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‘I Know My Films Work Better for Some:’ Terry Gilliam on ‘Quixote’ Criticisms

LOS CABOS, Mexico — In town to promote “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” celebrated writer-director Terry Gilliam met with Variety for a conversation in which the Monty Python alum laughed more than he talked, addressed graciously the good and bad of film criticism, and taking silly work seriously.

Gilliam started off stressing that he is not, nor has he ever been, a critics’ director. At least not all critics.

“Every film I’ve made always splits, usually the critics even more than the audience. Even with ‘Brazil,’ when we first started screening half the audience would walk out. Now when we show ‘Brazil’ it’s this classic and all that bullshit, all that crap,” he said, invoking his Minnesota roots with his choice and pronunciation of that last word.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” he continued. “I know that my films work better for some people. There is a certain way of approaching life or looking at the world. They get on the ride with me and go all the way.”

And Gilliam, in his typical thick-skinned way, is O.K. with the critics that don’t get his films, so long as their take is original and thought out.

“I don’t mind a bad review when it’s about the film I made. When I read reviews sometimes they just miss the film, I don’t know what they were taking in,” he said. “It’s those cut and paste reviews that I don’t like. There are so many of them that once you get a review out there, there is a laziness in a lot of reviewers, or an inability to have a clear thought about what they are writing about, so they just cut and paste what exists.”

While a number of reviews have been unfavorable, audience reactions have often been strong. Two particular endorsements of the film were especially meaningful to Gilliam.

“I met the world’s two leading (Cervantes) experts, and they both said: ‘You did it, you actually captured the spirit of Cervantes,’” he recalled, taking a breath to let it settle in again. “I went, f–k me I’m happy.”

He went on to address criticism of Adam Driver’s Sancho Panza, saying that this was Driver’s best performance to date, and that it was especially important because for this Don Quixote story to work, audiences needed to empathize as much with Jonathan Pryce’s Quixote and Driver’s Panza.

“That’s why these icons exist,” he explained. “One is the dreamer, the fantasist who is constantly getting the reality of the world wrong, and the other is the complete man, with his feet on the ground, who is simpler. All of our brains have both a Quixote and a Sancho in them.”

So who are Gilliam’s fans? Who are the people that get his cinema, that keep coming back film after film, decade after decade, and pining for more from the timeless filmmaker?

“People with a good visual imagination tend to respond,” he started. “Also I think musicians… I know that creative people, almost 100%, like what I do… I also find children, and I know on this film in particular, they just got it, they went for the ride.”

According to Gilliam, it takes an ability to let go of the intellectual, and embrace the silly. That’s something he learned long ago across the pond.

“We (Monty Python) were very smart, but we were also very silly,” he said, giggling profusely at such an obvious observation. “It was very difficult for intellectuals, they don’t like that! For them you’ve gotta be serious. And I am very serious about what I do, and so were the other guys in Python, but I will undercut it all the time if I want to, if it’s funny.”

From his time with Monty Python as an actor and director through his lighthearted fantastic fare like “Time Bandits” to the deeper, darker films like the 1986 Oscar-nominated “Brazil” or his adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Gilliam’s work has always draw on the absurd and surrealist traditions that form one of the major movements of last century of course, but date back far longer. And, “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is no exception.

“The scene with the bearded women,” he said, referencing the film, “people think that’s from Monty Python… Cervantes wrote that. Boom.”

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