Terry Gilliam Talks ‘Gilliamesque,’ the Surrealist Director's 'Pre-Posthumous Memoir'
We caught up with the Monty Python member to talk about "content creators," his early days, and his 1985 masterpiece 'Brazil.'
As I was growing up, Terry Gilliam movies left a huge impression on me. Some cultured nerds may know him as the one non-British-born member of Monty Python, responsible for the cut-out animations squashed by shoes between sketches of John Cleese hamming it up with Eric Idle and other members of the Flying Circus. Others know him as a director of surreal and brilliant fantasy films like Time Bandits, about a boy who joins a band of dwarves as they jump from various eras in history searching for treasures to steal, and Brazil, a dystopian thriller in which a daydreaming government worker gets caught in the soul-crushing gears of a nightmare bureaucracy and tortured by Michael Palin in a baby mask.
Then there's his more mainstream stuff: casting Brad Pitt as a paranoid cop in 12 Monkeys; rendering Johnny Depp impossibly ugly in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas ; transforming Jeff Bridges into a heroin wrecked, decomposing corpse in Tideland. He even coped with the death of Heath Ledger, his lead actor, to finish filming The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. His latest, 2013's Zero Theorem, stars a hairless Christoph Waltz, who shaved his eyebrows for his role as an agoraphobic computer programmer searching for the meaning of life upon Gilliam's request.
VICE last spoke to Gilliam in 2009, but he was more than happy to catch up and talk about his latest endeavor, which is not a film but a "pre-posthumous memoir" aptly titled Gilliamesque. The book, which was published in October, claims to be "an unrestrained look into the unique creative mind and an incomparable portrait of late 20th-century popular culture," but it's immediately obvious it's so much more than that. The cover's striking, and each page is filled with the colorfully surreal, one-of-a-kind artwork Gilliam is known for, whether by cut-out Victorian cartoon or still from one his many elaborate film sets.
Despite being one of the six surrealists of the quintessentially English Pythons, the 75-year-old Gilliam was born and raised in Minneapolis, although he renounced his American citizenship in 2006, claiming it was less of a political gesture and more about the issue of capitol-gains tax. He explains in his memoir that "he had no qualms about paying taxes in two countries for 40 years until George W. returned for another bite of the White House cherry..." So his motives were somewhat political, and technically he is British, having lived in London for nearly 50 years.
When I recently spoke to him over the phone, I thought Gilliam sounded a bit like one of my exes who loved wearing my lipstick: paternal yet slightly effeminate in a playful, aristocratic way. His voice was warm, bright, and prone to manic upswings.
Reading Gilliamesque, I was surprised to learn that Gilliam was the head cheerleader, class president, and valedictorian his senior year of high school. "I was a golden boy!" he affirmed. "I was very popular." In college, he started as a physics major because math and science were simply the things kids studied after the war.
"It was all about building the technology of the future," he said. "Physics was too abstract and difficult for a simple creature like me. I always preferred the practical and physical. I switched majors to political science because there were only four required courses and I could basically design my own liberal education. There were electives like drama and oriental philosophy, which were way more interesting. I always worked. I worked in a post office, a butcher shop, a Chevy plant. The nightmarish production lines that showed up in a lot of Monty Python animations were inspired by that."
Afterward, Gilliam went on to become a drama coach at Camp Roosevelt, a summer dumping ground for the children of Hollywood A-listers near Palm Springs, which he said to me was "much more practical than sweeping hair in a beauty salon." He explained that he tried to pull off a huge production of Alice in Wonderland in the late 1950s, but had to abandon it in the last week for "lack of any organizational infrastructure to help take my vision from two dimensions into three. Imagining the whole thing was the easy part," he related. "The difficult bit was the reality of actually doing it without the time, money, or the basic talent to make it happen."
"It seems like things haven't changed that much," I said in a half-joking tone, which was received light-heartedly with a laugh. Gilliam's sense of humor was enviable and actually pretty glorious.
That sense of humor has come in handy as the esteemed director encountered his share of bumps along the movie-production road. Google "Terry Gilliam bad luck" and the first thing that pops up is a 2008 article from the Guardian titled, "Why Is Terry Gilliam Cursed with Bad Luck?" In 2012, Blouin Artinfo asked, "Can Terry Gilliam Make a Film Not Plagued by Disaster?" In fact, an entire movie was made chronicling Gilliam's production troubles. But to his credit, he's managed to persevere.
When I asked him about his greatest struggles trying to get films made, he laughed and asked, "Which film?" before following with a sober, one-word answer: "Money."
But then he clarified, "You know Zero Theorem only had a budget of eight million to make, but it doesn't look like an eight-million-dollar movie. It looks way more expensive. Sometimes the challenge of having to be resourceful can bring out the best creative solutions, if you have to make money stretch. Plus you ask your friends for favors. Matt Damon came in for a couple days, Tilda Swinton came in for a day or two. Talent hasn't been an issue."
He continued, "Look at The Brothers Grimm, which had the highest budget of any film I've ever made. It's no better visually, which goes to show money isn't everything. Sometimes it can even hurt things. An example of budget restraints producing gold? When you can't afford horses—coconuts!" he said, a reference to the running joke in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where the knights run around on invisible horses as their squires clomped coconuts together to make hoof sounds. The technique was based on an old BBC radio practice of using coconut halves as sound effects for horses.
I was compelled to ask him about his biggest bomb, 2005's Tideland, a film that features Jeff Bridges as a heroin-addicted single parent who ODs and eventually gets taxidermied by mentally impaired neighbors who befriend his abandoned daughter. The film was also negatively criticized for its sexuality.
"Oh, Tideland!" he exclaimed. "No one ever wants to talk about that one."
I ventured that perhaps it's because of how dark it is—but Gilliam didn't buy it.
"It's because everybody feels bad for the little girl in the movie, because her dad's on heroin," he replied. "But the idea of children being these innocent little creatures is just bullshit." He elaborates further in Gilliamesque: "Children are made to bounce when you drop them. They're designed to survive. That's the dilemma as a parent—you're so fearful that anything might happen to your kid, but once you follow that through, you're already saying they can't look after themselves."
Gilliam went on to say that making Tideland was "a unique and freeing experience," compared to The Brothers Grimm, his first film since the collapse of his infamous Don Quixote disaster where a long series of issues, including set-destroying flash floods, led to the total shutdown of production based on the life of the well-known Cervantes character. Apparently the Weinsteins had so much to stay in the making of the Grimm movie, Gilliam said he eventually felt like he was no longer responsible for what was happening.
"It was basically like I was back in the army, and, 'Not my problem, mate' is a pretty bad attitude to have on a film set, so yes," he said of experience. "Tideland couldn't have been a happier contrast."
In his memoir, Gilliam claims Tideland gave him a chance to get back in touch with his inner child—whom he said he always suspected was a little girl. "That was a joke," he said, laughing, when I asked about it. "It's like no one appreciates irony anymore!"
Still, Gilliam wasn't completely unserious. In Gilliamesque, he writes, "I think the key to survival is trying to keep alive the 'inner child,' whatever that is. We've all got that sense of wonder and the ability to be surprised, but it's beaten out of people as they go through life. I've just been lucky enough to find work which allows me to keep that little brat inside alive."
If Tideland's the most controversial film in Gilliam's catalog of surreal masterpieces, perhaps the most family-oriented of his films is 1981's Time Bandits. "The reason Time Bandits happened was because I was trying to sell the idea of Brazil but producers had absolutely no interest in it," he writes. "That was what triggered me to say, 'OK, if you don't want me to do something for grown-ups, I'll do a film for the family.'"
The film was "the most successful" film he made, he told me, and its success inevitably led his being offered other Hollywood projects, such as the first Harry Potter film, a gig that eventually went to Home Alone director Chris Columbus.
"J. K. Rowling wanted me to direct," he confessed, "an assignment I was ultimately happy not to get, as by all accounts I've heard, the studio sat on the director so heavily it was a nightmare."
Gilliam also turned down the offer to direct another film, the 1985 cult classic Enemy Mine, which starred Dennis Quaid as a pilot who becomes stranded on a desolate planet with a reptilian humanoid alien from a race called Drac played by Louis Gossett, Jr.
"Time Bandits had momentarily made me an A-list director," Gilliam explained. "And now I was willing to say no to a major studio project. The sadomasochistic logic of Hollywood decreed that the thing I'd turned them down must be something worth having, so I finally got to make Brazil," his 1940s-inspired fantasy film based on his playful prophesies of the future 1980s Britain. Cue Robert De Niro's duct-man disappearing within a whirlwind of newspapers. Cue Jonathan Pryce in wings, soaring past clouds and monoliths to fight a samurai robot.
Looking back on Brazil 30 years later, Gilliam reflected, "Some see its depiction of a world where people do little but watch old films on tiny screens, eat off-puttingly extravagant cuisine, and have ill-advised plastic surgery in the shadow of constant terrorist threats as in some way 'prophetic.' All that stuff was already out there to see in the 1980s. In a way, Brazil was as much a documentary as it was dystopia."
I worked in a post office, a butcher shop, a Chevy plant. The nightmarish production lines that showed up in a lot of Monty Python animations were inspired by that. –Terry Gilliam
I wanted to ask Gilliam about his major cultural influences, which were a blend of Mad magazine and the Bible. "Of course I've read the Bible!" he exclaimed. "In the 50s, the Bible was the most popular book in America! Everybody read the Bible compared to now, where no one reads it anymore."
"When you grow up reading the Bible," he elaborates in Gilliamesque, "there's no question that you see it as your duty to change the world for the better. And I think that's why for all my frequent recourse to irony and/or sardonic sarcasm, my films have always been repositories for idealism both in terms of the process of making them and of the subject matter of the films themselves. Cynicism can often be a way of covering up one's own inability to do great deeds. I think that was what drew me to the British sense of humor, because the Brits had an almost patented response... They'd failed at an empire, but then they learned to accept failure and make fun of it."
Grimms' Fairy Tales were also a huge influence on Gilliam, which he said were every bit as bowdlerized as the Old and New Testaments had been. "That what's interesting," he said, "we're sharing a culture that's grown out of those tales, and no one even realizes it."
From book to screen and everything related to fantasy and fiction, Gilliam was excited by so much of it, laughing hysterically at the idea of LA studio execs calling novelists "content creators," comparing them to cash cows being milked dry, which then compelled him to bring up Don DeLillo's White Noise. "It's all about American consumerism and media," he said. "That's what that content-creator crap reminds me of."
I asked him about 3D—did he have any desires to make a 3D film? "Are you kidding me?" he responded. "Too expensive!"
I asked what he thought about the recent Variety debacle, in which the website accidentally published his obituary. "Hilarious," he pronounced. "They're always doing shit like that!"
Wrapping things up, I asked about his plans for the future—another film? A book of illustrations? A graphic novel?
"I'll just sit and stare at my computer like I always do," he replied, and this time the irony was not lost.
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Gilliamesque is available in bookstores and online from HarperCollins.