terry gilliam cover feature issue 14

– . – Terry Gilliam – Cover Feature, Issue 14

Terry Gilliam – Cover Feature, Issue 14

As a director, he’s faced everything from flash floods to irate studio bosses and untimely deaths. Yet as a filmmaker, he’s maintained his unique and compelling vision. In an exclusive interview, Terry Gilliam tells us how.

When I think of Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam, I’m reminded of the Beatles’ Ringo Starr. If you really think about it, it’s not as far fetched as it sounds. Consider the evidence: both came in late to a group on the verge of greatness, as outsiders. They got thrown a lifeline and they’ve never looked back since. One changed the course of music history; the other pioneered the art of cinematic satire. Both went on to pursue solo careers.

Okay, so maybe that’s where the link starts becoming tenuous. These days, I imagine, awash in royalties, Ringo is prepping himself for his Star in the 2010 Walk of Fame ceremony, while Gilliam’s still on the same journey he started 32 years ago with Jabberwocky: “Directing amateur films”—his words, not mine. For an amateur filmmaker, Gilliam has an imaginative streak that’s arguably unequalled in film. Time Bandits (1981) is a case in point, turning a children’s adventure into a surreal trek through history. There are very few, if any, filmmakers who can make that kind of film. The same can be said for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Twelve Monkeys and most importantly, Brazil. A dystopian satire in which an imagined retro-1930s future is made up of anonymous office drones commanded by an all-powerful computer, it’s been called ‘Orwellian’, ‘Kafkaesque’, and ‘Luddite’.

Gilliam has wrestled with studios for creative control, seen his sets washed away by flash floods, seen many of his projects fall by the wayside either in development (Good Omens) or production (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote), and now, on his latest film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, had his trump card, star Heath Ledger, die deep into production after an accidental mix of prescription drugs. There’s not much Gilliam hasn’t been through in bringing his own unique visions to the screen.

Lily Cole in Dr Parnassus

When I spoke to him just two weeks before the London Premiere of the film, however, Gilliam was at his eccentric best, gleefully unfazed by the long and unsteady road the project had traveled. The director immediately takes issue with me over the word ‘career’. “I never had a career! You got that one wrong” he exclaims. And when I refer him to his self-deprecating remarks on the Simon Mayo/Mark Kermode radio show, Gilliam offers what at first sounds like a weather-beaten response. “Each film is like starting from scratch. People usually have ambitions and plans, but I’ve never done that. I’ve just always approached it as one thing at a time. Each one is the beginning and end of history, it feels.”

Yet Gilliam is oddly enthusiastic, as if he relishes these kinds of challenges. As if they define who he is as a filmmaker. Clearly it’s more the ‘raising the finance’ part, rather than the ‘going out and making it’ part that puts him off. “Once you’re working on the film, it’s fine,” he reveals. “It’s a feeling of ‘here we go again’. It’s almost a trick I have to play on myself. I can put together millions of films in my head, but then the reality of going out and making it, or to get the money to make it, is so unlikely that I then sensor a lot of those thoughts. It’s only when my system is demanding that I get back to work on something that I start marching ahead and I trick my brain into thinking it’s going to be easy… And then we’re right back into a nightmare again. On Doctor Parnassus, we wrote it and started casting, but it wasn’t until Heath came onboard that I thought, maybe we could do this. I mistakenly thought it was going to be a piece of cake after that!”

  • To find out what Gilliam has to say about the major studios in Hollywood, his storyboarding process, the challenge of marketing his films and completing Parnassus after the death of its leading man, subscribe to the print or digital edition.