"A Five-Course Cordon Bleu Meal With a Big Mac":
An interview with filmmaker Terry Gilliam
By Jonathan Kiefer

After his notorious battles with film studios, producers, financiers, censors and the Writer's Guild of America (Et tu, WGA?), Terry Gilliam's allies are not legion. But they are loyal and include longtime collaborators such as fellow Python Michael Palin (these are men, not snakes—please read on), writers Charles Alverson and Charles McKeown, young film school fans with big plans, others who want to simply sting the world's too-tight ass and the hundreds of fantastical and irrepressible characters populating Gilliam's fertile mind and singular work. He has been, and is, their man.

Minnesotan by birth, Gilliam grew up in southern California and eventually used his observant outsider's humor and illustration skills to wedge his way into New York. There he befriended John Cleese who, when Gilliam later moved to London, helped him earn a lasting reputation for artfully stepping on things—as a writer, performer and, most significantly, animator for Monty Python's Flying Circus, in 1969.

The troupe delved into full-length films in the mid-‘70s, and Gilliam found his destiny. He remained in England, made himself at home in the movie racket and made a racket with his movies, gradually straying from the Pythons to toil and tinker on his own outrageous, increasingly elaborate, expensive, variously paranoid, often difficult and fundamentally personal features. Only some have been completed and released. They are:

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (co-directed with Terry Jones, 1975), which should not require any explanation. In fact, many people still must learn to just shut up about it already.

Jabberwocky (1977), Gilliam's first solo feature effort, over which Lewis Carroll would surely be sporting enough not to sue for defamation, were he around, and which some equally sporting critics took as an allegory about Thatcher's Britain taking on the red-eyed (and green-skinned?) monster of communism.

Time Bandits (1981), which delivers the two things its title promises and more and which, because it is such a good idea for a movie and came out when I was about the same age as its protagonist, remains my favorite, as will be evinced below by a few too many questions about Time Bandits.

Brazil (1985), a picture people like to describe with allusions to Kafka and Orwell and which might well have scared the shit out of both of them (Gilliam, incidentally, has used similar allusions to describe and deride the Writer's Guild of America). Also important for being central to a battle not wisely chosen by one hapless studio boss who demanded the film be reduced and released with an artificial but happy ending. Gilliam, who may or may not have invoked Kafka and Orwell at the time but certainly could have, forced the studio to release his version instead.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989), adapted from the 1785 tall-tale biography by Rudolph Raspe, which would probably be impossible for anyone else to make into a film and was almost impossible for Terry Gilliam to make into a film.

The Fisher King (1991), which loosely updates that myth and goes a long way toward changing people's perspective, if not on contemporary life, then at least on rush hour at Grand Central Station.

Twelve Monkeys (1995), in which Bruce Willis may have come from the future, and certainly has come a long way from Moonlighting. Brad Pitt almost wins an Academy Award for being a cute-yet-menacing spaz, and the world as we know it ends and unends and ends again and so on.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
(1998), which, nearly three decades after Hunter S. Thompson's book, kept his rabble roused, promoted voracious experimentation with drugs by some folks' account but not the director's and again just seemed, no matter how you sliced it, like the kind of thing to which Gilliam would take a shine. To wit: Thompson=Gonzo=Gilliam; or even Thompson=Gonzo=Muppet=strange and strangely insightful puppet=Gilliam character.

While awaiting his next project and trying not to blame him for taking so damn long because they know it's not really his fault anyway, fans have DVDs through which to rummage; a recent re-release of Jabberwocky and the giddy animated short Storytime to view; and now, on this very page, a brand new interview to peruse.

From which they will be reminded that Gilliam is a bright and charismatic conversationalist who will lecture if you let him, pausing periodically for what is referred to in Dreams, the Terry Gilliam Fanzine, as "his trademark jackal-on-his-way-to-a-piefight laugh." This is used for punctuation, diffusion or simply the surreal collision of contrary moods. Alternately pensive and intuitive, earnest and good-humored, Gilliam seems accustomed to talking about himself and his work—but neither tired nor tiresome when responding to questions he's surely answered before—perhaps because he fancies the idea of not having any real answers anyway. It's the search that interests him.

He spoke with me from his London office.

First, congratulations on actually BEING Terry Gilliam; I know several people who want to. So I hope you consider it a special privilege.

(laughing) Yes, thank you, thank you.

If the man who made Jabberwocky somehow had a crystal ball and could see the future of his own work, what do you think would be his response? Would anything surprise or even disappoint him about these later projects?


See, that's the problem, I'm not very good at predicting. Even everything I've done, I never thought I was predicting. I thought I was talking about The Now (laughs), and yet it just seemed I was ahead of a few other people so they thought it was some prophetic view of things. But I just thought I was describing what I saw in front of me. I think if there's any frustration, it's that I thought by now I would have made more films. But I find every film I get involved with becomes problematic; they never are as easy as I thought to get them off the ground. I think one reason I do them is that I manage to maintain a certain naivete. And I think, well, this one is going to go really easily. And then, of course, when we confront reality it proves to be complicated. What is reassuring is that the people who usually make the decisions about whether they're going to give me the money or not, they never change their attitude. Each film is like I've never done a film before. They can find a million reasons for why this one won't work.

So there's some consistency there, at least.

Yeah. That's what makes me feel confident, that everything isn't in chaos all the time.

You've said that you don't tend to watch your own films, but they all seem so richly textured that the rest of us are almost required to see them more than once. That is, if we want to TRULY appreciate them. Isn't there something valuable for you to learn by looking at them again?

I sometimes get frightened of watching them and discovering that either I haven't learned anything over the years, that I was so really good at the start, or just wondering how I did it. It always amazes me. I normally don't look at them 'cause I don't want to see all the mistakes, which I can see now. I think subconsciously, or even consciously at times, I'm TRYING to make them so dense so that you have to watch them again. Jabberwocky and Holy Grail were before video. And then video came along, and then DVD came along. So people now have the opportunity of watching a film again and again and again if they really are captured by it. And what's worked out is that my films actually sustain multiple viewings 'cause you can find new things every time. And that's been rather pleasing to see. (laughs) The problem is that sometimes, because they're SO dense, people the first time around just walk out of the cinema. They find they can't follow it; it's just too much to take!

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Well, if they're used to junk food and then you give them the proper meal, right?

Yeah, well, this is sort of a five-course Cordon Bleu meal with a Big Mac.

Being an American expatriate seems to have suited you creatively, and of course it comes with an impressive artistic legacy. Can you talk about that, about what it means for you—especially today?

I've been told, and thought of, my films as messages in bottles sent back to America. Because there's no question that I'm American, but I want to have a perspective that involves a broader view of the world. If I do have some resonance with other people, then that's a good thing, because I do believe in having as many individual voices out there as possible. So I don't know whether I'm right or wrong. It doesn't matter; it just allows more people to hear more things. And if it has an effect, it's even better. What's ironic about Jabberwocky is that my co-writer, Chuck Alverson, lives in Serbia. He married Terry Jones' au pair and has been in Serbia during all the Kosovo bombings. And he's got one of the best witty minds out there, writing about what it used to be like being on ground zero and now you're history, forgotten. And America and the media move on. They've got new things to deal with. You begin to think that at a certain point they're just busy providing entertainment for everybody. The horrible thing is that there are real horrors going on with people dying and it's… you know, I think that if I was in America I would either not understand what's going on in the world or I would be getting so angry about it that I would, uh… I'm not sure what I would be up to. (laughs)

Some of the earliest cultural commentary to appear in the wake of the attacks on New York and Washington held that the age of American irony was over, that irony too was a casualty. What do you make of that? A typically American response? Wishful thinking from the too serious?

America has never been good at irony. That's basically why I prefer British humor; it's based on irony. Czechoslovakian humor, it's BASED on irony, people who've been through hardship. Irony is a great defense mechanism for survival, as long as it doesn't turn into cynicism. There's a fine line between irony and cynicism. Irony to me is very healthy.

You described Storytime as a product of the BCA (Before Computer Animation) period. Today's film technology seems finally to have caught up with your imagination, but not many filmmakers have your imagination. Is the medium in capable hands?

I think it's extraordinary that, if there's a problem, it's that it's so good at recreating a naturalistic view of reality that it's already becoming boring. I saw Jurassic Park 3. What amazed me about it was that it's technically extraordinary and it didn't make any impression upon me because there were no surprises anymore. And we get so quickly used to whatever the technology does that I begin to think that one's got to move back to something cruder, something more abstract. I think one of the most ironic things is South Park because you know that when the guys began they just had construction paper that they cut up and wiggled around. And now they've got TEAMS of animators using computers to make it, BUT they put shadows around the edge of the computerized paper so it looks like it's cut-out again. And I think that's getting really bizarre, when this very sophisticated technology is making something look like it's hand-made by apes.

So will the standards of storytelling rise or fall? Will we be left with movies that are, as something is described in Storytime, "scientifically delicious?"

What is so weird when I look at things like that, things we did that long ago, which is, what I mean, I guess it's twenty years ago—it's like nothing has really changed. We all pretend it's changed, we think it's changed. And yes, technology has kind of caught up with people's fantasies about what technology was. So, to me, it's like the ideas were always there and you may change the specifics, but the basic idea remains. And now, it's this belief that science is going to give us all our answers. It is definitely a new religion for a lot of people, and I… I mean, I think scientific discovery is fantastic. But sometimes I begin to think that a lot of the experiments that are going on that are occupying so many people with so much money are beside the point. It's keeping a lot of scientists off the street and out of trouble. But then again, who are the scientists that are busy making anthrax for America? I mean, there it was. Anthrax. The strains are made in America; I don't know whether this batch is from America. And the Iraqi scientist that's the head of the biological weapons program in Iraq was trained in England. So everything just goes round. It all comes back. Chickens come home to roost. That's the age we're living in: roosting chickens. And you wonder whether, again with genetically modified food. It may be good, it may be bad. But it's like now we say whatever a scientist wants to do to experiment has got to be good because it MIGHT lead to something good. But it also is Damocles' sword time. It can equally lead to something nightmarish. So the question is, how important is it? And are there other things that might be more important? Other things that one should be concentrating one's efforts on? I don't know. But you can't just say this is clean, good, no-problem science. Apparently right now with the missile defense, the Pentagon was not really that keen on it because money is going to be spent on things other than foot soldiers and their bombers and their cruise missiles. And it's going to be going to a new group of people who are really excited about it—which is Silicon Valley—who are really going to get the jobs. So those guys are delighted that they're going to have all this money to play with. Now, does somebody make moral decisions along the way? Does somebody make choices of what they want to work on or not work on? Or do we just get so excited that whatever we're working on, whatever new things we discover are going to justify it. I mean, somewhere those questions are things that need to be thought about and talked about. And I don't think they're thought about enough. But that's me just getting old and cranky.

Well, do you have any new techniques you might want to try? Something that wasn't possible when you first conceived it?

I really don't think so, to be honest. I mean, to me the stuff, whatever the technology is at the moment, is just a tool. And if I can make something a little bit better or more effective, that's fine. But I don't actually think in those terms, I guess. I mean, the idea is, I don't know, can I make angel wings better with the new technology? Yes. So it's more about thinking about angel wings and what they're like, as opposed to the technology. I can use whatever works.

I have to say, we've been getting all these added scenes lately and I find them kind of disappointing, or just unnecessary.

Have you seen The Man Who Wasn't There? It's very interesting. It isn't about technology, it's about holding on to an idea too long, which we're all capable of. And it intrigues me, how we all get caught in it. I mean, I think that by the time you get finished with the final stages of a film, you're probably the least equipped person to judge—the director is—objectively. I mean, Apocalypse Now Redux. "Apocalypse Now and Again," as I call it. I think some of the things they've added are fantastic, actually helped it. And then other things, I don't think so. So it hasn't changed the film, I don't think. The film essentially was always there. And I often feel that with most films, when suddenly the director's cut comes out. I mean, the director's cut always seems to be just a marketing ploy. And it's a chance for directors who caved in to the studios to suddenly say, "Oh, this is the film I really wanted to make." Well, why didn't you make it the first time is my question? The only reason I get cranky about that is that I don't get to do that, because what you get the first time is what I wanted to make.

What about actors? Are there particular actors with whom you'd really like to work (and haven't yet) or is that, again, not really the way you think about it?

I've got a list of who I think are "the great actors" that I would love to work with, if it was the right thing. I think of Ed Harris, Willem Dafoe, Morgan Freeman, these are great actors, I think. And I like the idea of working with really great talents.

I ask because I think your fans have learned to try enjoying the anticipation. They'll hear a name like Morgan Freeman or Ed Harris, and they'll hear Terry Gilliam and then just start to imagine the possibilities. There's some excitement about the meeting of creative minds. And then of course those anticipations are met, and maybe subverted.

12 Monkeys

(laughs) And that's why I was pleased. I mean, I wouldn't have, before the event, said, Oh, I want to work with Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, necessarily. But the circumstances created a situation where we could. And we did. And I was really delighted to see how they took on the problem. And I think we kind of ended up showing another side of them to the world, to the surprise of a lot of people. And that's really pleasing.

Interesting about Twelve Monkeys: As Cole starts to gain Dr. Railly's confidence, she starts to believe him just as he starts to think maybe he really is crazy. Is there some equation involving proportions of reality, fantasy and madness that governs your films?

I'm trying… I suppose, like Cole, I'm trying to work out what's real and what isn't. What's fantasy, what's in my head and what's actually out there. It's an answer that I never come up with. Each one is kind of an exploration of that. And also, it's just trying to make the rest of the world realize what they think is fact is not necessarily so, or what they assume is reality may be wrong. It's trying to encourage that in others. So there's always a questioning attitude about whatever you're served up by the media or television, movies, books, whatever. It's trying to keep people to keep the search alive and not accept anything. Just keep thinking. On the other hand, you don't want to limit it to just factual knowledge 'cause that's such a dire world (laughs). So there needs to be room for it all to brew.

There's a thing with puppets, small theatres, staged masques. It's in Jabberwocky, briefly. It's in Time Bandits, where Kevin had that little stage in his room—which of course reappears with Napoleon, who's enjoying a puppet show. And on and on. You played with these things when you were young, no?

Puppets have always fascinated me. I just find them incredibly powerful. How these crude, silly things on strings can make you believe they're real creatures. It's that theatrical leap that always intrigues me. And puppets are a bigger leap than leaping to live people on stage. And also I think there's something in the back of my head that loves the fact that puppetry has usually been the way around censorship in so many societies. Because people don't take puppets seriously, that's kids' stuff. And so you can actually make some incredible political noises with puppets and get away with it.

They have the liberties of fools, in the Shakespearean sense.

Yep. And they fall into the world of masques as well. It's liberating. And I've never quite understood how it works mentally, but I know it does work.

It reminds me of Bergman, Buñuel, Fellini. Many of the greats seem to have gone through a developmental phase that involved making theatre on a miniature scale.

Yeah, because you can control it. It costs nothing to build a puppet theatre and make some puppets out of cloth and clothespins and things. And I think that's it, it's so basic. And I think one always hankers back for those moments, when you had that kind of freedom to do whatever you wanted and it didn't require meeting executives and getting large sums of money to do it. And there's probably that in the heart of and way back, deep down for all creative people, that you can wiggle around a couple pieces of paper. In a sense, my animation was like that. They weren't puppets, but they were just cut out pieces of paper that I could move around. And I long for that sometimes.

Again I'm thinking of Kevin in Time Bandits. If anyone has the special education and the sort of sensitivity needed to grow up and become a filmmaker, it's him. Can you speculate about what he would be doing now?

Time Bandits

Actually, we've written Time Bandits for television. Charles McKeown and I have just finished the story (pause, with trepidation), 'cause Hallmark has bought Time Bandits.


Yeah. Yeah, I sorta had the same reaction. "Really? And do I like this?" But I've agreed to be in creative control of this thing. So we wrote Time Bandits, these two, two-hour specials. Kevin is now in his middle-thirties and he's got a couple kids. And life has never been as exciting as it was then. And that's where it starts.

Is there an example, whether it's yours or someone else's, of the perfect film?

Ah, I don't know. This is when I have to become more Muslim. With Islamic carpets, the maker always makes a mistake in it because only God could make a perfect carpet (laughs). And they don't want to presume. So I don't know if there's a perfect film or not. There are those that I could watch again and again. I would hate to think that somebody's pulled one off. I like to think that that's something to hold on to, that one day maybe… maybe.

What are some of those movies you can never get enough of, or even the ones that make you think, God, I wish I made that?

Oh, Les Enfants du Paradise, a lot of Kubrick, Bergman when he's good is great, Buñuel, Kurosawa. I mean, the list goes on and on and on. I mean, Pinocchio. The minute I start making lists I regret it because as soon as I put the phone down, I remember all the other ones that were in fact much more important to me.

You seem to take a lot from literary sources, but even the uninitiated viewer would think, within the first moments of just about any of your films, that creatively you're a very visual person. Can you talk about the relative merits of words and images?

It's always kind of a struggle between the two things. Sometimes the image comes first, sometimes the words or the story. And when you're writing a script, you kind of get trapped in words so that you can… so there's something to read. And then what I normally do is I just put the script aside and start drawing a storyboard. And suddenly I find ways of doing it and I don't need the words. And I'm actually re-writing the whole thing. But if I hadn't gone through the word stage first, I wouldn't be able to do that. I don't know, for some reason, and maybe it's been because of adapting books and all the words have gotten sometimes in the way, and I just feel we've got too many of 'em. And yet I love wonderful dialogue so I'm always torn. I don't REALLY know how it works. And in the end, when we get in the cutting room, we start chopping a lot of stuff out that just seemed so essential when we were doing it that I couldn't see how we could do without it. But if you're lucky, suddenly you stumble on an image that does the job for you.

I've heard of composers and songwriters writing bits of melody or chord changes that don't quite add up to a finished piece at first so they hold on to them, recycle them. Have you practiced a cinematic version of this? An image, an object, some spoken exchange you want to use, that's just waiting for the right story?

Yeah, it's the magpie approach to creativity—you just write ‘em down. And occasionally when I start a project, I'll just dredge up all this stuff that either didn't get in to previous films or has been sitting around. And I just sit and rake my way through it all and then start saying, Oh, that could work, and what if we put that in there? Without a clear idea of where it's all leading, just hoping that you get enough pieces of a jigsaw together and suddenly the whole thing will be clear. And a lot of the stuff still hasn't gotten used; it still gets thrown back into the drawer for the next time.

I'd imagine it's a pretty deep drawer.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

(somewhat resigned) Yeeeeah, it's getting full. If I could make a few more films before I kick the bucket, I might use the stuff up. But the way I'm going, it's not nearly as fast as I'd hoped. Every time I think I'm going to knock one out in the next year or so, it doesn't happen. I mean, it's now… since Fear and Loathing it's… since 1997. And that's the frustrating part—how long it takes to get projects going.

Good Omens is up next. What would you like to tell us about that?

It's right at the stage now of "Can We Get the Financing?" I want to be shooting it next spring. Script is done, budget's done, couple main actors are on board, and now we're just trying to see who's gonna bite. The two main characters are the devil that was the serpent in the Garden of Eden and an angel who was the angel of the flaming sword at the gates, who've been on earth for lo, these many thousands of years. They're basically the local representatives of Heaven and Hell. They've worked out a way of accommodating each other, working without getting in each other's way too much. They've learned to like the world and humanity and along comes the Antichrist, which means, in a few years, the end of everything. The apocalypse. And they, basically, are trying to stop it. Oh, and it's a comedy. But you do get to see Heaven and Hell and all the assembled angels and devils, and we got the four horsemen of the apocalypse in there, Atlantis rising from the depths. All sorts of goodies.

Who's in the cast?

Can't tell you that.

And what's going on with The Defective Detective?

It sort of sits there because I sort of get into these other projects and let it languish again. One of these days I'm going to have to read the script again and get excited. But it's sitting there. I think it's a really good project and it will get made at some point, I'm sure. It's basically a middle-aged New York cop who's completely burnt out and very cynical. He may be having a nervous breakdown. And he ends up in a kid's world, which is literally a kid's fantasy world, where everything is like my cut-out animation. Nothing is what it should be, and he effectively has to learn to become a kid again to be able to survive in this world because when you do things like a middle-aged New York cop might do, it doesn't work. It backfires. It's basically learning to be a kid again. But it's never as sweet and simple as that. If anybody out there wants to give me a lot of money, I'm willing and ready to go. At one point, I think when we were talking of doing another Python film, we were thinking of going on the web and letting everybody become a shareholder—you could buy $10 worth of shares, or $50—and try to raise the money that way. So lots of people would own a part of it. I don't know if it's worth doing, might try it one day.

Well, it might be an interesting experiment, if nothing else.

It might be really depressing. (laughs) That's what I fear.

Are you ever too exhausted or cynical to even pursue an idea? Ever think, oh what's the point? It's just not worth it.

Yeah, almost every day. (laughs)

How do you cope with that?

I don't know. I don't know. I just sort of march on and look out the window. And the leaves are beautiful and the sun's catching a branch of a tree and suddenly, okay, life is worth carrying on. But I'm getting… it's like my spring is beginning to wind down too much. It's harder and harder each time to dredge yourself up from depression and march on. But there's not much else I can do well. So I keep doing this.

And when you do, you don't mess around. You've fought, and won, some pretty famous battles with the Hollywood machine. Can we call you a gadfly?

Oh, please do. Oh, yes. (laughs loudly) Oh, to be able to be a gadfly! The best gadfly was Zeus. When Bellerophon… Bellerophon was the hero who managed to ride Pegasus, and after defeating the Chimera, which may or may not have existed, he was SO full of himself! He tried to fly to Olympus on Pegasus. And Zeus became a gadfly and flew up Pegasus' ass, and Pegasus threw Bellerophon to earth and the rest of his days limped as a cripple through life. So yeah, very good company.