Tideland: Ask Terry Gilliam




To tie in with the release of his new film Tideland, Terry Gilliam (left) agreed to answer a number of questions from fans, posted to this website in June and July 2006.

Dreams editor Phil Stubbs made a selection from the hundreds of questions submitted, and fired them at Terry. Below is Part One of the resulting interview, where the filmmaker talked about his latest film Tideland and possible future projects.

Phil Stubbs: How did you find Jodelle Ferland for the role of Jeliza-Rose in Tideland?
Terry Gilliam: God chose her for us! We had been looking for a long time for our lead actress. It was getting very close to the start of production, and we still hadn’t found her. Luckily this tape came in from Vancouver – the casting lady had put Jodelle and several of the young girls on tape. The minute I saw her, I thought there was an incredible energy there. She looked so tiny, and she had extraordinary eyes. We brought her to Toronto and I screen-tested her. Her reactions to things and how she chose to deliver lines were a real surprise. I just said: you’ve got the part. It was so obvious. She wasn’t sentimentalised and cute like a normal child actor. Jodelle was incredibly tough.

How did Jodelle cope with the role and the story? She’s the best child actor I’ve ever seen… but how do you explain a story so disturbing to a child?
You don’t have to explain: Jodelle’s a very intelligent girl! Luckily she also had a very sensitive and intelligent mother to work with her. Dealing with the story is like playing with dolls, and the disturbing nature of it isn’t that disturbing for her. I think what always happens is that adults find it disturbing, but children don’t see things the way adults do. Also in many of the scenes, I let Jodelle make the choices of how to do scenes. So we see how a nine and a half year-old girl would do them, rather than a 64 year-old man trying to tell and nine and a half year old girl how to be a nine and a half year old. Children are surprising!

Did you use any of your own memories of childhood to make the film?
Not really… the only thing that maybe was growing up in Minnesota, and near the house were great wheat fields and corn fields. There was that sense of the freedom from the open space, of a beautiful landscape. That was something I wanted to capture on film, because that was a great part of my childhood.

And the opposite of that is the sense of claustrophobia of the internal scenes.
That’s probably more from my adult life.

Having worked with Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King, how was he this time round?
Jeff is always a joy. He’s so solid and meticulous. He’s a delight. When we were working on The Fisher King, Roger Pratt said I’d found my cinematic alter ego: Mastroianni to my Fellini. He grounds a lot of the stuff I do. When I get silly, he will take the same thought and make it believable and real.

What was outrageous on Tideland was that we had a prosthetic dummy made to sit in the chair when he is dead. But Jeff ended up doing the scene himself. That’s what is wonderful about Jeff – a lot of other actors would say: just use the dummy. There would be subtle differences in Jodelle’s performance because she was sitting on a real person rather than a dummy.

Someone who liked the film told me she would hesitate to recommend it to her more sensitive friends. She asked: why did you choose to show so many revolting scenes. Would it work less well if the scenes were less graphic?
I think her sensitive friends might not be so sensitive. Sensitive people should be able to appreciate what’s going on in Tideland. We were translating the book to screen and that’s what my job is, it’s not to write a different story.

The difference is that when you are reading a book, you can filter the imagery, you can decide what is for you. With the film, I’m doing the imagery, and it contains what makes sense to me. Some people may find that strong, but I think you need all the imagery that is in the film. It’s what makes it so striking and effective.

Now some negative comments from someone who was outraged by the film
Now we’re talking!

How can one dare to do something so shocking and disgusting and call it beautiful? Only a sick perverted mind might feel happy about it. The world is not as ugly as you show.
We were showing how wonderful the world is in Tideland! Those kinds of reactions always amaze me because there are people living in a little bubble, not wanting to look at the way the world really is. If you don’t have the innocence of a child, all you can see is the ugly surface… you’re missing what the child is imagining and experiencing. In fact, what’s disgusting is what we watch on television, because that is truly a lie. We see a different version of the world on television, and it isn’t truthful. People seem to be happy with that!

We encourage the bombing of Lebanese citizens but we don’t have to watch what it really looks like. We allow everything to be censored for us – I think that very dangerous way of approaching life. What I think is wonderful about the film is that the one group I keep finding that really reacts positively is younger women, and I don’t think they are perverted or disturbed.

It’s doing quite nicely in Japan, they aimed at what has now become its core audience: young females, unlike in America where it’s 17 to 25 year-old males. Pairs of girls, girls bringing their boyfriends. I think the pattern’s going to be the same everywhere – a minority that really love it and a majority who just don’t know what they think or they don’t like it. That’s they way it should be!

Actually I was told that the French distributor said Tideland would be a problem in France, because the French find farting neither funny nor uncivilised. So maybe that was the problem. Clearly they forgot their great hero Le Petomaine, farting for the crown heads of Europe… in tune. He could do birdsong, he could imitate different instruments, all to the delight and delectation of the crown heads of Europe – a Frenchman.

With Tideland you have used a wide aspect ratio. Since working with cinematographer Nicola Pecorini, you have worked with a wider format with Fear and Loathing and Tideland. How do you decide which ratio to shoot in?
It was really because we wanted the wide open spaces that we chose the wide screen. That was also true in Fear and Loathing – desert and space. Doing something in a city where things are much more vertical, I go for a less wide format. Brothers Grimm was 1.85 instead of 2.35 simply because we wanted to show the height of the trees.

Could you explain the pros and cons of working on an indie film versus working with Hollywood and which do you prefer?
To be honest, neither Grimm nor Tideland were an indie or Hollywood film in the strict sense. There’s kind of a bullshit world going on about indie and Hollywood. When you are dealing with indie distributors, most of them are just branches of Hollywood studios. So it’s become not quite as independent. In the case of Grimm, it wasn’t so much a Hollywood studio as the Weinsteins – a different world obviously. The main difference is that one was a big expensive film and one was a small film.

Another difference was Jeremy Thomas as Tideland‘s producer and his support – he did not try to make his own version of the film. He doesn’t interfere. In all these things it’s down to individuals rather than “Hollywood vs independents”. You can have indie producers who are just as monstrous as any studio could ever throw up. But the difference was that one was a big expensive giant of a film and the other was small and quick guerrilla film. With Tideland one can deal with more dark and disturbing subject matter, because we are not appealing to big audience. It allows that kind of freedom to do what you want to say. Effectively, it’s “Fuck the audience!”

For your next project would you prefer to do that, or would you prefer the bigger budget?
It doesn’t come down to that. It’s whatever the project is that captures my imagination and what that requires. At the moment we’ve been trying to get Good Omens off the ground, and that’s a very expensive movie, and it’s proving to be very frustrating, because it’s much more dependent on ‘A’ list actors, and therefore we are much more dependent on other people, whereas if we were working with a smaller budget it’s usually easier. Yet Stephen Evans, the producer of Good Omens, says it’s sometimes easier to raise 80 million dollars than it is raising 8 million dollars. It’s just very hard these days to get any film off the ground.

At what stage is Good Omens?
Well, it’s very costly, and trying to put together the right cast is going slower than I’d hoped. Everybody wants there to be ‘A’ list actors involved. It’s really busy out there at the moment. So I’m not getting the responses I’d want. It marches on, but it’s frustratingly slow.

Is the cash there if you want it?
The cash is dependent on the ‘A’ list actors. This is one of the real problems with making expensive films, you are dependent on so many other elements. It’s not like you come up with an idea and you need to raise a few million dollars, and go off and make a film. In particular at the moment Hollywood, where we are ultimately going to get money from, has become very cautious and conservative. So I don’t know where we’re going to go yet. But we march on.

I understand there’s been some movement recently with your Quixote script.
Yes, apparently on July 4 it was the end of the legal battle between the production company and the insurance company. It appears that everything is now coming back to us. It’s just lawyers resolving all the fine points now. There doesn’t seem to be anything that’s going to stop that happening. Maybe it’s going to be a couple of months before everything is going to be resolved, and until I actually get the thing and see the signed documents, I’m not going to look at the script.

Have you had any thoughts as to who you might cast as Quixote?
No, because I refuse to let my brain run loose on Quixote at the moment. The order of events will be very simple. If and when everything comes back to us, I have to then talk to Mr Depp and find out when he’s available, and then we know how to start proceeding with it.

Anything for Billy? [based on a novel by Larry McMurtry]
Funnily enough, I just sent an email off about that one just before I called you, to find out what’s going on. There were a group of Italians who were offering some finance. I don’t know what’s going on, I’ll just stir that one up a bit.

The Defective Detective?
It’s just sitting quietly. Richard LaGravenese [who also wrote The Fisher King] wants to have another look at the script. I haven’t looked at it in a while. My problem with it is that I’m really in search for the regular producer that can start delivering what I need. I don’t have that person for the bigger budget films. Jeremy Thomas is there on Quixote. It’s the other stuff I’m still struggling with.

Dan Leno? [based on a novel by Peter Ackroyd]
I think that’s pretty dead. That was at a time when I was in a very depressed state, and the idea of doing a film about a serial killer excited me, but I thought in the end there’s enough blood on screen as it is!

Is there an actor or actress that you haven’t worked with who you feel would be great in the Gilliam universe?
Bill Nighy… and Gael Garcia Bernal is someone I’m really intrigued with, I think he’s really good. Who else is out there… George Clooney – I actually think it would be fun to work with him. The other ones, the great actors like Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, Laurence Fishburne. These are the people I’ve never had the right script parts for.

Do you have any plans to work with either Roger Pratt or Michael Palin again?
Roger and I have dinner every couple of weeks when he’s in town. It’s always that he’s been on another project while I’m doing whatever film I’m doing. And Mike and I keep talking about a project which is based on a book called Water Music, by T. Coraghessan Boyle, about Mungo Park the famous 19th Century Scottish explorer, who discovered the Niger river for Great Britain. We keep talking about it, but nothing has advanced.

It’s not comic as a comedy, it’s funny yet it’s also very bleak, and strange. It’s basically an adventure story, and very different from the glorified exploring that was going on in the 19th century. How a guy is reduced to behaving as an animal to survive. I keep telling Mike he’s got to stop travelling, sit down and do some films again. But he keeps running away.

He’s running out of places to visit now really
He’s just done Eastern Europe. He’s come back last week from the first part of that one. There isn’t much left I agree. In fact I keep telling him he should really do Michael Palin goes round the world in London. It’s all here in London, almost every country is represented somewhere.

You never quite catch a break when you are making movies. You’ve been through development hell, production hell, post-production hell and also distribution hell. Which hell do you prefer?
I love this question – but it’s one you might ask Dante.

Well, he’s not around so it’s over to you…
They’re all tough – I don’t want to choose. I’d like to avoid all of them, but it doesn’t seem to be my fate.

In the past you’ve indicated the images in your film have come from a variety of external sources. Are most of these sources of inspiration from a personal archive, or do they come from more random day-to-day observations that you jot down in a notebook?
It’s a bit of both. I keep a notebook. I do scribble things down that I see. I’ve got a big library, so if I run out of ideas I start scouring. And often I’ll go down to places like the National Gallery in London, and wander around looking at pictures until ideas start pouring out. It’s a combination of all of those things.

How do visions come up in your head?
That’s the bit I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I have a bad memory. I think they are original visions but they are probably just reminiscences of something I’ve seen earlier and forgotten about! But the actual process of how my mind works, I don’t really care to understand. I’m just lucky or perhaps unlucky – because when I’ve got those ideas floating around in my head, and I can’t get financing for them, it’s very frustrating!

I understand you have lost you American citizenship recently…
I didn’t lose it, I renounced it… that’s a much better word. I’ve been living in England since 1967, I’ve been paying taxes in both countries. I thought I’m getting old, in fact I’m now an old age pensioner. I’ve got to plan for the curtain call. So I thought let’s simplify everything… I’m not really an American anymore.

In interviews you seem so full of energy… except perhaps those around Quixote. Where does all that energy comes from?
I don’t know, I guess I was really wound up as a child. The key is slowly winding down now.

What makes you go back time after time to the pain and agony of filmmaking?
I love and hate everything about film, but it gets the juices flowing. And unlike drawing, painting or writing it involves so many different types of people, so many complications – it’s an art you can never truly master. You can only hope that one day you might learn, but the truth is you never will. There’s too much in film that I just love dealing with… it incorporates design, costumes, movement, acting, writing, effects, carpentry and painting. Because really, there is nothing better than making films!

IN PART TWO… Gilliam answers why he has abstained from directing sex scenes, what his advice is for young filmmakers, what was the most difficult shot, and whether he would consider making a Dogme 95 film.


Tideland is released in the UK on Friday 11 August 2006. For other countries’ release dates, consult the official website.

LINK: Official Tideland website

More to explore

Films in depth

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
The Zero Theorem
The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus
The Brothers Grimm
Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas
12 Monkeys
The Fisher King
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Time Bandits