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.”
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
“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.)
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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