Reality Bites

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

CP: Do you ever feel silly sitting there next to the fog machine trying to imagine what it's going to look like on screen? Does it ever seem like the artifice is ridiculous in the moment?

GILLIAM: Strangely, no. I giggle a lot, there's no question about that [laughs]. It's always kind of wondrous. It's more the fact that I'm getting away with it that makes it so funny. People are giving me millions and millions of dollars to jerk around, basically.

It's strange. The reality of making films for me is not normally a very pleasant experience. The shooting I find stressful the whole time. It never lets up. So I really don't enjoy any of it. The imagining beforehand and the preparation is all good because everything is possible. And in the editing, at least everything is kind of finite: [You know] what you've got to work with, and you make the best of it. But the shooting is like...each day I don't seem to be coming up with the stuff that's as good as I thought it was going to be, as I imagined it months before. It becomes a constant fight against depression, really.

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

CP: I wanted to ask you how the films you've made stack up to the ones that you've imagined.

GILLIAM: It's kind of weird. By the end, I have come to terms with what I've done. And in most cases, they've ended up being what I set out to make, even though they're totally different. If that's possible.

CP: How are some of them different from what you'd originally conceived?

GILLIAM: Well, Brazil for instance: The number of fantasy sequences and the scale of fantasy sequences were enormous. It was probably three times as much as what's in there. And as we were going along I had to keep cutting things out--reducing it and finding ways to achieve the same effect, I suppose. In a sense, it was a fraction of what I set out to do. But the end result, the total of the thing, ended up being really the same as what I set out with. It always happens. You pack your bags with all this stuff and you just keep dumping ballast as you move forward.

CP: Do you have any theories on why a lot of critics reacted negatively to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?

GILLIAM: I think they were behaving like moral guardians to the nation. Some of the reviews are not reviewing that film; they're reviewing what the film was about, and those characters that seem to be beyond the pale of decent behavior.

They didn't get it. I never know. The standard of criticism is usually pretty low. I find most people that write about films aren't particularly intelligent. I find I expect more of critics, I suppose, and I'm usually disappointed that they aren't as sharp as I would like them to be.

CP: Are there new or unique pressures militating against good filmmaking, as opposed to, say, 10 or 20 years ago?

GILLIAM: I don't know. I mean, I keep hoping the pendulum is about to swing back. It seems the problem is, the public, the cinemagoer, has been fed baby food for so long that the appetite, the taste buds have actually been corrupted. I keep hoping that the big machine in Hollywood is running out of ideas. My daughter, who's 18, says she's getting bored watching films that are so predictable. I think that's a good sign.

CP: Your movies create a kind of menacing fantasy world which in some ways is like Disney's. But where Disney finds that concept of absolute control a calming thing, for you it's relentlessly malevolent. How would you feel about being labeled the anti-Disney?

GILLIAM: That's fine. I like that idea. Just before [this interview] we were talking about the Antichrist, so this is good timing on your part [laughs]. The darkness I think comes from the fact that I really loved fairy tales. Nobody bothers to go back and reread Grimm's fairy tales nowadays. They're dark, and they're frightening. And yet you still come out the other end of all of them. You may not come out exactly the way you like. But the darkness is good.

I think all my films are fairy tales, in different ways. I was talking to George Lucas--it was after Brazil came out--and he was saying 'Darth Vader is Evil.' And I said 'Darth Vader isn't evil. He's just the bad guy in the black hat. You see him coming a mile away.' What's evil is the Michael Palin character [the torturer in Brazil]: your best friend, the good guy, the family man, who makes these choices of what's important and what isn't. And that's what I think is evil. Adult fairy tales is what [my films] are. But I wish the adults were old enough to appreciate them.

Terry Gilliam will appear at the Walker Art Center on Thursday, November 5 for a Regis Dialogue with film critic Stuart Klawans (the event is sold out). He will also appear at Oak Street Cinema on Wednesday, November 4 following a screening of the European version of Brazil, which starts there on Friday for a one-week run.

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