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Terry Gilliam Interview

DVD Talk Sits Down with Terry Gilliam.

by Jack Giroux

To say talking to Terry Gilliam was surreal would be somewhat of an understatement. Having obsessively watched the man's films and loving nearly every one of them, it was a true joy to be able to speak to Mr. Gilliam. Brazil, 12 Monkeys, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and his work from the Monty Python days all range from greatness to simply pure classic. Unsurprisingly, Gilliam couldn't have been nicer. He's as lively and as open as one would expect and hope. While I had about a thousand questions running through my head that I was dying to ask, we mostly focused on latest endeavor The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus and a few of his more recent films. As a quick side note, if you are a Gilliam fan then you will undoubtedly enjoy his Parnassus. It's undoubtedly his best work since 12 Monkeys and is definitely worth experiencing on the big screen. It's now currently in theaters.

Gill1.jpg One aspect that I really enjoyed about the film is that it seems to be the unofficial addition to The Imagination trilogy. It seems to fit right in with Munchausen and Brazil.

Terry Gilliam: It kind of fits in with Time Bandits and Munchausen. This one I think is the trilogy (laughs).

It keeps that very over-the-top tone those films carried.

Terry Gilliam: (laughs) Yep. No apologies.

I really enjoy that though and it fits the story perfectly.

Terry Gilliam: Yeah, it's kind of interesting how there are those that can take it and there's a lot who can't. It doesn't work for a lot of people.

Well most of your films have been that way.

Terry Gilliam: Yeah and people keep forgetting that then years later they... Once society or the audience is caught up with what I'm doing they look back and talk about how wonderful those films were. They usually gave me a hard time.

Similar to your previous films you paint most of your characters in a very mean spirited way. Tony obviously isn't the protagonist, but he's really a selfish and horrible person. What is it about these dark characters that appeals to you?

Terry Gilliam: I don't know, maybe I'm just trying to work out who these people are so I'm ready for them when they hit me in real life. The funny and intriguing thing about Tony is that he's certainly different from the villains or badder characters I've had in my previous films. He's probably a realist in the modern world where lying, chameleon like behavior, and belief in yourself is everything. In that sense he does represent the real world... He was inspired by Tony Blair and Tony Blair continues to astonish and amaze me. He just said something recently about the invasion of Iraq. The whole argument at the time was that there was weapons of mass destruction. A few weeks ago he said, "We weren't certain about weapons of mass destruction, but I would still have invaded but I would just have to change my argument." I thought that told me everything about the man and Tony Shepherd is very similar to that (laughs).

While Dr. Parnassus basically represents you.

Terry Gilliam: Well, he's more me than any other character, but I don't trust him either. I'm never convinced whether he's telling me the truth. His stories are very convincing and impressive... But yeah, only to the extent that he is trying to create imagination. You succeed sometimes and you don't succeed other times. I'm getting older and I don't think I'll be a colonel by any means (laughs).

Well a lot of directors burn out at your age, but this shows that you obviously haven't.

Terry Gilliam: Yeah, I know. There's always this side of me that keeps wanting to give up with my life being more miserable than you would think. On the other hand, there's this weird perverse determination to keep going to prove that you don't always burn out when you're an old fart.

Even Parnassus's whole show also in a way represents you and your films-- How it's this very abstract and odd thing. When he goes to mainstream places he doesn't gain attention and they don't accept his work.

Terry Gilliam: I think that's what's so lovely. One wants to keep fighting against whatever the occurring fad is. I think that sometimes it's just really to entertain those that aren't going with whatever is current. I think when people get tired of watching superhero films again, again and again they come. Also, when people keep watching explosions and people leaping in the air constantly. Maybe, there is an audience and I know there is an audience who can go to other things. At least I don't come off like a bum to those people.

I noticed a few models during the Imaginarium sequences, but those scenes are of course more CG heavy. Why do you lean more towards using CG than going with more practical effects?

Terry Gilliam: Well, it was for a couple of reasons. With Heath's death it created some real problems for us. We more than doubled the number of CG shots. I just like mixing the two things together. I think CG gave a quality to the Imaginarium that worked, because we weren't trying to be naturalistic. We were trying to be painterly and CG is quite good for that.

It's interesting though how some people actually think you're going for photo real when you're really just going for a very cartoony and dreamlike aesthetic.

Terry Gilliam: Yeah, basically it's very close to my old cartoons and has similar landscapes. I was really playing around with that to see if we could create a world that was believable in a sense where you can feel people are actually in it. They're clearly not reality and they're not trying to be. I think that's one of my problems now with so much CG work that's trying to replicate reality. What's the point of that? I know the point, but I just like the idea of trying to treat it differently and use it differently.

You also keep those Imaginarium sequences very short.

Terry Gilliam: That was me trying to be clever and we had a very limited budget. I think it's really wonderful... The things that I truly love I don't want to hang on to them too long. I'd rather go in there, get a taste of it and then let it play in my memory forever. It was initially just the fact that we had a limited budget, and how can you do a surprising effects film with that? The big effects films they create a fantastic world and then they have to for two hours continue that fantastic world even though after ten minutes it's become ordinary and normal. You have to maintain it. I thought we could still surprise people constantly by getting in and getting out quickly. Each time we go in it can be a completely different world and we don't have to maintain the same world.

It's fascinating how you were working with such a limited budget that I believe was around twenty-five million and yet the film looks so beautiful at times. What are some of your tricks for stretching a budget?

Terry Gilliam: Yeah, it was really difficult. We shot all the exterior stuff here in London for about five weeks during the middle of winter. It was really rough and we worked so fast. Then we shot in Vancouver pretty shortly. The thing is, people don't understand how good the crews are that I put together. They really do work hard and even faster than you would on any ordinary film. There's not a lot of takes, you gotta know what you're doing, and you just kind of dive in and hope it works. A lot of planning goes into it, but in reality no matter how much planning we actually do half of it doesn't work once you get on set. You gotta quickly decide where do we go, what do we do and how do we move. That's why you rely on really good crews and people who are really involved in the film who can think outside the box when necessary.

I'd like to jump back real quickly about how you treat your protagonist and most of your characters in general. I overheard someone say how he believes you dislike your characters because all you do is put them in the worst situations possible. I think you of course love your characters, but just prefer to challenge them.

Terry Gilliam: Yeah, I mean I do love them. I don't see how you can make a film if you don't truly love the characters even the ones you're suppose to hate. If you don't love them then you gotta understand them. I always do and there's no way to escape that. I think that's why Heath is so extraordinary in the film because he's a real shit.

That's what I loved about Tony.

Terry Gilliam: (laughs) That'll be the thing we'll never know what the film would've felt like if Heath survived. It might have been a more hard hitting film in that sense. It could have been really darker and at the end Collin shows him as the real bastard.

When you have more than one actor playing a role you have to keep a consistency with what has been established first. How exactly do you make sure all their performances stay in line with one another?

Terry Gilliam: That's why I was choosing people who were friends with Heath, because they knew him and what he was like. It was... We kind of winged it to be quite honest because none of us knew whether we were going to pull it off (laughs). It was really just flying by the feet of your past. I had shown them scenes that Heath had done so they got a feeling of how he was acting. In a sense, they really carved their own world when they went into it. I think the trick was... When you watch Heath carefully he is such a comedian, he's changing all the time, he moves differently and even his voice changes. He actually set up a lot of rhythm that each of those guys could follow in their own way.

They all felt like cartoon characters similar to a lot of your films and I don't mean that as a slant.

Terry Gilliam: Yeah, I like to say hyper-realistic since that sounds more pretentious (laughs). Cartoonish sounds cheap and nasty! I do think that everything I do there has a heightened reality to it, because I'm a cartoonist. I look at the world and distort it as any cartoonist would. I suppose my main thing is that there's always a sense of humor and quirkiness to it. It floats into that area.

Most of your films have found an audience way after their initial release, but I want to ask particularly about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It's nearly impossible to go into a college dorm room and not see a poster for it.

Terry Gilliam: (laughs) I know and it's very surprising since it did very little at the box office. It was just handled so badly. I hate to... It always sounds like I'm complaining and complaining about somebody else when a film doesn't work. I mean I can go on about why a film did and didn't work on a commercial basis. Fear and Loathing was just kind of thrown away and Universal just didn't know how to market it. The trailer was terrible and that was it. The DVD has had a true cultural impact and it's incredible. Here's what's interesting about the Criterion DVD of Fear and Loathing -- That was the first Criterion to be sold at Wal-Mart and that just shows you how popular it became (laughs).

You got a big lucky break from Wal-Mart.

Terry Gilliam: (laughs) It's incredible that we broke into Wal-Mart with the Criterion release of Fear and Loathing. There's such a short window you have when a film opens and when all the elements aren't working well then it goes and it's gone. Luckily, films find their life on DVD now. I'm always disappointed though since my stuff is made for the big screen, but I still think they work well enough on a smaller screen.

That's odd about how Universal mishandled Fear and Loathing considering they did such a great job with 12 Monkeys.

Terry Gilliam: It was a very different gathering of people there on 12 Monkeys. To be quite honest, I was very much involved with the campaign on that one. They listened to me that time. (laughs)

I always considered 12 Monkeys to be your most commercial and yet still your most ambitious film.

Terry Gilliam: In America, Time Bandits is still actually my most financially successful movie. It was huge and when you do the calculations it's actually more successful than 12 Monkeys... I also did the campaign on that one! (laughs) That film was advertised for like a year.

Jumping into The Brothers Grimm real quick, I remember hearing that around thirty minutes was cut and I was wondering if you would ever consider doing a Director's Cut?

Terry Gilliam: No, no, because that is the Director's Cut. That's what I've never been able to do is a Director's Cut. When I end up with a film that's it. There's a lot of misunderstanding about what went on with that film with the Weinsteins. They didn't interfere with the final cut in the end, but they were giving me a lot of shit. The final cut is mine, but the problem with the Weinsteins is that they interfered at the very beginning. They put me in a very negative frame of mind which produced something that's... I mean I don't apologize for the film since I actually like it. I think it's a pretty good film, but I just know it could have been a much better film if I was in a better frame of mind. It's funny how when the critics or press turn on something they just turn away completely. They never go back and look at it in a quieter light. I think that most of that film stands up and some of that stuff is wonderful. I think the performances are great. It happens time and time again. It's not my film and once the pack turns on you it's over (laughs)!

You also had a good amount of troubles on Tideland. The theatrical release for that wasn't handled well.

Terry Gilliam: It was Think Film who had Tideland and they were in the process of selling themselves. This was all a repeat of what happened on Munchausen. They were selling themselves to another company and they just dropped it. They put it out in LA in one theater for one week... Contractually, they were supposed to play it in eleven major cities and they put it in one theater for one week. That was it. It was absolutely disgusting what they did. That has nothing to do with what the critics thought, because those who didn't like it seemed as if they just didn't even want to talk about it. What I was doing there was pushing buttons and that film was never meant to be commercially successful, but it was meant to be mentally provocative. It didn't even provoke the kind of reactions I wanted. People just kind of walked away from it, hid their heads and pretended it never happened.

I know you don't see a lot of movies since most films released today just don't spark your interest, but have you seen anything lately that's stuck with you?

Terry Gilliam: (pause) No... I've been looking at some films with The Academy DVDs lately. I thought A Serious Man had some really nice stuff in it. It's a small film, but it's a smart film like all their work. Nine, I don't understand why it was made. It reminds me of why did they make another version of The Producers? Which is based on a really good film. It's history repeating itself and I just don't understand it at all. There's a really nice film actually from Poland called Reverse. I've even seen ads in the paper pushing for best foreign film. It's certainly a good piece of work. I saw An Education and it's a nice movie. Nice filmmaking, simple, and good performances. The problem is that there's a lot of solid work out there, but I don't see much that gets my juices flowing that excites me. That's my problem and I'm kind of a junky looking for a fix when it comes to movies now. It's not happening and it may be because I've seen too many movies over my life, but I don't think it's that. I just don't think a lot of things are coming out that are really feel fresh and exciting. A couple of years ago there was a really good one: The Lives of Others. I thought that was good work...

That was great.

Terry Gilliam: Yeah that was, did you see that Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In?

That's fantastic.

Terry Gilliam: Wonderful! That's a good film and those are the ones where I see something really fresh and that someone really had a fresh approach to the idea. I think that's quite rare. What we get now is good solid filmmaking, but that's not exciting enough for me.

I would say Parnassus falls into that category of excitement.

Terry Gilliam: One thing I want to get out about Parnassus is that everybody I know who's seen it more than once say's it's better the second time. I know people who saw it the first time and didn't like it and didn't get it. The second time they just went, "wow." That's kind of interesting how that's happening more and more with my films. I'm usually criticized for throwing too much in, but the second time they see the film it all makes sense to them. The first time they see it they were just a bit overwhelmed. I don't apologize for Parnassus at all because I think it's a wonderful film. I think it's far more interesting, far more inventive, and far more original than ninety percent of the stuff that is out there. It's really interesting how many reviewers can't even see what the film is. It's as if they're watching it in a foreign language. I've had kids about seven years old who've watched the film and they love it. That's always been the thing with me that I always find that younger audiences like my stuff while adults find it too sophisticated and too full of ideas for the young people. The young people get them. It's been like that... I came back from Italy recently and it was an absolute smash in Italy. Everywhere I went young teenage students were just coming forward and saying, "Wow, that's fantastic." I think that's kind of nice that as old as I'm getting my films still interest young people. That's really nice.


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