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Interview: Terry Gilliam On Rewriting ‘Don Quixote,’ His Role In ‘Jupiter Ascending’ & Lacking Diplomacy

Interview: Terry Gilliam On Rewriting 'Don Quixote,' His Role In 'Jupiter Ascending' & Lacking Diplomacy

Terry Gilliam is fast becoming one of our favorite interviewees, so in general we take every opportunity we can to talk to him. Just after its Venice premiere, we had a long chat about his new film and at-least-partial return to form, “The Zero Theorem,” and then early last month we talked again in Marrakech. Which meant that during our time with him at the Göteborg International Film Festival this week, we found ourselves in the unusually luxurious position of having time to talk about other things, cabbages and kings. We have another piece coming from the session soon, which we’re using to road test a new potential series of filmmaker interviews, but first there were a few upcoming projects that we wanted a status update on…

It feels like we’re checking in on this one every few minutes, but given its history perhaps that’s appropriate… is “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” still slated for an October 3rd start date?
That’s our game at the moment. That’s the one we’re playing. We’ll see. On the one hand I’ve got a little bit more faith in the likelihood this time, on the other hand there’s a great part of me that knows better. It makes me kind of crazy. I’ve got to convince myself that it’s a reality so that I can do all the things that are needed to be done. In fact just last weekend Tony Grisoni [“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” the “Red Riding” trilogy] and I rewrote parts of the script and made a real quantum leap forward. It’s the slowest-written script ever. And it’s evolved over time, partly because I’ll be like, “Oh we’re not getting as much money as we wanted to so let’s cut that scene out” and seeing “Oh, hey, we didn’t miss it.” So it’s constantly evolving and, I hate to say it but it’s better.

Well that’s quite a claim, considering you’ve always referred to it as “the best script I have!”
Until I rewrite it and it gets even better…!

But with these rewrites, do you worry that since the audience isn’t as familiar with the previous versions as you are, you might throw the baby out with the bathwater and change something that’s crucial?
Well, of course we’re very conscious of that when we’re doing it. And, you know, I don’t read it for a year or two at a stretch. And then I look at it again, first of all to remind myself that it IS a good script, and secondly there’s always some niggling bit that we didn’t quite get right which often triggers something else to happen. Tony was the one that cut this big scene out [recently], just boldly, and I had to admit, “Shit, it works.”

Are cards still close to chests over who’s signed on? [Robert Duvall intimated not so long ago that he’s still attached, but Gilliam has kept very schtum.]
Afraid so. I don’t want to… every time I mention a name they die or something.

And how are your relations with Johnny Depp following his departure from your Quixote project to apparently set up one of his own?
Yeeaaah, I wrote him a note about it. And I saw him in London a few months ago and… [grins wryly] it didn’t come up in conversation.

You’ve also taken a small onscreen role recently in the Wachowskis’ “Jupiter Ascending”?
I thought my thespian career needed a little boost. I knew the Wachowskis from… when they were brothers. And I always thought they were terrific and they offered me this part, and the scene for them is a homage to “Brazil” and it required lots of uglifying makeup and it was just a silly day, with Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum and me, sitting chewing up the scenery. I’m just clerk in the film but it allows me to climb ladders and behave in a strange way.

Mila, [was mostly just] staring at me, “What the fuck is he doing now?” And Channing, all he has to do is bring her into this office space and then take her away. And it was funny because he was supposed to exit through a certain door and he kept on going out through the wrong door, because I think he was just, “What is going on here?”

Are you hopeful that “The Zero Theorem” followed by ‘Quixote’ might be the beginning of a career resurgence for you?
Mm, I think the resurgence if it comes will probably come as a result of the Python [stage] show. It’s giving us so much publicity—we’re big names again now. We’re in the news all the time, the first shows sold out in 43 seconds and the next for in 2 hours. It’s obscene almost.

And is it fun?
No! I mean, we’ll see what happens. It’ll be a good show, but I’ve been focusing on other things. It’s not quite the straw that’s broken the camel’s back but it could, because I’ve got an opera, I’ve got the Quixote project and there’s a book and now the show too…

If this resurgence does in fact occur, have you other completed screenplays that you’re trying to get back on the boil?
Oh yes, several. “Good Omens”—we have a really good screenplay. Tony Grisoni and I got a really good script, we squeezed it into two and half hours which is a hard thing, but Neil [Gaiman who wrote the comic apocalypse novel along with Terry Pratchett] was very happy with it. And it was supposed to be with a guy named Johnny Depp: Johnny was gonna play Crowley [a suave ancient demon] and Robin Williams was going to play Azeraphel [his opposite number, an angel] which was an odd choice, but interesting. But it was at the point before Johnny’s career was going that way [makes whooshing upward gesture with right arm] with ‘Pirates’ and Robin’s was going that way [whooshing downward motion with left arm], and we couldn’t get the money. The script’s still there… but I think it’s in the hands of receivers, because the people we did it for went bankrupt. But I did talk to Terry Pratchett’s people and to Neil about getting it going again. I thought it might be perfect thing for maybe six-part TV, because then we could do the whole book. I mean, we had to make the [book’s subplot about the] Four Horsemen into something much more condensed.

And then there’s “The Defective Detective” which still lies there smouldering. Last year Richard LaGravanese who wrote it with me, we got talking about and his manager got excited… But it’s somewhere down in the bowels of Paramount and Scott Rudin has got some control over it. It’s like you get into these situations and everybody just makes sure it’s not gonna happen, because it’s, “You can’t do it without me…etc.” Nobody in Hollywood has the kind of passion and dedication to spend the time and effort to drag the thing out of that situation. Because it involves a lot of diplomacy and I’ve never been good at those things. Like diplomacy.

Maybe to your credit, though?
Humph. It’s held my career back by decades.

We’ll have more from our Göteborg interview with Gilliam, in which he talks about the films that have made a profound impact on him, good or bad, soon. A few new images from “The Zero Theorem” below.

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