From the Life Of Brian through Time Bandits, Brazil and The Fisher King, we salute the work of Terry Gilliam, American Python and visionary film maker
In Brazil, Gilliam painted a world smothered in soulless bureaucracy, where people are crammed in endless tower-blocks filled with oversized ducting and inefficient, retrofitted technology.
In this world the mavericks are characters like renegade plumber Tuttle: operating outside the system he bursts commando like into peoples homes, repairs their air-conditioning and then disappears back into the night: 'Listen, this old system of yours could be on fire and I couldn't even turn on the kitchen tap without filling out a 27B/6... bloody paperwork.'
It's a typical Gilliam character: on the face of it surreal, even silly, but driving home a philosophical point with the kind of wit, imagination and style that long stays in the memory.
It's also as good as any a metaphor for Gilliam's approach to film making. He is not part of the all-powerful system, in this case Hollywood; he finds a way to work around it, to sidestep the studio conveyor belt and make the kind of visionary films that, even when they don't fully succeed, are worth a dozen of the formulaic schlock they share the billboards with.
We caught up with him in the pub prior to a promotion for the Faber and Faber book Gilliam on Gilliam. This is a compilation of our conversation with him and the promotional interview, starting with his comments on working with Robert De Niro on Brazil:
GILLIAM: On the one hand, working with Bobby was a bit of a nightmare. Not because he wasn't a nice person or, of course, a great actor, but that he was so... scrupulous. I think this was his first non-starring role - he was doing it as a favour for someone at the studio - it was a cameo almost, but he researched it like it was the main part.
The best example is the scene where Bobby comes in with the gun whilst talking to Jonathan [Price] on the 'phone. Now, John has to do this whole jumping out of bed, grabbing the phone, pratfall, drop, catch, etc. Then Bobby comes in behind him with the ski mask on and says something like 'Mr. Lowry? Put down the phone.'
So, first take, John does his bit, Bobby comes in, and he's like: 'Mr. Lowry? Mr... I'm sorry, can we go again, that wasn't quite right.' So we go again, John does the whole jump, grab phone, drop phone, fall, recover etc. Bobby comes in and again its: 'Mr. Lowry? Sam? - Is it Sam? or Mr. Lowry?' And I'm, 'Don't worry, Bobby you're wearing a ski mask, we can dub it later'. But he's 'No, no, I'll come in again'.
So this goes on and on. And poor John, he's having to do this very rigorous stunt every time. What made it worse was that Bobby was one of John's heroes, who he'd always looked up to, and now he's working with him and he's driving him mad.
Another example is that I'd told Bobby that the character has a surgeon's skill with his tools, so he'd been out researching to get into character ...I think he'd actually observed hospital operations. In the end, because of the constant retakes, we had so little time left that he had to leave and I ended up doing the close-up shots of his hands working the tools myself.
But of course, as it turned out Bobby was an absolute blessing when it came to the big fight with Sid Sheinberg...
(Despite receiving many positive critical reviews and a strong audience reaction on release in Europe, Sheinberg, head of Universal Pictures, was flummoxed by the 144 minute film with its dark, cynical tone and lack of happy ending. He demanded cuts. Lots of them. This included pumping up the romantic elements and castrating it with a happy ending.)
...I'd already put the advert in Variety: 'Dear Sid Sheinberg. When are you going to release my movie, Brazil?', I needed to get things out in the open because I really thought that public opinion would be with me and embarrass Sid into releasing my cut. Of enormous help to this was the fact that Bobby agreed to do a couple of chat show appearances with me, which he, y'know, never does.
(The film eventually received two Oscar nominations: Best Film and Best Art Direction.)
Brazil was my most personal, cathartic, film: I had to get it out of my system.
Your next two films were Baron Munchausen, a commercial flop, and The Fisher King, a critical and box office success.
During Munchausen we were being sued by a guy who'd done an earlier version, which was basically a World War II Nazi propaganda film, and we had to put a disclaimer at the end. Years later, after completing The Fisher King, one of the cameramen came up to me and said 'I've really loved working on this film with you and I'm going to tell you now what I've been too scared to tell you before; that guy who was trying to sue you on Munchausen was my Dad!' Which I thought was great.
Can you tell us what happened to the film adaptation of Watchmen that you were going to make?
Well, that fell through for reasons that were out of my hands, but I was relieved in the end; Watchmen is kind of the War and Peace of comic books and I didn't feel I could do it justice within the limited running time of a feature film.
I heard they messed around with the ending...
Well, I messed around with it. I had to, to try and fit it all in. Alan Moore said 'You do it, I'd rather you messed it up than me'.
I think it would really need to be done as a mini-series...
That's exactly what I thought.
... twelve episodes, retaining the structure and enabling all the character development ...
Yes, yes. But no, it wasn't to be.
Have you been reading his From Hell?
Yeah, Alan sends me most his stuff, it's always good. One of the things I loved about Watchmen though was the really gorgeous, crisp artwork.
Finally, how would you sum up your approach to choosing projects?
People have asked me how I manage to keep making the films I want to, and the answer is really quite simple: you have to completely disregard how your choices and your actions could effect your career.
In Hollywood it's very easy to go with the flow, follow the bucks, trying to get into the A list, and that's the slippery slope to producing mainstream rubbish.
So my advice is, have no interest in furthering your career and just follow your heart. Make the films you really care about. I mean, that's the only way you'll really be happy anyway.