Just as his films spill back and forth over the boundary between fantasy and reality, it seems that Terry Gilliam himself inhabits contrasting worlds. Described as a visionary and a dreamer by both colleagues and critics, he is in fact a meticulous and skilled craftsman; a conjurer of fantastical worlds of fairytale knights and flying men, yet a keen critic and commentator with a wonderfully acute sense of reality. At times brutally sincere, he is in no sense harmful or malevolent in his intent. He is a lively host bursting with a healthy sense of humour, yet a zealous prophet of his so-called aloneness. He is a little girl and an ageing Don Quixote. This interview was conducted in August 2009 at the first edition of River Film Fest in Pisek, Czech Republic, where Gilliam was a festival guest.
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As in your films, there are some strange juxtapositions in your life. You say you grew up on radio but then you studied Fine Arts. How do you jump from a verbal inspiration to such a visual expression?
Actually, I ended up with Political Sciences. There was a period of Art for I think one semester. But I didn’t like the Art History teacher, so I quit. And then I went to Political Science, because it only had four required courses. And then you could take Drama and Oriental Philosophy … So, I actually created or gave myself a very liberal education. But the fact is Political Science was very important.
Yet, you ended up doing cartoons and illustrations.
I always did cartoons. Ever since I was a kid, I could always draw. Cartoons are great because you get immediate feedback. Like, for instance, when I do my signature with a little drawing and everybody goes, “Ooh! Ooh!” It feels good. So, that‘s why I do it. It’s purely that.
Cartoons were always just easy. But when it came to graduating, I almost failed the Fine Art course because I was busy doing other things. The things I did were good; I just didn’t do enough. I talked the sculpture professor into giving me a D and not a FAIL.
The National Guard: was that something you just couldn’t get out of or something you wanted to do?
You have to be either in the Army for two years or you can do National Guard, and you go to summer camps every year for several years. But you can still have a life. You don’t have to go in for two years solid.
But I cheated and got out of that. I cheat most of my life.
And you wanted to be a Presbyterian Missionary?
Oh, yeah. I went to college on a Presbyterian scholarship. That’s how I got through college. In my family, Church was very big. Growing up in Minneapolis, they were Lutherans and it was a basically Scandinavian community that we lived in. And Church was the centre of the community. You know it was like it used to always be.
So, you don’t see Church as one of the bureaucracies or authoritarian regimes you keep commenting on in your films?
No. It wasn’t the Catholic Church, it was Protestantism. And in that age Church was like a community and that was great. I loved it.
Actually, I liked the Bible. I thought they were good stories, really good stories. And it was just natural. I didn’t think about it: parents went to Church, children went to Church. That’s what we did; that was our life. And like with everything, I become fairly obsessive; I become a zealot.
When I get into anything, I’m very serious about it. So, I thought, “Well, you have to do good things in the world.” I mean that’s a fairly reasonable thing. You don’t have to be religious to decide you can make the world a better place.
And the Christian Missions in Africa are okay?
Well, some of them are okay. I don’t like the evangelical fundamentalist ones, but the other ones are doing good work. They’re like any charity; they’re doing good work. So, that’s fine.
Even in the late 18th century, the Churches were out everywhere in the world, but they weren’t as dogmatic and they weren’t too busy trying to change the world in the way they did in the 19th century. That’s when the Evangelicals went out to convert people to be like ‘me’, with no interest in anybody else’s culture.
So, I was on the liberal side. I thought being a missionary would be good. I’d go out in the world and educate and do some good things. But in Church I was always making jokes and too many people didn’t like my jokes … about God. And I said, “What kind of God is this you believe in that can’t take my jokes?”
What would be such a joke about God?
Oh, I don’t know. I just made fun of things. It’s always a way of testing what I find important. If it’s important to me, I make jokes about it to see if it can stand it. And apparently the God of the Presbyterians of Panorama City wasn’t strong enough to deal with my jokes. [Laughs]
So, I said, “Enough of all this. I’m not going to talk to you people, because you’ve stopped thinking.” And that to me is what’s important: to keep people thinking and not just accepting what is in front of them. Most of my childhood was just accepting what was there. And it was great; I didn’t have a problem. We lived in the country; it was a wonderful life. Why wouldn’t I want to accept it?
And then, when you get older, you start seeing what the rest of the world is like and you suddenly realize, “Oh, it’s not as nice as the world that I was in when I was a kid.” And then you get angry at the things that are wrong in the world and you think, “Well, I’m educated and I’m privileged enough to be able to read. I should be doing something to make the world better than it is.” And that’s the thing with Monty Python [and the Flying Circus]. It was trying to make people wake up. People are asleep most of the time, just floating through life. They’re peasants. There’s nothing wrong with being a peasant. But, if you’re a peasant that’s rampaging around the world like America was and causing – as far as I am concerned – chaos, disaster and destruction, I felt responsible for being an American and an intelligent American with an education. So I felt, “Well I’ve got to do something.” And what I did was I left America. I quit. [Laughs]
You renounced your American citizenship in 2006. Was that a practical decision?
It was practical, mainly. I’d lived in England for 42 years and I was paying taxes in both countries. This is stupid after a while. And I discovered that, when I die, the Americans assess everything I own in the world. My wife would have to sell our house in England to pay the taxes. And I said, “This is stupid. So, goodbye!”
When you first came to London, what was the Pythons’ perception of you? On the one hand, you’re an American surrounded by such a British sense of humour. On the other hand, often within feature-filmmaking circles, animation and illustration is something that is frowned upon.
Well, it wasn’t Python at the time; they were different groups. I knew John Cleese from my time in New York at Help! magazine. So, he was one person I knew when I came to England, and the English girl I came with. I was still working in magazines and I said to John, “Introduce me to somebody in television, because I want to get out of magazine work!” And I met the producer of these children’s shows that Mike [Palin], Eric [Idle] and Terry [Jones] were doing and blah blah blah. That led to another programme that I was cartooning.
Then I solved a problem with an animation and that was the first time I’d ever done one properly. It was done cheaply: I would cut out things and move them around. And nobody had seen that before!
So, it’s on television with nine million people watching and, overnight, I’m an animator, because nobody had seen anything like that. I mean, there had been that style of animation out there for a long time, but it was only turning out in art houses and film festivals. And, of course, nobody goes to those places really. [Laughs]
Suddenly I was in demand and I was being offered all sorts of other work. And that led to another series of this children’s show with Mike, Terry and Eric. Everything grew in a very organic way. There was no plan.
There were four of us on this children’s show, and then there were John and Graham [Chapman]. John wanted to work with Mike; he got a deal at BBC and whoop! The six people together – Python! And that was it.
They all loved what I was doing, because I was on the same comedic and intellectual wavelength, but doing something very different with all this visual, violent and nonsensical stuff. It just seemed to work.
Somebody told me this later, but the animations brought a lot of people to [Monty Python’s Flying Circus], because they didn’t speak the English that well. It was the animations that caught their attention and then they began to realize how brilliant the show was.
It was just one of those things that I knew how to do. I can’t work my way up through a system. I just pick up a fork and know how to use it. I’m lucky. [Laughs]
You said that being part of the most powerful country in the world made you feel responsible, and that you needed a change of perspective. Did you get this in the UK?
No, the change of perspective came when I hitchhiked around Europe. That’s when the big leap came. I travelled all around Europe. I got down to Morocco and Turkey, so I covered a big area and that’s when I realized, “Oh! The rest of the world doesn’t think like Americans!” And the way the rest of the world perceives what America is doing was even more of a shock. But what was funny about it was that I would defend America even though I was completely against everything that America was doing. “Wait a minute, that’s my country you’re talking about!” And then I realized this is bad. So, within a few months I just changed and I said, “Look at this world out here and look at what we’re doing to it.”
I went back to America for about a year and then I moved to England. And, living in England, there is a very different perspective than being in America, even though the English are so obsessed with America. The view is different there. And it takes two hours and I’m here [in the Czech Republic]. So, you get a lot of different views very quickly. [Laughs]
You say you are not an auteur but a filteur.
As a director, I guess my job is to represent the film. I’m not representing myself or anybody else. When I start working, it is very much like I become the servant of this film that’s trying to get made. I hate the fascistic, the hierarchical idea of filmmaking. I like to be the most equal; a little bit more equal, but only a little bit. [Laughs] And I’m the filter.
When we’re working, all these different people are coming up with ideas, because they have all these different jobs, and different ways of looking at the film. All the ideas come to me and my job is to filter them. If they come with a better idea then mine, I’ll grab it. It’s fantastic. I’ll get the credit for it in the end, so I might as well use it.
We’re all part of this great experiment we’ve never made before and we don’t know if it’s going to work. Lots of people are involved in a positive way, rather than as in Hollywood, where you are surrounded by nervous people. Fear rules Hollywood because the executives are being paid enormous sums of money. What they’re afraid of is saying “Yes” to anything they might get the blame for. That’s not a good environment to work in.
My trick in movies is to always have one or two big stars in them. If the stars and myself are in agreement, the studios can’t touch us. That’s how it really works, because they’re not frightened of me, but they’re frightened of the stars. And that’s actually the only reason why I get half the films done. Within the Hollywood system, the director – except for a very few people like [Steven] Spielberg and [George] Lucas – is the second most important character; the actors are the important thing. And that’s why I’ve always been very careful with the actors that I work with, in a sense that they’re coming to me as opposed to me begging them to be in the movie. In the end, it’s at least that they’re accepting it’s the film that’s important not them and their careers.
When I’m making a film with Hollywood money, I tend to try to build a big-perimeter fence around the playground. And inside this playground area we, the children – the actors, the cameramen, everybody – get to play. That’s all we’re doing: we’re just playing and getting paid decently to play. This is nice. And the trick is not to ever quite grow up. Any good actor never grows up.
You say you tried to be a magician – failed, but nevertheless tried – and in a way you are. On the other hand, there is this meticulousness in your work: Ray Cooper calls you a “responsible enfant terrible”, if there is such a thing, in the documentary Lost in La Mancha (Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, 2002). So, what are you: a craftsman or an artist?
What I like is craftsmanship; that’s where the real art is. Modern art is bullshit, most of it. I have no interest in it. I’m interested in people who can really paint or really sculpt. And then I see people with conceptual ideas, and that just doesn’t interest me. Craftsmanship is really important to me. I mean, my father was a carpenter and he would build things that were really beautiful! And so that was the beginning of it maybe. If you’re going to do something, you do it really well and you learn how to do it.
When I worked on Help! [comic, 1965], Harvey Kurtzman was meticulous about the drawings, the colours, everything. So, it was that kind of training. And then I suppose there’s this inherent Protestantism in there. On the other hand, I wouldn’t say I was serious, but I have always worked very hard. College was when I started breaking free. I just started doing things for fun. And that was pretty good, too. You just loosen up along the way. People need to learn to play. But you don’t just play from the beginning. You have to learn skills, and craft and technique. Then you play! I don’t know how to make films now. I just start and they get made. [Laughs]
People say to me, “Oh, come and teach.” I don’t know how to teach film. I don’t know what I do. I just do it. And it’s because I’ve been working hard at learning all the skills.
Art to me works better when there are restrictions. There was a question the other day: “If you had all the money in the world and the freedom to do whatever you wanted to do, what would you do?” And I said: “I have no idea.” I was explaining that bombs really work because they’re contained. If you want to do something explosive, something powerful, the more contained it is. Then, poof, it goes! Now, I don’t like that. But I know that the restrictions I have to work within, whether it’s money or time produce results that are more interesting – not always, but more than you’d think.
If I had all the time, I’d want to do everything. I’m very greedy. And when I don’t have focuses, I can go here and there, all at the same time, and that’s nothing. That’s just formless.
So, even with expressing fantasy and the irrational, it still works better to be meticulous?
Yes. Structure, forms – all those things – are important because they are a way of communicating. You can talk about some of these things in a way that nobody would understand. These people who just want to express themselves. But I’m trying to communicate with people. That’s the difference. I do want to do it my way and tell my stories, but I try to tell them in a way people will understand and respond to.
What is the more important aspect of film: the visual side, which is such a big part, a signature, of your films, or the narrative, the message behind it?
They’re all important. If I can’t tell the story, and if the characters don’t work, I can just throw it away.
Everybody talks about the visuals. I don’t think about them that much anymore. I plan it, we work at it, we choose locations, we spend a lot of time on costumes … I do all the work. And then we start shooting, and when we’re shooting I’m more interested in the characters and trying to get the scene done in the day. [Laughs] I really am!
I mean, Ridley Scott will spend an hour just to get this thing here and that thing there and then you look at his films … Visually, I think he’s the most extraordinary guy. He’s got the best eye; it’s just beautiful what he does. But he spends so much time on these other things that the actors don’t have space to perform in. Some actors like that, but a lot of people don’t. And he ends up with these films that, in the end, he compromises, because he’s gone over budget, the studio starts putting pressure on him and he does the cuts. But the advantage he has over me is that he then gets to put the film out a few years later as the Director’s Cut. What was the first one then? Oh, that was the Studio’s Cut? Oh Ridley, what are you doing here? I mean, he’s brilliant, but there’s something that seems to happen in his films. He’s been far more successful than me, yet I think there’s something in his head that says it’s more important to make a successful film than to fight for exactly what you think, what you believe.
In the latter stages of making a film, you’re tired. You’ve been around it too long. You’re not sure whether it’s working, whether you’re expressing what you want, and it’s very easy to be influenced by other people. Studio executives are very nervous, frightened people, and if you say, “Oh god, okay, I’ll cut that out … okay, I’ll change that”, these things are usually mistakes. I try to avoid that. [Laughs]
How about other films, directors, cinematographers? Which would you say influenced you and which do you appreciate today?
Well, my influences are obviously Walt Disney … and Stanley Donen. There’s one that I don’t normally say, but Singin’ in the Rain [directed with Gene Kelly, 1952] and Funny Face  are beautiful musicals.
And then we go to Buster Keaton and Woody Allen and [Luis] Buñuel and [Ingmar] Bergman and [Federico] Fellini and [Akira] Kurosawa and blah blah blah. And [Stanley] Kubrick! There’s a lot; I’m just eclectic.
Then, who do we like now? Guillermo del Toro, the Coen brothers. Who else is out there? The guy [Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck] who made The Lives of Others [Das Leben der Anderen, 2006]; that was wonderful. Are there any others that get me excited? I don’t watch many films now; that’s my problem.
Europe needs to be producing more people. But the problem with Europe is, as soon as anybody becomes in any way successful, they run off to America and they start making their American films. What’s his name? Roland Emmerich. You take somebody who’s grown up in a different culture and hopefully he has interesting things to say about the world, different ways of looking at it. And he runs off and makes films that look just like Steven Spielberg’s films. I mean, we have a Steven Spielberg already. I don’t know why he does that. It’s very important to make films from different cultures.
That’s where France is interesting. I mean France does incredibly well; they all watch French films.
And South America is doing nicely. I think some of the best work is coming out of South America. The three amigos – Guillermo [del Toro], Alfonso Cuarón and [Alejandro González] Iñárritu – came out of Mexico and Bingo! Guillermo is interesting because he’s always been more a traditional filmmaker. It may be fantasy and all that, but he’s a very controlled filmmaker and he’s very smart. So, him doing The Hobbit makes sense. I can see he’s going to make an interesting job of it.
Alfonso swings between two things. Y tu mamá también, I loved it. Wow! And then he goes and does Harry Potter [and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 2004]. But it is I think the best Harry Potter that was done. At least there’s something going on there. But then this Children of Men : I didn’t like it at all. I thought he was trying to do Brazil  without an understanding of what he’s doing.
Then there is Iñárritu with his stuff. But with Babel  he could have cut out the whole Japanese section and it would have been better. There just seem to be one too many things there. I preferred it when he was doing Amores perros . But then everybody wants to go to Hollywood. Everybody wants to be successful.
I didn’t see [Fernando] Meirelle’s last film, the Brazilian guy. What’s it called? The one where everybody is blind, with Julianne Moore? [Blindness, 2008] And the guy who made The Lives of Others is now out in Hollywood. Why in Hollywood?! Money is the main problem. Because if you’ve got no money, you end up making a little art film that’s never going to reach a big audience.
No others from non-English speaking countries?
I don’t know foreign people. [Laughs]
Were you joking about Disney?
No! Pinocchio [Hamilton Luske and Ben Sharpsteen, 1940] is one my favourite movies. It’s on my Top Ten list. I think it’s a great, great, great movie.
Is this why the Pinocchio motif reoccurs in The Fisher King (1991)?
Pinocchio was actually in the script [written by Richard LaGravenese], but yeah … [Laughs]
That’s also the film where it says: “Nietzsche says there are two kinds of people in the world. People who are destined for greatness, like Walt Disney and Hitler. And then there’s the rest of us.” So that’s kind of a negative take on Disney.
Hitler, he just went too far. He needed budget constraints! [Laughs]
That’s all? Otherwise he would have been a Disney?
No, I mean Hitler made a few mistakes along the way. But it’s hard to stop a guy when everything’s on form and he doesn’t have anybody stopping him.
All artists have the potential of being Hitler, I think. I mean, there are some sensitive artists. There’s Georgia O’Keefe: she wouldn’t be a Hitler. But there are too many other people. And most of the film directors would be Hitlers if they had the chance.
Okay, you’re going to get yourself into trouble now.
Why are people so frightened? It’s like when I was in Germany at the Munich Film Festival and we did a talk. And I said, “Why do you people keep apologizing for your culture? German culture is fantastic! It made one ‘little’ mistake.” [Laughs]
19th century Germany was extraordinary in painting, in writing, in music. And when we moved into the 1930s, it got really interesting; it was fantastic. But we ended up with this little guy who …
I mean, his colour sense was good: black, red, white. These are good colours. His sense of costumes was really good. They’re the best costumes!
When we were doing Python, we always wanted to play Nazis, because they had the best costumes. The English army guys, their costumes were made of wool; they were horrible. You know, just give me a good Nazi costume!
But it seems American film directors keep doing the same thing, prolonging the obsession. Anybody who’s supposed to be a bad guy gets dressed up in a Nazi uniform.
Yeah. But people are not thinking clearly about what happened with fascism and how it worked. They’re all, “Oh, bad! Don’t think about it. Hitler, bad!” I mean, Hitler was a monster, but how did that monster develop? That is what you want to know.
Do people talk about the Treaty of Versailles? At the end of the First World War, the Germans got nailed. Okay, everybody deserved to be shot for the First World War, frankly. The English, the French … they all created the situation that blew up in their face. The Germans lost and there you have it. They made the beginning of what produced Hitler. Because there was no money, the [war] reparations were the most brutal thing.
The thing that’s always interesting about guys like Hitler and [Augusto] Pinochet and Margaret Thatcher, all the right-wing monsters, is that you can’t seem to blow them up. People try to assassinate these people, but they never assassinate them. A left-wing guy goes out there and, boom, he’s dead in two seconds. How it is that this works? I don’t know, maybe God is a fascist. [Laughs]
How does it work that the good guys in Brazil wear these American SWAT Team commando uniforms? It is a critique of American society?
With the design of the thing, I kept looking to ’30s and ’40s architecture, the monumental fascist architecture. And that was partly because it was fascistic, but also because I like it. [Laughs] And the guys … I wasn’t thinking. It was kind of almost as bad as Michael Jackson and his understanding of iconography and the meaning of things. I just play with it. But there were images where I think I was a little bit clearer about what I was doing. Michael never knew. And [Muammar al-]Gaddafi doesn’t seem to know either these days. Did you see him when he met [Silvio] Berlusconi recently? He turns up and he’s dressed like Michael Jackson in the cap and the epaulettes and the security girls behind him all in uniforms. It was outrageous! It was like Michael Jackson was there. It was just before he died. Maybe that’s why he died; maybe he saw Gaddafi had taken over his image.
One last thing about this scene in Brazil with the soldiers or guards running on the stairs and a turned over vacuum cleaner. Is it …
Yeah, it is. You know what that is.
Potemkin … (1)
Potemkin. Because the thing is, action always bores me. So I said, “Okay, let’s do something funny here.” And then, rather than the baby carriage, it’s this vacuum cleaner. [Laughs] And you know, anybody who knows Potemkin gets the joke. The rest of people have no idea what’s going on there. [Laughs] But it was really out of boredom. Action just bores me because everybody’s doing it. It’s endless. So, I thought, let’s find another way.
Have you seen Public Enemies ? It’s Michael Mann and technically it’s beautiful. But you just don’t care. There’s no heart in it, no soul. It’s so much about how clever he is. And this is the problem with a whole generation of directors that came out of America, and that includes [Robert] Zemeckis and [James] Cameron. In different degrees, they all want total control of the thing. And I hate that. I mean, Zemeckis now does motion capture. He doesn’t have to go outside. But it’s this ridiculous world because it’s not animation. This isn’t giving life to anything. It’s just very fake Frankenstein country, but they love it.
Cameron is little bit more active. I went and saw him when they were working on Avatar  and he’s got this amazing system. He’s got a camera that is effectively a virtual camera except that it’s a physical thing. He is still trying to do handheld virtual moviemaking that is kind of interesting. [Laughs] But it has to be 3D now.
So, all you’re doing is learning how to use the machinery …
It’s a way of avoiding actors, that’s what it is. [Laughs]
In all your films, there are certain constant elements: dream worlds, fantasy worlds, time travel, fantastical visual style. On the other hand, there are all these things that seem to stem from your background in social sciences: with total institutions you have Erving Goffman running around everywhere, the concept of Panopticum repeats itself and so on. How much of the social scientist is still present in your filmmaking?
It’s always there. I’m always thinking about it. In every film, I’m dealing with what I’m feeling about what’s going on in the world at the moment. It’s a reaction to what the world or an aspect of the world is about. Brazil was all about that particular period of time, but it was transformed a bit by [George Orwell’s] Nineteen Eighty-Four, which I hadn’t read. I never read it until I finished the film. But Nineteen Eighty-Four was in the atmosphere. I just knew what it was, because everybody talked about it. It’s one of those things: when people talk about something, most of them don’t know it, they haven’t seen the film, they have only read a couple reviews. But they talk. That’s what I do all the time. I go to the review section. Now if I go to a party I can at least comment on something, even if I haven’t seen it. [Laughs] And I think too many people do that. So, I’m just reacting to things.
Time Bandits  was a reaction to the fact I couldn’t get Brazil made. [Laughs] I said, “Okay, so I’ll write a family film.” And then you start playing with the idea. You have the first idea: commit a crime and travel to a time before. That’s a nice simple idea. But what I like most of all is that these guys who were God’s helpers decided heaven was a boring place, and that it was much more fun to go into crime. Maybe that’s what I did, when I left my involvement with Church: I went into crime, making movies, making jokes. It’s a form of crime. [Laughs]
With each of the films, is there always a main message? Because with Jabberwocky (1977) there’s still this feeling of collage, of different things assembled together.
Yes, because I’m trying to escape from Python, for one thing. But at the Taormina Film Festival – Mike Palin and I went there with Jabberwocky – the discussions were incredible, because they all said it was a comment on Thatcher. And I hadn’t thought about it; it was sort of subconscious. But it was all about things like that. It was about the unions of that time. Thatcher destroyed the unions, which was horrible. But I didn’t like the unions either. The unions had become too powerful. So, you’ve got that in there.
Belong to a guild or else cut your foot of …
Yeah. And then you’ve got the craftsmen. The father’s a craftsman, but his son wants to be a used car salesman, basically. He wants to go into business. That’s what was going on under Thatcher, so it’s all there. And somebody in Taormina thought it was the most powerful condemnation of Thatcher in Britain at that time. [Laughs]
So, as I said, I didn’t think about it at that time, but it was all subconsciously going on. And the whole ‘enemy at the gate’ thing, ‘the tiger at the gate’. I grew up in America with Communism as the tiger at the gate, so all that stuff is in there.
Time Bandits is a little bit more fun to be honest, but we did talk about things in it. And than Brazil was fun. I said, “Now I’m just going to get down and talk about all the things that are making me crazy.”
With The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), we have the idea of rationalization against fantasy and imagination.
Yeah, so that continues. But Munchausen was more about escape. There is this thing with Jackson [Jonathan Pryce] being a rational man, yes. Rational against fantasy: that’s what we’ve got there. But it’s also about how lies may be closer to the truth than facts. That was another thing that was in my head, so we got that in.
It was also about father and daughter. It was about me feeling old and about my daughter. So, there’s the family thing as well. [Laughs]
What happened after that?
The Fisher King.
Shooting Munchausen was such a nightmare, but we ended up with a good film. Then it was just buried by the studio. So, now I’m really depressed and I was like, “I’m never going to make another film again. I just can’t stand it.” And I was offered The Fisher King. When the script arrived, I read it and I thought it was fantastic. I understood those characters, I loved the dialogue, I loved everything about it. And it was simple: it was four people, basically. And it was Hollywood, so I thought, “Okay, I’ll put my head in the lion’s mouth and see what happens. It can’t get worse than what happened on Munchausen.” [Laughs]
Although it wasn’t your script, there is still social commentary, on yuppies, arrogance, idealism, (in)sanity …
Oh, yeah! They were Richard LaGravenese’s ideas. But when I read it, I just wished I’d written it, because I identified with it totally. So that was nice.
It was a nice change to go work in the belly of the beast and have a simple film and just let the actors get a good cast together. It was also me trying to show the world that it isn’t all about fantasy and visuals, it’s about characters! That’s what I’m really interested in. And these were great characters. And so it was a huge success.
With Twelve Monkeys (1995), again the script is not yours. It was written by David and Janet Peoples. And there is again the critique but we move into environmentalist issues.
Yeah, and that’s why when I read a script it resonated with me. It’s about the things that are going on in the world, and that I’m responding to. It was all there. In fact, when the Ebola virus took off right after the film, I thought, “We’re there again, we’re right there!” [Laughs] It was a prescient script.
I loved the idea of trying to make people consider the thought that to save the world five billion people might die. People just couldn’t believe that. They hated it. They almost blanked that idea out, that all these people had to die for the human race to survive. Because the idea, especially in America and the West, is that you live forever. Human life, the value of human life, is so great.
But now you know that the world demands that things change. The word “culling” comes to mind. There’s going to be a culling of human beings soon. I don’t know what it will be. David’s thing was that a plague will do it. War? Famine? These things, the old favourites, are always there.
Basically, I think there are too many people. And it’s not just that there are too many people; there are too many people who all want all these things that we have. That’s the problem. It’s Malthusian: there’s population and resources and, when they hit imbalance, look out boys and girls! Something’s going to happen. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but it will.
I love the fact that they [David and Janet Peoples] had gone into this green zone, so that nature’s fighting back with a plague. That was a brilliant script. To take La Jetée [Chris Marker, 1962] and out of that create Twelve Monkeys – that was quite a great leap.
How much is the film yours?
It isn’t mine. What happened was they had a meeting with Chris Marker and they said: “We don’t want to make a remake of your film. We want to be inspired by your film.” And he was happy about that. And that was the deal, which I thought was right, because I always say that La Jetée is this beautiful acorn and Twelve Monkeys is this big oak tree going in all directions. They’re the same thing, but one is so concise and beautiful and the other is big.
I didn’t change anything in the script; it was their script. Like when I did Richard’s script in The Fisher King, I didn’t change it. What I actually did was I went back and looked at his earlier scripts before the studio started “helping” him improve his script. And the only thing I added was the waltz at Grand Central Station; that’s my bit. And the way I shot it and what I chose to show is what’s different. Richard’s thing was more like a film that Woody Allen would make. So, I took the basic ideas and to me everything has a meaning. Jack’s place was originally just a loft in downtown Manhattan and that has no meaning. But you put Jack [Jeff Bridges] in a razor building of steel and glass and that says something. He’s dead already.
So, I take the ideas that are in there and put a visual idea behind it. The office building that Lydia [Amanda Plummer] comes out of is this huge stone tower, a fortress. And it could have just been a shop.
That’s what I do. I’m not changing the script or the ideas; I’m finding the ideas and I’m putting them into a specific visual form.
The raggedy vision of the future in Twelve Monkeys, for example, is that yours?
Once we go into that, yes. The Fisher King was a normal Manhattan story and I turned it into something more symbolic, visually. With Twelve Monkeys, it was all there and I just started designing it. My biggest concern on Twelve Monkeys was that it was going to look like Brazil. So, I tried to make it not look like Brazil. But it does look like Brazil. [Laughs]
I was trying to find a way of creating this underground world, and what would be left. And my first choice was to go into old power stations. In Philadelphia and Baltimore, there were three that were actually available. They were just unused, because after in the ’50s all the industry moved out of those East Coast cities; they moved west. So, in a sense, it was the past, and we went into the past and into this disused world.
The future is gloomy and dark, but you are always making light of the past, even the Middle Ages are always funny.
Yeah, because I’ve got concerns about what the future is. I think we are living in a really brilliant time, and I don’t know how much longer it’s going to last. We’re a few very lucky generations, and I think mine was the luckiest. Being born in the ’40s, we were babies, so the war didn’t mean anything. We came up through a period when we had less things, so you had to work harder, but that’s normal; it’s no big deal. And then for the ’60s to explode like that. It was amazing time!
Now I find how everybody has things, but they have very few ideas anymore. People are no longer individuals; they’re just becoming part of a great system. It scares me, that one. [Laughs]
And your idea of the past?
I like the fact that we’re living now. There are certain aspects of the past that interest me, because I don’t have a problem with living without all the nice things we have. When I bought our house in France 35 years ago, it didn’t have electricity for seven years. I didn’t want it. I just wanted to escape from the modern world. You know what is interesting there? I was working on a film called A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain’s book, and there’s a really nice element in the book because it’s about an American going into the past. And what I liked about it was the Knights go out on these quests and they fight giants and dragons, but none of it’s really happening. What they’re really doing is they’re fighting a really big dog or something, but, by the time they get back to the castle, they start expanding. So, it’s about stories. And everybody believes them, because life is more interesting that way. There’s a witch over there, there’s an ogre, and suddenly you’ve got a world that’s full of fantastic, interesting things! And that was the part of the film that I really wanted to concentrate on: how it was more interesting to have these wonderful stories and this belief that there are extraordinary, magical, outrageous things out there rather than a world which is all facts, explainable. You can measure it and put it in a box.
Now the world doesn’t seem to be as exciting anymore for most people. We know too much about it, and so people escape into movies, which is really bad. I’d rather have a storyteller in the room telling a story. That’s different to going to the cinema, even though going to the cinema was the storytelling that I grew up with, I suppose.
You say your films explore the borderline between reality and fantasy, which in your words is between boredom and imagination. Is that how you perceive real life – as tedious?
No, the real life is your imagination. It’s whether it’s your imagination or the imagination you have been handed by the media, by television. It’s like my son, when he was twelve. We live in a really nice part of London. The shops are a hundred metres away, but he was afraid to go to the shops because the world he knew was the world on television. It was about raping and pillaging and murder and robberies. In fact, most entertainment is that. Movies are, too. And that was the world to him. This world, from the front door to the shops, was the world he saw on television and he was frightened. Now that’s a completely false world. That wasn’t the world that was out there. But it was his imagination that had been created by television.
Okay, we all get created by what we watch and what we read. I mean, who doesn’t? But then you’ve got to work at maintaining your version of the world.
That’s what I’m really worried about. You know, twittering. What is this? People are not living their lives anymore. They’re sharing their lives to the point where you don’t exist anymore. And that’s what worries me.
I had to do a thing for Nokia in Rome a couple of years a go – you know, the one with video cameras. They were having a contest of making short films on these mobile phones and there were two juries, and in one of them I was the head of the jury and the other was Wim Wenders. And then we did a press conference down in Rome and Wim was very smart. I didn’t realize how funny he was.
Now, my problem is – with telephones and these things, and everybody talking about communication – I want to improve people’s ability to be alone and not communicate. If you’re alone, you actually start finding out who you are. Give up your mobile phones, your twittering things, everything, and stop being a part of a community. Start being alone!
We need to be alone; that’s what I’ve been talking about recently. Because I think everybody’s getting too involved in a too large a network. Which is very nice, it’s great! But what is really interesting is to go and be on your own for a long time and discover who you are. You’re not just a part of a community.
And so, in Rome, I didn’t know what to say. We were supposed to be selling mobile phones. I hate mobile phones! [Laughs]
Does aloneness work in the cinema? A person is alone in the cinema in a way …
At home with television and a DVD, you’re even more alone. I’m encouraging watching my films on television! [Laughs]
You don’t want to be alone all the time. But you want to be able to spend time without communicating. I go to Italy and I’m there just on my own. I leave the family behind. My wife is doing it in France. She just goes there to escape from things. You get away from all the things that are pulling at you. And things start happening when you’re alone.
I hate twittering. Literally you just go: “I’m sitting in a restaurant having a good time.” I mean, what is that? And people are spending all this time.
Do you know Eddie Izzard? He’s a brilliant comedian. He started twittering earlier this year and in four months he has over 600,000 people following his twits. What are they doing? What kind of lives do they have? Their lives are empty, I think. And the sooner they die the better. [Laughs] No, sorry I didn’t mean that. That’s where the culling has to start. I think it’s going to happen with twittering. I mean once we know where they all are, that’s when we’ll send the hunters out. [Laughs]
Okay, back to film …
But we can save the world, come on! “Is he serious?”, they ask.
We were talking about the main idea behind each film. We left off at Twelve Monkeys. What about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)?
It was a book that was chasing me for ten years. And it’s the perfect book for my generation. I mean, we thought we were going to change the world, that we would open everybody’s eyes to the goodness of things out there, blah blah blah. And then it all went bad. The war was going on … So, that book was really an important book for me, because, when I read it in 1971, I had left America and I was seriously in a situation where I might have to back and go to Vietnam. I was about to give up my American citizenship to avoid it. And that book was there and I went, “Oh yeah, I know what you’re talking about.”
This is the part in the film where Hunter S. Thompson (Johnny Depp) talks about Tim Leary and the illusions or delusions of the 1960s.
Oh, yeah. Well, Leary I always thought was a little bit of a conman, to be honest. He did introduce the idea of acid. But it was done before that, you know, the doors of perception, [Aldous] Huxley. Everybody had been there. But LSD in that particular form, Leary was there and he went for it and brought a lot of people along.
During that period, with all that experimentation going on, you saw a lot of people pay the price. But we actually leapt forward. You see, people were brave then, or stupid. But that was much more interesting than what was going on in Vietnam, where you were being killed for no purpose at all, for a war that was just absurd. The war was based on complete misunderstanding of what communism was and how it worked. It was just the stupidity of things. But America needs wars. I mean, when you’re world’s largest weapons manufacturer, you’ve got to have those planes crashing, you’ve got to get rid of the bombs so you can have new planes and new bombs. That’s how the industry and the economy work. These are important things.
But that book was really important and they had sent me scripts over the years and I always said no, because I was involved in my own things. And then this one just came along. Alex Cox had already been fired, Johnny [Depp] and Benicio [Del Toro] were already on board, and I wanted to work with Johnny and I said, “Let’s go, I will do it.” And it was great. I really enjoyed making that movie. We had fun.
We just worked really hard and fast. We had a low budget. Not by European standards; it was like $16, 17 million. But we were making this movie in Hollywood and Las Vegas. And we just shot it very fast and I kept saying, “We’re sharks. We only look forward, we can’t look back. Whatever we do, we’ve done it.” It was fun. And it’s a serious movie, that’s what it is. [Laughs] It’s about the loss of a dream. That’s what’s at the heart of that movie and, when that happens, what do you do? Well, you become monsters, you become beasts, you go out there and you just rip it apart to reveal what the truth is after it all went bad. It’s a sad movie, but there’s a lot of laughs along the way to ultimate despair.
Now, The Brothers Grimm (2005). This is again …
… an interesting leap. I had several other projects that I had written the script for, like Defective Detective, and I was working on a script called Good Omens, there was a lot of stuff and nothing was happening. They just weren’t happening.
Then Chuck Roven, who had produced Twelve Monkeys, had this Brothers Grimm script. I didn’t like it, but I needed a job. And his argument was right: “Terry how many years have gone by? You’ve got to work. You’ve got to do something”. And I love the brothers Grimm; I grew up with their stories.
So, Toni Grisoni and I did work on the script. I got some things better, but other things were still there, because there was only so much one could change. I thought at least I’ll be able to create a good world and have some fun. And then we started. And, unfortunately, the studio pulled out, when we were all in Prague, the entire crew. And what do you do now? Heath [Ledger] was on board, Matt [Damon] was on board.
We were all sitting there ready to go, so the questions was: “What do we do now?” Chuck was trying to raise money quickly from other sources and the Weinsteins came in. And I had always said I would never work with them, because I just knew who they were and what they were like. They do what they do and I do what I do. But they were there and so it was a way of rescuing it, and I thought, “Well, maybe we can make it work.” And then it just started going bad very quickly, because they started interfering with the process before we even started shooting. The brothers Weinsteins have given us so many great films and they’re fantastic salesmen, and they’re interesting producers, but they are people who are good at those jobs and not at directing movies. And yet they want to be filmmakers. They interfered more than I’ve ever been interfered with before. If I were younger, we’d call it child abuse. [Laughs]
They created a situation at the beginning of the film that was very unpleasant. And so I started working in not the happiest of moods. And they were still determined to control me. And when they didn’t allow me to cast who I wanted [Robin Williams], I was getting more and more upset. I don’t like this. And by the time Matt’s nose came up, that was it: I just didn’t want to make the movie. I went to work on the first day of shooting and I just wanted to go home.
Then, in the fourth week, my cameraman, Nicola Pecorini, who’s a very outspoken person and says what he thinks, got fired. I thought, “This is my chance to get out of the film”, but I was then told by my lawyer that it wasn’t as easy as that, so I had to continue.
It was not a good experience. But the good part of it was working with Matt and Heath and the cast. We had a great time.
In the end, is it the film that Bob and Harvey Weinstein wanted?
No, it’s not the film they wanted and it’s not quite the film I wanted. It’s the film that is a result of two people, or two groups of people, who aren’t working well together.
What did they want?
I don’t know what they wanted. How could I know what they wanted? They didn’t know what they wanted. They wanted a big successful, wild adventure movie. They kept saying they wanted a Terry Gilliam movie. But they really wanted a Terry Gilliam movie with their involvement.
I mean, is Gangs of New York  a good film? Marty [Scorsese] said almost the exact same quote I said, without us knowing it: “They took the joy out of filmmaking.” There’s just something about them, because they want to be filmmakers. But they’re not filmmakers! They’re great salesmen, they’re great marketing people. They’re fantastic! But they want to put their fingerprints on it so they can say it’s their film. And if you’re working with people like Marty and me, you just can’t do that. It doesn’t work.
Grimm is not a bad film. I really like a lot of it, but it’s not the film I could have made had I been in a more positive state of mind. I mean, by the time they fired Nicola and Tom Sigel came on board, it was their choice. With Nicola, they were saying he’s too slow. Tom was even slower. But it’s their guy. Not my problem! Their man, not my man. That was my attitude. Tom’s a lovely guy, he’s a good cameraman, he lights beautifully, but if he takes us months and months I don’t care. [Laughs] That’s not a good way to work. That’s what most people work like and it’s a bad way of working. But there are sections of that film I think are as good as anything I’ve done. And I can’t even think what I would have done differently now. I just know that, had I been in a different mood, we would have had more fun and there would be more things we would get our way.
Tideland. What grabbed you there?
The book. I read the book and thought, “This is fantastic.” It was just beautiful. Mitch Cullin’s writing was brilliant. I loved the characters! Jeliza-Rose has this beautiful voice of a child.
The book is written in the first person and Jeliza-Rose is older, writing back. I thought, “No, I don’t want to do it that way.” In some ways, the book was safer because it’s in retrospect; know the girl survives. In the film, I thought it would be more interesting if you don’t know whether she’s going to survive. There’s more intensity in the air.
We wrote the script quite quickly because the book was so easy. It was all there. We just edited it.
What would you say it’s mainly about? What’s this one’s message?
I was really trying to shake up people’s perception of certain things, like all the fears they have of death, pædophiles, the vulnerability of children. It’s really about the resilience of children, how strong they are and how you can put them through anything and they’ll come out of it. I was so bored with everybody coming forward saying, “I was abused as a child, I was a victim.” Anybody who wanted to get any sympathy or make themselves interesting or even get in the press: “Ah, I was abused as a child!” I was so angry with the world becoming a world where our heroes are the victims. Fuck that! [Laughs] It just made me angry. Again it was a reaction to the world I saw around me and I just said, “Let’s do it!” And we just assembled the best cast ever. I mean, the acting there is brilliant. And to get my old buddy, Jeff [Bridges], to be a dead man … [Laughs]
You know what’s funny about Tideland? More and more people come forward now and say, “Wow, that’s really good!” They didn’t see it back then, because the press hated it. But more and more people are suddenly finding this movie and that’s why I love DVDs. Movies don’t die, they’re out there. There’s no excuse now for people not knowing films, because if you want to know about films … which I don’t. That’s why I don’t rent DVDs or watch them. [Laughs] I’m trying to be alone, and I don’t want films interfering with my aloneness.
We just do what we understand.
I think Madeleine Stowe is brilliant [as Kathryn Railly] in Twelve Monkeys. She doesn’t get enough credit. And, in Brazil, Kim Griest’s part [Jill Layton] was a much bigger part, but it didn’t quite work out, so we had to cut it way down. She was written as an utterly independent and smart character. And she just kind of couldn’t get it. So, we had to cut back and back and back, and she ended up being a dream girl. That was not the original intention.
The Fisher King! There are two great women’s parts. But that’s Richard’s writing. He can write women’s parts. I can’t write them particularly well. So, there are beautiful scenes, and Mercedes [Ruehl] and Amanda [Plummer] were just spectacular [as Anne Napolitano and Lydia Sinclair].
With Mitch Cullin, it’s like with Richard: he can just write women. Tideland I think is my most feminine film. [Laughs] I understand that little girl; I care.
I remember there was a French journalist who saw it for the first time and hated it. He was a friend, so he said he’d give me the benefit of the doubt and he saw it the second time and he loved it. He said he suddenly could see the movie and he thought it was the most tender film I’d ever done. Isn’t it weird that he couldn’t see it the first time?
Do you think it has something to do with the film changing direction in the middle when the taxidermy begins?
That’s where the fun starts. [Laughs]
Maybe some people are just not able to work their head around that.
But again they’re not reading what is being said here! Here’s a woman who was so destroyed, but she’s got him back! I mean, okay, she’s got his skin back. [Laughs] But at least she’s got something.
These are really desperate people, I thought. And that’s why I liked it, because it was so extreme and so bizarre. But there was just tenderness and love under the whole thing.
With kids, the world isn’t formed yet for them. Things are coming at them. But I think children are born positive. It’s how much you take that away. By the time they’re adults, most of it it’s all been taken away. But some come through it.
I really try not to lie when I make films. Even if it’s going to be a dream reality, you’ve got to pull the plug occasionally to remind people it’s a dream reality.
Now we have The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) and Don Quixote is back on. What would you say about these two films regarding what drives them? What is the message behind them?
Quixote’s easier because it’s a man that refuses to accept the reality that everybody else is out there, even physical reality that is out there. He won’t accept any of it. He’s determined to turn it into a more wonderful, extraordinary place. And it’s an old man that’s trying to make something out of his life before he dies. Something! His last chance to go out there and do something. I’m an old man now, so it’s perfect. But the weird thing is I loved Quixote when I was a young man, so something’s wrong here. [Laughs]
That’s what we’re dealing with in Quixote and also how the Quixotes of this world, how their madness, inspires other people to see the world in a slightly bigger, more interesting way.
Actually, the movie is about something else as well. But when we get it done, I’ll talk about it.
With Parnassus, I’ve always liked the idea of something from another time entering our world – or whichever way it goes, it doesn’t matter. Here’s an old way of telling stories and this old show comes into a modern town. Nobody is interested, because everything about it is just so antique. But if you can get past the show and trust them to take you on a journey of imagination, extraordinary things happen. And it’s your imagination that’s being allowed to expand.
But then we put an element in there that a choice has to be made. Okay, you’ve had fun now expanding your imagination, seeing all these other possibilities, but now you have to make a choice. And there’s a right choice and then there’s a wrong choice, and you get punished. Or, if you make the right choice …
You actually never see what happens when you make the right choice. You see the results on people’s faces when they’re coming out, but you don’t know what really happens. That’s up to everybody’s imagination.
At the centre of it, there’s this simple story of a man who does a deal with the Devil, and at sixteen his daughter is going to be the Devil’s. But there’s a weird twist, and even the trailer got it wrong, because Parnassus [Christopher Plummer] was immortal. He won immortality in a bet with the Devil. But now he falls in love as a very, very old man and he wants to be mortal again so he could be young and live and be in love. He gives up his immortality for mortality and the price is his child at sixteen. So, that’s one step more complicated than people are talking about. [Laughs]
There is always a child or a holy fool as you say. In some films, it’s evident who it is; in others, not so much. So, who is the main hero in Brazil? We have Archibald ‘Harry’ Tuttle (Robert De Niro), the plumber; the activist, Jill Layton (Kim Greist); and Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), the dreamer.
He is the dreamer, and he is the fool. But he is not the holy fool, unfortunately. He’s just a fool.
The film is about responsibility and he’s not taking responsibility for the job he does. He’s right at the heart of the ministry and the ministry is this monstrous thing and he’s busy daydreaming. So, that was just my comment about all people. [Laughs]
We all sort of grow up and we hide in our fantasy worlds, but there’s still a world out there. You’re responsible for the world. And here’s a guy who is in the most powerful position, and he could say, “Okay, I’m American”, but he’s not paying attention to what is going on. He’s a member of the organization or the nation, but he’s not taking responsibility for what that organization does. And he’s punished for it. He wasn’t even a child; he was a juvenile. That’s the difference about Brazil: it’s not a child, it’s a juvenile. It’s what most people are doing with Michel Bay’s films. [Laughs] The kind of films we’re watching, these are juvenile things; they’re not adult and they’re not childlike. Take WALL-E [Andrew Stanton, 2008]. Okay, that’s beautiful! Toy Story [John Lasseter, 1995], beautiful! We’re talking the world as seen through an innocent child’s eyes. And those films, I think, are just stunning films. John Lasseter understands it. And those people at Pixar, they understand, and they think of the world that way. But those are also very smart films at the same time and that’s why I think they’re my favourite films. That’s what I didn’t put down in my list! Pixar and John Lasseter. He’s a god to me. [Laughs]
Although you say you don’t like this 3D CG business very much, instead of being normal and ordinary the world becomes extraordinary.
But that’s not what they’re doing. They’re doing cartoons. What I don’t like is when you’re trying to do naturalism, realism with it. It’s not that I don’t like it. It’s just that it isn’t interesting after a while.
What I really hate now is things like Beowolf [Robert Zemeckis, 2007], with motion capture. I hate it! Either you do cartoons that are an abstraction of the world, and you’re free to do wonderful things. Or let’s deal with something that’s more natural and realistic. Motion-capture stuff just allows the director to be the god he’s always really wanted to be. The total god! [Laughs]
You’re saying the production of Parnassus and the plans for Quixote are still old school?
No! Parnassus has got 650 CG shots in it. See, I don’t stick with any of my rules. Why should I be limited with my dogmas? [Laughs] No, it’s because what you see in Parnassus, every time you go through the mirror, is a different world. There was a very simple, pragmatic thought behind it, because I didn’t have the money to make a $300 million film. So I thought, “$25 million dollars” – that’s the top for low-budget films in America – “let’s do that.” I’m in the real world for the majority of the film. Then we go through the mirror and then we get out again.
If you do something like King Kong [Peter Jackson, 2005], every shot has to be using CG in it and it costs a fortune. That’s why you need hundreds of millions of dollars. And after a while, even in King Kong, you just accept is as natural and normal. But I’d rather keep surprising people. That’s what I think it’s really about. It’s back to magic. King Kong and The Lord of the Rings [Jackson, 2001-3] are beautifully made. I’m not arguing against the technique. I’m just saying I can’t afford to make films like that. [Laughs]
Who’s the childlike character in these films, the one who acts as a bridge connecting us with a different perspective, with imagination?
I guess it’s probably Parnassus. It’s harder to see it, because there is young man who is in a sense the innocent: Anton [Andrew Garfield]. But it’s Parnassus’s world, so he’s the film, he’s the main character. It’s his story; let’s put it like that. But I’m not sure if I believe him or not.
All through making the film, I thought he might have been a conman, and that everything he says is bullshit, because I identify with him! [Laughs]
You identify with your characters, that’s obvious. So, who was the most Terry Gilliam of them all?
I don’t know. Because it’s not just like I’m the main character, I’m actually all the characters.
The good guys and the bad guys?
Oh yeah, I have to be. There’s always one that is obviously the one I would like to be like more. And then there’s the other one that’s a lot of fun. They’re all there and it gets more confusing in that sense that I can identify with all of them. But at least I’ve got to like them and love them; I have to be intrigued by them. They all become part of me.
It’s like when I’m working with the actors. I suppose I’m bringing out bits and pieces of me with them. And the strange one was Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King, because what I didn’t know was that Jeff was copying me, my movements, the way I do things. And I didn’t even recognize me until the film was finished and somebody said, “That’s what you do, Terry.” So that was a very interesting moment. He was watching and mimicking me, and I didn’t see it. It was like when you take [Marcello] Mastroianni doing Fellini: one is this really good looking movie star and the other guy’s the other guy. And Jeff was great.
Do you consider some of your films to be closer to heart, to be more yours than others?
I don’t really think about that anymore. I really don’t. One day I maybe have to do a Terry Gilliam festival for myself. I’ll watch all the films and see, because I don’t watch them if I can avoid it and I want to get to that point where I can actually watch them and forget that I made them. But I can’t do that. That’s the thing that makes me crazy, because I’d like to be able to experience one of my films like other people do. What I do when I do look at them is say, “Oh, that’s really good!” I’m amazed by some of the things. “Who did that?” I can’t imagine I did that or thought of doing it. And then other times I’d say, “Why did that guy do that? That’s just bad, that’s really bad!” [Laughs]
But they all have a sort of moral lesson …
So, if with Brazil in 1984 it was the situation of 1984, what’s Good and what’s Evil today? What are the things that must be commented on today?
Well, I think aloneness and twittering. [Laughs] That’s what I’ve been talking about. I mean, I don’t sit down and make a list of things, but these are the things that are obsessing me now.
In our first version of Quixote, we were obsessed with mobile phones. The phones would just never stop in our early script. People were walking down the street, howling into these things and always over the most petty things. You know, people communicating but not communicating. We were obsessed with that, but we cut all that out. It’s old hat now. It’s boring. [Laughs] But this twitter thing and aloneness: that’s what’s getting me now.
Is there some other mythic, legendary, literary hero you feel you need to explore?
Until I think of it, no. I mean it never worked like that. I don’t think that far ahead. I’ve got a script that’s never been ripe about Theseus and the Minotaur. Doing a Greek tragedy has always intrigued me. But, again, it’s taking stories that are already known. I think is what I like doing, because then you can comment. And that’s the advantage.
Before let’s say the early ’60s, the Bible was the big-selling book in the world; everybody knew those stories. So it was easy to make comments on. Now it’s a real problem, because everybody has so many different stories. I don’t know what the stories are that everybody knows. Except Die Hard, you know Bruce Willis, you know Star Wars … I guess these are the stories, so people make comments about that. But they don’t interest me as much as some of the older stories. Those stories are deeper, they are about more profound things. So, they’re more fun to play with.
What about the pirates? You talk about good pirates. We already have pirates in The Crimson Permanent Assurance (Gilliam, 1983).
Oh come on, pirates! I always wanted to make a pirate film. That’s why it made me so crazy when Pirates of the Caribbean came out. I always wanted to do one of those movies.
How come you never did a Peter Pan movie? I mean, the man flies and there are pirates.
It’s got everything, but nobody asked me. Why wouldn’t you want to be a pirate? To be on the high seas, free, a buccaneer, to live as you want and always robbing the people who deserve to be robbed. The only problem with being a pirate is maybe that you get trapped being a pirate for the rest of your life – like Johnny Depp. [Laughs] He’ll have to be a pirate forever now.
With the title of Parnassus, we go to the Greek Mountain, the muses, poetry?
Poetry, the muse, art: all of that is there. But it turns out, and this is an interesting thing, that when Hunter S. Thompson lived in San Francisco, he lived on Parnassus Street. It just keeps coming in.
What is it with you and these coincidences? The mixing of reality and fiction surrounding your actual films, the Brothers Grimm with the French and the Germans, Quixote’s script with the French and the Germans, Brazil and Universal Studios …
Oh, wait till you see Parnassus! It is a totally prescient film. There was a line in it that Christopher Plummer didn’t want to say after Heath died, which was: “The world is full of stories, comedies, romances – a tale of unforeseen death.” But every word in Parnassus was written before Heath died. Wait till you see it. You’ll be out of your mind. You can’t believe what the script is saying. It’s getting too close to home now. There’s one big scene where Johnny [Depp] has a big speech and people thought we wrote this as a eulogy to Heath. But it was written before.
There are so many of these bizarre cross-references. For instance, in Tideland there is Noah (Jeff Bridges) on the bus all stoned saying, “We won’t be safe until we reach grandma’s house.” Immediately, “Little Red Riding Hood” pops to mind and you were editing the film while simultaneously editing Brothers Grimm. Did the line jump over?
That’s funny. But that was all in the original book. These things start connecting. That’s the first time I’ve thought about that.
Okay, here’s another one. Heath in Parnassus: before he appears, this Tarot card comes up and it’s the hanged man, a man hanging upside down. The last image of Heath in The Dark Knight [Christopher Nolan, 2008]: he’s hanging upside down. And I only spotted that a month ago.
Do you sometimes become afraid of your powers?
No, I don’t believe they are. I just don’t know what it is. It’s this idea of morphic resonance. You drop something and the vibrations go out and they keep reappearing. I think it’s about being tuned into things. If you’re aware of the world, and you deal with it and you talk about it, it’s going to happen, somewhere. It just happened a bit too close to home this time.
Let’s talk about Tom Waits? He appeared in The Fisher King and his music was supposed to be in Tideland?
I wanted to use his music in Tideland, and I was talking about possibly getting him to do the score, but it didn’t happen. There are so many of his songs that get me started on a film and then the thing didn’t quite work.
On Parnassus, I wanted to use one of his songs, but he didn’t want it, because he wanted to be just an actor in the film. His music is extraordinary and I think he is the great musical poet of America. And he does what I do: he deals with the darkest stuff and the most beautiful stuff. He balances the two things. The most romantic songs, the most frightening songs: it’s all there.
He’s very special. And it was just him playing the Devil. Nobody can do it better. [Laughs]
The character Tony (Heath Ledger): would he have been somehow physically transformed when going through the magic mirror even in the original script? It seems an appropriate tool …
No. That’s why some people say that, somehow, the film is more magical now and more extraordinary because of what happened. But Heath, he was so chameleon-like in what he was doing in the film that, when he got to go through the mirror, I had no idea what he was going to do. He prepared a lot of possibilities. I’ll never get to see that and I really want to know what he was going to do. We just played a very sweet game together, because he was surprising me every day, every shot almost. I was like, “What the fuck are you doing now? Fantastic!” The month we shot with Heath, I was just holding on, because he was flying. And it was just magical what he was doing. Because he wanted to be a film director as well, so I was just letting him take over. [Laughs]
Heath Ledger died in the middle of the film. Now that’s a pretty extraordinary thing to happen to anybody and especially to us who loved this man, because he was quite extraordinary. I just said, “It’s finished, let’s go home. The curse of Gilliam continues.” But luckily I was surrounded by people that said, “No, we’re going to finish it somehow. Heath’s last performance will be on film, the world will see it.” So, the first thing I did – because I didn’t have a plan yet – was I called Johnny Depp. And I said, “Johnny, I don’t know what to do. We’re in a situation. Will you help out?” And he said, “I’m there.” And then, after a week, we were throwing ideas around, we decided we would try to get three actors to finish Heath’s part.
In Doctor Parnassus, there’s the magic mirror and, when you go through it, you suddenly can enter your imagination, bigger than you ever dreamed it. I made a decision that the first time we have a character go through we’ll let his face change. And once you have his face change, we could argue that every time the character that Heath played, Tony, goes through, we can put another face there. And that’s what we did.
So, Johnny, Collin Farrell and Jude Law finished Heath’s part. And it was very difficult because they were all doing other films. But they were extraordinarily brave, maybe even foolish, to walk into a situation like that with no time to rehearse. They just turned up and did it.
None of us knew whether it would work until the film was finished and we first showed it to a few people. They thought that was the way the film was written. So, it was clear that we managed to pull this thing off, but it was quite extraordinary.
It’s an act of love, that’s what it is. And it’s a fantastic film, because often acts of love can be pretty boring. Ask my wife. [Laughs] But this one isn’t.
I must say something about Heath Ledger because there has been so much written about it about The Dark Knight and how playing the Joker somehow twisted his mind. That’s utter nonsense. He was laughing every time he’d come back from a day shooting the Joker. He was just laughing because “he’d got away with murder again”! It was just great fun. That was one of the greatest things when working with him. And it’s the same with Johnny Depp. They play and the whole thing becomes fun. Because they are very intelligent people, they prepare very seriously; they do all their research, they get it inside of them and then they just throw it away and off we go. Camera turns: play time!
You say Parnassus is a compendium of things that got left behind from other projects.
Yes and no. I keep all these ideas and, when I start a project, I start going through everything and think, “Oh, that’s good. Why didn’t I do that?” Then, by the time you’re finished, there’s probably not anything in there from the original inspiration, but that’s how it starts. And this was a chance to do live action, to do period, to do cartoons. It’s all in there.
You say that it is a fun and humorous story about the consequences of our personal choices. So, if it’s about selling your child’s soul to the Devil, I am wondering how this is fun and humorous.
Well, Parnassus was very smart and he was very old, so he thought he would never have a kid at that age. There’s a whole line in there, about his wife who becomes pregnant at sixty, a miracle. He thought he had beaten the Devil, he thought he was just being clever. He wasn’t. [Laughs]
Is there an equation between Gilliam and Parnassus? How much is the character you?
It’s me and it’s Charles McKeown, and then it’s the way Christopher Plummer does it. It comes from saying, “Okay, this is the kind of character and let’s go with it.” It’s like with any actor. What they’re playing is not them, but it is part of them. I work that way and I just go down these roads and see what happens. [Laughs]
And how did Quixote come about?
I always thought about him. I’d never read the book; that’s the difference. It’s one thing to have the Quixote in your head, and then you read the book and now we’ve got a problem. This is such a massive, incredible piece of work. I think this is truly the first modern novel. Pirandello learned everything he ever knew from Cervantes’ second book, basically. And it was just always there.
So, I read the book. And that’s the thing: I think most people don’t read the book. They know of the story of Quixote and Sancho and windmills. That’s it. It was after Munchausen that I first started to think about it. And I called Jake Eberts, who was the producer on Munchausen, and I said, “I’ve got two names and I need 20 million dollars.” One was Quixote and the other was Gilliam. And he said, “You got the money.” And then somebody else offered me more money and then blah blah blah. And then I just made a mess of it. [Laughs]
How many times did you start the project?
I don’t know. When you see the documentary [Lost in La Mancha], there were two times, but that was with a script that Toni (Grisoni) and I had written. So, it was actually three times. And this is the fourth now.
And each time the script changed? How much has it changed now?
It’s really good now. It was bad before. [Laughs] The script was tied up in a legal situation for seven years and everybody kept saying, “Well, just rewrite it.” And I said, “No, it’s perfect. It’s the best thing we’ve ever written.” And I refused to rewrite it and I didn’t even look at it. Then, nine months ago, we got the script back and I finally read it. And it wasn’t nearly good enough to make the film. So, we’ve done a serious re-write.
The major change in it is about the two main characters. We changed not what they do and who they are, but whereas before it was a modern advertising guy ending up in the 17th century, now he stays in the 21st century; he never moves. What we changed in the story is that ten years earlier our advertising guy was making a little film. He was a keen filmmaker before he got into commercials. And he came to Spain, to this little village and he made his version of Quixote, with no money, very artistic. It went into festivals, won lots of prizes and then he was picked out by an advertising company and now he makes big money. So, he gave up his art for money. And now he’s back in Spain making a commercial with Don Quixote in the commercial, and he realizes he’s not far from the village where he shot his little film. He goes back and he realizes he’s actually destroyed everybody’s lives. The guy who played Sancho became an alcoholic and died. There was this young girl in the movie, a sort of symbol of innocence, who decided to become an actress, went off to Madrid and ended up becoming a whore. And what happened to the old guy who played Quixote? He went mad and he thinks he’s Don Quixote.
So, the same scenes are taking place, but they now have very different meaning. You don’t have Don Quixote, but you’ve got a guy who thinks he’s Don Quixote, and he’s going through exactly the same Don Quixote experiences. And it becomes more pathetic. It’s so much better than what we were doing before.
And the cast has changed completely?
Unfortunately, none of the original cast will be part of it. Jean Rochefort still can’t sit on a horse. Johnny [Depp] is occupied playing on Pirates 10, 12 and 13. So, we’re starting fresh and it’s quite exciting. Hopefully, we’ll be shooting next spring, meeting actors hunting for money. That’s where we are now.
Who is going to replace Rochefort, since you were so set on him, his face, his manners? Is that why the characters changed?
No. But if the guy we’re talking to at the moment get’s the part, it will be a very different Quixote. Guaranteed! I won’t say who it is, because the minute I say it, it won’t happen. But it’ll be very different.
And the title The Man Who Killed Don Quixote …
It’s a poetic title. It could be read many different ways. [Laughs]
Is it the advertising guy who kills Don Quixote with his reality, by making him realize he was insane, by making him turn sane, as a variation of the book?
In the book, the sanity kills Quixote in the end. No, this guy kills Quixote. There’s murder in this one. There’s death, there’s actual death in here. But there’s death and transfiguration. That’s what goes on. It’s a very transcendental ending.
Would you say that now, with Parnassus being out and Quixote on the way, you are running the show, doing things that you want to be doing, and doing them your way?
No, it’s been like that all along. Really, I’ve always had control. I’ll tell you where it’s been: on Munchausen, I cut out five minutes of the film. I didn’t change anything; I just trimmed it. The studios said that if I got it down to two hours, they would be right behind me and they then just buried the film. So, that was the first time I did it. But I never cut anything that’s important to me. Even with Brazil, the American version, there are a couple of little changes, but they don’t mean anything. So, I’ve really had control over that.
There are 5 versions of Brazil out there and they are all, as far as I am concerned, the same film. There’s nothing that I cut out that I was unhappy about. I think it’s kind of nice. But film lovers get obsessed about it: there must be the perfect version of the film, only one, because everything else has been fiddled with or gets lost. But there’s many ways of telling the same thing. There’s many ways of singing the same song, as long as the song is not being changed in its essence. The Fisher King had nothing changed. Twelve Monkeys had nothing changed. Fear and Loathing had nothing changed. So, it was going well. And then along came The Brothers Grimm.
I didn’t physically have final cut on the film, and I went off and did Tideland, leaving it behind. They asked me back and the deal I’d done was: “If you bring me back, I get final cut.” So, the film that went out was the best I could do at that time. It’s my film, but it suffered from the mood I was in when making it. Tideland? No problems there.
Basically, I’ve had a very easy run compared to everybody else.
How come you do so many other people’s scripts and novels? Since it does seem that you enjoy making up scripts?
I was depressed when The Fisher King came up. I thought I’d never work after Munchausen. So, that was it. And it really excited me, so that was great fun. And Twelve Monkeys – great.
You know, they all become mine very quickly or else I become the script; it doesn’t matter. I’m making the movie and I never feel I’m compromising. And Parnassus was nice to just say, “Okay, I’m just going to do one of my own.” It was kind of a way to see if I still could invent something from nothing. And it’s really good.
And you can …
And I can.
Because the reception in Cannes …
… was fantastic. I think we’re probably running at about ninety percent positive and ten percent negative. Which is, for me, extraordinary! It just seems to be working and it’s exciting. But, on the other hand, when we opened the Munich Film Festival, there was a guy, a journalist I was talking to the next day, and he said when he was watching it there was a guy in a suit next to him. At one point, the guy in the suit turned over and says, “Nobody’s ever gonna wanna watch this film. Why do they make shit like this?” It always amazes me how some people cannot see what we got on screen. It makes no sense to them, it’s just a big mess, there’s no structure that they can understand.
There was a nice interview with Newsnight, which is a news programme on BBC, and it was after the showing in Cannes and there were three people. There was one guy who clearly saw himself as a very important intellectual. He didn’t like it at all; he hated it. And then there was a lady and a guy, and they said it was fantastic, and they loved it.
Now, what was interesting was that the intellectual was trying to explain it very clearly. And these other two people, who were very good, verbally, they didn’t waste words on it. They said: “No, no it’s fantastic!” They didn’t want to sit down and do this intellectual analysis of what was going on. They got it. The intellectual analyzer just struggled, because he didn’t let go.
Learn to play; let the films come at you. Why sit there trying to get your review worked out while you’re watching the film? Watch the film! And if you want to write a review, you should be able to remember. And if you don’t, that’s the review you’ll write: “I sat for two hours, I can’t remember anything.” That’s a good review. I mean, a good way of writing a review.
I hate reviewers because they sit there writing with a little flashlight. Watch it! And then write about it afterwards.