Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. This interview was the one I was looking forward to the most from my entire Comic-Con line-up. First of all, I’m a big Terry Gilliam geek. Who didn’t grow up with Python and TIME BANDITS? So, there’s that and I’ve also seen THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS, a movie I had a lot to talk about anyway. Plus they gave me half an hour, which is unheard of at Comic-Con, the home of the five minute 1:1.
I found Gilliam to be very pleasant to speak with, his enthusiasm undiluted and his passion for films and filmmaking worn on his sleeve.
We cover a lot of ground here and even talk a bit about WATCHMEN which, as you may know, Gilliam was developing a long time ago.
Enough talking, here’s the goods. Enjoy!
Quint: Congratulations on the film.
Terry Gilliam: Thanks, yeah I’m pretty pleased with it.
Quint: I was at Sundance when I heard that Heath (Ledger) had died and one of the first things I thought of was “Not to Terry again!” After everything you have gone through…
Terry Gilliam: Clearly I was pumped up, ready for anything.
Quint: I don’t know what cemetery you desecrated or what voodoo priest you pissed off, but it just seems like you have the most horrible luck…
Terry Gilliam: The truth of it though, if you really start looking at other people, they have all been through shit as well, I’ve just had a documentary camera pointed at me. When LOST IN LA MANCHA came out other filmmakers were like “Oh fuck, I know exactly what you have been through.” Then they start telling (me) their story.
Quint: You have just been more public about it.
Terry Gilliam: It’s partly because I’ve got such a fucking bad memory and there used to be these sort of diaries and they turn out to be extraordinary documentaries about shit.
Quint: When Amy (Gilliam, producer and Terry’s daughter) was down in Austin, she said that it was mostly because of LOST IN LA MANCHA that everybody came together and pushed through tragedy to finish the film.
Terry Gilliam: Yeah, because it was the same gang with Nicola (Pecorini, director of photography) and her and they just wouldn’t leave me alone. I was trying to go into a corner and just disappear and they just kept beating me up and saying “No, we are going to finish this film." And then we started doing it.
Quint: I think that in a lot of ways artistically you rolled with what happened as best as you could and I think the movie actually benefits.
Terry Gilliam: That’s a thing that I hear from people. I’ve heard it from too many people, I was like “Oh fuck! This is not right. Another film based on human sacrifice!” The only thing I say is that nobody knew what Heath was going to do on the other side (of the mirror) and that’s the thing. Basically what he was doing was setting up the possibilities, because his character is very chameleon-like, his voice and everything else is changing and he had some fun planned for that and we will never get to see it. I just know that Johnny, Colin and Jude, did an extraordinary job and the thing in some ways just becomes a constant surprise. “What’s next?” “Who’s next?”
Quint: Obviously the anticipation for the movie, a lot of it is surrounding Heath, but what I really loved about the film was just how it’s a great showcase for everybody, especially Christopher Plummer, who I thought was fantastic.
Terry Gilliam: Extraordinary. He is the film. He holds the hold thing together and it’s one of the things that I’m trying to get through in interviews, that it’s not waiting for Heath. We are talking about Dr. Parnassus! That’s the story.
Quint: He’s the title character!
Terry Gilliam: It was interesting, because we had the credit I put on the end “A film from Heath Ledger and friends.” I originally had that on the front of the film and it made that opening section feel even longer, because everybody is waiting for Heath, so okay… I’ll start pushing this thing in another direction.
Quint: I love that whole dynamic of the God and the Devil between Plummer and Tom Waits.
Terry Gilliam: Well he is double axis, him and Tom and then him and Vern (Troyer) and then him and Lily (Cole), so you take… Christopher, one of the great actors and stick him with the smallest man on the planet, with a model who has had no filmic experience and… Tom Waits. (laughs)
Quint: And strangely enough, they all kind of look otherworldly, like Lily is just inhumanly gorgeous…
Terry Gilliam: She was the most dangerous leap, because she was the least experienced, but I wanted somebody who was extraordinary. We are basically doing a traveling freak show is what we are doing here. We really want extraordinary people and that’s what it is and she pulls it off. To throw her in that pit of talented actors was quite amazing, because in some ways it shows she rose to it, because everybody was their protecting her and pushing her and it worked.
Quint: It comes across and you feel the family bond between everybody, including the actor who plays Mercury.
Terry Gilliam: Andrew Garfield.
Quint: That’s a character that I think with anybody else or somebody less talented at least, it could have been a forgotten character. He could have gotten lost…
Terry Gilliam: Well, we wrote him rather badly. He was very under written.
Quint: I wouldn’t say that…
Terry Gilliam: No, no. What you see in the film is more than we wrote. He started adlibbing a lot. It was an underwritten character to be quite honest. He got the job because he sent me an audition tape from LA and we had given him three scenes and he did each scene three different ways, like three different characters each time, and I was like “Fuck, who is this guy? This is amazing!” That’s what happened and what was also interesting is how he kind of filled a gap that Heath had left strangely enough, because Heath intimidated him a little at the beginning, because Heath was adlibbing a lot and Andrew said “I’ve never adlibbed before in my life” and at first he tried to compete with Heath on the same level and just was not working. Then there was one day in that scene when he’s flipping that stuff up in the air like “Hey.” I said “It’s about laughter. You can’t beat him on any other level, but if you laugh at him and have fun, he will have no defense against that” and suddenly the character fell into place.
Then when Heath died, it was like Andrew was like “Okay, I’m going to start doing more things to keep this thing rich” and ended up with some of the funniest adlibs in the film. That whole business where he’s dressed in drag and “What do you think you are doing? Playing in your bed? He’s a human being!” all adlibbed and I’m like “You are good!”
Quint: I’m a big fan of yours, growing up with BRAZIL and TIME BANDITS, I love seeing the world through your eyes and that’s why I think anybody who is a fan of your work is going to go crazy for this movie. I just love the fantasy landscapes, the Imaginarium landscapes, like when the kid with the videogame goes through it’s like a horror show, but it’s fascinating. I was just wondering how you achieved that. What was the mix of technology? Because it looked like there was model work in there. It didn’t look like it was all CG. Like the temple stuff…
Terry Gillian: Most of the stuff you see in there... There’s a model… the whole business with the Monastery, that’s a model. There’s a few other bits, partly things like the big helmet coming out of the ground, that’s a model, but the rest is CG and the trick was I was just trying to do this thing like it was my cartoons, where it’s clearly not a real world, but is it a believable world? Do you actually believe you are in that world even though it’s like (a) Grant Wood painting. (The Jude Law scene) was all based on Grant Wood paintings, so I was trying to be painterly and yet totally immersive and believable at the same time and I think we pulled it off. I read a couple of reviews who hated it, who thought it was just the crappiest CG effects they had ever scene.
Terry Gilliam: Yeah, because I think they wanted naturalism. No, no, I don’t want that!
Quint: You have got to accept the movie on its own terms. Clearly that was your approach for that scene.
Terry Gilliam: But it is interesting, because I was also trying to escape from the world of naturalism, whether it’s dinosaurs or not, it’s still a naturalistic approach, which is an incredibly expensive business and they are not going to give me that kind of money is all I know, so “Okay let’s try this other way and make it theatrical. Make it cartoon-like, but make it believable.”
Quint: If you are paying attention to the story, that’s the story. To me that argument doesn’t make any sense. I mean, you are going through the mirrored mylar sheets into this world which you visually tie-in so strongly to the actual stage.
Terry Gilliam: I’m glad you said mylar, because the whole point of that was supposed to be really cheesy, just as cheap as possible. It’s funny, in the first one, when the drunk goes through, the first time we go in there (to the Imaginarium world), that was doing something that years ago when I was trying to do DEFECTIVE DETECTIVE, the whole world was going to be like that, which is basically 2-D things in a 3-D space and I still want to do that. (laughs) The effect of that is fantastic!
It’s like trying to push what you do in effects movies a bit. I never saw the Wachowski Bros’ SPEED RACER, because that was again, not naturalistic wasn’t it?
Quint: I loved SPEED RACER. There were a lot of people who couldn’t jump into the world…
Terry Gilliam: Is it because of that? That it was not naturalistic?
Quint: I think so, yeah. It’s a real moving cartoon. That’s what it was supposed to be and again, if you don’t accept the movie on its own terms… As long as it doesn’t break the rules of its own universe, you can do anything.
Terry Gilliam: Exactly. That’s always the key and yet that’s a rule that is always violated. (laughs) What’d I watch on the plane? It was MONSTERS VS. ALIENS and it’s actually pretty good!
It gets a bit saccharine, like all of the DreamWorks stuff. But it’s really funny and I was talking to a friend the other day saying “All the really good political movies now are animated films. We don’t do that in live action.”
Quint: Like Pixar!
Terry Gilliam: WALL-E is an extraordinary bit of work and it’s fantastic, but people are able to do things in animation now that nobody is doing in live action it seems to me.
Quint: And they are being rewarded for it. You would think execs would look at the kind of business those movies are doing. Like you hear over and over again how you can’t have an older cast in a movie, that kids won’t be interested in a movie about an old man and then you see UP and it’s the second highest grossing Pixar movie of all time. Nobody pegged it. It’s like people are getting rewarded for real character.
Terry Gilliam: I’ve only seen bits of UP, is the boy scout based on John Lasseter? It looks like Lasseter to me.
Quint: No, the director of the short cartoon that plays before UP, called PARTLY CLOUDY, is the model for the kid. It feels like very Merrie Melodies style and the guy who directed that is the spitting image of Russell, which is the boy scout. He came to Austin and showed the movie with Pete Docter and he goes up before and introduces and everybody gasped when they saw the boy scout, because it is him absolutely!
Terry Gilliam: But Pixar is the best. They’re just extraordinary.
Quint: It’s the perfect mix of commerce and art. Like you said, they are able to sneak in all of those political messages.
Terry Gilliam: Their statements are fantastic in there. I used to always think about that in Eastern Europe, where all of the political stuff was done with puppets, because once you abstract it you can get away with murder.
Quint: Then you’re not offending somebody directly.
Terry Gilliam: And it’s really funny there that people don’t understand it, so America now is saying all of its important statements in cartooning as in saying stuff about the country.
Quint: I just saw a poll that was saying that the most trusted newsman in America is Jon Stewart.
Terry Gilliam: Bingo!
Quint: And there’s something to that, because he’s not playing the game. He might be a comedian, but he also cuts through the bullshit on a daily basis. He kind of exposes half-truths and hypocrisy. He always does it for comedy’s sake, but because he doesn’t have to play within the system, that gives him the freedom to have that voice.
Terry Gilliam: It’s the same with Colbert, also. I mean, I only see these things on Youtube, but I say “Fuck that’s good!” Nobody in England is working like that. Those guys are just extraordinary and it’s nice to see. So, we are living in an oppressive society here with homeland security ruling and it only takes comedians and cartoonists to say the truth.
Quint: We should probably get back to your movie a little bit. I love the tangents, but…
Terry Gilliam: I sort of rely on the tangents, because I’m doing interviews and after a certain point I realize I’m saying the same thing. (laughs)
Quint: One of the things I love the most about your new movie is that it is like an amalgam of your work. You can see different aspects of you, like I can see BRAZIL in there. I can see MUNCHAUSEN in there. I can see the cartoon work and of course Monty Python. I mean, the whole dancing policemen sequence is like right out of Python.
Terry Gilliam: It’s a totally Pythonic moment. It’s very funny, because Tony Grisoni, who I co-write with on other things… That was the one bit he didn’t like in the film. He said “Oh fuck, what are you doing!?!” (laughs)
I actually set out to do that. That was my feeling. It’s just compendium, I want to do a compendium. I kept saying “It’s my Fanny and Alexander” or my “Amarcord” which were the compendiums of those guys. At a certain point in their lives they said “Fuck it, I’m just going to put all of the things that I enjoy in” and that was it.
Quint: You guys are banding together again this year. Is that right? Because it’s the 40th anniversary of Python?
Terry Gilliam: Well, it’s a strange thing. It’s like… what happened forty years ago? PYTHON was born, this fucking place (Comic-Con) was born, and people started walking around on the moon. It’s pretty weird, like something in the air or sun spots, I think. We are almost getting together. Eric (Idle) has been very clever on doing something with LIFE OF BRIAN without it being a SPAMALOT version of LIFE OF BRIAN, so he’s done this Handelian oratory and we are all supposed to turn up at the Albert Hall in October. We will see who turns up. Nothing should be guaranteed with Python is all I can say.
Quint: That’s what we love about you guys. Now, did you see WATCHMEN? Did you end up seeing it?
Terry Gilliam: Yeah, I thought it strange. I thought it was too reverential. That’s what I really thought it was.
Quint: Faithful to a fault, yeah. I would agree with that.
Terry Gilliam: And you look at it and he’s tried really… so much is stunning. It got trashed, but there are great sequences in there, but the overall effect is kind of turgid in a certain way. I started putting it down to… you know, in the comic book, or graphic novel… They’re still comic books to me (laughs)… It’s like the Comedian’s coffin is going into the grave with the stars and stripes on top of it and reading it in the comic book it’s three panels, boom, boom and boom. On film “hhhhhhhhhhhhmmmmm…”
The pace is wrong. I was glad our version didn’t get done, the one that Charles McKeown and I had wrote, because we had reduced it down to about two hours and five minutes I think and we lost so much. Comedian was cut down to next to nothing. So (Zack Snyder) did a good job, but it just felt… I also thought THE INCREDIBLES had kind of fucked it for him.
Quint: A little bit, yeah.
Terry Gilliam: THE INCREDIBLES is doing WATCHMEN.
Quint: And HEROES took the ending.
Terry Gilliam: The same idea, yeah. And I just thought “Well, they just kind of fucked it up for WATCHMEN.”
Quint: That’s why people are worried about JOHN CARTER OF MARS, because that’s been stolen from so much and so liberally, going into STAR WARS and all of this other stuff.
Terry Gilliam: Yeah, but so much of that material had been in a quarry that everybody had been digging goodies out of and suddenly you get lost. I think WATCHMEN really bothered me, because I thought it should be better. It was all there. It looked right, but to me it was pace. It didn’t have pace. It needed a bit more quirkiness in there. Dr. Manhatten was getting boring, frankly, and then Ozymandias by the end I thought “Oh, come on!” They lost me by the end, frankly, but it was certainly looking better than what I was going to do! (laughs)
Quint: If you had been able to make the movie now with the same freedom, do you think you would have been able to find that happy difference between the version you were going to make and the one that Snyder made?
Terry Gilliam: I think so, because I think I’m more anarchic than Zack. To me it’s “Okay, what’s the essence to this thing? How do we boil it down?” The bits in the book with the big jellyfish thing, the giant squad at the very end… Losing the pirate story, fine. You get that out of there, but I never felt the characters, because to me it was a character piece is what it was about, and I never felt Night Owl and whatever her name is, it didn’t feel right, but I just thought the look of it was brilliant.
Quint: I’m really curious to see the director’s cut, because at least for the purity it’s like the comic filmed. I think Peter Jackson did a really good job on taking what he needed from THE LORD OF THE RINGS and then in the expanded editions, he could give that for the fans, even though the pacing might not work as well.
Terry Gilliam: See that’s the problem with fans. Fans are terrifying. I have always hated fans, because they have such high expectations…
Quint: You are in the wrong place….
Terry Gilliam: I know! They have such high expectations! I thought “Fuck off, just fuck off. Let me fuck it up on my own. I can’t put the weight of you people on my back!” It was like working on DON QUIXOTE, the fan-base isn’t as big as Lord of the Rings (laughs). Never the less, there was this extraordinary book and I just felt the weight of trying to do it, so I just ended up doing THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE and taking the bits that I want and throwing (the rest out).
Quint: Giving you the freedom as a filmmaker.
Terry Gilliam: That’s a hard bit. I’ve always been worried and suspicious of the taking of a book or a play or something and putting it onto film, because you’ve got all of the expectations of all those who have read it and have their own version of it in their head and all you are going to do, providing, is fucking it up to them. Your version is not going to their version. There will be a lot of angry people out there.
Quint: With Peter and RINGS, its something that’s that big, but it’s also that big for a certain amount of people, what he was able to do was he was able to pay respect, but also bring so many more fans into it that it all sort of began to feed on itself.
Terry Gillaim: Tolkien’s got a bigger fan-base than Alan Moore…
Quint: Definitely, yeah.
Terry Gilliam: When I was in college, they were all reading it. I didn’t read it until I was about thirty something and then I got bored, because I just think it goes on and on and on, just like the movies go on and on. I love the first one. I thought “Fuck, they’ve done it!” And then in the second it’s like “Oh, it’s another battle and our heroes never die? They don’t even get an arm chopped off? There are ten billion orcs attacking them and nobody gets hurt?” That makes me crazy!
I must have read all of the LORD OF THE RINGS or maybe I didn’t… no I’m sure I did, because once I get into something, I read all the way through things, but I didn’t remember… there was something about 2 and 3 of the films, the battles just got bigger and bigger. It was just like STAR WARS, the second and third STAR WARS and I’m talking about the first ones, not the animated ones, but again they just became more baroque. They became more “Okay, we can put more spaceships in,” but it’s still things shooting other things and in the end, it’s more interesting to me to have one guy shooting another guy, because that’s about two people. Then you’ve got ten billion spaceships as opposed to a hundred. I don’t see the difference there.
Quint: We are in a weird time right now, like on one hand you have a movie like WATCHMEN that should never have been made within a studio system, like you can’t imagine an R rated three hour long anti-superhero movie being funded to the gills, but it happened and at the same time, it seems like it’s the one or two of those that kind of squeaks through and then there’s the just the rest of the output that’s just so homogenized.
Terry Gilliam: It’s always been like that. I remember with BRAZIL, when we got it out, we got it released, I was just inundated with phone calls from writers and other filmmakers that said, “You’ve broken the dam!” I said “No, it’s going to be there for a couple of weeks, so move quickly! It just closes back up very quickly and we are back to the same thing.”
I think it’s worse now, because they’ve got themselves trapped in tent-pole thinking, so you put all of your money into a $200 million (movie) or you put your money into a $5 million comedy and nothing in between and that’s the problem. You are getting some nice comedies that are coming out, but come on, what about the bits in between these two worlds?
Quint: I think that’s why you have so much respect. What I love about your movies is that they also usually take time to grow on you and I don’t know how you do that! Like with FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, which from the moment I saw it, I adored that movie. I loved that movie to death, but nobody in the theater seemed to get it…
Terry Gilliam: It’s a lonely world out there! (laughs)
Quint:… and then over the years suddenly it’s a giant movie and you couldn’t convince anybody today that it wasn’t a huge hit.
Terry Gilliam: MUNCHAUSEN was like that as well. BRAZIL was exactly like that. It’s just because… I don’t know, we all are tuned to the same kind of rhythms at any given point with movies. That’s what I find now, the rhythm of a movie I know what it’s going to be. Joel Silver started that thing where every reel had to have the big moment and so now it’s like a pop song. Now you are not going to do something in 4/4 time, but in 7/8 time and it doesn’t quite work.
I actually think I might be a bad storyteller. People don’t get it the first time, because the rhythms aren’t quite right, but what I’m talking about isn’t really what the film appears to be about sometimes… I don’t know.
Quint: You can say that, but that’s also what people love about you and that’s why your films grow and why your films stand the test of time.
Terry Gilliam: I think, if anything, I’m just trying to make a complete thing as good as I can make it… there’s always pressures from everywhere… without violating the essence of it, so some of that takes you down different roads and people don’t see it the first time sometimes. And then they see it the second time and “Oh, it’s different,” and it’s “Hey, now it’s really cooking.”
I’ve watched people on PARNASSUS, a friend of mine who casts my American films… She maybe doesn’t like my movies, but she saw PARNASSUS and she said “I was utterly blown away! I was just gasping for air!” I said “Thanks, great Marge, you’ve finally like one of my films.” Then she said “Then I saw it a second time and I’m really following the character path and the emotional story. It’s really good!.” “And you didn’t see that the first time, Marge?” “It’s better now!” Then she saw it the third time and was like “Oh, fuck, that score is really fantastic!” She’s seen it four times now and each time is proving to be a different experience for her and that is what I like about it, especially with DVD’s, we can now watch films so easily again and again.
Quint: And not even just DVDs. We have Instant Netflix now. You can click a button and you have the movie.
Terry Gilliam: That’s what people can do now. When I was coming up it would be a rep house might have the film in ten years time and you might get the chance to see it. So much of it was in my memory, not the chance to actually revisit a film, so what happened in a lot of those cases, things in my memory were better than what I saw when I finally got to see it and other things, on the other hand, were things that I missed and then I saw it fifteen years later and thought “Shit, where the fuck was I? Why did I miss all of that?”
Quint: It’s true for PARNASSUS too, because I can tell you that I love that the Tony character (Ledger) is not a good guy. I love that you didn’t make him the reluctant hero…
Terry Gilliam: He’s a fucking bastard.
Quint: By the end of the movie, he’s a real prick! I think that there’s something really interesting again, because you just don’t see that. You never see your protagonist being…
Terry Gilliam: To me, it’s all the same. It’s like BRAZIL. You set up rules and now you stick with them. Tony was always going to be a bastard, because he’s just typical of the kind of people I see… Tony Blair was who we were thinking about: a guy with a silver tongue who could charm you, even to the point that I think he believes what he’s saying as he’s saying it. It might be the most outrageous lie, but he’ll believe it. Harvey Weinstein has this quality, too. He will say what ever he wants and as the words are leaving his mouth and he hears it he goes “Shit, I believe that, too!” and that’s his power.
And that’s why Heath was so important. I would be very curious to see what the film would be like to see that ending on the gallows if it was Heath carrying it through, whether it would be more powerful, more disturbing, more dark. Was this the cartoon version of the film by making it slightly abstract and with the different people playing that part, is it less disturbing and less dark? I don’t know. It works with Colin, but with Heath, if he would have been the same character all the way through, I don’t know. We will never know.
Quint: I think fortune smiled upon you in a weird, tragic way. Changing Tony’s appearance when he goes through the mirror works so well in the movie. I especially love the first reveal with Johnny, where he’s exactly what the woman he’s escorting into the fantasy world wants him to be. And that amazing speech he gives that I think transcends the story and the movie.
Terry Gilliam: That was written all before (Heath died). I didn’t change any words.
Quint: That’s incredible to me.
Terry Gilliam: That’s what is so disturbing about making that film, with those words out there.
Quint: But it’s also incredible that you didn’t change it, that you didn’t feel the pressure.
Terry Gilliam: I refused to. I said “This is the film Heath and I set out to make. These are the words. We don’t change anything!” There was one point with Chris Plummer, when he’s in the monastery and he’s talking about “We don’t have to be telling the story… It could be a romance or a comedy, a tale of unforeseen death.” That’s his line and he didn’t want to say it. This was after Heath died. I said “Chris, you’ve got to say it. That was the script we set out to make.” He just felt it was in bad taste. I just said “It is what it is.”
Quint: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.
The speech we talked a bit about at the end of this interview has Johnny Depp persuading the woman he escorted into the fantasy land to not give in to the safe and easy route. She’s being tempted by Waits’ devil at this point, who is in a contest with Parnassus for souls. Depp tells her it is better to be a star burning so bright it has no other choice than to burn out early, mentioning Princess Diana and James Dean.
It’s an incredibly moving moment in the film and I’m very pleased Terry stuck to his guns and insisted on keeping it. In many ways the heart of the film rests in that speech.
I had a blast talking with Mr. Gilliam and I hope to have another chance to pick his brain. He’s got a fascinating outlook on the business, on art and life and was a real pleasure to palaver with for half an hour.
If you’re going to be attending DragonCon in Atlanta in a few weeks, Gilliam will be there with bells on. If you get the chance don’t pass up the opportunity to shake the man’s hand and tell him what his work has meant to you.
Keep your eyes open for a ton more Comic-Con interviews I’m pushing out this week!
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