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Terry Gilliam: My Life In 8 Movies

Terry Gilliam: My Life In 8 Movies

Kicking off what may be a semi-regular series, the wonderful Terry Gilliam proved totally game for the challenge when we found we had a few minutes to spare at the end of our interview at the Göteborg International Film Festival (you can find the rest of it here). Essentially, the idea is that while we’re interested in our favorite filmmakers’ films, we’re also interested in what they’re interested in, and we hope you might be too. 

So we’ve drawn up a list of questions about films that influenced them personally or professionally, in the hopes of prompting a few illuminating answers. Gilliam did not disappoint, bringing his trademark chatty honesty to bear, though it’s only fair that we point out that this was entirely dropped on him at the last moment, and, unlike potential future recruits, he had zero time to prepare. So bearing in mind that on another day, in another mood, or with time to mull over and revise, these answers might very well be different, here we go:

What was the first film you remember seeing?
"Snow White." Fantastic, Disney in the glory days—the Disney team was just brilliant. And the music too. The music that was written during the early Disney years was just incredible.

What film defined your childhood?
Hmm, I should really say “The Thief of Baghdad” is the one I remember most, because I had nightmares about it as a child. Terrified. I mean the Queen from “Snow White” was pretty good, but this one …

Do you remember an early formative moviegoing experience?
Well, the drive-in? I can’t remember the movie, and it was the opposite of “formative” actually because I loved movies and we went to a drive in with another couple and I was all just like, “Get down! get out of the way! get off! I’m trying to watch the film here!” That was my problem at a certain age … I still believed in movies in those days. I don’t anymore. Give me a drive-in now any day.

So how about your best moviegoing experience?
One of my best was when I saw “One Eyed Jacks” and it was in some terrible cinema on 42nd Street and I had no money, so I sat there and I had to sit thorough some terrible second feature—that was in the days where they’d show second features—all the way through just so I could watch “One Eyed Jacks” again.

And is there an “epiphany film” that most influenced your later work?
Not quite an epiphany, but there was “Paths of Glory.” It was a Saturday matinee show in the San Fernando Valley and parents would dump their kids at the cinema and I was probably 14, something like that, and there it was, this film that was about injustice. It was two things: first here was technology that I’d never been aware of, the tracking shots through the trenches which of course I copied in “Brazil,” but I’d never been aware of the camera before that film and the second thing was that you talk about injustice in the film, you could talk about big themes, ideas.

So, would that be the film that most inspired you to direct?
That, and Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai" because that was just thrilling stuff. You suddenly saw the way he used the camera, slow motion, the fights suddenly going into slow motion. He was playing with so many of the techniques that afterwards everyone copied.

But you know, growing up in the San Fernando valley out there in the hills, with friends whose parents worked in the film business, I wanted to get in there and make movies. It wasn’t about directing. See I don’t think of myself as a director, in my mind I’m a filmmaker—there’s a difference. A director makes a script that’s given to him, I just want to make this thing that is in my head, and whatever job is required to do that, I will do that job. My problem with it was that being around the edge of Hollywood and seeing how most people started out as a teaboy and worked their way up, I thought, "I’m not gonna do that, it’s ridiculous." Because I always wanted to control what I was doing.

And so as a cartoonist, it’s paper, pen, my hand, control. I backed into it strangely enough. I must have wanted to make movies, because I saved enough money when I was working in New York to buy my first Bolex camera and we’d go out and shoot things on the weekend. But it’s not like there was a clear idea: "This is what I wanna do more than anything." It was only ultimately when Python came along that we did it … I mean when I look at people like Scorsese, all these people, I know just all they wanted to do was be film directors … I wasn’t like that.

What’s the film that everyone hates that you love?
Oh god. Well this would be back to “One Eyed Jacks.” I have occasional fights with Mark Kermode when I say it is in my top ten films … And he’ll say “you’re crazy.” I say, “no, I think it’s a great, great film.” Flawed, but I think it’s just a great, great film. And so many people just don’t see it. It got bad reviews, but I love the characters, the situation, the whole story and I forgive it all the things that are wrong with it.

If a film captures you on some level you can forgive all the shit. Films aren’t perfect things. When we were making “12 Monkeys," Dave Peoples, who also wrote “Unforgiven,” said “If we’ve got three good scenes in a movie, we’ve got a wonderful movie. Forget about the rest.”

So can you think of a film that has won you over with just three moments?
Fellini’s Casanova." I think there are three moments in there that make it all worthwhile and there’s a lot of stuff when you’re just, “oh, what are you doing?” But those three things are dead on, so it’s a tick as a favorite.

Tell us a film you walked out of/turned off halfway through?
There was one more recently that I can’t remember, I’ve blocked it from my mind, but I got up and walked out because I was like, “You’re wasting too much of my life.” And oh, a Nic Roeg film with Gene Hackman and Theresa Russell, up in the Klondikes prospecting for gold. What was it’s name? [ed. “Eureka]. I walked out of that.

And I got stuck on the jury in Cannes [in 2001] and I wanted to walk out on several films, but couldn’t. There was a Godard film [“In Praise of Love”] that I managed to sleep during part of it—that’s like walking out. And everybody was horrified … Godard is of course a god, so how could that be? And I was like, "Yes, but it’s shit." Why cant people just say that? He made brilliant films, he made great films, but this is not one of them. This is crap!

And finally, is there a film you hated when you first saw but have since grown to love?
Nah, I’m pretty unforgiving, I don’t change my mind!

“The Zero Theorem" opens in the U.K. on March 14th.

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As crazy as he is, I love this man.

Meredith Brody

Glad you did this, Jessica, and looking forward to reading more…fascinating. (I always loved One-Eyed Jacks, and thought it was firmly in the pantheon — not far from Paths of Glory!)
(by the way, it's David Peoples!)

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