Rian Johnson, the writer-director of Brick and Looper, talks with Terry Gilliam on the occasion of the U.S. theatrical release of Gilliam’s new movie, The Zero Theorem. In the first part of a two-part conversation for the Talkhouse Film podcast, Johnson and Gilliam discuss topics ranging from modern movie-watching and the perils of social media to Star Wars: Episode VIII, which Johnson is to write and direct. For more filmmakers talking film and TV, visit Talkhouse Film.
Here’s a fantastic interview with Terry Gilliam, “one of the great cinematic fabulists of our time, architect of magnificently maximalist alternate universes, from the surreal dreamscapes of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus to the dirty, juddering dystopias of Brazil and 12 Monkeys, right back to the alarming, bulbous animations he created for Monty Python. In his 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the titular teller of tall tales puts forward a neat distillation of the Gilliam world-view: ‘Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash, and I’m delighted to say I have no grasp of it whatsoever.’”
Directing was, says Gilliam, always what he wanted to do. His first solo effort, which came out in 1977, was Jabberwocky, a scatological Dark Ages fantasy that had only the loosest connection to the Lewis Carroll poem (it had a monster in it). He was filming at Shepperton when George Lucas was filming Star Wars at Elstree, and the two productions shared crew. “I remember our crew would go some days and work on Star Wars, and come back saying, ‘Jabberwocky’s going to be great; Star Wars, the director doesn’t know what he’s doing.’ They were so proud to be working on Jabberwocky, they wore T-shirts with the name on, until Star Wars came out. Off went the Jabberwocky T-shirts, on with the Star Wars T-shirts.”
The fickleness of Hollywood is a subject you feel Gilliam could expound upon ad infinitum. His struggles with the “middle-range bureaucrats” who run the place have become the stuff of legend, because Gilliam has never been afraid to engage them in battle. In 1985, Universal producer Sid Sheinberg asked him to hack away 50 minutes from Brazil and give it a happy ending. In response, Gilliam took out a full-page advertisement in the trade paper, Variety, reading: “Dear Sid Sheinberg, When are you going to release my movie, Brazil?” Then there was the episode in 2006 when, aggrieved at the lack of marketing support for his film, Tideland, Gilliam wandered the streets wearing a cardboard placard reading: “Studio-less film maker – Family to support – Will direct for food.”
Gilliam used to jet over to Los Angeles to pitch his stories to the studios, but not any more. “I’ve cut my ties, I don’t even have an agent out there,” he says. “I used to go out there with my begging bowl in my hands. And you’d go to these meetings with these executives and you’d get this preamble of five minutes of how much they’ve loved all my films, when they were kids, Time Bandits, it goes on and on. And then you present the new film and they say, ‘Well, I don’t know, I don’t quite get this one.’ And I have to tell them,” he says, wagging his finger, “ Nobody got those other ones either!” Gilliam is still a member of the Academy, and submitted votes for this year’s Oscars: “I just vote for my friends, or do it whimsically, or out of spite in some cases.” —Terry Gilliam interview: ‘If I had stayed in America, I’d be throwing bombs’
Every movie has its own “making of” story, but, no matter how fascinating the account, it’s unusual for the unexpurgated truth to emerge into the public realm. 1995’s Twelve Monkeys is a rare exception. Director Terry Gilliam, intrigued by the concept of having a record of the creative process (and wanting “witnesses” in case the studio attempted to renege on a deal and wrest away control), hand-picked filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe to fashion a behind-the-scenes documentary. The result, The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys, is a fascinating examination of what goes on when the cameras are turned off. And, while The Hamster Factor began as a look at the making of Twelve Monkeys, it quickly became a portrait of the creative genius behind the process: ex-Monty Python member and maverick filmmaker, Gilliam. —James Berardinelli