Terry Gilliam is one of cinema’s true iconoclasts, a man who started as a member, and animator, of a certain legendary sketch comedy group, before going on to co-direct their motion picture "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," and a series of other brilliant, surreal pictures. But in recent years, he’s found it difficult to get films made, not only dogged by well documented production woes, but also seen as too much of a maverick for the Hollywood system. Gilliam now he spends as much time giving outspoken, ever-entertaining interviews as he does making films. One thing to note, however is that in cold black-and-white on the page, his quotes can come off as curmudgeonly, or sometimes even bitter, but in person he is anything but. Despite everything, Gilliam retains a warmth and optimism about him that is almost…jolly. Quite a feat considering his legendary run of bad luck.
But 2011 has been a good year for Gilliam. He made his opera debut in London with the outstanding "The Damnation of Faust," he made the well-received short "The Wholly Family," and he was honored for achievement across his lifetime by the Marrakech Film Festival. We caught up with the filmmaker in the Moroccan city last week, and you can read his updates on future projects, including "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" and the Paul Auster adaptation "Mr. Vertigo," here. But Gilliam being Gilliam, the conversation took on a wide range of topics, from the place of satire in the modern world, to Zack Snyder‘s take on one-time Gilliam project "Watchmen." Read some of the highlights below.
Gilliam doesn’t mind being backed by corporations and conglomerates, because for the most part, they don’t interfere.
Unusually, GIlliam’s last two films were financed not by studios, but by giant food corporations: Pepsi, who paid for last year’s "The Legend of Hallowdega," and Italian pasta company Garofolo, who backed this year’s "The Wholly Family," which is doing the festival rounds after a theatrical release in Italy. Gilliam says that the former was closer to a gig-for-hire, albeit one in which he was allowed to do pretty much whatever he liked. "I did a thing last year for Pepsi, in Talladega, that was much more of a commercial. I mean I had an incredible amount of freedom, but there was still that sense you were working for Pepsi."
There was no such problem with Garofolo, however, who’ve financed shorts from three other directors in the past. "With Garofolo, it wasn’t like that at all," he said, comparing the film to his earlier Pepsi short. "The fact that I’ve got people eating pasta is nothing to do with it at all. [That scene] wouldn’t sell your pasta. It’s the fourth year they’ve done it, every year they put some money forward and let a filmmaker make a movie. They’re very smart, it seems to me, because it goes into the cinema before a feature film. We were the opening short for ‘The Tree of Life.’ All they get is their name on the front of the thing, and that’s it, that’s all they want. I think that’s very clever, because if the public felt they were being sold something, they would react differently, but it’s just a film."
The film’s doing the festival rounds, but Gilliam says he’s planning on dipping his toe into web distribution for the first time, saying "We’re not going to get rich off this thing, so let’s use it as a way of experimentation, see if you can reach people on the internet, and pay money for things, which no one’s really worked out yet." Does anyone have Louis CK‘s phone number?…
Giliam finds most film comedy disappointing, due to a cultural fear of offending anyone.
Obviously, Gilliam got his start in comedy, and everything the director has made to date has displayed a darkly comic side to one degree or another. And he says that there are some exceptional comic talents in Europe, praising [Armando] Iannucci‘s "The Thick Of It" and "In The Loop," saying the director’s "stuff is really good," and also singling out "The Danish cartoonists…quite funny, but not very popular in certain places." Like the majority of Muslim Morocco, perhaps?
But as for Hollywood, he finds it rather lacking in ambition and, well, balls. "Good comedians are always offending people," he says, "But the difference is when you look at Hollywood comedies, what are they, like Judd Apatow comedies, they’re juvenile, it’s all wanking and shit and sex jokes, they’re very limited. They’re very clever, but they’re very limited. But very few people are taking on big subjects. I suppose Nanni Moretti, he’s done the Pope thing (Cannes entry ‘We Have A Pope‘), he’s always going to be doing politically satirical comedy."
Gilliam does, however, concede that we’re living in a very different climate now. "It’s so bizarre," he says, "the world we’re living in now, because the idea of offending people seems to be a major sin now; this is what comedy has always done. If you’re going to get a laugh about something, somebody’s going to get irritated. If you’re going for the truth of something, there are going to be those who are very rigid in their interpretation of something, and they’re going to take offense. And if you don’t allow offense, you don’t allow thought anymore. And I don’t understand why the world is so thin-skinned now, we’re in an age where everyone has to be a victim."
Monty Python movies, for example, were entirely capable of causing offence. Gilliam recalls, "When we did ‘The Holy Grail,’ when that opened in New York, it was during the Vietnam War, and they came in, in the scene with the Black Knight, where he gets his arms and legs cut off. The audience were young people, against the Vietnam war and the violence and everything, an arm went off, and they didn’t laugh. They didn’t find it funny, they were shocked. Another arm, and they were still shocked. I think it took one leg, finally, before they realized they could laugh about it, we weren’t talking about real violence, we were talking about an attitude." More serious, famously, were the protests over follow-up "The Life of Brian," as Gilliam remembers "we were vilified by Christians and Jews in the States. I remember, I’ve got a page of Variety, and one column is the Catholics, one is the Jews, one is the Protestants, and they all hated it."
While he doesn’t dismiss 3D altogether, Gilliam doesn’t quite buy into the hype either, although he mainly blames the sub-standard product.
With many of his contemporaries like James Cameron, Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg jumping on board the 3D train, many had wondered if Gilliam might make the stereo-vision leap. But the director isn’t convinced by the argument, from Cameron, among others, that it’s more immersive, saying, "I don’t think 3D invites the audience in, it just puts another barrier there between you and the screen and the stuff in there. I don’t have a problem with it per se, but what it invariably means is that it costs more money to make a 3D film and the more a film costs, the less the interesting ideas become – it’s an inverse proportional thing."
Indeed, he sees signs of the craze starting to die down, mainly thanks to the films in the format getting worse and worse. "The problem is, where’s the product? There’s not enough stuff for it. You begin to feel the excitement of 3D wearing off. The public go, ‘Why do I want to pay two more pounds to see it?’ ‘Avatar‘ was quite extraordinary, ‘Alice in Wonderland‘ was on the tails of that, and then we got ‘Clash of the Titans,’ the quality just kept going down and down." He does, however, suggest that he might yet be convinced by a widely-praised recent 3D picture; "I haven’t seen ‘Hugo‘ yet, I’m curious to see what that’s like."
Having been linked in early stages of both, Gilliam has some strong opinions of the final versions of both "Harry Potter" and "Watchmen"
It has been some time before Gilliam brushed against the blockbuster world, but he was at one time attached to a screen version of Alan Moore‘s seminal comic "Watchmen." The film finally reached the screens two years back thanks to Zack Snyder, but Gilliam can only conclude from the finished product that it’s essentially unfilmable. "Charles McKeown and I had written a script," Gilliam recalls, "and we were under pressure to keep it close to 2 hours and it just wasn’t working, I wasn’t happy with our script so when it didn’t happen, it didn’t bother me. With Zack’s film, I thought it took off brilliantly and then it just got – hmmm – because ‘Watchmen’ should be like a TV series where you have plenty of time to develop each of the characters, because if you don’t have time to develop each one, it just becomes a comic book. It’s a character piece is what it is. It looked beautiful, but it ran out of emotional steam for me.”
More recently, Gilliam was J.K. Rowling‘s first choice to direct "Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone," the first in what would go on to be the biggest franchise of all time, and was in early discussions with the studio but, as he wryly comments, "that didn’t last very long." With the series now wrapped up, Gilliam admits that he didn’t like most of the films, but does praise one particular entry: "The third one that Alfonso Cuaron did is the only one I really like, he really got it. The Chris Columbus ones were really anaemic, I thought. There was no magic. And Alfonso’s just went ‘Whoooosh!’ I thought, ‘Yeah, you got it.’"
Amazingly, Gilliam insists that he doesn’t consider himself unlucky.
Considering the troubles Gilliam has had on his productions, one might suggest that the filmmaker would be right to feel unfairly treated by the Fates, but the director disagrees, saying, "I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve even made one film…For me, ‘The Wholly Family’ was the most fun I’ve had in a long time." Not only that, but later, and to a larger audience at his Masterclass, he reasserted: "I’m lucky that things always go wrong" giving the prime example of being told on "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" that the scene of the Baron on the moon would have to go because of budget restrictions. Insisting the scene needed to remain, he instead cut down the cast of the scene from 2000 to 2 ("We cut out 1998 people") and used what were the drawings for the sets as the sets. The result, he claimed, was far more special than what he originally had in mind.
Gilliam has plenty of fans at the studios, but as yet, no one willing to pull the trigger to give him the green-light.
His earlier work has won him legions of fans, some of whom are now in positions of power, but they aren’t willing to back his projects. "Every time I come to Hollywood, they go ‘God, we love your films, Terry. But this new one, we don’t know…’ And it’s been like this for 25 years, same thing; the faces change, but it’s the same bullshit. And you go in, they’re gushing all over you, because they’re such huge fans, and then their eyes glaze over." Here’s hoping the next generation of executives are more willing to take a chance.
Through setbacks and knockbacks, Gilliam has evolved some simple philosophies for his approach to filmmaking, and life.
Tracing the unfettered nature of his imagination partially back to a bout of Scarlet Fever as a child, during which he hallucinated vividly, Gilliam believes that the "trick" to being a filmmaker is "to not have a career, to not grow up, to never learn how to be an adult" and "to make your own mistakes, not someone else’s." His trademark giggle bubbles out of him again as he states proudly, "I’ve worked hard not to let the world educate me."
Reporting by Jessica Kiang