There are few cinematic raconteurs as lively and interesting as Terry Gilliam, so you can imagine that when we chatted with him earlier this month, our conversation wound up being fairly wide-ranging. Yesterday, we ran the first part of our talk with Gilliam, focused solely on his forthcoming sci-fi effort “The Zero Theorem.” And today, we bring the rest of our discussion with the filmmaker, which fans, and those just interested in the industry in general, will want to take a look at.
As Gilliam noted about “The Zero Theorem,” he was working with the lowest budget he’s had in three decades, so naturally we had to ask him about the state of movie-making and the difficulties in raising financing. From there we inquired about whether or not he’d dip his toes into television, crowdfunding, how he feels about the perception he’s been given in the wake of the documentary “Lost In La Mancha,” why the recent restoration of “Time Bandits” ultimately wasn’t in 3D (though, he’s not a fan of the format anyway), and much more.
“The Zero Theorem” plays later this week at the Venice Film Festival. We’ll have our verdict soon, but until the, read on below.
You’ve done studio pictures, you’ve done independent stuff; what’s it like getting money from Hollywood these days?
Hollywood is getting its money from China, India and other places; they don’t spend their own money. They’re raping those countries, so that’s why when you see, “Pacific Rim,” where is it set? Hong Kong. I keep bumping into people who have deals in China, but it will mean you’ll have that Chinese [story] element in it, which isn’t a bad thing; it just is what it is. Hollywood has for years been looking for the new fool — whether it’s Saudi Arabia in the ’70s, Japan in the ’80s, the Germans in the ’90s, and in the teens it was hedge funds. Hollywood for me is very rapacious in that sense.
The problem to me is, yes, it’s hard to get the money because even though I’m making films with no money, they still want Johnny [Depp] or Brad [Pitt] in it. It’s stupid, it’s ridiculous. The new phrase that’s floating around is you need a “hard-bender” if you’re doing a film of a certain size. A “hard-bender” is one with either Tom Hardy or Michael Fassbender and it never stops, it always astonishes me. The nice thing about [“The Zero Theorem”] is Christoph [Waltz], thanks to Quentin [Tarantino]’s films, has become bankable to a certain level and that was fantastic and that’s how we made it; not because of the ideas but because Christoph and I were able to work together. And then I sweetened the load even more with friends like Tilda [Swinton], Matt Damon, and David Thewlis all coming into play.
The more worrisome thing to me is how do they get sold? How do they reach the public when you’re trying to get the attention of the public and you’re fighting the studios that have $100 million dollars to promote their films? That’s the hard part, that’s what’s really difficult. You’re up against these huge budgets and anybody who’s got a cinema is trying to make money and even the art cinemas seem to be showing Hollywood films to bolster their finances. Festivals have become the alternative distribution system, but the problem with festivals is they don’t make any money for the filmmakers to repay their investors.It’s not a great time.
Have you ever considered crowdfunding?
I’ve been pestered to do it for years, and there’s something that bothers me about it. Just because you raise $5 million for a film…I actually need more than that, that’s my problem. I keep thinking about the scale of it and whether it actually works, whether you can raise enough to get something going. I saw Spike Lee is now begging on Kickstarter for his next [film]. I don’t know. I think the fact that a couple have managed to pull off something does not mean everybody is going to. And I also wonder whether you start draining the same source. Probably not, Spike has his fans, I have mine, so they’re probably very different people. But so far, I haven’t done it.
Steven Soderbergh, who’s been very public about how the Hollywood model’s broken, is now making a television series. Have you kicked around any notions of doing television work?
I’ve always dismissed it, but in the last year it’s become more and more part of the conversation. There’s no way out of it.
Why have you dismissed it?
I don’t like the little screen. I want to make things for the big screen, I still foolishly believe there’s a great experience sitting in a dark room with a massive screen in front of you. Even though when I go to the local cinemas I say, “This is crap” because the environment is so shabby. On the other hand, I’m not foolish enough to not realize that most people will see my film on their television set at home or on their iPhone even, but that’s not the experience I would prefer them to see the film in. To survive you do have to move with the times, whatever they are. I thought the model of something like “Behind the Candelabra” was very smart. where Americans get to watch on television and the rest of the world get to watch it in a cinema.
But you’re working on a TV project Neil Gaiman, right?
I can’t quite see the viability as far as budget. The book, “Good Omens” that Neil and Terry Pratchett wrote many years ago, was a huge best-seller. Some years ago, I wrote a script for it, and tried to get it off the ground around Hollywood and we didn’t despite the fact we had Johnny Depp and Robin Williams involved. Timing is everything and Johnny hadn’t done ‘Pirates‘ yet and Robin had done too many bad films by then. [Laughs] We talked about it; Neil got excited, I got excited. I don’t still believe in the economics of it. It does involve the apocalypse and it’s a very big movie.
Do you have any second thoughts about “Lost In La Mancha” being made? In a certain way your narrative over the past few years has always had Don Quixote attached.
It’s interesting only because I keep trying it, that’s why the narrative ensues. If I’d had said, “Fuck it” that would be different. I keep drifting back to it, lured back by the siren song of Don Quixote. I’m glad the documentary got made because I think it’s really quite wonderful. There’s something about it because I’ve always been intrigued by ruins as opposed to finished buildings. There may be a film in people’s minds based on the few bits of the ruin that still stands, that is a better film than the one I might make, if ever I do. And also how many times do you get to be in a film where you get your name on a poster ahead of Johnny Depp’s?
Over the past couple years, “Defective Detective” and “Mr. Vertigo” have been potential films. Are those still viable projects for you?
They’re there, yes they are. Whether anything happens I don’t know. I kind of forget about them at times and they come back at different points. They all have their problems, everything has got their complicated connections; this one isn’t easy to get your hands on, that one is stuck in the studio somewhere, and they all require a new impulse, a new momentum to get things going. That usually means that we have a huge, big name star attached to one of these projects. That’s the stuff that gets people excited, nothing else. It’s very sick in that sense. If Jennifer Lawrence wanted to play the devil, all of a sudden it’d be boom. Luckily I still have some draw to big names, they still like working with me. Ultimately, if I got any power based on that, then big name people might be lured to the project.
Do you have the “Hard-Bender” number yet?
Oh, I got his number! The problem is with all this stuff is who’s hot one week, a month later “Oh, no, we can’t raise money on him.” I’ve been through that so many times. Suddenly, I got an actor I just love who I think is a big name and suddenly, “Oh no, the last film didn’t work” and so they’re out. It’s so immediate now, there’s very little long-term thinking. I mean, Johnny is one of the few who can keep making films that are somehow less successful and still end up on people’s lists.
There’s a film, “1884,” which you’ve been involved with. Is that still moving along?
I’m basically an executive producer; it’s a friend of mine who worked at my effects company and he’s an absolute genius. He spent so much of his life on it, it’s ridiculous. A couple years ago they got money from the French and some other people and it looked like it was going ahead but they needed a bit more support and they asked me if I would godfather the thing – put my name on it. I said “Of course” and there was a flurry of activity then it went very quiet and I haven’t heard anything until just recently when these articles popped up about these Python films that aren’t happening and that’s all I know about it. They haven’t started work on it so again they may have been hit by the crisis. All it takes is a keystone to fall out and the whole thing unravels. They haven’t been in touch with me; I tend to stay out of these things until they need me and nobody’s screamed yet. Maybe my star has descended so far they don’t even call me for help anymore. I may be bad luck.
The Terry Jones film “Absolutely Anything” is also sitting in the background?
It’s just floundering around the place. I keep seeing things on the web that are clearly intended to stir up new interest in it and then it goes down again. It’s been a bit oversold as a Python film which is completely wrong because number one, not all of us are involved and those of us that are, are in places for alien creatures. They keep being pushed with Pythons name all over it which does irritate.
Have you heard about the “12 Monkeys” TV show that’s being developed?
Thank God for the web, that’s how I know about this shit. I get my Google Alerts daily, for anything that I’m involved in — or supposedly involved in — and I had no idea. None of my people have been contacted; I know nothing about it and I can’t see that it’s going to be anything but “Time Bandits” without dwarves.
What do you think of the recent restoration?
They had a chance to tidy up things; it’s not like Steven Spielberg taking the rifles out of “E.T.” They were scenes that were able to be tidier, it’s clean, it looks beautiful and it’s great. It’s a nice way to tray to get it out again because we had a screening a couple weeks ago and it was wonderful up on a big screen and wonderful for new people discover it. Everybody who saw it said “Well, it was like it was made yesterday.”
Before the restoration had you watched the film recently?
No, I tend not to look at my stuff. By the time I finish it; I’ve seen it hundreds of times and can’t stand it. To be honest, I watched some bits of it because a couple years ago we were trying to do a 3D version to bring it back to the public’s attention. I was really impressed with it, it looked really good and the thing that made it more interesting was that the work was being done in Iran more than anywhere else.
Why did you ultimately decide not to do 3D with Time Bandits?
It became a whole problem with [production company] HandMade Films going through another one of its eruptions where it all falls apart and has to be reassembled. “Time Bandits” was sold to this company, Arrow, who are distributing here it just before it fell apart. That’s the good and the bad: Good that the film is out there being done; bad because I don’t see a penny.
Are you an avid movie guy? Do you keep up on what’s going on?
No, I basically wait till the Academy DVDs come in and watch them.
So even you don’t go to the cinema!
I’ve been to see” Pacific Rim” a week ago; I went to see “The Lone Ranger” opening night, it was half empty. Shocking, on the opening night. You read about something making vast sums of money and yet you go to the cinema and its half empty.
Maybe people are all at home watching TV.
Maybe, or maybe the sun came out. Nobody goes to the cinema when the sun comes out in London.