"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.
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.
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.
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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.