Terry Gilliam – eternal youth

Article published on Dec. 22, 2006
Article published on Dec. 22, 2006
Terry Gilliam spent half his life in London, where he created Monty Python with a group of like-minded comedians. At 65, the actor-director’s spirits remain as imaginative and animated as ever

He doesn’t look all that different from your 'Average Retired Brit': greying locks, generously spreading midriff, colourful shirt and sandals. However, two things do differentiate him from the rest of the British tourists. Firstly, he’s actually American. Secondly - his indisputable talent. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who hasn’t laughed deliriously at his comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Thirty years after this unequivocal success, Gilliam is still making movies.

He studiously flicks through the newspapers on the table in front of him, looking for coverage of his various comments at the Sitges Film Festival of Catalonia. Some of the headline gems include: ‘Nostradamus is my middle name,’ ‘Monty Python are like the Beatles – we’ll never get back together,’ or ‘I feel like Don Quixote’. He’s an endless source of bylines, and I hope I’ll be lucky enough to elicit one from him.

We start by talking about reviews. He wasn’t too happy with the negative press his last film, Tideland, got at the San Sebastian Film Festival, even going so far as to call the critics idiots. A year later, and a little calmer, he speaks of the ‘different kind of audience at Sitges’, and the much more positive reaction his film has received. ‘What the critics have to say doesn’t interest me now. Sometimes I think they see so many films that they don’t know which one they’re talking about. I’ve never learnt anything from a negative review.’ His tone is relaxed and he appears to bear no grudges.

the girl heroine

It must be said, Tideland is not an easy film to watch. It requires much of the viewer. The story, based on the novel of the same name by Mitch Cullin, is of a girl, Jeliza-Rose, who is obliged to prepare fixes for her heroin-addict parents. When they die, she begins an imaginary life, in which trains are sharks and her dolls speak. It’s the only way Jeliza-Rose can survive her miserable reality.

‘I fell in love with the book from the first moment,’ says Gilliam, ‘and I think the key is the point of view. Everything is seen through the eyes of a little girl and that surprises adult audiences. They are then incapable of enjoying the film. When a little girl appears onscreen and starts preparing heroin, they say ‘Agh!’, close ranks and can’t accept what they see. They just see death, drugs and bad things, instead of seeing the relationship between father and daughter or the world she creates. What she’s doing doesn’t cause her problems. In her mind, she’s just helping her father.’ The only way to appreciate the film is to become a child.

Limitless imagination

That’s never been a problem for Gilliam himself. Despite his age, it would seem that he has never stopped thinking like a child. Since parting ways with Python, he has become a cult director, thanks to the fantasy aspects of his movies. The magical element of his films puts us in touch with the child within. We can see it in the Orwellian persecution of Brazil (1985), or in the futurist fable Twelve Monkeys (1995).

‘I think when we stop dreaming, we die. I don’t separate reality from imagination: others put them in different boxes; I don’t like that.’ He pauses a moment to emphasise his idea with outstretched arms, and continues: ‘Everyone makes a living talking about reality, but I still don’t know what it is. People sell newspapers or get record TV audiences with this idea, but for me, reality is a personal thing. We’ve all got a responsibility to reinvent the world for ourselves, not just accept whatever they tell us it should be.’

Gilliam likes to fight the system, although that brings its problems. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was the film he was never able to finish. It was not just because of the problems inherent to filmmaking, (it took 10 years to get funding), but also because of the series of natural and material disasters that overtook the shooting. The documentary (2002) by Keith Fulton y Louis Pepe is the first ‘the making of’ of a film that was never made!

But like Don Quixote, for all the windmills that he might face, Gilliam will soldier on. He shoots on both sides of the Atlantic with his customary energy. On the question of where it is easier to film, he recognises a contradiction: ‘I suppose in the States: I get more money there. I know it must seem ironic, since I spend all my time criticising Hollywood, but the studios guarantee me quantities of money that are impossible in Europe,’ he laughs. But he doesn’t forget about Europe: ‘When I want to be comfortable, I say I’m American; when I need to be a bit more exotic, I say I’m English.’ Tideland was shot in the UK - Europe might have tighter budgets but minds there more open to risks.

The Return of Python

The one American-born Python has in fact spent half his life in Europe, in London to be precise. He emigrated to work there in 1967, and met the rest of the famous collection of humorists, with whom his work includes The Life of Brian (1979). It’s a time that would be difficult to go back to. Gilliam rules out any possibility of a reunion, but instead cites other contemporary groups with the same subversive spirit. ‘There are still interesting things on TV. The problem is that there are too many executives and producers that make things difficult. But when you’ve got a slot, you can do some really exciting comedy. Not just in the UK, where Little Britain has been a triumph, but also in the US, which has given us things like South Park.’ Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine these series defining a generation the way Monty Python did.

Before we finish, I ask Gilliam to give me my title. He thinks for a moment: ‘Terry Gilliam is still dead.’ Before I get it, he says goodbye with that huge laugh. It’s been said that he’s going to film Quixote with Johnny Depp. Good luck to him.