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Post-‘Monty Python,’ Terry Gilliam Keeps Delivering Something Completely Different

Terry Gilliam, despite turning 75 this month and recently publishing “Gilliamesque: A Pre-posthumous Memoir,” has no intention of seeing the curtain fall on his career. He fizzes with ideas as he sits for an interview with Variety at the British Film Institute cafe in London, dressed in a samue — a traditional Japanese jacket worn by monks and craftsmen. He jokes that the fusion of the two reflects his approach to his trade.

When it’s time to move to the location of the photo shoot across town in Covent Garden, he spurns the offer of a taxi, preferring to walk.

The determination in his brisk gait is mirrored in his creative pursuits. Though his doomed attempt to shoot “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” documented in the film “Lost in La Mancha,” took its toll on Gilliam, he has not given up on the project. Amazon is backing a revived version of the film, which he plans to shoot next year.

It also looks likely that Gilliam’s show-biz life is about to return to its roots — to the small screen that made stars of him and his “Monty Python” co-creators. He has co-written the screenplay for a TV series, “The Defective Detective,” and there’s also talk of a series based on his movie “Time Bandits.”

“Defective Detective” started out as a movie script, which Gilliam wrote with Richard LaGravenese, who penned the director’s film “The Fisher King.” Gilliam recently retrieved “Detective” “from the bowels of Paramount,” and he and LaGravenese have reworked it as a six-hour miniseries. “It’s about a middle-aged New York cop who was once a hero who has grown fat and cynical, and is in the middle of a breakdown, ending up in a child’s fantasy world where the rules of the mean streets of New York no longer apply,” Gilliam explained in a webchat recently.

Like many of his projects, “Defective Detective” will move back and forth from reality to fantasy, he says. “The trick is to keep the audience there and not let them go while you are playing this little game with them. It’s like a magic show.”

“Harvey is what he is, and I’m what I am. It was a bad marriage, that’s all. We should never have got together. But I was in a bad situation with a film ready to go, and they have got a fine eye for road-kill.”
Terry Gilliam
David Vintiner for Variety

In “Gilliamesque,” he recalls making a seminal visit to Stoney Point in Los Angeles, where footage for many Westerns was shot. At first, the place was a disappointment for the young Gilliam, because “it looked much more dramatic on film,” but then “your imagination starts making it interesting again.” He writes: “That junction — the place where reality and myth or fantasy meet — is where a lot of my films ended up being located.”

Gilliam characterizes “The Fisher King” as the only truly contemporary film he’s made. “And even that I stretched to make it as mythic as possible,” he says. “Everything else could be a cartoon version of the world, but it’s a slightly abstracted version. Everything I’m doing is about the world we are living in, but I’ve put it in a slightly different form, so it takes either archetypal, cliched or mythic proportions.”

He acknowledges that his psyche plays a role in his work.

“All the characters are either searching for something or are trying to transcend life, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m very selfish. They are all autobiographical.”

One of the recurrent storylines in his films is the individual fighting against an authority figure or system, and he himself is ill-at-ease dealing with organizations. He admits that his movie career might have been easier had he formed his own production company, as Luc Besson did with EuropaCorp. “I don’t have a producer. I have nothing. I don’t even have an assistant between films,” he says. “I was talking to my wife (Maggie) about that the other day. Why didn’t I build a structure? Maybe, because I don’t like structures.”

Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini, who worked with Gilliam on a number of films, including “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” has seen first-hand the filmmaker’s determination to make the film he wants, no matter the desires of producers, studios and financiers.

“He often finds himself in the position of not making the smallest compromise, and therefore not making anything,” Pecorini says. “Whereas most other directors are very political, Terry has the uncanny capacity to upset everybody, just because he’s (creatively) free. That’s not necessarily good for your career.”

George Harrison’s production company HandMade Films would have been the ideal structure for Gilliam to work within, had it lasted. Harrison had backed “Life of Brian” before he formed the shingle, which produced Gilliam’s “Time Bandits.” “HandMade was perfect, because I was Michelangelo with the Medici,” Gilliam says. “It could have been incredible, because there was so much talent there, and with George as the backer, we could have made some great films.”

But conflicts with HandMade chief Denis O’Brien proved too much for Gilliam and his fellow Pythons to manage. “(In) Python, it’s impossible to build anything greater than the six of us, and so this desire for independence — even from success — became a good and a bad thing,” he says.

Gilliam’s career has been punctuated by a number of battles with studios, most famously on 1988’s “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.” Stories started to appear in the press during the shoot that suggested the director was out of control on the fantastical film that starred John Neville as either a famed world traveler or a deluded old man. Six weeks after filming started, the money ran out, and he was forced to make major changes to the project before production was allowed to resume.

Gilliam rejects allegations that he was out of control on the film. “I had storyboarded the whole thing,” he says. “There were no secrets — it was all there. The number of shooting days, all the effects, everything. We were doing just what had been scheduled.”

Although the director allows that the experience was a painful one, he remains proud of the movie. “It’s a film that is greater and will last longer than any one of us, and maybe it’ll be discovered in time,” he says.

He fought another battle, with Harvey and Bob Weinstein, over forced changes made to “The Brothers Grimm,” including replacing Samantha Morton with Lena Headey.

When a tranche of financing dried up just before the film was to shoot, the Weinsteins stepped in to fill the gap, but at a price. Gilliam says: “Harvey is what he is, and I’m what I am. It was a bad marriage, that’s all. We should never have got together. But I was in a bad situation with a film ready to go, and they have got a fine eye for road-kill.”

A spokesperson for the Weinstein Co. praises Gilliam as “one of the most innovative filmmakers in modern cinema,” but stands by the company’s decision: “As with any movie, there may have been differences in opinions while making ‘The Brothers Grimm,’ but Lena was fantastic in the film, and we’ll never regret casting her.”

Asked whether he has learned to strike the right balance between uncompromising auteur and collegial creative, Gilliam maintains that he understands his own shortcomings. “I know how wrong I can be,” he admits. “I’ve got an ego, but it’s quite controllable. I have enough self-doubt that makes me listen to other people, and I really love the collegiate side. It comes from being in Python.”

Louis Pepe, who co-directed a pair of documentaries about the making of Gilliam movies — “The Hamster Factor,” about “12 Monkeys,” and “Lost in La Mancha,” about “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” — calls the director among the most collaborative filmmakers he’s witnessed. “He is genuinely excited by other people’s ideas,” Pepe says. Pecorini agrees: “If and when he manages to put a project together, he’s the best director I have ever worked with. He’s the most open, the most ready to receive suggestions.”

Tony Grisoni, who co-wrote the screenplays for “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Tideland” and “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” says that working with Gilliam is quite literally a challenge. “He encourages you to experiment and to be unafraid to try something,” he says. “And it’s always a dialogue with Terry. He’s not one of these directors where you produce material and give it to him and he disappears. He’ll come back and say: ‘What about this? What about that? Could we try it in a different way?’ He’s always said: ‘Films get made thanks to momentum and belief.’ And if I had enough knuckles, I’d have them tattooed (with those words).”

Gilliam’s creative quirks are a byproduct of his belief that filmmaking is an organic process, rather than a mechanical one, and that the approach to each movie must be fresh. “It’s a different set of problems you are dealing with,” he says. “It’s about trying to discover what the film is as you are doing it, even if you have written it. And it kind of reveals itself as it goes along, or events occur that force it to become something a bit different than what it was.”

The filmmaker says it’s analogous to a tree growing in a forest. “You grow trying to find the sunlight, and if another tree is in the way, you go another way, and eventually you are heading toward the sun. I like trees that grow in forests,” he adds, a twinkle in his eye, “because they are very weirdly shaped.”

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