Interview with Terry Gilliam, March 19, 1996

"I'm getting fed up with talking about TWELVE MONKEYS," he exclaimed on the phone from London. Having spent the past month doing publicity in Paris, Berlin, Dublin, Belgium, and still with the English premiere to go the following month – and all on top of his American press tour — Gilliam sounds like someone chomping at the bit to get on to the next thing, so he is all too happy to talk about his upcoming plans, as well as to reminisce a little bit about the years that led up to his present success.

[TWELVE MONKEYS by then had done extremely well in the U.S., grossing nearly $60 million (it would take in another $100 worldwide) and nabbing two Academy Award nominations — though considering the field of competitors it should have done much better in the major categories.]

Morgan: It's good to at least see Brad Pitt and Julie Weiss nominated for the Oscars. Will you be going out to L.A. for that?

Gilliam: No. I can't. I'm glad they're out there, but I can't be bothered. It's such a bizarre year this year. And it certainly didn't look like dark films were going to do well this year. You got BABE and...

You see, what you needed was a talking pig!

Well, I think it's great, the guy is up for best director for directing a pig! And then there's a dead actor [Massimo Troisi for THE POSTMAN], it's got everything going this year! I don't know, I'm curious what kind of chance Brad has – basically he's up against Ed Harris, and I think Ed Harris is the best thing in APOLLO 13, I think he's great.

So what are you doing right now, apart from the publicity?

Well, that just been completely dominating everything, trying to get to work on DEFECTIVE DETECTIVE to see if we can pull it off this year. And so we've had the meetings and we're trying to look at the budget again and I'm trying to storyboard, but everything is just constantly interrupted by TWELVE MONKEYS sales pitches.

Well, I won't get into TWELVE MONKEYS too much. . .


I'd want to talk more about how you look back upon these films and how they still inspire you; rather than, say, look back at your early films like JABBERWOCKY and note all the things you did right or wrong when you were starting out, what do you still see new in them? I was thinking about TWELVE MONKEYS, the scene in the theatre where Bruce Willis is watching VERTIGO, and he talks about how the film itself never changes but one's perception of it changes at different times as you get older, and so you see different things in it. The unchanging film appears to grow with you. Is that true with you?

Yeah, I think the difficulty with me is that I don't watch my films. It's funny, they sort of linger on as somebody else's opinions, is what happens with them, and that's kind of interesting.

But as other people's opinions about them change, do yours change with them?

I don't know. I think what's interesting is how everybody seems to have a different film of mine that they think is my best. And that's kind of intriguing; they touch people in different ways. BRAZIL sort of wins as the most stand-out-ish film, but then you get to the TIME BANDITS fans and they just wax lyrical about it, as did the JABBERWOCKY fans. I don't know, I think what's interesting is how so much of the things I wanted to do I sort of sublimated in some strange way. I look back at those films and think how wonderfully naive I was to think I could actually make them for very little money, and yet they were made. It's kind of like, I know too much now!

But do you think you could go back to making a film for, like, a million bucks, if you were forced to?

Yeah, if I were forced to, yeah, I would. I've always been very pragmatic in that sense: I'll take what I can get and work with it, but the thing is at the moment I still am able to get some decent sums of money to try doing these more expensive things, and I still want to try to put things on film that I haven't done yet. They're collecting in the excess tray, all the bits of me. That's what's interesting about DEFECTIVE DETECTIVE. I went though all my notebooks and sketchbooks and all the bits I've left out of other films, things I've never done and I keep wanting to see if I can put them on the screen. When that fails, then let's go back to something much simpler, but as long as I can get the money I'll carry on in this vein.

It's funny, we were talking about TIME BANDITS the other day, we made that for five million dollars, [and] it's sort of amazing what we achieved with that amount of money. The frightening thing is still when you can get more money it seems to get spent and I don't know if visually what's up on the screen is that much more extraordinary but the money still goes.

Actually I look back on them, TIME BANDITS is kind of amateurish on many levels, but still they're effective. How a short fat wrestler can be a hundred-foot-high giant, that sort of stuff intrigues me.

And how possible is it for you to divorce the film from your memory of making it?

It's fairly much so. I've a selective memory so if I couldn't divorce it then I probably wouldn't make films again, I'd just be overwhelmed by all this shit one had to go through! Somehow you forget all the painful bits and then you just remember — that's a bit disturbing, how I think I rewrite history about the making of some of these things. It's always nice to talk to other people about what they thought was going on because their story seems to be different from mine on many occasions, and I don't remember. I find my memory is very dodgy these days. I look at these films and think, well, I did that but then I know damn well I didn't do it, because it was a combination of a lot of people that did it. I can somehow say it was my idea and they carried it through but the reality is [different].

You've talked previously about what inspires you: the anger and frustration that stirred the creative stew. What angers and frustrates you nowadays?

Uh, I suppose what angers me is my own impotence! [laughs] To really do half the things I would like to do, and the lack of drive. That's faded a bit, but it makes me angry that I don't seem to be as driven as I used to, so I'm more angry at myself. I get crazed by the world itself, always, that doesn't seem to change. The world continues to be a maddening place where you just look around and see people behaving in the most stupid ways, and governments that don't really govern, and everything thinks in short-term ways, how the world of quarterly accounts dictates our lives. It's things like that that still get me.

Traffic makes me crazy. I will sit in my house rather than go out in heavy traffic, even though there's things I should be getting out there. I just hate it. We've got all this incredible technology and now I think the average speed of traffic in London is slower than it was in the 19th century. So what's it all about?


Yeah! I don't know, I wish I could make more films, I wish I could get in there and do it. But uh, but I always get caught on doing things in the most different, difficult way imaginable. My agent's always going on about the fact that if it's too easy I wouldn't do it. I get scripts all the time of potentially very good films, and I don't do them because it's too easy. And that kind of irritates me.

In what stage is DON QUIXOTE now?

Well, it's a joke, because I could do it tomorrow. The production company is happy to go right now, but I'm not happy with the script. And it just, I just felt at the moment that I want to try DEFECTIVE DETECTIVE because with the success of TWELVE MONKEYS, it's one of those moments I've got to try and pull it off. Something like that happened with BRAZIL and TIME BANDITS. The success of TIME BANDITS ultimately made BRAZIL possible, and something like QUIXOTE I think can be done any time. It's there, waiting, the people and the money and they're ready to go. It's like trying to pull off, in a sense with DEFECTIVE DETECTIVE because it's really complicated I think, Why am I doing this? I think it's trying to get back on the horse after a nasty fall. I think the nasty fall in the back of my mind is still MUNCHAUSEN. And it's like, let's have one more go at this kind of filmmaking and see if we can pull it off this time.

It's bigger than TWELVE MONKEYS?

Oh yeah! [laughs] It's MUNCHAUSEN size, is what it is, even more complex than MUNCHAUSEN, I think.

Story-wise or production-wise?

Production wise. The story is . . . somewhere, I don't know where it is, like FANNY AND ALEXANDER or AMARCORD — the compilation film. I'd love to try to get back to the jolliness of JABBERWOCKY or TIME BANDITS, I'm getting a little pissed off at my miserable sort of dark side that's so prevalent.

Is it prevalent because you can't just go off and do a little half-million dollar film?

No, it's just that I don't know what to say in those little films at the moment. The kind of things I want to say are tied up with the visuals, [and] I'm still trying to tell a story with visuals that people haven't seen — they're phenomenal and I keep wanting to translate that into something on screen that moves and overwhelms people.

You had mentioned last year you played a lot with Hi-8 cameras.

Just home movies, I love when I look at the tapes I made of our location scouts, I really get some nice things on it. But I mean, I never edit any of the home tapes, I can't be bothered. I'm still fortunately obsessed by doing things that will be seen by millions of people. Since I have access to the medium of film that's where I want to concentrate the energies.

I wanted to get back to Python a little bit, doing the filmed segments for the series. What do you recall from that that attracted you to directing — things you wanted to do, or do differently?

It was just annoying because everything was done so fast and shoddily, I thought. Everything was, there was very little time to get real atmosphere on the screen, or to shoot it dramatically enough or exciting enough. It's the nature of television: you don't have time to work. I mean we used to on the shows get decent lighting in a room, if it's supposed to be nighttime and it's dark. ... We weren't doing drama, we were doing comedy, which fell under Light Entertainment, and light seemed to be required constantly so that you could see the joke! Feel the joke! And I just always had stronger visual sense than we were able to get on in those filmings, and so when we were able to do HOLY GRAIL and direct it ourselves it looked a lot better. I think the jokes were funnier because the world was believable, as opposed to some cheap LE lightweight.

Because you wouldn't expect a joke to be coming.

That's right. I mean, cause we approached the GRAIL as seriously as Pasolini did. We were watching the Pasolini films a lot at that time because he more than anybody seemed to be able to capture a place and period in a very simple but really effective way. It wasn't EL CID and the big epics, it was much smaller. But really, you could feel it, you could smell it, you could hear it. That I thought was excellent. What was interesting about the Pasolini films is that a lot of them were designed by Dante Ferretti. But we always felt, Terry [Jones] and I always used to feel that if the comedy could come out of the sense of a real place, a real world, it was always going to be stronger.

Co-directing with Terry Jones you sort of traded off responsibilities on the set, but how were you partnered in post-production?

Fully. That was the thing, we just sat on it all the time. We used to have disagreements because I felt Terry wasn't looking at the film as a piece of film, he was looking at it with the memory of what happened on the day it was being shot. So if it was a good day, we had a good time, the sun was shining, the food wonderful, he seemed to remember that when he looked at these images. But they're not there for anybody else. This was a battle we had on several scenes where he was seeing stuff that wasn't on the film. And I said they're nothing more than what you see right here.

As I was trying to conjure up the films which I haven't seen in a while, I thought I'd play a game: What would be the first thing I would think of if I mentioned JABBERWOCKY? And I realized that was more of a psychological test on me that it would be for you.

What did you think of first?

For JABBERWOCKY, the first image was of the knight and the wounded beast facing one another, in slow motion, very smoky, very grotesquely beautiful — that seemed to be the strongest image I have from the film.


But the dramatic scene that jumps out for me would be when Michael Palin is at the city gates and the guards discover his potato — the momento of his cherished Griselda — and they immediately try to devour it, this "token of love!"

That's funny. The thing I first think of is Wott Dabney, the famous cooper who is begging and he's severed his foot. That's what comes into my mind.

[And for those not familiar with the film, Wott Dabney was a famed cooper of his day — "Not THE Wott Dabney?!?" Palin exclaims upon meeting him — who could not gain acceptance into the town's guilds, and so could only support himself by collecting alms, which he solicits by severing his own foot. This probably says more than anything about Gilliam's view of himself as an artist in the face of Hollywood's studio system!]

I think the thing is full of wondrous bits and pieces; I'm not convinced we got it flowing as well as it should have, but there's some moments that I think are just wondrous in it. Unfortunately it was sort of hoisted by the Python petard and at the time the reviews just couldn't look at it without judging it against HOLY GRAIL which was kind of again naiveness and arrogance on my part, to think that it wouldn't be judged like that.

Did you originally intend to have Michael play the lead? Because that immediately suggested a Python connection.

No, because he was the one that was perfect for it. And it's like, working close to home, you work with the people you like working with, and always it was intended to be Mike, and then by the time I got Terry Jones as the poacher at the beginning and then my involvement, suddenly you've got half of Python. Now a smarter person would have disassociated — I wouldn't have had Mike play the part, and kept Terry and myself out of the thing, but it's just one thing flew into the next. Because there were so many things on HOLY GRAIL that I wasn't happy with — again, it was atmosphere and ideas about the Middle Ages that I wanted to deal with, and uhm, well, we did it. What was interesting was when the film played in places like Germany and Poland, it really was well-received because they hadn't seen Python there. And so it was judged on its own merit. And that was nice.


With TIME BANDITS, the first piece of dialogue that came to my mind was when Michael is tied to the tree and he shouts, "I must have fruit!" I guess just because it is so silly!

[Laughs]. I know, I still don't know what we were really talking about there, that's what's so wonderful about that, because he talks about his "Problem." It's just wonderful to leave it vague, and everybody comes up with their own idea. I remember seeing it a few years ago, and what intrigued me was how the first half of the film is basically a series of sketches, as we go from place to place, but then when we finally get to the Land of Legends, it really takes off and is a solid bit of adventure filmmaking at that point, and I really enjoyed that. It just had two different paces to it in a sense.

What shape will the sequel be taking?

We're waiting, I mean, I keep hearing contracts are being made up and moving forward.

There's not a script?

We've got an idea, Charles McKeown and I have been working on it, and again it's taking full advantage of the millennium, Armaggedon, and the idea of God wiping out the planet this time, like he didn't do the first millennium — talks big but didn't pull it off. And this time He's serious! And so there's an element of not so much trying to save the world but to save their jobs. Selfish to the core, always, the Time Bandits.

But if God were to wipe out the Earth, couldn't the bandits just go back to an earlier period?

Yeah, but it isn't them so much pillaging this time, they're trying to stop it being wiped out because with it wiped out their jobs are wiped out. And they want to have jobs for the future.

If there is a future.

Exactly. So I mean it's still in the very early stages, we've got I think a few good ideas already bubbling around.

But this is something you're interested in producing rather than directing?

Yeah, I just want to work with Charles on the script and then executive produce or whatever, godfather it and oversee it.

How comfortable do you think you'll be doing that, given how intensely involved you are when you work?

I think fine, because I mean if I can get the right guy to direct it then I can be there to nudge it occasionally, I mean there's one side of me that's trying to ... I mean the first one was mine, we did it, and there it is. And the second one, we'll see what it is.

Kind of like George Lucas letting other people direct STAR WARS films.

Yeah. The thing is George seems to be so uncomfortable directing, he doesn't like it which, I think I do like it more than he does. But uh, yeah, that's the tradition I think we're following in.

Would you be comfortable directing a STAR WARS film? They are planning to do three more, and probably three more after those.

No, not really, because there's not much in there that interests me, except for some of the visual stuff they play with. I mean, the characters don't interest me.

But I'm talking about the license being given with something that is already created, to be handed over to you, saying, "Okay, your turn, you can play with it now."

I don't know, I didn't think so, because it never seems to deal with ideas that are very strong as far as I'm concerned. Still what interests me in films is the ideas in them, not just the cracking adventure. I mean, I like some of the worlds they play in, but the worlds, they always strike me as not having any depth in them. I mean if I go to another world I try to make it into something that has more meaning to it. Their stuff is always fairly superficial — wonderful but superficial.


At the American Museum of the Moving Image recently (a transcript and MP3 of his talk can be found at the American Museum of the Moving Image Web site), you talked about PATHS OF GLORY and its influence on you, having seen it at a young age. How cognizant were you at the time of who Kubrick was, and the fact that he was only about 12 years older than you were and here he was making this impressive film?

Yeah, one of the things that was always shocking is to discover how young filmmakers were. I just assumed that filmmakers were all 40-year-old people.

It was a Saturday kid's matinee in Panorama City, is where I saw PATHS, and the kids were running up and down the aisle, the other parents had dumped them in the cinema, and there was this extraordinary film. It was just two things: one, being stunned by being aware of camera movements for the first time, the tracking shots in the trenches, and then it was the uncompromising nature of the story, where justice is not seen to be done. There was another film too with Dana Andrews, what's it called, it's a western where there's some cattle rustling going on, and they get the wrong guys and drags itself out through the film whether they'll be hung by the mob, and then they are hung, and they die. As they're dangling there, in comes the other posse with the real rustlers. THE OX-BOW INCIDENT. That was somewhere around the same time, these films were so striking to me because they were not telling us that everything was right in the world and it all worked out for the best. Uh, I think it really stuck with me. I mean, Kubrick is one of my great idols because he always seems to me uncompromising in the way he approaches filmmaking, both in ideas and in the technical aspects. And even SPARTACUS, which he clearly disowns, is still a pretty wondrous film.

According to Hollywood Reporter, he's finally starting another one.

The one with Tom and Nicole? A year ago, he spent a long time working on a kind of Anne Frank story, World War II, Jewish Girl and all, and Uma Thurman was going to be in it, and I know he kept her dangling for six months, and in his usual way and he called every day, and then didn't call again. He has no ability to say `Sorry, it's over'; he doesn't call again. And some agent along the way says, 'Uma, it isn't happening.' It will be interesting to see what he does, because it's been such a hiatus. I mean, the weight must be that much greater when The Next Kubrick Film comes out.

I think there's a similar expectation with The Next Gilliam Film.

I ignore that. I just refuse to think like that. The onus is too great if you allow yourself to think like that.

Describe your first films in New York City: Were they very improvisational?

They were silly, is what they were. They were gag films. I mean we'd go out in Riverside Park when it was snowing, and we'd end up doing a melodrama with, I remember a girl tied to the tracks, but the tracks were the marks in the snow from the kids' sled. It's just silly, thrillers and heroines in peril. I only did a couple of these things, I did again a slightly silly one out in LA, Harry Shearer was a good friend, and the whole film was him eating spaghetti. Again, shot on a roof of my house. I was never shooting things seriously, these little exercises. I think that's been my problem is trying to escape from just doing gags. I had a lot more going for me than silly characters all the time. So maybe that's what I'm finding now after all these years getting around to being less silly in films. I remember when they reviewed TIME BANDITS as "Little People, Big Ideas." the way they would refer to it. And then the other thing I remember about one of the reviews of TIME BANDITS referring to a "wistful quality" in it, and I thought, hmm, that was really nice, a wistful quality that I suppose blossomed into the nostalgia of TWELVE MONKEYS eventually.

I think my films have really been that kind of path of escaping with just cheap gags and being less, being less disguised is what they're about.

What limitations do you find in the film medium, aesthetically, in terms of telling a story?

I think films are just more simplistic than anybody admits to. My feeling about them is you really can't . . . a book can tell you so much more. Theatre can work in other, different levels. I find I always start each project with the desire to say a lot of things, and in the end you've only got basically a couple of hours, and I can only say so much, it seems. And then I just do find them much simpler than people pretend. And at the end, some films they're raving about the richness of the things, it's a pretty slim meal compared to a novel. I don't know, I sort of work within the limitations trying to do films that I can get away with within the commercial cinema, and that's because I don't want to end up being isolated in these small art theatres where I have, and the intention is to reach a larger audience. I suppose I don't like preaching to the converted. I remember after MUNCHAUSEN I was offered several operas to direct, and I just didn't want to play to that particular audience. I just thought it was too easy to shock them.

Are you an opera fan? Would it interest you to do a stage production?

It sort of does at times, but I just find movies intrigue me more, and maybe it's just because there's a bigger audience there.

But are you intrigued by the the notion of constructing something that is not fixed, that does not play the same all the way around the world?

Yeah, that's when the work is done, on stage it's always changing which is the great thing about theatre, but uhm, I like getting [the work] as best I can. It's like a painting: it's done, then you ship it around to shows around the world, and it's always the same; it's certainly what I intended, and then whatever anybody else makes of it, that's up to them.

It's very funny, at the moment I've got an installation down at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank, they're got a program, a show called "Spellbound," and they've got several arists doing film-related things or films, and several filmmakers doing art in whatever form they want to do it in. So that's the thing that exists and people come and they fiddle with it.

A hands-on thing?

Basically what it is, a room you enter and a wall about six meters by four and one-half meters, high up on file cabinets, and these filing cabinets don't quite touch the side wall, and in that little gap sort of splayed out on the wall is TWELVE MONKEYS being projected behind the filing cabinets, so you get this very distorted, keystoned image, raking the walls, and then as you hear the soundtrack, it's basically TWELVE MONKEYS but you can't see it because it's being projected behind this thing, and then you open the drawers and in these drawers – they don't all open but the ones that do - various things related to how the films got made or the steps toward making the film or the things that get in the way of the film being made — and in some cases the drawers don't have backs to them, then you can see glmpses of film being projected on the screen behind the whole thing. And uhm, so that's gonna play through May. That was kind of interesting to do it, because it's a different medium basically.

What is the story on WIND IN THE WILLOWS, which Terry Jones is directing?

Terry wrote the screenplay and then directed it, and he plays Toad; Eric Idle plays Ratty, John's in it briefly as the Prosecuting Lawyer in the court case, and Mike's face is gonna be put on the Sun, he's the Sun for a brief moment. And I was supposed to play the River but they cut me out. Which I'm happy [about], because too many Pythons were getting involved. And I knew they would push it as a Python thing.

They've still got four-fifths of the Pythons.

Yeah, that's right. Some of it's really lovely, but I haven't seen Terry or it for the last month and a half, so I don't know how they're getting on, but I assume it should be done fairly soon, so it's probably a summer release. [Actually it was basically dumped in the U.S., available on DVD.]

About the DEFECTIVE DETECTIVE: Are you pushing that with Universal now that TWELVE MONKEYS has been a success for them?

No, it's still at Paramount, so we're going through that.

Have you had to undergo more script revisions with Richard LaGravenese?

No, what's interesting is as I was finishing TWELVE MONKEYS I came back and I read DEFECTIVE DETECTIVE again. And I didn't like it, I just thought we'd made a mess of it. And at Christmas time we went off skiing and I thought well, I better have another look at it, so I grabbed the last version of it, and then I dug down in the pile and grabbed one somewhere in the middle of the writing process, so I read the one that was done in the middle, and I really liked it, I thought Whoa, we were so close and then we went down the wrong path, we just turned the wrong way. And so Richard and I spent a couple of weeks and adjusted a few bits and pieces we wanted to the earlier version and so we're marching forward. I'm storyboarding, we're budgeting and we'll see if Paramount will come up with the goods.

And what would you expect the budget to be?

I don't know. It's not cheap! Again, [our] position is slightly different this time because Chuck Roven is involved, producing and he can bring half the money from abroad so that eases Paramount a bit, and maybe I hope they will take the leap. We'll see. But I just kind of focus on it and say we're going to do it. It helps enormously if you do that. Still, other things [are] likely to happen.

Did you feel that in the years between FISHER KING and TWELVE MONKEYS that you were juggling too many things?

Yeah, I think the problem is that I had so many different things going. And the thing is, [when] you reach a roadblock with any one project, rather than sticking with it, I would jump to another one, because it was easier and more likely. The problem with projects is once you get into it, I begin to really hate it most of the time, so any excuse to escape is taken, is grabbed, and if you're juggling several projects it's very easy — when it gets dropped you're holding the other one. It's my own failing: I want to be greedy and do everything, and yet I know I've got to cut most things out of my plans and concentrate to get anything done.

Despite what I said earlier, I will have to ask you about TWELVE MONKEYS, namely the Astor Piazolla music that is used as the main title and repeated occasionally. What is the story behind your using that piece?

There's a funny little connection, because Ray [Cooper] early on was talking about Argentinian tangos, and he suggested I go out and try to find some Carlos Gardel tangos, he writes in a very traditional way, older style of tango, and I couldn't find any for whatever reason, and so I grabbed some other CDs including this guy Piazolla, whom I had never heard of. And a couple of the pieces just stuck with me, and I was convinced they were right for the film and I wanted to use them. And then when we came around to temping music, I started putting it on and it never fit. I thought it would be really great under Cole and Reilly in the car driving during the kidnap stuff, it just felt like driving music; it didn't work. And I put it somewhere else, and I was getting very frustrated. And then, I don't know, it just hit me — it's the TWELVE MONKEYS theme! It's Jeffrey's theme, or the monkeys' theme. I can't work out where it belongs, and eventually you find a spot.

It finds its own spot.

It almost does. I'm amazed that I'm so blinkered that I can't see where a thing should be. It is like doing a jigsaw puzzle and you're holding this piece in your hand, and it's clear where it should go but it doesn't fit, ever, [then] you realize you've been holding it upside down or something!

For Related Articles on TWELVE MONKEYS by David Morgan:

  • TWELVE MONKEYS On Location — Production Story (Sight & Sound Magazine, January 1996)

  • Interview With Editor Mick Audsley

  • Interview With Producer Charles Roven

  • Interview With Production Designer Jeffrey Beecroft

    copyright 1996, 2009 by David Morgan
    All rights reserved.