The Motion/Captured Interview: An hour with Terry Gilliam, part one

08.04.09 8 years ago 6 Comments

Okay… gun to my head, clock is ticking, what’s my favorite film?

I’m either going to say “Brazil” or “Lawrence of Arabia.”  Both answers are right, and it just depends on the degree of cynicism I allow myself that day as to which one I give.

When I was contacted the week before Comic-Con about the possibility of sitting down with Terry Gilliam at some point in San Diego, I thought it would, at best, turn out to be a ten-minute stop on an assembly line of quick interviews about “The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus,” the still-unsold new film from Gilliam featuring the final performance of Heath Ledger.  And I was perfectly fine with the idea of just getting ten minutes with him.

Instead, I got a full hour, and the result is one of my favorite filmmaker interviews I’ve done.  I really do prefer being able to have a longer conversation with someone, because you get past the early sort of perfunctory stuff and start to really dig into things.  I’ve loved Gilliam’s work since the first time I saw “Time Bandits” in 1981.  I was 11 years old, and hooked immediately.  I’ve always wanted to chat with him, and near the end of this hour, I felt like I’d finally said or asked pretty much everything pressing, everything that I’d been saving up over the years.  It was satisfying in a way few interviews ever are for me.

I hope you guys enjoy it as well.  Here’s the full text, from the moment Quint got up and walked away at the end of his interview.  I stepped up as Terry stood for a moment and we shook hands.  He had his hair pulled back into a ponytail, and that infamous devil’s grin of his was firmly in place as I introduced myself.

[more after the jump]

Keep in mind, we did the interview sitting in a room where there was a video feed from Hall H, so the “Twilight” panel was playing behind us, the constant sound of little girl screams punctuating our conversation.  Gilliam was still laughing about how Johnny Depp’s surprise appearance on the Disney panel undercut the geek reaction to Jeff Bridges showing up to discuss “Tron: Legacy.”  Realizing that Gilliam has directed some of the best work from both of those actors was a reminder of just how huge an impact he’s made on this entire industry, just as we sat down to chat:

Drew McWeeny: Sir, very nice to meet you.

Terry Gilliam: Hello. [laughs] So Johnny ruined it for Jeff.

I was just saying I’ve never heard a sound like when Johnny walked into that room.  It was physical.  Oh my God.  They were really excited.

Especially since they didn’t know he was coming on.

Yeah.  Yeah.

Johnny doesn’t really care.  He’d better start making some good films.

Well, it’s funny.  I was just saying to somebody the other day when I saw “Public Enemies” that it was nice to see subtle Johnny work again.  Because I’m a big fan of, like, “Dead Man” and the era when he was kind of defining who he was.  The thing I loved about him was that he took such risks and he was able to be very quiet, and he’s got that great silent movie actor face anyway.  These big broad roles… I know that they’re huge and they’re very popular right now, but I would love to see some of those subtle Johnny moments again.

Because most of the things he’s aiming to do… I’m not a great fan of “Public Enemies,” because I think he’s a fucking extraordinary film maker, but personally I didn’t think Johnny had enough room to act.  The one scene that was good was where he’s in prison, in jail, and Chris is outside.  That was the only time I really thought, “Okay, now you’ve got some room here to do something.”  And that’s what bothered me about it.  It didn’t allow him enough moments like that.  It was just push, push, push.  Put that fedora on. Wear the clothing.  Because he can be fantastic and I like it when he plays it down, I agree.  I just thought there was too much of it where he just was there, but he didn’t have the moments to allow him to do just a little bit more.  [laughs] He’s making so much money.  There was a piece in the Huffington Post today… did you see it?

No, I haven’t.

It’s a letter saying “All right, come on, we all love you, but stop.”

Was it a reaction to yesterday’s trailer when it finally went live and we saw the Mad Hatter for the first time?

I don’t know what it was.  It might have been that one.  It’s like, “Come on.  You’ve got the power to make some really good films happen.  Why are you doing this shit?”

That’s the thing I really want to see because I’m always fascinated by how once you become a movie star and not just an actor, you have a certain amount of clout that you can spend.  And how you spend it, I think, is what defines the movie stars.  Because, yes, they’ll do these big movies that are almost guarantees, but then how do you take that and spend it afterwards?

Well, that’s what will be interesting to see how “Rum Diaries” is.  What it’s like.

I love that it’s Bruce Robinson directing.  That excites me.  I’m a huge “Withnail & I” fan.  One of the few times I’ve ever kind of like lost my mind meeting somebody was when I ran into Richard E. Grant.  I was in England and I didn’t mean to.  It was just how often do you see Richard E. Grant out and about?

Yeah, yeah.  No, I think that’s going to be an interesting one because, okay, here’s Johnny.  It’s his production company doing it, and so we’ll see.  Because the guy who pulled it off beyond anybody was Clint Eastwood.


He used his powers so brilliantly.

That’s the best model.  You’ve worked with a lot of guys who, as young actors, have sort of popped when you put them into unusual situations.  I loved Pitt’s work in “12 Monkeys” expressly because it’s the first moment where I went, “Oh my God, I think there’s a lot more going on then I realized.”

Yeah.  There were actually bits of that in “Kalifornia” I thought.  When I saw “Kalifornia,” I thought, “Hello, he’s doing something there that’s dangerous.”  And, for me, it was about the fact that he was so desperate to show another side of himself.  And it followed right on from “Legends of the Fall,” where that was the one that he became… it was like Johnny in “Pirates”.  “Legends” catapulted Brad into this other part of the stratosphere.  I mean, a week before it came out, we could walk around anywhere and nobody bothered him.  The week it came out… girls were threatening to throw themselves out of windows.  It was madness. 
Brad’s kind of interesting.  He’s trying to… I don’t know exactly what he’s doing, but he’s doing odd and different things at the moment.

He is.

And that’s good.

But a lot of the guys that have worked with you, I’ve noticed they have that tendency… they’re beautiful actors, physically, like Heath Ledger, but there’s a desire on their part to get past that and then to play roles that really challenge that perception of them.

Well, I think Heath didn’t have the opportunity to get to get where he attempted…

He was just starting.

… because he was fighting the temptation the whole time because he just… I think “Brokeback Mountain” threw him into that part of the stratosphere.

I like what he did in “Lords of Dogtown,” too.  I think there was some really interesting character stuff there.

Yeah, I mean… he hated all that, what was being put on a plate in front of him.  “This is your moment.”  The Faustian moment, and he was resisting it.  And Joker was just a great bit of fun.  That’s what it was.  Just a fly.  He was having just a great time doing that.

I noticed that Heath said the same thing that Depp said on “Pirates,” that they kept expecting to get fired.  They kept expecting that the studio would notice what they were doing and say, “Oh no, no, no. We’re not making that kind of movie.”  I think that’s one of the reasons those roles are immediately iconic… we are so used to, in commercial films, a certain level of where you’ll stop.  And those guys insisted on pushing further, and so suddenly you get something that doesn’t feel commercial at all.

You’re absolutely right.  I mean, that’s… it’s like with “12 Monkeys,” there was Bruce as well, who was trying to escape from what he was doing.  I don’t think Bruce got enough credit on that.  I think it’s an extraordinary performance he gave, because it’s such a quiet internalized performance.  But again, he was trying to show, “Wait, I’m a big movie star, but fuck it, I just want to show I’m an actor and a really good actor.”  Because I think most of them, they began as actors, and at a certain point I think you begin to feel like a whore. You’re paid so much money to lie on your back.  “No, wait, I’ve got to go out and show that I still am a very fine actor.”

You mentioned “12 Monkeys”, and that was a great David Peoples and Janet Peoples script when that started, a really strong piece of writing.  But generally you develop your own material.  It’s something internal…

Well, yeah, except that “The Fisher King” was the first one that I didn’t.  That was a script that I read and just understood all the characters, and I was envious that I hadn’t written it.  It’s far better than anything I would have written.

Is there going to be a BluRay of that soon hopefully?  There’s not a great home video version out yet.

I’ve heard something about… yes, in fact I’ve heard… where did I see that?  In some blog or something.  It might be.  I don’t know these things.  I never pay attention to what’s going on with my films.

Good.  It’s sad that the DVD… there’s just not a great DVD of it, and I’d love to have a great home print.

Didn’t Criterion do one?

They did, but it was on laser disc.  It was wonderful.

Criterion are the most wonderful organization on the planet.

I agree.

They’ve raised the level for everybody, and the studios have had to follow.  But because “Fisher King” came along like that, when the “12 Monkeys” script came along, I was like, “How is this ever going to get through the system?”


And I thought that’s a good reason to do it.  Forget about it. It’s an amazing script and wouldn’t normally come out of Hollywood, but it got developed and got through there, and by then there was a price tag on it… probably $1 million by that point, so there’s always that pressure.  “Well, we don’t want to throw the million away.”  They got me involved and then they wanted people named Tom to be in the film, and I resisted that, and eventually Bruce came on, and that was the moment that they said okay. And then when Brad came on, they couldn’t believe their luck, and I said, “Wait a minute.  Do you understand what we’re doing here?  We’re putting these two people in parts completely opposite of what their fan base is interested in.  This could just blow up in our faces.”  And that’s why, to me, it was interesting and exciting.  Because if there isn’t a bit of frisson that we just might just be leaping off the cliff and all dying horribly, it’s hardly worth doing the films.

It’s interesting because what we do… so frequently, I worry about being intrusive on the film making process while at the same time I can’t help but be fascinated.  So it’s that fine line where I don’t ever want to cause a film maker problems with what they’re doing…

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

… but you have been… since “12 Monkeys,” you have been fairly open with the filmmakers you’ve allowed to follow you to show, warts and all, how the film making process either works or, in the case of “Don Quixote,” doesn’t.  And that is incredibly rare and, I think… especially knowing how hard you work to get these things off the ground… it seems brave, because so often it’s about presenting the perfect face of “Oh, no, film making is always easy and it’s always wonderful and magic”.  Why did you decide to allow people… I mean, at what point did you…

Because I’m perverse.  [laughs]  I was so bored with all the EPK’s that I’d done.  All the puff pieces.  Like, what the fuck is this?  Also, I’ve got a bad memory and I’m too lazy to keep a diary, so if I get a couple of film students to follow me, maybe I’ll remember something.  And it’ll be interesting.  I hate the way EPK’s are done.  I hate puff pieces because film is really interesting.  The whole process is interesting, and the idea that it’s all a big happy family having a wonderful time and that’s why the audience is going to love it?  No.  I think the audience might like it because people are really killing themselves to achieve this thing, but it’s hard and it’s difficult and… I mean, with Keith and Lou who did “The Hampster Factor” on “12 Monkeys,” they were just two graduate film students in Philadelphia, and I just gave them a camera and here’s all the tape and I wore a mic.  I said, “It’s all… anything you want to do is fine.  Just record it all.  I’m not going to edit any of it.”  I mean, some of the cast didn’t agree with my complete freedom, but it’s still okay.  I mean, it’s a little bit trimmed because… people didn’t want to be seen in the process, I think is what it is.  But I’m intrigued by that, and I think what I’ve liked about it is they end up being… they’re great for film schools.  People are going to see how films are made.

Well, the Matthews book on “Brazil” is one of the ones I force on people because you have to understand how the studio system works.  I’m banned completely from one studio.  I can’t cover them. I’m not allowed to do press events.  They won’t show me their movies.  If I want to see it…

What did you do to alienate them?

I worked for them as a writer, and then I wrote about how badly the system works.  Having gone through the process a few times there, I can tell you… 20th Century Fox is profoundly broken.  That process doesn’t work now.

Yeah.  Oh, yeah.  I agree.

Saying that in print, Tom Rothman declared war on me, and it has literally become a personal “I will never let you cover our films” situation.  But so what?  It’s broken, and if you can’t say that, then it will never get better, and it makes me crazy that other people won’t also tell that same story.

Truth is so important, and what’s even more important than truth is to not lie, even if you don’t tell all the truth.  Don’t lie.  And there’s so much of it out there.  It’s this false world has been created and, wait a minute, you have to understand the world you’re in, particularly… I mean, I’ve always been unfortunately too politically motivated.  In fact, while you’re all buying your iPods and everything, weren’t you paying attention to what’s going on in the world financially, economically?  Don’t you understand the cost of what all these goodies are going to cost?  I suppose that’s what it’s always been about.  I mean, I don’t want to hide this stuff because I think the truth is actually much more interesting.  I remember in college when I… for a brief period, I was in a fraternity, because that’s what you do, isn’t it?  And I remember when rush season was on, and it was Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and all the freshmen were coming in, and you’re supposed to be saying “This is the best house, and these guys are really cool,” and it’s all puff stuff.  It’s all like being agents in Hollywood.  And I would go around with a sign saying “Truth Spoken Here”.  You can ask me anything you want, I’ll tell you the truth.  And that’s what I did.  And the other fraternities hated me.  Let’s just do it, come on.  You want the truth, I’ll tell you.  If you don’t want the truth, don’t ask me.  Talk to him over there.  That’s all.

I find there are other people who write about film… and I’m amazed how little they know about the process.  It’s because they buy into the “Entertainment Tonight” version of it.  So when we’re on a film set, they don’t seem to understand it’s work going on and that creative people… there’s friction.  There are all sorts of things that happen.  There are things you don’t expect.  God, listening to Zemeckis this morning, who I truly believe will never make a live-action film again…

TG: I don’t think so either.

… the key quote he used was… and he lit up when he said it… he said, “Well, there’s just so much control when I do it this way”, and I’m like, “There it is.”  You could see it happening when he said “control.”  He lit up.  And, for him, it was always actors hitting marks or things like that which made the process difficult, because he’s so technically precise.  Knowing that and then seeing what Bob’s doing now, it makes perfect sense.  But if you think that film making is easy, then you just think “Oh, he likes cartoons.”  But, no… it’s really about he wants to create a whole world and he wants to immerse you and he wants to know that when he wants to pull something off, he can do it.  And it’s not going to be dependent on “Did Crispin Glover know where the tape on the floor was while we were shooting?”

Yeah.  And that’s what’s so funny because I know Bob.  He’s the guy that got me in the Director’s Guild.

Oh wow.

Yeah.  And he’s fantastic, but it’s almost the antithesis of what I want to do.  Even though I want to do incredibly elaborate things, I want reality to be somewhere around there to remind me or to… to bring, I guess, the element of chaos in it or the element of surprise, because I don’t want total control.  I want to control it, but only to a degree.  That’s why I love working with actors.  They’re not going to do exactly what I want, and thank God they don’t do what I want because they’re going to surprise me and the audience, and they’re going to be better.

Well, I think thematically that’s a big part of your work, as well.  I mean, a fly can drop onto a typewriter, and how many lives are ruined or affected as a result of that?  That chaos is in the visual style of your work as well.  My favorite movies are “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Brazil”.

Oh, wow.

… and “Brazil” is the first film that I ever walked out of, bought a ticket for, and walked back in and sat down again, because the ending of that movie devastated me to such a degree that it was like, “I have to understand what it just did to me.”  I had to go back and see it again because I’m laughing through it, I’m having this one experience, and then it’s the weirdest happy ending of all time… because I would say he escapes.  Sam is free.

The world of imagination.

Physically maybe not, but Sam is where Sam is happy.

Exactly.  I agree.

And I love that Richard Conway look… the hand-made look of that world.  It doesn’t look slick or Hollywood, and there’s that feeling that it’s real, that somebody had their hands on it.  I think that’s why that pulled me in to the degree it does.

Yeah, see, that effect, I wish I could…

[Now, here’s where something happened that I’ve never had happen in an interview, and I did my best not to get angry at the arrogance of someone walking up and literally stepping between me and Gilliam and just starting to blather at him, eating into what little time I have to talk to him, especially when he says he saw Gilliam ‘just sitting here’… you know… IN THE MIDDLE OF AN INTERVIEW…

Interrupting Dude:  I’m so sorry to interrupt. I am also a film director and a huge fan.  “Brazil” is a fucking brilliant film.

I was just being told it was.  One day I hope to see it.

I saw you just sitting here, so I figured I’d say hello…

Have you been up on the stage yet?

Not yet.  My wife is the celebrity.  She writes “Dexter” and the “Twilight” films.

The only time I’ve been to the Academy Awards was when my wife was nominated for “Munchausen” for Best Makeup. That’s the only time I went.  Hang on to your wife because it works.

Did she win?

No. We’re losers.  Cheers.

The guy finally noticed the look I was giving him and walked away, and Gilliam turned back to me, picking up mid-thought from where we’d left off.]

… but what’s interesting about the “Brazil” thing is… it even started back in “Jabberwocky” or in “Holy Grail”… putting the dirt in there…

I love the look of “Holy Grail” for that.

Yeah, just getting some earth in there.  And if you’re doing comedy, you’re never supposed to do that.  Comedy was supposed to be a cleaner slicker thing.  I was always reacting against that, and with “Brazil”… I don’t know, it’s just trying to make the world real.  I want to believe it, whatever it is.  I remember with “Jabberwocky,” a kid came out of a screening in New York, and he really didn’t like it because he said, “The people were ugly and they’re all kind of dirty,” and this kid had never looked in a mirror because he was just grotesque.  But he wanted to believe for a moment he was Rock Hudson or something.  He wanted that mirror, this blind mirror to him.  I’ve always said, “No, I want to get through.”  And it’s a passion because so few other people are going down that road.  It’s more interesting.  If everybody’s going that way, I’ve always gone the other way.

[We’re going to break the interview here, since it’s too big to fit into one blog entry.  I’ll publish part two here in just a moment.]

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