interview: terry gilliam
Gilliam moved on to his own projects and in 1985 co-wrote and directed the seminal science fiction and fantasy film Brazil. Brazil set the tone not only for Gilliam’s surreal films, but also for his contentious relationship with the major studios. According to Maxim magazine, Gilliam was so stressed during filming that he lost all feeling in his legs for a week.
Gilliam had trouble with the suits at Universal over the dark ending he wanted for the film. The studio wanted a happy ending, and began producing its own version of the film dubbed the “Love Conquers All” edit. While they were busy hacking, the movie languished without a release date for more than a year. Meanwhile bootleg copies of Gilliam’s original cut began circulating among movie critics and the Hollywood elite.
Gilliam’s still unreleased version of film was named the best picture of 1985 by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and several prominent critics began wondering if Brazil could be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar even though it had never been released. This finally embarrassed Universal into releasing the film as Gilliam intended.
While Universal was no match for Gilliam, God was another manner. Every possible mishap plagued his last movie project, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, starring Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort. Floods, injuries and military jets all combined to kill the film before it even had a chance to get off the ground. The disaster was recorded by the documentary crew assigned to make a behind the scenes feature for the DVD and turned into the feature film, Lost in La Mancha.
Gilliam’s other films include 12 Monkeys, The Fisher King, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. He recently sat down for a roundtable interview with the press to promote his new movie The Brothers Grimm.
Badmouth: What was your reaction to Lost In La Mancha?
Terry Gilliam: I was really glad they made it is what it was. I mean when Quixote was crashing and burning. The guys were putting their camera away because they had said they had come to make a film about the making of a movie. I said, “You’ve got a better film here. Keep shooting.” And I saw it at different points when they were cutting it and gave them a few suggestions. I thought they ended up making a really great film – and I don’t ever want to have to watch it again.
Badmouth: Have you watched the movie in its entirety?
Terry Gilliam: No, if I watch it now, it’ll throw me for a couple weeks. So, no, I don’t watch it. I’m glad they made it and I think they did a great job. It’s a great trailer for the film if ever we get it off the ground again.
Badmouth: Is there any new interest in making The Man Who Killed Don Quixote?
Terry Gilliam: Oh no, our problem is the script is tied up in a legal Gordian knot at the moment and I’ve been trying to get it out of this problem for the last several years. There’s a bit of movement with it right now “˜cause Jeremy Thomas who produced Tideland – the film I did in the middle of Brothers Grimm – thinks he has a way of loosening it up. If he does loosen it up when we actually get back, it’ll be the film I try to make next year. But, until that happens, no.
Badmouth: I think you must take great glee in taking one of the most beautiful women that any of us could ever see [Monica Belluci] and turning her into a shriveled prune. [laughs]
Terry Gilliam: [laughs] I take good looking guys and make them look pretty ordinary as well. Yea, I’m trying to bring them all down to my level.
Badmouth: It used to be that great character actors became lead actors through the force of their talent. Now you have great actors that desperately want to be character actors like Matt (Damon) and Heath (Leger), and that’s got to be strange – Johnny Depp and all these great people.
Terry Gilliam: Yeah, I mean they’re actors and the problem with leading actors is they tend to get pigeon-holed and they become “stars,” and you’ve got to deliver the same thing each time for your faithful following. It’s a terrible trap to be in. Once you can allow them to “¦ like in our instance: you cast against type and they fly. They become character actors “˜cause they really are that. The system wants stars. They don’t want character actors. That’s too uncontrollable.
Badmouth: It does seem today that the system doesn’t want originality and certainly originality that would be your middle name. I wonder if for instance when you go to New York and you see the lines of people going to see Spamalot, and you say “OK, if they’ll come out for that, will they come out for Brothers Grimm.” Does that give you heart: that maybe originality is more appreciated by the audience than the studios recognize?
Terry Gilliam: But it’s always been that. I think what’s given me heart is The Island has collapsed; and a few other films ““ Stealth has gone bad. So maybe the audience is finally walking, I mean voting with their feet. Maybe that’s what’s happening. There’s certainly a buzz of panic in Hollywood. “Where have we gone wrong?”
“Well you’ve been going wrong for years folks.” I went and saw War of the Worlds a couple of weeks ago. The trailers were up there – and I’ve seen those trailers for the last 15 years. So I think it’s about time the public are finally realizing they’ve been getting the same nonsense for so long.
Badmouth: This is interesting because [Brothers Grimm Producer] Chuck Roven just told us it was our [the media's] fault.
Terry Gilliam: It was you! You personally! [laughs]
Badmouth: Roven said that the media were exaggerating the situation, but that, yes, there’s a tiny slump.
Terry Gilliam: Oh, I hope you’re telling the truth. And even if you’re exaggerating it keep doing it. Maybe they’ll start believing you, and they will let people like me get in there and make a few films. I think the problem is there’s too much written about films these days. I honestly do believe that, and I think there’s too many films being made. There’s too much being written about them. I actually think the audience knows too much.
I mean, they know the box-office results. People have been kind of conditioned now that “If it’s doing well, then you gotta see it” and “If it’s not doing well then maybe there’s something wrong with it.” I’ve watched that over the years develop, and it’s just unnecessary information. It’s almost like history is in the making with each film that comes out. If it’s a big hit “I have to be part of that history. I can’t miss it.” It’s like the kid in “War of the Worlds” who’s gotta see the world blow up.