[Exploring the territory where fantasy meets reality, the renegade director of 12 Monkeys, and Brazil is filming his new dark drama, Tideland, in the northern plains of Saskatchewan. Ella Christopherson sat down with Gilliam in the director's office at the end of a day's shooting.]
ELLA: You work very well with both small and large budgets.
TERRY: For me, the budget is related to what the subject matter demands. I can make a film like Tideland very cheaply because it has a four-person cast and very few sets. But The Brothers Grimm and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen were expensive. We
had to create massive, sprawling worlds.
I'm always fighting against lack of time
ELLA: But that struggle sometimes produces more interesting work.
TERRY: Terry Jones and I both wanted to make a real medieval epic when we co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail. We didn't have the money for actual horses, so we had the knights trotting along, banging coconut shells together. In the end, that is a far more original and entertaining idea. But next I shot Jabberwocky with real horses. Every film I've done has been more ambitious than the money available. I don't know what I'd do if I was given all the time and money I needed.
ELLA: You'd probably just keep on filming forever.
TERRY: I wouldn't, because I don't actually enjoy filming. It's very tiresome, and the pressure's non-stop. I'm sure part of the reason I continue making films is because I've got a terrible memory and forget how awful the experience is. Tabula rasa every day.
ELLA: So which part do you like?
TERRY: The writing and imagining process
is always the best. Editing is also good because it's very finite. You know what you have to work with and you've got to find
the best way to make it work.
ELLA: Are your storyboards very detailed?
TERRY: No, my storyboards are very crude nowadays just a few scribbles. The storyboard just gives me the information that
I need. I used to do them very elaborately because great ideas come to me from the act of drawing.
ELLA: You started off in illustration, and then moved into animation before becoming a director.
TERRY: It was a very circuitous route. I'd always wanted to try directing, but I just didn't know how to get there. As an illustrator, it's easy to explain what I want
to the art and costume departments I can draw it.
ELLA: Your early Monty Python animations have
a very idiosyncratic collage style.
TERRY: That style was a purely pragmatic solution to having no money and no time.
My assistant and I were always working like crazy painting, coloring, and airbrushing seven days a week. We'd do a couple of all-nighters each week.
ELLA: When did you get your first camera?
TERRY: I bought a 16mm Bolex when I lived in New York, around 1963. I still have it somewhere. I was living with two other guys and a thousand cockroaches in this big apartment on Ninety-Third Street and Riverside. Every weekend we'd buy a three-minute roll of film, check the weather, write a film idea, get our friends to wear some silly clothes and go out and shoot it. We also used to get blank 39mm film and sit and do animations by drawing the individual frames.
ELLA: That must have been a great time to be in New York.
TERRY: It was if you had some money. But
I didn't. New York is like a Roman galley you wake up in the morning and the drum
is beating and you can't keep up. There's
no escape from it. London is a much easier place to live. It's also more visually interesting. American cities don't excite
me like European cities.
ELLA: The architectural detail in London is so
TERRY: When I walk around London, I'm always amazed. New York has a lot of architectural detail, but it's usually forty stories up
on the top of the building. You have this long, boring bit before the extraordinary pinnacle. The closest thing I've experienced to European architectural detail in America was visiting Disneyland when I was a kid. The quality of the workmanship was incredible.
ELLA: When did you first visit?
TERRY: A few weeks after it opened, in 1955. I was this kid from Minnesota walking into
a fantasyland that combined all these different architectural styles. Nobody had ever built a theme park with that kind of care and detail.
ELLA: "Disney" and "Disneyfication" have become negative terms now.
TERRY: Disney has become so anodyne. Everything is so safe and clean. And that's precisely the cinematic America I have always run away from Doris Day, Rock Hudson, perfect teeth, beautifully coiffed hair. Absolutely nothing to do with reality. I want to get people back in touch with real, tactile sensations in the cinema. After seeing Jabberwocky, people came out
of the cinema saying, "I want to go home
and take a bath."
ELLA: There's a lot of texture mud, filth, dirt
and grime in your films. And you have a very
scatological sense of humor. Obviously, you're not
a fan of political correctness.
TERRY: No, I despise it. It's just another form of Puritanism and narrow-mindedness.
I think it's very dangerous when words become so powerful that you can't say them. I love saying words that disturb people.
I'm really proud of the scene in Life of Brian when Brian says, "I'm not a Roman,
I'm a Jew, a Red Sea pedestrian, a Kike,
a Yid, a Hebe, a Hook-nose!" We used every derogatory phrase we could think of because that took the sting out of them. I just barge through and occasionally take the walls down with me. We're on that track
with Tideland. We'll get in big trouble.
TERRY: You know, little girls preparing heroin, that sort of thing. Just wait for
it the American Taliban are going to be after us.
ELLA: You seem to enjoy a good scrap.
TERRY: I've always been happier with an enemy. Without one, I'm a little bit lost. You don't recognize freedom until you're restricted by something. The most creative things come out of the limitations whether it's time or money or lack of talent, as it is in my case. [laughs] And the things that drive me crazy are also the ones that get the adrenaline going.
ELLA: Your movies subvert Hollywood niceties,
especially the ones produced by big studios.
TERRY: Yes. I have a funny relationship with Hollywood. If I can rob those people, I will. In Hollywood terms, I'm only reasonably successful. My new agent was shocked
by what I get paid I get a fraction of what most directors get, even though I seem to be up on the A or B list. But I make enough money. I judge success by the fact that I can do what I want. I'm always surprised that so many people out there think I'm something that I'm not. Jeremy Thomas, the producer of Tideland, was quite amazed that I'm not at all like my reputation.
ELLA: Which is?
TERRY: That I'm trouble, crazy, irresponsible, out of control none of which is true. I think it came out of Brazil. You're not supposed to take on the system and win.
ELLA: Back in 1985, you had a very public battle with Sid Sheinberg, the president of Universal Studios, over the edit of Brazil. He was concerned that the film did not have commercial potential and wanted the studio to re-edit it. You refused, and a stalemate ensued. You famously took out a full-page ad in Variety that simply said, "Dear Sid Sheinberg, When are you going to release my film Brazil? Terry Gilliam." You won the ultimate David-and-Goliath
battle, because the film was eventually released as you wanted.
TERRY: But then everyone reveled when I got my comeuppance on Munchausen, which spiraled out of control. Munchausen is the only film I've done that went over budget, but it
has stuck with me. I did The Fisher King on twenty-four million dollars with a stellar cast and it was a big hit. "Well, okay, but still..." Then I did 12 Monkeys for twenty-nine million dollars with another big-name cast, and it was an even bigger hit. "Yeah, but still..." Then along came Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which didn't do any business at the box office. "We were right all along!" That's how it goes. But I don't let it worry me.
ELLA: I think part of the problem is that your films pose questions rather than try to provide answers.
TERRY: But that demands a certain kind of audience. A lot of people say my films are stupid and just walk out of them. When I first screened Brazil, at least half the audience walked out. It dealt with things they weren't interested in. It wasn't that entertaining. It forced them to think.
They had just paid their money and they had to go in and think! Audiences walked out of Munchausen, too. But kids didn't. Kids seem to get my stuff more than adults do, even the more complex movies.
ELLA: Are you demanding to work for?
TERRY: I hope so. It's a totally collaborative process. I want to hear the crew's ideas. I get the actors to work with the designers on their costumes and sets to make sure that the designs amplify their characters. Then the whole thing just grows. It's very organic. If the actors come up with something more interesting than what I have visualized, that's where we go. I love watching them and being surprised by their moves. I just love good ideas I don't care where they come from. I work that way more and more. I don't get tied down to a fixed idea for an image.
ELLA: On the Brazil DVD commentary, you said you were inspired to make the film by the sunset from
a cliff top in Port Talbot, a Welsh mining town.
The sun was burning orange and the landscape was
covered in black soot. It seems unusual to approach filmmaking from one specific image, rather than the more traditional three-part narrative structure.
TERRY: All this three-part narrative stuff is bullshit. Yeah, there are three parts the beginning, the middle, and the end. But the beginning might be three-quarters of the movie. For me, a starting image is all about an atmosphere, or a certain attitude.
ELLA: Did that happen with Tideland?
TERRY: When I first read Mitch Cullin's book, Tideland, a very clear image came into my head of Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World." It's a beautiful, evocative painting of a grassy hill with a strange house, and
a woman in the bottom left sort of crawling towards it. Mitch told me that was the
picture he had been thinking of. Nicola Pecorini, the director of photography on this project, got a book of Andrew Wyeth's paintings. He said, "You won't believe this, but your movie is in these paintings."
ELLA: Many people react to the visual intensity of your films strongly.
TERRY: A lawyer who saw Brazil went back to his office, locked himself in, and didn't come out for three days. A girl in New York came out of The Fisher King and didn't
realize she was walking in the wrong direction for ten blocks. It's great to be so transported by a film that you don't see
the world around you anymore. I hear that, every New Year's Eve, an orchestra plays in Grand Central Station, and people go dancing there. I don't know whether or not that's
a direct result of The Fisher King.
ELLA: That scene in Grand Central, with the rush-hour crowd ballroom dancing around Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges is beautiful. It must have been
difficult to shoot.
TERRY: We had just one night to shoot it.
We weren't allowed to set up until eleven, and we weren't allowed to start shooting until the last train had left, just after midnight. We didn't actually turn over until three, and we had to be out of there by five-thirty. There were one thousand extras all supposedly from dance schools. But we discovered that hardly any of them knew how to waltz. So we had to have an impromptu dance class there and then. We had five choreographers teaching groups how to waltz "One-two-three, one-two-three." It was
a nightmare. The first commuters started getting off the trains, and the PR woman
was screaming, "You were supposed to be out of here an hour ago!" I just threw Robin Williams in there, saying, "Get out there and do something! Everybody keep waltzing! Keep shooting!" Barbra Streisand went in there a few months later and spent almost
a week doing one walk-across.
ELLA: Do you feel like you're still learning things as you go?
TERRY: Yeah, I always hope to, otherwise the process becomes very mechanical and boring. When I was trying to create the giants in Time Bandits, I discovered that if you shoot a tall guy from below with a wide lens, he ends up looking like a beanstalk, very long and skinny. But shoot a short, squat guy that way and bingo!
ELLA: You've embraced special effects since your earliest films.
TERRY: They're the tools I need to create the things that I imagine. I loved special effects films as a kid. I've always been fascinated by Georges MÚli¶s' early films. I'm actually pretty good at working with effects. The Brothers Grimm has seven
hundred-and-fifty special effects shots that's a whole pile of tricks. But as I've gotten older, camera trickery interests me less, especially nowadays when everything
is possible. It no longer feels like it has any substance.
ELLA: Audiences have become deadened to them.
I think your films are about fantasy putting reality right for us, keeping it in check.
TERRY: That's a nice way of putting it.
I try to chart a course along the dividing line between fantasy and reality, even though I don't know where that lies. I always deal with fantasy just as I deal
with reality. I don't distinguish between the two.
ELLA: There's something very Fellini about the
universes you create. A sense of hyper-reality
pervades your films.
TERRY: I'd like to think I've got a little bit of the old man's touch. [laughs] We filmed Munchausen at Cinecittà in Rome, and on my last night, I had dinner with Fellini, his wife, and his designer Dante Ferretti. Walking around the Trevi fountain arm-in-arm with Fellini was a great moment. Working on Munchausen in Rome was an eye-opener. I realized that Fellini wasn't a fantasist, he was a documentarian. His characters are all there, you just have to have the eyes to see them Ü and he did. He was a cartoonist as well, and as a cartoonist he saw the world through slightly distorted eyeballs. For years, I thought everybody saw the world the way I did. I thought the way I saw things was normal.
ELLA: You definitely see the comedy in darkness your films are very funny in a sick, twisted way.
TERRY: That's just the way I'm made Ü I
find life funny. I think you're just born that way Ü you don't get a choice in the matter. I've always liked laughing, ever since I was a kid. That's the way I get through things. I do try to keep us laughing on set. I'll scream and shout a lot, but I also try to make the whole thing enjoyable and challenging.
ELLA: In a good-hearted way?
TERRY: No, in a mean-spirited, curmudgeonly, shit-kicking kind of way. [laughs] I'm getting moodier the older I get.
ELLA: So you're looking forward to old age and retirement?
TERRY: I'm not looking forward to it
I'm in it. I don't know how people retire. If you're not creating things or being
useful or making a difference, you might
as well be dead.