Terry Gilliam is on a whirlwind stop in Los Angeles 48 hours before he returns to the U.K. where he now resides.
Gilliam is in L.A. to remind people about “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” his 2018 film starring Jonathan Pryce and Adam Driver. In true Gilliam style, it’s a mix of fantasy and adventure, and Driver, according to Gilliam “gives the best performance of the year” in the film.
It’s the first time he’s been to the Variety offices and seen a newsroom. His spirits are high as the man famous for “Monty Python,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “Brazil” sits down to reflect on his long-admired and esteemed career.
On his start in animation:
When I graduated, I had no idea what I was going to do. I was reading Moss Hart’s autobiography, “Act One.”
Like Moss Hart, I walked into The Algonquin Hotel to meet my hero, Harvey Kurtzman, who was creating the first issue of “Little Annie Fanny,” which he did for Playboy. He had many of his great former MAD cartoonists working in one hotel room. I walked in and it was like I was in heaven.
Harvey comes out, and his No. 2 was quitting. I’m standing there and that was it. I worked as Harvey’s No. 2 for about three years. One of my responsibilities was organizing locations and finding the actors for tour fumettis (essentially comics, but with photographs of real people and places rather than cartoons). I was basically out there making films.
Jack Davis, Al Jaffee, William Elder and Arnold Roth were all there. Charles Alverson, who I wrote “Jabberwocky” with, was the No, 2 who was leaving, but before him, Gloria Steinem had held that job.
Gloria had moved on by then. She hardly talks about her time with Harvey. She gave me a brief job helping her with “The Beach Book.” She was a great lady. Men and women loved and admired her. She was very smart and had a terrific sense of humor.
On the “Monty Python” years:
Python started in 1969. I started animation the year before. I met John Cleese in New York in 1963 and then, years later, I turn up in London and he’s now a TV star. I was still cartooning and illustrating. I said, “I want to escape magazines, introduce me to someone in TV.” He gave me the name of a producer; it took me two months to actually get him on the phone and he turned out to be an amateur cartoonist. He liked my cartoons. He was producing a program called “Do Not Adjust Your Set” with Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Jones writing and performing. He forced some of my written sketches on them, much to their chagrin.
John and Graham wrote the script for “The Magic Christian.” I didn’t like the film because they didn’t seem to understand the basic American premise of the book and tried to make it British.
A most irritating missed opportunity was that Kubrick, before he died, was going to ask me to do the sequel to “Strangelove.” I found this out subsequently. Why didn’t he call me? This was one of my favorite movies of all time.
We played the Hollywood Bowl. Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty were there.
It’s easier to perform in front of 17,000 people because they loved us so much. We could have done anything.
At “Monty Python Live at Aspen” (1988), I kicked over an urn apparently full of Graham Chapman’s ashes. It was so funny. We planned to do it, but no one knew when it was going to happen. John was talking, getting boring, I looked over at Mike, we both grinned, and I did it. The noise from the audience was one I’d never heard before. It was an exhaled and inhaled gasp, both at the same time. They really believed it was Graham’s ashes. It was such a great time to be a Python, you could do the most outrageous things and get away with it. In the world we’re living in now it seems you can’t.
His Career High Point:
“The Life of Brian.” It was about something real and important. It was tremendously funny, very intelligent, and prescient. It’s very much about now. I felt that we never got “Meaning of Life” right, although it has some of Python’s most-brilliant-ever moments. Henry Jaglom and I were talking about it at the Cannes festival. I apologized because it was such a mixed bag. He said, “No, that’s why it’s so great. The bits that don’t work make it even greater.”
We had a moment with Blake Edwards. He wanted to direct or produce “Life of Brian.” He was a big Python fan. I don’t think it would have worked because we don’t take direction. [Laughs]. When I was shooting “Jabberwocky,” he was making one of the “Pink Panther” films in the same studio. There was a wonderful sewer set they had finished with and trashed on the junk pile, I wanted to use it and wrote a scene around it. I was very naive. They got word of it and burned everything rather than let me use some of their scraps.
PierPaolo Pasolini was a big visual influence on Jabberwocky. I always felt I could smell and feel his worlds. That was what I wanted to achieve.
On “Brazil’s” distribution and the L.A. Film Critics:
I had been asked to give a talk at the USC film school, and I decided to come because Universal had embargoed “Brazil.” We couldn’t show the film anywhere in America.
I said I wanted to bring some audiovisual aids with me. I brought the film. The projectionist wouldn’t show it. I was doing one of my moments. “There are six million dying out there, and you won’t show it.” My lawyer got on the phone with Universal’s lawyer, a Mr. Middleman. You couldn’t invent it!
It was agreed I could show a clip of the film. All it needed was the dean of the school to take the phone call from Mr. Middleman, but he wouldn’t. I got the students to start banging on his door shouting “Take the call! Take the call!” He didn’t. We ended up going to CalArts and we showed it there. The screening room was so packed full it felt like the black hole of Calcutta. They had to do a second screening. Some L.A. critics were in that crowd and it led to them having clandestine screenings in private homes in Hollywood.
Universal’s big film of the year,“Out of Africa” premiered in New York and to the studio’s shock, the L.A. film critics announced “Brazil” as their winner of Best Picture, Best Direction, and Best Screenplay. It was a brilliant moment. They had to release the film in the big cities.
I think the moment I loved the most was when Robert DeNiro and I were on “ABC’s Good Morning America”. He had agreed to do an interview, and he brought a friend along. That friend was me. Maria [Shriver, who was hosting] was asking Bob about the movie and she turns to me and says, “Terry, I understand you’re having problems with the studio.” I said, “I’m not having problems with the studio. I’m having problems with one guy. His name is Sidney Sheinberg, and he looks like this.” I ran to the camera with an 8×10 black and white of Sid. I guess that got his attention, him and millions of Americans.
Sid’s wife liked the movie. He had no idea what the movie was, but it had to be changed. I took out an ad in Variety. It was a full-page ad that looked like a funeral announcement. I wrote, “Dear Sidney Sheinberg, when are you going to release my film, ‘Brazil?’” The shit really started flying. Back then arguing was still fun. We were like pirates.
On Trump and the British General Election Results:
One of the most despicable human beings is the [U.S.] president. It’s very hard for me to think that there’s anything good about him. He’s a vile human being. The idea of him trying to run a country, the way he ran his company — he just can’t do it. Trump is appalling and the lapdog Republicans are utterly craven and awful.
Once Pandora’s Box is opened, the monsters spring up like mushrooms. Boris is just Mini-Me compared to Trump. I thought we could have held him [Boris] back. I’m surprised he got a majority.
19 years ago, I chose to be British. I renounced my citizenship the year [George W] Bush was reelected. Once is stupid, but twice? It was time to leave. When you renounce, you get put on parole. I could only be in America for 30 days in any one year. The week after I had renounced, I got a call from Hollywood. That’s how life works.
At the end of my 10-year parole, I was 100% British and my attitude was that meant I was 100% European as well. That was the year of the Brexit vote! I said, “What the fuck is happening to me?”
Great Britain, I thought was a pragmatic place with pragmatic people. But, they’re just as deluded as America. With Johnson, you’ve never seen a man lie so blatantly. I give up trying to understand how people think nowadays. The ones who will suffer the most are the ones most easily conned.
On “Tideland” being his most underappreciated work:
People have been turning up in recent years at my screenings and they’re saying how much they love the film. Jodelle Ferland was the most brilliant child actress ever. Brendan Fletcher was wonderful too. But, the audience saw this girl cooking heroin and helping her father shoot up and many just shut down. They couldn’t see it’s a dance of love. This little girl is behaving more maturely than her father (the utterly brilliant Jeff Bridges). She’s his nurse, his carer. She knows the moment his cigarette is going to drop and cause damage.
“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” being hated in Cannes:
In Cannes, Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro and I were ready for our first day of press. The French PR man had been at the press screening and he comes in white-faced, a ghost. They had hated the film.. and we had several days of press yet to do. The female editor of the L.A. Times culture section hated the film so much, she wouldn’t give it an inch of space.
Funny how time changes perception, it’s now a cult classic.
The best review of the film was from a 15-year-old who was being asked by his parents why he liked it so much. He said, “It’s the first movie I’ve seen that’s not hypocritical.” I have just been grading a restored version which is being released in London. I haven’t seen it in 20 years and thought, “F— me. This is brilliant!! Who made it?”
On animation and what he likes now:
It’s got to be early Disney. Look at “Pinocchio,” it’s one of the most extraordinary pieces of work ever. Bill Plympton is wonderful. He’s a genius. Jon Lassiter is brilliant. Stan Vanderbeek was amazing. His stuff was the first cut-out work I ever saw. Everything I’ve done is based on not having been a film student. I learn on the job. When you have two weeks and only $400, you start cutting things out and…voila! you’re an animator. When I talk to Scorsese and Landis about film, those guys are walking encyclopedias. I’m not. For me, it’s about learning within the confines of what I’ve been given to do. I don’t know why it’s worked out that way, but I’ve ended up in projects where I’ve had to create something big with very little and some of my best work has been the result of lack of time and money, where the only way to get around the problem was to learn how to tap dance.