The subject of two books and a pair of feature-length documentaries, Terry Gilliam inspires a greater fascination with his process than any working director. It isn’t just that no one else makes the kind of movies he makes, but that no one makes them the way he does. A native Minnesotan who has lived the last four decades in England (although he only recently renounced his U.S. citizenship), Gilliam is a determined outlier, making movies outside (or, early on, against) the studio system without compromising the scale or scope of his vision. It’s a method with more than the usual amount of risk, as anyone knows after watching Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote collapse under an avalanche of misfortune in the documentary Lost In La Mancha. His latest film, The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, was struck a similarly catastrophic blow when star Heath Ledger died midway through production, after shooting the movie’s framing sequence, but before beginning the series of fanciful encounters that make up its substance. But Gilliam eventually devised an ingenious solution, using Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law as Ledger’s alter egos inside the world of Dr. Parnassus’ magic mirror.
Gilliam aims to follow that rebound with an even trickier one, reviving the wounded Quixote with Robert Duvall replacing the infirm Jean Rochefort, and possibly with another actor subbing for overscheduled Depp, although reports on the latter point vary weekly. After recuperating from last year’s press blitz, a well-rested Gilliam picked up the phone at his home outside London to chuckle his way through a conversation about Ledger’s underrated comic talents, leaving Hollywood behind, and Avatar.
The A.V. Club: You’ve always had a fondness for handmade visual effects, of the kind used by the traveling players in both Imaginarium and The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen. But Imaginarium uses a lot more CGI than anything you’ve done before. What dictated that decision?
Terry Gilliam: It tends to be the most efficient. Whatever works best is what I do. I don’t have any aesthetic thing about one or the other. A lot of people seem to get carried away that something that’s made out of paper mâché is going to be better than not. And I always thought the original King Kong, that terrible little puppet with its hair going in all directions, was far more magical than Peter Jackson’s incredibly beautifully rendered King Kong. So there’s something to be said for a more primitive version of things. I think it’s because it makes the audience work a little bit more, because you’ve got to invest it with life and reality, so I like doing that. In this instance, the backgrounds are just that—backgrounds. They’re worlds that I wanted to have a painterly feel, and CG worked best for that. Things like the monastery, on the other hand, we use a model for the exterior. That just feels more substantial. I’ve always used CG, the minute one had it available, because I own an effects company, and I’ll just use whatever technique does the most efficiently and cheapest.
AVC: Was it a matter of waiting for CGI to achieve a certain level before you used it more thoroughly?
TG: Not really. It’s more about the cost of things, and as it’s gone on, it’s gone down in cost, because there’s so much software available, where before, everybody had to write their own, so you had to have your own R&D department, like ILM, to create your own proprietary software. Now you just buy it off the shelf. That’s why it’s come down in price. And obviously, within the kind of budgets I’ve got, it works.
AVC: In the last couple of decades, the movie industry has evolved into producing big, dumb, expensive movies and cheap independent movies, where the directors give up money and time to have more freedom. But your movies don’t fit into that model, because you can’t create the kind of worlds you envision on a shoestring budget.
TG: The business is trying to push me out of the business. I work in that middle ground, where we do this thing and it ends up being around $30 million. And that’s a terrible number. It’s just the kind of number that is really hard to raise. I’d do better just asking for $100 million. I’d probably get the money more easily.
AVC: There are now romantic comedies that cost twice that, somehow.
TG: I don’t know how that happens, but it does. Because they’re good Hollywood movies, and a lot of people need to be paid well. Agents need their money, and business managers—all these people need to live well, otherwise it’s not fair. [Laughs.]
AVC: Have you just accepted or embraced that that industry is just separate from what you do?
TG: Yeah, I think so. I don’t even have a Hollywood agent anymore. I finally gave him up this last year. More and more, what’s happening is that studios are making the choice for us. They’re almost all just going into the distribution business of five tentpoles a year—that sort of thing. The money has got to be got together from outside sources, outside the studios. You still need them, ultimately, to distribute the movie, and hopefully they’ll come in and give you X amount of money for the American rights. Actually, that didn’t happen in the case of Parnassus, because we went out to L.A. trying to raise money and got nothing out of them. So we made the film with no American money, and just sold it after it was done.
AVC: Looking at the lineup for Sundance this year, it’s a bit shocking how few films have distribution. Even Joel Schumacher, who’s hardly the model of an independent director, has a title up for acquisition. The studios aren’t placing bets with their own money any more.
TG: I think that’s really it, so the pressure is on. Even now, the studios need for everything to be together before they’re even interested, so they can just be a minor investor in it. At Toronto this year, the lack of sales was incredible, the number of films that didn’t get picked up. Or, in fact, got picked up for a fraction of what they needed.
AVC: Do you have any thoughts on where the business is going at this point?
TG: That’s one reason I keep trying to keep up my European contacts a lot, or Japan. These are the places where there’s still money. The local distributors there need films. They need, hopefully, Hollywood-esque films that have American stars and are fairly big. So that’s, in a sense, what I’m relying on now.
AVC: The flipside to that is a lot of movies getting picked up and going straight to video on demand, which again is not a model that is kind to movies like yours, which really need to be seen on the big screen.
TG: I agree, and that’s what’s really sad. Avatar is probably the last of the really big ones. I mean, not everybody can pull it off like Cameron does every 10 years, or whenever he does it. But you see other things. I actually just watched Sherlock Holmes last night, and I don’t know what the budget on that one was, but it was expensive. It was a very lush movie. And it’s pretty good—it was much better than I expected, to be honest, and I love watching [Robert Downey Jr.], always. I thought it was well-mounted, put it that way. It’s not any less stupid than most things that are being made. [Laughs.] I’ve always had this problem. My strength, if it’s anything, is that I can lure some big-name actors in. That’s probably the strength of almost any director now. On your own, as a director, you’ve only got so much weight. James Cameron, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Michael Bay… that’s about it. Everybody else depends on the star power that they can draw.
AVC: Especially if you’re dealing with foreign pre-sales. The movie almost doesn’t really matter. It’s all about the names at that point.
TG: That’s what’s so frightening about it. But they all want the same name. That’s what’s so absurd about this game at the moment. You’ve got A-list actors, but then you’ve got A-prime. That’s all they want, is the A-prime boys. And there’s only five of them, maybe six. Brad [Pitt], John [Depp], and George [Clooney]. And Will [Smith].
AVC: One of the criticisms that’s been lodged persistently against you over the years is that you’re an animator who’s never warmed to working with actors, that you’re only about the visuals. And yet great actors like Johnny Depp and Heath Ledger have shown a great degree of loyalty to you.
TG: These people don’t really watch the films, because one thing I can say is, I think the performances have been, over the years, just fantastic. I think I get more interesting films out of these guys than they normally do. I find it just very funny. This is going back to the very beginning. I remember the reviews on Brazil. They barely mentioned Jonathan Pryce. It’s an extraordinary performance. Actors seem to think I know what I’m doing. That’s what I find interesting. Critics don’t, necessarily. It’s a very funny thing. I keep saying reputations are kind of like dog shit that you step into as you’re walking down the street, and you can’t get it off your shoe the rest of your life.
AVC: You gave Heath Ledger an opportunity, particularly in The Brothers Grimm, to exercise his formidable comic talent, which unfortunately few other directors seemed interested in.
TG: He had a great sense of comedy and his timing was just superb. And it was the kind of comedy I liked, because it’s the character. It’s not making jokes about the character. He’s always in character and it’s solid stuff. It’s believable character. This is the thing that amazed me. It was only after he died that they started noticing his performance in The Brothers Grimm. And it’s a wonderful performance. I don’t spend too much time talking about the critics, because they are who they are, and there’s good ones and there’s bad ones, like in any job. I am always surprised at how seldom they really recognize what good acting is, and what goes into a performance, and why it works or doesn’t work.
AVC: You’ve said you don’t see many new movies. So why Avatar and Sherlock Holmes?
TG: [Laughs.] I just want to know what’s going on out there. I was curious, I wanted to see how big the audience was almost three weeks after it opened in England.
AVC: What format did you see Avatar in?
TG: 3-D. You have to do it properly, because that’s the thing that makes it, I suppose, special. I didn’t go IMAX. Just regular. But it wouldn’t have made much difference. I sit close to the screen.
AVC: So what did you think of Avatar?
TG: Technically, it’s extraordinary work. And that’s where it sort of ends. We’ve seen the story before. We’ve seen so much of what’s been done there before, but I think he’s obviously moved the technology way ahead, to a point that who’s going to get the benefit from it is the real question. I think his system that he’s developed is obviously extraordinary, but you need these vast sums of money to create something like that. The thing that always amazes me about Cameron is how he uses the camera. I’ve always been amazed by that, ever since I first saw his films. And he continues to do it. It’s a dynamic that’s quite extraordinary, but as far as the ideas and everything else, nothing surprised me.
AVC: The movie is extraordinarily edited as well, which has been overlooked.
TG: Oh yeah, brilliant editing. I mean, all of those things really work. It’s just that I’ve been there, I feel. And strangely enough, I’ve been in a lot of those environments, because I’ve looked at a lot of science-fiction illustration over the years. But what he’s done is so difficult. And that deserves praise for something. I don’t know if it’s necessary, is my problem. I occasionally would pull the glasses off and say, “Did the depth mean that much to me?” And it didn’t. But it’s very lush work. I came away a bit depressed, because I said, “God, I can’t do that.” I’ve got ideas, but I will never be able to do that. I’ll be dead before anybody gives me that kind of money. [Laughs.]
AVC: There are ways and ways to pull people in, and you certainly have your own.
TG: I suppose I stay in a more theatrical, crude, more cartoony world. I’ve gotten too many comments from other people, where they went to Avatar and their imagination wasn’t expanded. They went to Parnassus and their imagination was expanded. That’s the big difference, I think. That’s what intrigues me and it intrigues, obviously, Cameron less. He’s not trying to do what I’m trying to do.
AVC: Imagination is such a persistent and grand subject for you, especially in the form of storytelling. It’s something you’ve dealt with explicitly in this movie and in Munchausen and Brothers Grimm, and implicitly in Tideland and The Fisher King. Do you have a sense of what fascinates you about exploring storytelling in that very direct way?
TG: I don’t really know. I just like leaving little exploding bombs in people’s brains. Spielberg is a great storyteller. I just don’t like the stories. I think it’s about what the stories are about as much as how you tell them. I tell a certain kind of story. I tend to tell fables all the time, is what they really are. They’re quite, in some ways, cursory. I look at certain kinds of films and I watch the way they build up suspense or tension, and they take a lot of time on it. I don’t spend much time doing that. Here’s the tale, here we go, buh-buh-bum. And either you’re in it and you’re flying with it—I don’t need to overemphasize it, is my attitude—or you’re not in it. [Laughs.]
AVC: They are fables, in a way, but they don’t have morals. You favor ambiguous, even open-ended conclusions. There almost seems to be a reluctance to leave the world of the story behind.
TG: [Laughs.] That’s nicely put. I think what I’m never doing is giving you pat answers. My stories don’t quite end. Or they end ambiguously. They’re there to continue in your imagination, is my theory. If I’m forced to say these words, I do say it like that. To me, the stories that have always intrigued me are the stories of people leaving my movies and being affected by them. They walk home 20 blocks the wrong way. Or they lock themselves in their office. Or they find themselves weeping when in the shower after the film. And those intrigue me, because I know I’ve touched something inside them. It really is deeper than just “Jane and John went walking down the street and they argued about what they had for dinner last night.”
AVC: There is something about not providing that sort of closure or catharsis that makes things linger in the mind more persistently.
TG: I think it’s also because as I’ve gotten older, that’s what I really believe about life. I find Hollywood gives these pat stories, and they’re reassuring stories, and I don’t really want to give people that. Hollywood does all that work. I’m offering, sometimes, an alternative to that. The answers aren’t black-and-white. There may not even be answers in certain instances. The ground is not necessarily solid, either. So you’ve got to keep awake the whole time, even after the movie is over.
AVC: I’ve since recanted, but I remember being completely infuriated by the ending of Time Bandits when I was a child, because it so wasn’t what I expected.
TG: It’s funny, because what I found at the time was that many kids loved that ending, because they didn’t need their parents anymore. They could walk out there on their own into the world. They were free.
AVC: That reluctance to tie things up in a bow goes back to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, in a way. One of the unique things about the show was, the sketches rarely ended with punchlines. A lot of your job in terms of providing the interstitial animation was papering over those gaps.
TG: There is probably something in there. But I do think so much of what I do is reactive to the way the world sees itself, or the way the world is being portrayed. I wanted to offer an alternative to that. Whether it is accepted or not is beside the point, but it’s an alternative.
AVC: That’s why you have figures like Heather Ledger’s characters in Parnassus, or Johnny Depp’s character in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote—these businessmen who seem to be on top of the world, and yet are shown an entirely different way of looking at things.
TG: That’s particularly true with Quixote, especially the way it’s been rewritten. It really is, I suppose, punishment for all those guys, the masters of the universe out there, however small a master they may be. It’s those that ride roughshod over life, it seems to me, who are so self-centered, so wrapped up in themselves. So many of those people are out there. I just want to keep making their lives less secure. [Laughs.]
AVC: What is Quixote’s status at this point?
TG: That’s what I’m hoping is next. I’ve got Robert Duvall, I’ve got another good actor involved, and it’s the old money game that I’m running now. Just trying to put the pieces together, because I don’t have Johnny Depp, which would make it very easy. No A-prime actors.
AVC: Everybody wants Johnny Depp, but there may be a range of things they want him for.
TG: That’s what’s interesting, like with Johnny, there’s no guarantee. They really want him to do what he does, either as a pirate or in a Tim Burton movie. Outside of that, it’s not a sure bet at all. I think Johnny is interesting, because he has kind of become the great clown, and the one everybody loves. Because nobody does what he does. He dances on high wires when he does it. [Laughs.]
AVC: This is something the two of you share.
TG: That’s why it’s a joy working with him for me, because we just start on each other’s shoulders.
AVC: Is that a criterion for you as far as working with people? That they’re willing to be up there on the wire with you and not look down?
TG: That’s exactly it. I want brave people. Fearless ones. A good actor just goes out and leaps off the edge and develops wings on his way down, hopefully. That’s the kind of people I really enjoy working with. Playing safe isn’t much fun. I like danger. It’s controlled danger, always, and that’s why I hope I don’t lure too many good actors down into the pits with me, because I hope they maintain their own unique talents. That’s what’s important with someone like Parnassus, like Chris Plummer. No mater how much I tried to lure him into my world of silliness, he maintained his dignity—which is important. [Laughs.] So I cast knowing that these people will be strong and they’re not going to be too easily seduced by me.
AVC: You can put ridiculous makeup on him, and it will still be Christopher Plummer underneath.
TG: That’s it. That’s the key to it. That’s what was interesting about Heath. He always managed to keep his feet on the ground, no matter what he was doing. That’s why I like working with good actors.
AVC: [Parnassus co-star] Andrew Garfield is much younger, but he seems to have that quality as well.
TG: He’s got it completely. He’s really solid. He’s going to be a great actor. He’s a really fine actor. I just think he’s going to keep developing, because it’s inside of him there, the real stuff.
AVC: What was the experience of the Monty Python reunion for you?
TG: I didn’t think much of it, one way or the other. It was nice for us to get together for a bit. We do see each other. It’s not like we’re on different planets. Mike Palin, Terry Jones, and I all live within five minutes of each other here. The thing that I find quite funny about it is, I immediately go back into my old role of being the monosyllabic Minnesota farm boy. There’s no way I can compete with them, with what they do. In New York onstage, I thought Mike was on fire. He was funnier than I’ve seen him in years. He really loved being in front of the audience. Terry and I are the quieter ones, and I think I was the most quiet one in that instance.
AVC: Lewis Carroll seems to be one of your major influences. Not only the down-the-rabbit-hole quality, but also the way he works with language seems to be something that figures into your films a lot.
TG: Carroll has always been a part of my life. It’s very funny, because I just finished reading [Alice In Wonderland] again last week. I hadn’t read it for a long time. I’m actually reading a book that a friend is writing about what it really is. It’s actually much more mundane than you could think. All the characters are very specific references to people at Oxford or in politics. In some ways, I’m sorry to learn what I’ve learned, because it almost limits some of what it’s about. But reading it again, I see how much Python was influenced by it. Any English humorist is influenced by the language and the play on words, playing with ideas, and this very strong anti-authoritarian attitude.
AVC: There are echoes of Carroll in, for example, the “Romans Go Home” sketch in Life Of Brian.
TG: It’s doing that same thing. Use words precisely. I use a portmanteau word. We carry many meanings in that word. He plays with that kind of language all the time. It’s just very funny, reading it again, how unoriginal we were. What struck me about reading this reference book is that everything there is a precise place and person in Oxford. Carroll, it turns out, was a very spiteful little shit half the time. That’s what’s so wonderful about this guy. In Tideland, which was pushing buttons that I knew would bring up words like “pedophilia” and “necrophilia”—Lewis Carroll would definitely be now branded a pedophile, probably, which is nonsense. It’s just bullshit. He never touched her, as they say. And J.M. Barrie? All the people who actually did write great children’s books were pedophiles. And [Robert] Baden-Powell, who started the Scouts, was a pedophile. It gets very weird. The word, actually, is probably all right, because they did love children. They were entranced by children. They certainly weren’t touching them up too much, I don’t think.
AVC: We’ve developed a very constrained view about children’s inner lives. Children were read Grimm’s fairy tales and they turned out fine, even though “The Red Shoes” is kind of awful in some ways.
TG: That’s why those stories are important. To me, they’re building the muscles of the child, to be aware of what life has on offer. Children are not afraid of death. That’s the other thing people don’t understand. Death is, I think, quite a foreign idea to them. To me, in Tideland, I was dealing with all this stuff. And it was ignored, or it was just not talked about. I thought it might start a great dialogue, but people didn’t do that. They just… “Nope. It’s awful. Hate it. Goodbye.” [Laughs.] There were a lot of child psychologists and people who worked with retarded kids that said we got it spot-on, that we really understood how children thought and behaved. I don’t know what it is. Why are adults frightened of that? That’s the question. I don’t know. It’s all about protecting a child. But you can’t protect them. They have to be given a chance to take chances. Let their imagination flow. The sexuality of children, they’re terrified of even talking about.
AVC: Now, there’s the “Let Them Eat Dirt” school of child-rearing. If children are completely protected from germs, their immune systems don’t develop properly, so there are people who literally say it’s a good idea to let your child swallow a handful of dirt now and again.
TG: I would keep that to a minimum, but it probably is. There’s something to be said about it, there’s no questions about it. Otherwise, you put them in a suit like Bruce Willis wore in Twelve Monkeys, a body condom, and send them out into the world.
AVC: Speaking of poisoning children’s minds, what was it like working with Harvey Kurtzman? Between Mad and EC Comics, he ruined an entire generation. [Gilliam worked as the assistant editor on Kurtzman’s post-Mad humor magazine Help! —ed.]
TG: Or saved that generation, depending how on you look at it. It was great. He was my hero. I was one of those victimized children Mad comics led down the wrong path. Working with him was quite amazing. He was meticulous, and he was an incredibly hard worker. If you’re going to do parody or pastiche, it has to be almost as good as, if not better than, the original. That was the thing I learned most from him, that you have to really understand the original thing, and in a sense, you’ve got to love the original thing before you take the piss out of it.
The thing that was difficult for me with Harvey at that time was that he was busy on Little Annie Fanny. Help! magazine was a sideline, and I was doing probably more work than Harvey was on it. He was in charge of everything, but I was actually doing the work. Little Annie Fanny to me was kind of like where we are with Avatar. He was raising the status of the comic book. It was done in full color, beautifully shaded, a kind of illustration that had never been done before in comics. So he raised it technically, but inside, it was the same old stuff. In some ways, it wasn’t as good as what he was doing in Mad, because with Mad, there was just so much more freedom. With Playboy, there were restrictions, because it was costing a lot to do: It had to be sexy. It couldn’t be everything that Harvey was capable of. That’s really one of the things that maybe kept me on this path of being as independent as I try to be, because I watched what happened to Harvey. I think I learned so many lessons with him. He reached a point in his life where he wanted to make movies, and he couldn't do it. He made some little animated films, and got involved with some Sesame Street cartoons. But he really wanted to make movies, because his cartoons… the Mad stuff basically turned comic books into storyboards for films.
AVC: His Two-Fisted Tales are very cinematic.
TG: They’re incredible. It’s interesting. To him, I suppose I was the student who went off and did what the master wanted him to do. He was just a good guy, and everyone used to come to Harvey. He was like a mountain. And through all these people coming to see Harvey, I think I made half the important contacts of my life.