Gilliam the Snake Charmer


Loves Macs but hates Marmite. Just who does TERRY GILLIAM think he is?  Sycophantic puppeteer Chris Pirie went to find out.

This article – used here with permission – was originally featured in IMAGINE, a quarterly magazine aimed at the animation industry.

Having battled my way through London’s rush hour to interview one of the most original and controversial movie directors, I arrived at his production office in the heart of Soho, breathless and late. Barely ten minutes later, Terry Gilliam shuffled in and, despite having met him on three previous occasions, I’d forgotten quite how charming, affable and genuinely uncelebrity-like he is. Shaking my hand warmly and firmly, he apologised for being later than me before checking on my coffee needs, quelling any lingering nerves in an instant.

His PA had made it clear that, with scriptwriters flying in from Los Angeles, anything more than a 45-minute interview was unlikely. In the event, the man who had tattooed his twisted absurd imagery onto my retinas three decades earlier, was happy to spend the next two hours chatting amiably about his work…

Anyone who has recently dipped into any of the TG-related websites will be familiar with the director’s ongoing struggles to get any new movies of the ground – only six days into the Spanish shoot, a flashflood and the unfortunate illness of lead actor Jean Rochefort brought an abrupt end to The Man who Killed Don Quixote in 2000.

Earlier this year, Gilliam and co-writer Tony Grisoni finished writing a script adapted from Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s darkly comic novel Good Omens. The book recounts a battle between messengers from heaven and hell, each trying to locate the newborn Antichrist who had been misplaced at the maternity hospital, in time for the apocalypse. Up until March this year, it seemed that the projected summer shooting schedule was likely. Despite two major American actors cast in lead roles, the project still lacks over a third of its £50m+ budget and Gilliam believes that the industry’s post-September 11 fears over promoting end-of-the-world storylines are playing no small role in keeping the whole production at the starting gate.

Gilliam snapped by Chris Pirie, May 2002

I suggested that surely Good Omens is precisely the kind of movie that needs to be made right now. “That’s what you would think and that’s what I would think but WRONG!” Gilliam blurted. “Hollywood just doesn’t get it and doesn’t want to get it. Yes, it’s the apocalypse but a life-affirming apocalypse! They’re worried about the third act when it gets a bit dark and I say ‘YES! It is the end of the world and for a couple of minutes the audience are going to go through a bit of a rough time but then it all ends up happy, so what the fuck are you guys on about?’ “

The 61-year-old director’s infectious laughter regularly punctuated his conversation, yet never totally concealed a deep anguish and frustration. “I’ve not been behind a camera and completed a movie since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1997. Good Omens is expensive and Hollywood always plays safe, but I don’t know what safe is at the moment. There are still a couple of possibilities. When I go out to Hollywood with my stuff, most of my experiences show that it can turn on meeting just one person who likes it.”

Other contenders for Gilliam’s next movie include a script based on Mitch Cullin’s novel Tideland, and his pet project of many years, The Defective Detective, yet another effects-heavy movie in need of substantial funding. “It is costly but I emailed the script to my new agent last night, saying ‘C’mon…all these other things I’m reading, which are all ready to go and I could start working on tomorrow, they’re not as good as what I’ve already got sitting here. Let’s get this stuff done.’ “

Two years in pre-productionbefore its untimely implosion, The Man who Killed Don Quixote is not yet a dead project. “We’re still in the process of trying to get the script back from the insurance companies. But we’re dealing with lawyers and people who seem to work on different time scales.” explained Gilliam.  “I would love to be doing it next year.”

His current production company,, recently produced Gilliam’s small screen exploits, a series of commercials for Nike as part of its World Cup campaign. The three minute, one minute and three 30-second spots feature leading international soccer players in a secret three-aside tournament, caged in the belly of a vast cargo liner anchored in a mystery port. “It’s OK; it is what it is but at least my son thinks it’s cool!” he sighed. “The only good one is the three minute one.” This full-length version can be viewed or downloaded at Nike’s website.

Animations for Street, Screen & Stage

Chris Pirie is a puppeteer with Green Ginger, for which Terry Gilliam recently became Patron.

“For twenty years, Green Ginger have been behaving strangely in public. Often absurd, always surprising, they have charmed and amazed audiences throughout the civilised world and America, with their interactive, multi-lingual shows.”

It was clear that somethingmore than a passion for The Beautiful Game drew Gilliam to the project. “It was a very well paid something to do, that’s all. I was going crazy; I hadn’t been behind a camera for ages. This came up and I actually tried to get out of it. Then I thought it might be interesting to do something with action and soccer because I hadn’t done it before. I like the game but am no aficionado and it meant working in Rome with some friends.” These included Nicola Pecorini, Gilliam’s director of photography on Fear & Loathing. “It was just to shoot something that really didn’t matter to me and hopefully have some fun doing it.

“But as always, I am put off doing commercials, where I am surrounded by so many frightened, nervous people with so much at stake. We got out to Italy and day one was horrendous – just trying to find out what was wanted as everyone seemed to contradict themselves. The players were never there together so I’d get one and then two, so I had to use doubles most of the time.

“It was a nightmare and I’m in a complicated set that’s still being finished. The first day was rushed; the clients are there, the agents are there, the managers are there… hundreds of people and they all talking and I blew it several times…’GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE! CLEAR THE FUCKING STAGE!!’ Eventually it settled down to me saying ‘This is your commercial – you tell me what you want and I’ll do it. You set up the action, rehearse it a couple of times and I’ll come in and shoot it OK?’ “

I asked if he had set off to Rome’s Filmhouse studios confident of making three minutes of visually stunning material. “No, this was always supposed to be a 60 second commercial and I kept saying from the beginning that this is a three or four minute film. To do what they actually wanted it to do it should have been five minutes. I don’t know how to do it in 60 seconds.” Gilliam paused before adding, “It seems that they wanted a name director to give it some sort of validity.”

The shot which pleased Gilliam the most contains a face-off between six players at the start of the final match. With only two players available to him at any one time, he used a whip-pan to cut between the two sides, cleverly concealing the basic deficit in ‘star’ faces. He is mystified as to why the shot was never used, yet seemed unperturbed in his role as the hired director, with no editorial control or input in the months of CGI post production work.

For his own movies however, Gilliam would never proceed without his personal choice of at least five key collaborators; director of photography, costume, editor, first assistant director and designer. “It’s too important,” he explained. “I’ve got to be able to control who those are because I’m going to be working with them for a long time.”

He has had particular good fortune in hiring designers on the strength of reference material they bring along to pre-production meetings. “Either stuff I don’t know or things I wasn’t thinking about; if that’s what they’re thinking about, then they’re thinking about the same film I’m talking about.” Twelve Monkeys designer Jeff Beecroft landed the job after turning up with a book on Czech photographer Jan Saudek, whose haunting plates depict a world of mysterious, dreamlike buildings and spaces. “It’s an intriguing, serendipitous approach” he continued. “You could talk and talk and go nowhere, but suddenly, something like that happens and it’s ‘Yes! You get the job.’ “

When his first choice director of photography Roger Pratt was unavailable for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Gilliam had no shortage of potential A-list replacements. But a one-eyed unknown Nicola Pecorini kept pestering him for a chance, finally sending him a video with half the screen blacked out and an actor’s voice-over: “This is how Nicola Pecorini sees the world…” The black is then pulled aside. “…and this is how the rest of us see the world.” Intrigued and in need of a particular energy on location, Gilliam decided to go with “the guy who would kill, the least experienced…and he was great. I’m not as precise on lighting as perhaps I ought to be and Roger and I have worked together for so long, we just grunt at each other, but Nicola’s interesting because he was demanding more specific information from me.”

Gilliam does fewer of his own storyboards these days, due in part to the growth of complex special effects scenes and partly as he now views the ‘professional’ storyboards as slick things to wave at potential financiers. “These may also be useful to the art department but they’re very glossy and I don’t really want to look at them.” There are clearly bounds to Gilliam’s trademark amenity to input from his co-workers on set. “In some cases I don’t want other peoples ideas, their way of shooting and camera angles; it feels like an imposition. What storyboards? I can draw fucking storyboards!” he spat, a devilish grin spreading across his face.

Painting and drawing for pleasure is nowadays limited to the occasional birthday card and he claims to have not touched his airbrush for years. “Of course I’m constantly doodling on tiny scraps of paper at my desk…it would be interesting to look back at them, they’re little ideas, little odd things, nothing great, but I really should be drawing more.”

As we spoke, Kate Hepburn, his assistant on Python animations, was busy at his North London home, sorting through bulging plan chests in order to digitally archive the huge back catalogue of artwork. “It was mad…the energy and time it took with all these pieces of paper and cut-outs, Jesus!” beamed Gilliam, recalling the days of leaving a tiny workroom at his Fulham apartment with armfuls of paper to shoot under rostrum cameras at the BBC. “There’s so much of it… the amount of work we managed to do, just me and occasionally an assistant.”

Two years ago, Gilliam revisited the world of Python animation for the team’s 30th Anniversary programme, this time trading in the time-consuming cut-outs with newer technology. “I used Adobe After Effects – it was great!” he enthused. “It’s like the technology has come along and I can now do my crappy cut-outs really easily. I’d never done it before and as with Photoshop, I never got beyond page three in the manual, so I’m using this very sophisticated software on the most basic level, but After Effects is fantastic.

“We were sitting talking about things to do for the programme and John (Cleese) came up with the idea of transcendental violence or something like that and nobody knew quite what to do with it. So I went away and thought I could maybe do something and started playing and really enjoyed it; the fact that computers can repeat things so easily…A HUNDRED CHICKENS!! Then I started making mistakes trying to get a character to bounce and I did something wrong and a secondary character ended up following him. But this was even better because each time he bounced he reproduced himself, so it became more and more transcendental!”

When he joked about being able to fall back on this work if nothing else came along, I asked if there was still a real desire to make animations again. “My problem is that I feel like a junkie who can’t get high anymore. I don’t seem to be driven to say anything except in film. All these other things seem like retrenchment exercises rather than pushing forward.”

Gilliam prefers using a Mac to a PC, “because they’re great and it’s always better to be in a minority. My daughter has a PC and I can’t stand the thing, I just don’t like it. I’ve been on OS/X (Apple’s latest Unix-based operating system) for a year even though the early bugs were a nightmare. They were behaving like Gates and Microsoft; I think Steve Jobs did a real con putting it out early with people rushing to buy it on day one, effectively to do their R & D for them. It was a struggle, but now it’s really solid and it never freezes.”

He rarely has time to surf the web, “just the BBC for news” and will only look at Terry Gilliam related sites when really depressed. He confesses to having a massive backlog of email to reply to, as well as owing a update of idle gossip to the Dreams website, one of the most extensive and informed on-line resources for information on the director and his work.

Like many film-makers, Gilliam tries to avoid cinemas when in production. “It’s about being diverted from your goal by seeing something better.” he explained. “You lose all your confidence.” Yet off location, he claims a similar reluctance, for fear of disappointment. “Movies are so important to me.” I asked what he had seen recently. “Y Tu Mama Tambien, just last week.” he replied. Alfonso Cuaron’s road movie hit is the biggest selling Spanish language film in UK box office history, a huge boost to Mexico’s growing reputation for its cinematic output. “The film’s really good, full of exuberance and life… this stuff is alive. It’s not technically brilliant; it’s all handheld but it’s on the button.”

Knowing him to be an admirer of John Lasseter and Pixar’s groundbreaking advances in CG techniques, I was curious to find out Gilliam’s thoughts on the recent batch of feature length neo-realist animations. “Did you enjoy Shrek?” “Yes, it was a smart script. I’d seen the trailer and aesthetically I didn’t like the style, so had written it off. And then I saw it and thought this is great! Really good characters but I wish Shrek himself had been more interesting. He should have been Fungus. That’s who he really is, he’s a Fungus the Bogeyman. Great gags but he was a bit tame and I wish he was really awful…a little more gruesome. Eddie Murphy was brilliant; his donkey’s fantastic – great animation. John Lithgow’s Prince was wonderful stuff. And then going really silly with the bluebird and blowing up the frog. A terrific film; smart all the way through, that’s the great thing.”

As we talked in London, Animated Encounters, Bristol’s International animation festival was about to begin. Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, was due to arrive to present his top ten animations in the Desert Island Flicks series, in which Gilliam’s choice had been featured the previous year. Recalling their absence from his own list, I asked if Bart & Co. might have made it into a Gilliam top twelve? “Absolutely!” he said without hesitation. “The Simpsons are great, they’re beyond lists and pretty much central to our culture these days. What amazes me is the fantastic quality of writing, so consistent over so many years whilst completely undermining all American values. In fact it was from my mother’s sense of disgust that I knew there was a good thing going on! It’s endlessly good.”

Sharing the honours with Springfield’s first family in Gilliam’s ‘great highlights of TV animation’ is Trey Parker’s South Park, which he described as, “not as smart or slick as The Simpsons, but much more dangerous – they’ve no fear. I met the guys at the Aspen Comedy Festival when South Park had really just got going and loved the fact that they were two guys just moving bits of paper around. Now of course it’s done by 90 people out in South East Asia and all the shadows are put in by computer to make it look like bad cut-outs! The great triumph of course was the 90-minute film (Bigger, Longer & Uncut, 1999) which I was absolutely convinced they couldn’t pull off and they did. It was extraordinary; the songs made it work… outrageous shit, it was great!

“I never understood Pokemon but I like bits of Ren and Stimpy, it’s the styles that intrigue me and that’s what’s interesting watching the guys down at Aardman and the things they’re doing. Angry Kid is one I really like, it’s wonderful. I just love the smartness of using masks on real bodies, so he (director Darren Walsh) can knock the stuff out very fast… I think he’s really good.”

Although he avoids reviewing his body of work (“too depressing”) Gilliam has loosely grouped the films into trilogies. Time BanditsBrazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen fall together both sequentially and thematically, followed by versions of American based stories by other writers; Fisher KingTwelve Monkeys and Fear and Loathing. “After that I really wanted to get on and do my own stuff again and for Quixote we were plundering Cervantes and using it in our own way, as opposed to trying to be true to the book.”

And now an enforced fallow period, I suggested. “Scrap heap!” snorted Gilliam. “The dustbin of cinematic history! It’s just bizarre, just floating around. Two and half years on Quixote, a year and a half on Good Omens, the rhythm’s all wrong. It’s a long time not making movies. That’s why one sinks to the depths of Nike commercials. Right now I should be retiring and becoming a painter!”

Chris Pirie 2002

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