Reality Bites

Terry Gilliam's fantastic dreams do battle with the Hollywood nightmare

"I enjoy interviews. I can make up a different story each time and who's to know the truth?" That's what Terry Gilliam told Colin Covert of the Twin Cities Reader in October of 1977, the last time the Minneapolis-born filmmaker stopped through town for a speaking engagement. On his mind then was the cowardice of network television: ABC had recently bought episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus and refused to air them in whole.

Twenty-one years later, Gilliam is returning for a career retrospective at the Walker Art Center and another date at the podium. In the interim, he's made a half-dozen films that are distinguished by their ornate renderings of fantasy, insanity, and alternate realities. Within Gilliam's filmography, Brazil, a dystopian and darkly comic take on bureaucracy, has been critically acclaimed as one of the best movies of the 1980s. The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys, which Gilliam directed but did not write, have been box-office hits. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and this spring's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, both of which Gilliam helped to script, have won scant commercial and critical success.

Terry Gilliam (right) confers with a Hollywood peer on the set of 12 Monkeys
Terry Gilliam (right) confers with a Hollywood peer on the set of 12 Monkeys

Yet taken together these films show a singular intelligence at work, as opposed to the filmmaking-by-committee that has long defined Hollywood product. A 1996 documentary on the making of 12 Monkeys portrays Gilliam carefully dripping red paint over a set, rearranging foliage for an outdoor shot, and trying to coach a better performance from a hamster in a wheel--none of which is considered appropriate business for the director of a $30-million picture. And it is this inclination to individuate his art that has led to Gilliam's well-publicized and bitter feuds with Hollywood studios.

In a recent phone interview from his home in North London, Gilliam discussed the frustrations of inventing fantastic new worlds for the screen while the politics of our more pedestrian one dictate the terms of that process. Whatever Gilliam claimed during his last local visit, his story seems to have remained constant over the years: The mind-set of the entertainment industry is tuned to mediocrity.

"I think the thing with me is I grew up in the San Fernando Valley," he says. "So Hollywood was omnipresent. And it was the thing: making movies, being in movies. All that was everything you ever wanted. And I could never work out how you did it, how you got through that system. I certainly had no patience to start at the bottom. At that particular moment in Hollywood they were doing awful films. And I learned to really hate that system. And that's kind of kept me going all these years while I deal with it.

"I see the guys, the executives. They're not good at their jobs. They're not bright. They don't have passion. They're highly paid middle management making a continuing series of dumb choices. But there's so much talent available that it works enough times. I don't feel they respect anything other than their own careers. I just hate it."

CITY PAGES: Many of your movies--12 Monkeys, Baron Munchausen, Fisher King, Time Bandits, Fear and Loathing, Brazil--have concerned themselves with elaborate fantasies and self-delusions. Outside of the usual Hollywood monomania, have you had direct experiences observing what's quaintly called madness?

TERRY GILLIAM: I don't limit it just to Hollywood. I think it's endemic in modern Western society. We seem to be living in a world where mirrors are being held up: television, newspapers, commercials, movies. And they're all distorted mirrors as far as I can see. It's very hard to know what reality is at a certain point. I just play around with it in films to see if I can work out for myself what reality is.

CP: All your films feature beautiful imaginings of other realities. But it seems the more elaborate those worlds become, the more intricate and challenging are the set design and filming techniques required to render them. Is the process of making those fantasies into physical places ever so excruciatingly slow-going as to become boring to you?

GILLIAM: It never gets boring. It becomes totally frustrating and murderous. Munchausen was the case in point. It wasn't that what we were doing was so impossible; it was just that it was so badly organized. And so once you get into that situation where the elements aren't coming together when they need to come together, that becomes terrifying.

Most films of that scale farm out the effects to people, and I don't. I direct them. I design them. I'm there the whole time. So it becomes a really painful process. At a certain point, you just realize you made a major mistake in your life.

What's funny is that the end result never seems nightmarish. It seems beautiful. We were making Munchausen, and my assistant translator had never been on a film before. And she constantly was commenting on the fact that here I was, this wretch going around the place--the most miserable, grumpy, awful human being on the planet. And the work was so difficult and painful and ugly. And then each day we would look at the rushes of the previous day's work, and there was beauty up on the screen. And she never could quite come to terms with that--how this was possible. It was like Alberich in the Ring Cycle making beautiful things below ground.

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