Terry Gilliam, the heir of Fellini and the enemy of God?

Nov. 27, 2011 | 8:03 p.m.

Terry Gilliam at the Rome Film Festival in 2009 (Pier Paolo Cito/AP)

The late Ted Demme once approached Terry Gilliam and asked for the secret of his cinema sorcery. Demme wanted to know how the director of “Brazil,” “Twelve Monkeys” and “The Fisher King” approached those magical transition moments in his movies where reality lurches and gives way to fantasy swirl and fever dream. The elder director, with a toothy grin, explained that he just wasn’t qualified to answer because, well, he wouldn’t know reality if he saw it.

“I never quite understand what the real world is,” Gilliam said during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “I told Ted I shoot reality and fantasy the same way because it’s all the same to me. I don’t know how to distinguish between the two, they flow into each other all the time. That’s the autobiographical part in my movies…in Hollywood, everyone takes characters and puts them into action sequences where they are threatened by outside forces, but to me the threat is your own perception of the world.”

"Time Bandits" (Sony)

Slippery magic, grim humor and one-man rebellions are trademarks of Gilliam’s films and, with appropriate blur, they are also trademarks of his career, which has been defined by masterpiece moments and years of misadventure. The director turned 71 this past week and, a few days before that, he was presented with a Federico Fellini Foundation award for a movie career that began when he co-directed 1974′s “Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ with fellow Python troupe member Terry Jones. Gilliam’s latest screen credit is “The Wholly Family,” a short film he made in Naples that was screened this month in Santa Monica by the American Cinematheque, and at the event Gilliam acknowledged that his feature-film future is cloudy because of the financing challenges that face a maverick with a  reputation for hard luck and an even harder head.

“The heir of Fellini and the enemy of God. I like that, I’m going to use that,” Gilliam said of his new career motto. And, truthfully, it does seem the filmmaker has been tested and taunted by the heavens and (far further south) by Hollywood.

His battle with Universal chief Sid Sheinberg over 1985′s “Brazil” is now the stuff of legend; the director bought a full-page ad in Variety pressuring the studio not to re-edit the film to give it a happy ending and he won his way only after staging private “rogue” screenings  for members of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., which led to the group naming the original version the year’s best picture.  Then there were the months and years consumed by projects that never got off the ground at all (“Time Bandits 2,”  an adaptation of “A Tale of Two Cities”) or took flight with other filmmakers (the “Harry Potter” films, “Watchmen”) or hang in a savage state of limbo (“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” began filming in 2000 and never came close to finishing, but Gilliam hopes still to revive it).

Now, Gilliam’s chief pursuits are constructing distractions, whether it’s the stone walls he stacks near his home in Italy or artistic tangents such as directing his first opera, “The Damnation of Faust,” which premiered last summer in London. Gilliam twisted Goethe’s epic into a startling, jack-booted parable on Nazism and a century of German history that preceded it. (The Guardian of London hailed it as “breathtakingly imaginative and horrifyingly vivid,” and the Wall Street Journal called it a “dazzling enterprise.”) During his recent trip through Los Angeles he took meetings, dinners and lunches and met with another new generation of industry admirers but, sitting in his hotel room, he looked a bit weary of all the Tinseltown kabuki.

Katherine Helmond in "Brazil" (Universal Pictures)

“My life is about waiting for money,” Gilliam said with a graybeard sigh. “My life isn’t about filmmaking — that’s not what I do. It feels almost incidental to what I do, which is hunt for the money, cast movies and re-cast them and try to get projects going or stop them from falling apart. I spend my whole time repressing everything inside of me until I get the money to work, and then I just go. I’m on autopilot until I get the chance to go on a set.”

Gilliam approached most of these travails with subversive humor, as you would expect from the lone American member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus – yes, that’s right, Gilliam is from Minnesota, not Manchester –  such as the time several years back when he responded to a lack of marketing support for his film “Tideland” and took to the streets of New York with a cardboard placard with “Will Direct for Food” scrawled on it.

It was impossible to laugh, though, when Gilliam’s most recent feature film, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” in 2009, went beyond struggle and toppled into true tragedy. The financing for the film had been secured largely because of the involvement of Heath Ledger, and when the actor died in the midst of production, the film kept going only after Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law stepped in to “split” Ledger’s role, a quirky solution that fit the movie’s shell-game reality. It was a dark ordeal for Gilliam who was also hit by a bus during filming, leaving the muscles in his back shredded and a vertebrae cracked.

Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges in "TheFisher King" (TriStar Pictures)

The wrenching calamity of Ledger’s death is what brought together Depp, Farrell and Law, but they also came because the film had Gilliam’s name on it. Whether the director’s movies are actually successful (or even completed), his chaos, poetry and brio make him a beloved figure among actors. As Depp, who starred in Gilliam’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” puts it: “Terry is one of the last true auteurs. His profound influence on an entire generation of filmmakers is all too apparent. He is a madman, in the finest possible way. Ultimately, there are few directors willing to garrote themselves so wholeheartedly in the name of artistic integrity.”

Gilliam’s “The Brothers Grimm” in 2005 had an $88-million production budget and made $105 million worldwide,  while “Imaginarium” made $62 million with a lean $30 million budget. But then there are projects like “Tideland,” which opened in limited release in the U.S. in 2006, made less than $600,000 and split critics and even Gilliam’s friends, like Michael Palin, who told his old Python pal that he couldn’t quite decide if “Tideland” was his best film or his worst. The story of a little girl who slips in and out of fantasy while wandering rural Texas and the even bleaker landscape of her personal life was not for everyone (Entertainment Weekly called it “gruesomely awful”) but for Jeff Bridges it was just the sort of rabbit hole an actor expects to go down when Gilliam calls.

Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt in "Twelve Monkeys" (Universal Pictures)

“When Terry asked me to play a corpse in ‘Tideland,’ I jumped at the chance,” Jeff Bridges said last week. “We had done ‘Fisher King’ years before and I got a taste of Terry’s brilliance, and thought, ‘What could be more fun than play a dead, rock ‘n’ roll, heroin addict, with Terry at the helm?’ I knew he would make a film that would be unique. Working with Terry is like working with an ancient child — I say ‘child’ because he has retained the optimism, playfulness and bewilderment of a kid, and ‘ancient’ because there is a timeless, wizard vibe about him. He is a treasure and his wonderful films are a gift to us all.

Along with startling cameos (remember Sean Connery swinging a sword in “Time Bandits”?), Gilliam has a flair for extracting disturbing madhouse performances from some of Hollywood’s biggest names: Robert DeNiro in “Brazil,” Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt in “Twelve Monkeys” and Robin Williams in “The Fisher King,” for instance.

“Maybe I just get them at the time in their career when they are looking for that madness or that different thing,” Gilliam said. “I do like casting against type, too. With Bruce, for instance, I had met him when I was making ‘Fisher King’ and I told him how much I liked this one scene in ‘Die Hard’ where he’s running around on all the broken glass there and he’s on the phone with his wife and he’s in tears. He said, ‘That was my idea, that scene, for the tough guy to break down.’ That was the moment I filed away. I met in New York later and said, ‘Look I don’t want Bruce Willis the superstar, I want Bruce Willis the actor. You can’t bring your entourage. You can’t bring any of that stuff.’  He worked for scale on that film. And so we had Brad as a motormouth and Bruce as this internal guy. That’s what made it fun.”

Benicio del Toro and Johnny Depp in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (Universal Pictures)

Gilliam’s films are fairly traditional in camera approach — he admits to a nagging envy toward filmmakers like Steven Spielberg or James Cameron, who have “the skills and the budgets” to pull the audience right through the action –but he also realized long ago that his great gifts resided in ideas, juxtaposition and irony and revealing the yearning human heart hidden within ritual and bedlam. Those things are clear in “The Wholly Family,”  written by Gilliam, which follows the fate of an objectionable American family on holiday in Italy; like one of Roald Dahl’s snarling parables, every child and adult gets exactly what they deserve, but then there’s also the spirit of  Winsor McCay or Fellini, with mystery dances and existential parades.

“The thing with Fellini is always the dance,” Gilliam said. “Take [the 1976 film] ‘Casanova,’ which is a very mixed film for me. There’s a scene at the end of an opera where the boxes are all empty and guys in these tri-cornered hats come in and,  as the huge chandeliers are lowered, they have these big paddles and they put out the candles. It was the most sublime thing I had ever seen in my life. I can’t explain it, I don’t know why, but it was so beautiful and touching and I just hope that in every film I’ve made maybe there’s just one moment like that.”

"The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" (Sony)

That approach, of course, explains why the first “Harry Potter” film was handed to “Home Alone” director Chris Columbus even though J.K. Rowling’s first choice was Gilliam. There is more fantasy and sci-fi on the screen today than ever before, but almost all of it is defined by rules, tethered to logic and presented in three acts with Blu-ray level clarity.  The most damning appraisal in Hollywood today is “It doesn’t make sense,” but for Gilliam that’s practically his mission statement.

“The thing is, some really good scripts come my way, but there’s nothing in them for me to come to grips with, they are complete in themselves,” Gilliam said. “There’s no uncertainty. I don’t look for answers; I look for questions. I like when people leave the cinema and feel like the world has been altered for them somewhat. On ‘Brazil,’ I know a woman who said she saw the film, went home and later that night she just started weeping. I also heard about an attorney who saw the film and then locked himself in his office for three days. Fantastic. On ‘Fisher King,’ I know specifically of a woman in New York who saw it and then walked 20 blocks on her way home and realized she was walking in the wrong direction. Movies used to do that to me, but they don’t do that to me anymore.”

On his flight to Los Angeles, Gilliam tried to watch the $1-billion hit “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” and he felt battered and sullen by the time the landing gear came down. The old wizard says it’s the stage magicians who rule Hollywood now.

Christopher Plummer in "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" (Sony Pictures Classics)

“You just sit there and watch the explosions,” Gilliam said. “I couldn’t tell you what the movie was about. The movie hammers the audience into submission. They are influenced by video games, but in video games at least you are immersed; in these movies you’re left out. In films, there’s so much overt fantasy now that I don’t watch a lot because everything is possible now. There’s no tension there. People can slide down the side of a building that’s falling and they don’t get ripped to shreds? The shots are amazing, but if there is no consequence, no gravity, what’s the point?  I can’t watch Hollywood movies anymore. There’s no room for me.”

So, instead, Gilliam says he will again joust with fate and “The Man who Killed Don Quixote,” or the “film that dare not speak its name,” as he calls the project with a giggle. The movie began shooting in 2000 in Spain but remains a work in progress. That original production was sabotaged by floods, hail and the invasive thunder of nearby NATO aircraft; it went from bad to worse when star Jean Rochefort suffered a serious back injury. The plug was pulled and the insurance companies that paid out $15 million took possession of the script. (The debacle — and the irresistible metaphors invested in the source material – led to a documentary, “Lost in La Mancha,” that makes other filmmakers cringe when they watch it.)

"Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (Sony Pictures Classic)

Last year, Gilliam had the script back in hand and Robert Duvall and Ewan McGregor set to star but, again, the endeavor fizzled and Gilliam was back to square one. He shrugged when asked if maybe it was time to surrender and just walk away from those windmills.

“I don’t have a choice, really, with these things. I become possessed by them. I blame Monty Python in a way, it was my pension scheme that allowed me to make the choices I’ve made, and there was an arrogance and confidence that came with being in Python. Look, the last proper job I had was [in the 1960s] at the Chevrolet assembly plant in Van  Nuys. It was the night shift, and when I quit I said I would never work for money again. I believe in the things I make.  The fact that God doesn’t want me to make them is beside the point.”

– Geoff Boucher

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Comments


29 Responses to Terry Gilliam, the heir of Fellini and the enemy of God?

  1. InkSketch says:

    I very seriously doubt that God does not want Gilliam to make his films. I'd say that his films are genius BECAUSE of the adversity he faces while trying to complete them. I too have felt my world shift after viewing several of his films. They affect me and they should. It's sad that so few film makers trigger in the viewer such a profound jolt, the feeling that you have been elsewhere or touched by magic. It says a lot about the industry as it is today. Thank you Mr. Gilliam, for your hard work and your uncompromising vision. I hope that you continue to affect us with your vision of the real and fantastic.

  2. kgw says:

    It's time to watch "Brasil" again… Bravo!

  3. Francesco Sinibaldi says:

    Dans la lumière…

    La nuit vient
    avec la douceur
    d'un courant
    de poésies, avec
    la chanson qui
    dort dans le
    rêve en donnant
    l'harmonie de la
    fugitive neige.

    Francesco Sinibaldi

  4. sophie says:

    Terry Gilliam is not for everyone, but Twelve Monkeys is an amazing film, and is the first indication that Brad Pitt is more than just a pretty boy, and that Bruce Willis is more than an action star. I found the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus to be rather tedious, and more like an old vaudeville play that I would never have paid to see.

  5. Arye Michael Bender says:

    Terry Gilliam, breathtakingly original and always brilliant. Heir to Fellini? Only in the sense that each has a singular way of seeing life and the striking ability to bring those visions to the screen. Fellini was Fellini. And Gilliam is Gilliam. Praise the Lord! And pass the celluloid!

  6. Monica says:

    Great piece! I'd forgotten how much I liked The Fisher King. Time to watch it and some of these others.

  7. Carlos says:

    I feel that although Terry Gilliam basks in the sun with Monty Python, I feel that his solo career has not only been checkered by budget problems but also with creative ups and downs. I personally loathed 12 Monkeys (tho´I thought Brad Pitt was excellent) but consider Brazil the work of genius.
    He is a master of his art but I sometimes get dizzy and overwhelmed (sea-sick?) watching some of his films

  8. T Brown says:

    Today's blockbusters are just too overt. No fun any more. How many explosions can you see?
    When all the rules of gravity, relativity and life are never adhered to, its difficult to take anything seriously anymore. The formulas' so obvious that you already know how a scene is going to end, just like every big budget movie being produced.
    And yet, if we keep paying, hollywood will keep churning out the fluff.
    12 monkeys and fear and loathing at amazing and brazil is my mom's favorite movie. Timeless classics. That's true filmmaking. Someone get this guy a cheque!

  9. unsardonic says:

    Thank you very much for this magnificent piece of journalism! I've never read a better article about Terry, my hands-down favorite filmmaker – the one who confirms that opinion every time he opens his mouth & every time some actor comments about their experiences with him.

    I remember when "Brazil" opened, he had stated he was interested in what his viewers had experienced from seeing the film. I sent him the following comment in a postcard to, whoever I could figure out his agent was at that time… dunno if it was a good idea because I never heard back BUT…
    what the comment was, was:

    I went to see "Brazil" and afterwards, went home &, immediately, to bed. I laid down and closed my eyes to – immediately – open them walking down a sidewalk in front of a movie theater. I could see on the marquee the film playing was "Brazil," and as I approached the door, it swung open with Terry Gilliam doing the swinging, and he beckoned me with the crook of his index finger saying, "You want to know what's going on inside of my head?" And he reached around the top of his skull and… unzipped it… so that the top of his head opened and… I was sucked into Terry Gilliam's head… weirdly, inside, I found myself standing on a cliff in the jungle as Robert De Niro, as Rodrigo Mendoza in "The Mission," was made to hoist a cross on the edge of that cliff, by Spanish soldiers next to a waterfall, and he used it to sail off the cliff as if it were a paraglider…

    Robert De Niro… paragliding a cross… inside a movie sorta playing inside Terry Gilliam's skull I happened to be privileged to look inside of in my dream, the day after I saw "Brazil"… no wonder he's my hands-down favorite filmmaker: I can't tell fantasy from reality myself – He SPEAKS to me better than anyone.

  10. Phil Esteen says:

    This man has been and will remain utterly brilliant based on his excursions into comedy alone, nevermind the fact that his "Twelve Monkeys" was one of the most brilliant and debilitating science fiction movies to be made since "BladeRunner."

  11. Norm Pangracs says:

    Over the past 20 years I have seen at least 30 films that should never have been made. I always wonder where the film makers get the money needed to make these films. I think there are people with money who can be talked into anything.. Maybe certain tax laws permit producers to work the laws as in THE PRODUCERS.

  12. MIchael Giltz says:

    Great piece. I feel terrible every time I shake with laughter over his latest movie-making travail but of COURSE a Gilliam film would be plagued by hurricanes or collapsed financing from Iceland or some other crazy act of god. The man's movie-making is cursed, much to our detriment. Thanks for talking with him and giving us a better sense of his take on things. Definitely an original.

  13. maxnix says:

    Let's not forget The Adventures of Baron Munchausen! This has been a long and brilliant career! Congrats to the man for not resting on his laurels or softening with age. Keep going, Terry!

    • x76 says:

      TAoBM is one of my all-time favorite films. Hilarious, thrilling, inspirational — the scene where the protagonists are lost at sea wondering where the Baron has gone, for instance — the Baron then PULLS HIMSELF ASTRIDE HIS HORSE out of the ocean by his own hair. That's GUMPTION. "Come on, come on… I can't keep this up all day." Utterly brilliant film from start to finish.

  14. Sandy MacDonald says:

    Sid who?

  15. Brian Foss says:

    FYI – Any Gilliam fan who has not seen Tideland is missing out. The movie tore me up. It's amazing amazing stuff.

  16. Watsonsmom says:

    Terry Gilliam is one, and quite possibly THE largest influence in my life as a fine artist. The way he creates entire realities, both internal and external.. visually incredible, beyond description and intellectually breathtaking. THANK YOU for finally doing a piece on a artist worthy to the title!

  17. Julian Phillips says:

    I love this film-maker, and so does God–I asked Her—

  18. Rhyscurrency says:

    Johnny Depp lauds Terry Gilliam as the last true auteur. So why doesn't he step in & help get his films made

  19. ash says:

    Each Gilliam film is a delicate balance of going from madness to normalcy. Or is it the other way around? To me, each is art in the truest sense of the term. Yes, some have offended or even sickened me. Some have made me laugh and even cry. In each case his movies have always made me feel, question and think. Considering the hollow calories we’re spoon fed from the Hollywood machine, I happily feast at the Gilliam table.

    I could easily ask a million questions over the body of this mans work. Yet I don’t want a single answer. Nor would I expect one.

    “I’m in insurance.” Most damnable line ever, damn you Terry, damn you to hell for that one.

  20. rbjd says:

    Take the ticket! Take it. Take the ticket!

  21. "Brazil" is my favorite documentary.

  22. Nena999 says:

    Who can not love this guy? Seriously, for "Time Bandits" alone, aside from the Monty Python stuff, he's just the most perfect and original auteur. I'm sorry that the financial "bean counters" that run things don't "get it."

  23. x76 says:

    I love Terry Gilliam's films. Unabashedly. I'm not a fan of many things, but Terry Gilliam films are at the top of the short list of things I am a fan of.

  24. mabus83 says:

    I think Gilliam's video game analogy sums it up. I've been avoiding Hollywood action/adventure since the Star Wars prequels and Spiderman films. I've fortunately not had to watch any Michael Bay films while flying. As Gilliam said, video games at least immerse you since there's weight and consequences. You control a character which can die, forcing you to start over. Watching these films is not only like watching someone else play a video game, which is boring enough, but watching a pro play knowing he will never lose.

    Hollywood crassly churns out the same un-interactive video game, slapping different remake and sequel titles onto it to trick us into watching the same movie repeatedly out of nostalgia. I remember being a teen in the 90s, my friends and I getting so hyped about Star Wars/Indiana Jones pre/sequel rumors, only to have our childhood dreams crushed and spat upon.

    If I want mindless thrills, I watch the old exploitation films that honestly billed themselves as such, at least they have a sense of self-irony, humor, and subversiveness to them. Otherwise I watch good films, ones with someone like Bogart or Eastwood in front of the camera, or someone like Gilliam or Kubrick behind it. But in either case, it's mostly movies that are older than I am.

  25. Ian says:

    If there is one director alive who could make a 3D film that is worthy of the technique, it would be Terry.

  26. Robin Bugbee says:

    New Year’s Resolution: To see every film directed by Gilliam that I have not seen and to view those I have seen again.

  27. thomasschroers says:

    He is the Don Quixote of Filmmaking and he will not stop until it is perfect!

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