YOUR BACKGROUND IN ANIMATION, WHAT DO YOU THINK OF CGI?
Gilliam: I love it. It’s very good. I’ve got my own company, they’ve done all the effects in my films from the beginning. I mean, this film, I actually started out to do things with models, because I really wanted to keep the film as tactile as possible. Models, you know, relate to the real world, so when the root comes out of the ground, the mud does it, it’s hard stuff to recreate that convincingly, but unfortunately, you know, the model work we did, it didn’t work as well as what we ended up doing in CG. So I’ve become much more of a convert to CG than I was before. But the trick with CG is to try to mess it up, because it’s too perfect, and I spent all my time with the animators like no, no, no, when the wolf springs, and he lands, I want him to skid, I want him to stumble, I wanted the trees not to be beautiful, articulated things, and I said, we’ve got to make this stuff more believable. And they were quite frustrated, because they did this beautiful work, and I would basically fuck it up for them [laughs].
Question: HAVE YOU SEEN ‘SPAMALOT?’
Gilliam: ‘Spamalot?’ Yeah, we all got together, the Python reunion was the opening night.
Question: HOW WAS THAT, DOES IT BRING BACK HAPPY MEMORIES?
Gilliam: Yeah, it’s always good when you get together, and it’s good to know that we have our separate lives as well [laughs]. I mean, I think we’ve all been kind of astonished at the success of it, I mean, it’s a really good night out, it’s funny, but nobody expected the Spanish inquisition or the success of the film.
Question: DO YOU ALL OWN A PART OF ‘SPAMALOT?’
Gilliam: Yeah, not as much as we should, but yeah.
Question: WHEN’S IT GOING TO GO ON?
Gilliam: Well I just read that now Steve Wynn’s building a theatre in his new hotel in Vegas in 2007, it’s gonna be the show, forget about Cirque du Soleil or Siegfried and Roy, it’s ‘Spamalot.’
Question: IS THERE GOING TO BE A MOVIE VERSION?
Gilliam: Well I’ve heard talk of it, but I just think this is really silly now. I mean it’s like ‘The Producers,’ you know. I don’t know why?
Question: OR ‘HAIRSPRAY.’
Gilliam: I mean, these are desperate times. Why don’t people come up with new things, rather than just recounting the old things?
Question: LIKE ‘THE ISLAND’ FOR EXAMPLE?
Gilliam: Like ‘The Island’ for example, as you say [laughs].
Question: DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN EITHER OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM?
Gilliam: Oh yeah, I have, I mean every film I make, I’ve got a ? I mean, it’s got to be an aspect of myself, because that’s where all ? I could say, when I look back, they all are, strangely autobiographical in ways. So I’m actually both the brothers, that’s what’s nice about the movie. I am, because on one hand, I’m very pragmatic and realistic and pessimistic as I get older, and that’s Will, and then there’s the guy who won’t go away, the dreamer.
Question: THAT’S A THEME THROUGHOUT YOUR FILMS. IT’S HARD TO FIND SOME OF THEM, LIKE ‘BARON MUNCHAUSEN’ ON DVD.
Gilliam: It’s on DVD?
Gilliam: No, I mean, I think if you read in the press, I mean, when I write stories about my erratic career, you know, in comes ‘Munchausen,’ you know, a disaster, a failure. They all rate ‘Brazil’ now, ‘Brazil’ is okay, but the others, I mean ‘Munchausen’ keeps getting the shit kicked out of it, I don’t understand what’s going on here. I think it’s a really, really fine film, but all the films are really ? my wife says I keep making the same film, I just change the cast, but it’s always gonna be about that, because that’s what interests me. How you define reality and fantasy, where does one stop and the other begin? And I think they’re both utterly essential if you’re going to live a halfway decent life, so.
Question: HAVE YOU FOUND THAT THERE’S OTHER PEOPLE IN THE INDUSTRY THAT GRAVITATE TOWARD YOUR FILMS?
Gilliam: Yeah, I mean they seem to, I mean, that’s why I get all these actors working for me, because they like it. It’s what anybody who’s in a creative business is gonna relate to.
Question: DO YOU THINK YOU’LL EVER GET TO DO THAT FILM ABOUT DON QUIXOTE?
Gilliam: Well I mean, the only thing is if we can get this script out of this legal morass, it’ll be the next one I do. I really do want to do it, no I want to do it, and the script is too good. Because what we did, again, it’s like ‘the Brothers Grimm,’ we’re not doing ‘Don Quixote,’ it’s ‘the Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ so we take the bits I want out of Cervantes’ work, rather than be caught in terrible situation, I mean, that’s what’s been difficult when we made ‘Fear and Loathing’ and even with ‘Tideland,’ there’s a book that exists, somebody wrote it, and I’ve got to be true to that book, and the weight of that makes me crazy when I’m working on it. I do it because I love the book, but then I begin to hate the book, I hate the writer, and all of it’s because I’ve got to be true to what they’ve done. And so Cervantes, we wrote something that incorporates Quixote into a story we’re telling, and so I can write in a sense what I think Cervantes might have written if he was alive now, without the worry of whether he would or wouldn’t, so trying to stay true to the heart of the piece without having to be pedantic about it.
Question: WILL YOU KEEP THE SAME CAST?
Gilliam: Yeah. The only one was Jean Rochefort, can’t have him as Quixote, because we obviously don’t know what’s going to become of him, which is really sad, so if we get this thing out of the legal situation, I’ve got to find a new Quixote.
Question: AND YOU STILL HAVE THE GIANTS?
Gilliam: The giants. I’m in love with the giants. They’re still alive, those guys. The thing that was extraordinary, the thing I loved about what happened on Quixote, was that kid, he was only about eighteen, the really big one, he was eighteen or nineteen, and he was in a mental home, the kid is slightly retarded, and working on the film gave him such confidence in himself, that he checked out of the home, and got himself a flat and got a life, and it was extraordinary, and I’m really sad that we didn’t get the film finished, but at least it exists in ‘Lost in La Mancha.’
Question: WHAT SPECIFICALLY ATTRACTED YOU TO GRIMM?
Gilliam: II mean, it’s the world, it’s those stories, basically fucked me up [laughs], I mean they really are, I grew up with Grimm’s Fairy Tales, I know them, and it’s they’ve kind of become the pattern through which I see the world. And I can’t get rid of it.
Question: WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THAT DISNEY, PC WAY OF CLEANING UP THOSE STORIES? KIDS LIKE TO BE SCARED!
Gilliam: I’m actually really angry this is a PG-13. This film is for kids as well as everybody else, and we’ve had enough screenings in London ?
Question: YOU DON’T THINK IT’S TOO SCARY FOR KIDS?
Gilliam: No. I mean, I would say below nine, nine or ten is about, and we actually had a lot of screenings, so I know how it plays. And I would sort of quiz the kids afterwards, get a bunch of kids together and say what do you think? And they all said, you know, nine or ten they asked about it, my little sister is eight and is too ? so that’s kind of the borderline, and we’ve got PG-13, so I’m really working hard to try to convince, get parents and the older brothers and sisters, take their kids there. I hate the fact that kids are being protected from fairy tales. There’s a woman I met a few years ago, who wouldn’t? She was German, she wouldn’t let her daughter read Grimm’s fairy tales, because they would give her nightmares. I said yes, but they have happy endings! And it’s kind of the exercise for kids, to realize the world is full of strange and dangerous and wondrous things, and they’re all out there, you’ve got to learn to distinguish, but as a kid you go through these experiences, and you try them out, oh we made it!
Question: WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE FAIRY TALE, AS A KID?
Gilliam: Probably my favourite fairy tale is the Hans Christian Anderson one, it’s the Emperor’s New Clothes. I mean, that story is always wonderful, you know, that the only one that can see that the Emperor is walking down the street naked, is the kid, who’s still innocent enough to cut through all the bullshit that is surrounding the king and his courtiers. That’s always been my story. But others, I mean, see I grew up with Disney films, they were the ones I first remembered, was ‘Snow White.’ And ‘Pinocchio.’ ‘Pinocchio’ has always been one of my top two on my list, I think ‘Pinocchio’ is just an extraordinary wonderful film. So the irony of it all was the Grimm’s started burglarizing their stories before anybody else. Rapunzel was the first one, but it was in the first edition, when the witch climbs up the tower, Rapunzel starts complaining that her clothes are getting too tight across the belly, so clearly, she’s pregnant from the prince, who keeps climbing up there. And in later editions, they simplified that [laughs]. Because they were aiming after the first edition, was a very academic piece, it was like five hundred stories, and nobody bought it. And then they cut it down to a hundred, and they went for a bourgeois middle class audience, and they achieved it, so they were there long before Disney got to work [laughs].
Question: WAS THIS THE MOST EXPENSIVE MOVIE THAT YOU’VE MADE, THEN?
Question: WAS THAT ANY DIFFERENT FOR YOU?
Gilliam: No, it’s just, I mean, the expense of a movie is only about what you’re trying to do, so you need bigger sets, you need horses ? horses are terrible. All of those things, I needed, you know, the CG work, there’s millions of dollars in that. And it’s ? I mean I actually think it’s still a bargain, there’s eighty million dollars as opposed to the hundred and sixty that a lot of these other films are going for, and ours is very rich, for that money, and it’s the problem, I’m trying to think of ways ? I was quite inspired by ‘Sin City,’ and also, what was the ? ‘Sky Captain,’ what you can do for a lot less money, and I thought okay, maybe that’s where I can start going with my stuff, is the more money I need, the more restrictions people try to impose.
Question: SO WILL THE QUIXOTE MOVIE BE YOUR NEXT ONE?
Gilliam: No, it all depends on if we get the script.
Question: WHAT WILL YOU DO OTHERWISE?
Gilliam: Well I’m dredging up a couple of oldies, there’s ‘The Defective Detective,’ which Richard LaGravanese and I wrote after ‘Fisher King,’ and ‘Good Omens’ which is based on a book by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, which we were trying to get off the ground before ‘Grimm’.