interview by Ian Schultz,
It’s been a long-term ambition to interview Terry Gilliam, simply because he is my favourite director. I’ve been a fan ever since my dad dragged me, against my will, to see The Adventures of Baron Munchausen at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Oregon. I’ve devoured every film of his since then, having seen every one theatrically since Brothers Grimm, often more than once.
Thanks to Philip Stubbs at Dreams: The Terry Gilliam Fanzine, who got in touch with Terry on my behalf after various failed attempts at going through various PRs after the last two films, I finally had my chance.
The interview was timed to coincide with the UK & Ireland Blu-Ray release of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Monty Python fans may not be so interested—this may be one of the few times he has not been asked anything Python-related, but he’s been asked about that for 50 years at this point, so I’m sure he’s said everything he wants to say on that topic (although he did end up mentioning it once…). I focused on Quixote, his life in Coronavirus lockdown, and his films in general—plus possible upcoming projects.
Ian Schultz: Regarding Don Quixote, how much of your own frustration with the film industry did you bring out in the character of Toby?
Terry Gilliam: [Laughs] I don’t know, Toby is just a cynic. He is wealthy, he’s sold his soul—at the beginning, that’s all he is. I certainly don’t identify with Toby… actually, maybe I identify in the sense this is the guy that if I had been more ambitious, more greedy, I might have become. But luckily, I’m lazy and can’t be bothered.
How was it to shoot digitally for the first time instead of on film?
It’s the same, [but] there is nothing in it. I don’t get why people make such noise, it’s a technical difference: you have a camera, and that’s it, it’s a different shaped camera, that’s all. I’m not sure why I really avoided it—just being a bit of a Luddite. Everything in digital is so much better… editing digitally, grading the film digitally and, if you shoot in the right camera, right lenses, it looks just like film and as rich as film can look. I don’t see the problem.
I think 35mm looks basically the same at this point, but 16mm looks more film-like.
It’s funny, because when we did Zero Theorem, when we were grading it digitally—which we have been doing for years now.—I thought it looked… something about certain shots were too clean, we can very quickly push a button and make it look like film, put scratches on it and fuck it up!
It’s not quite the same as film, no question about it, especially when you are doing black and white. There is a difference, but it’s never bothered me that much. I don’t even think about it, I’m just interested in the images. Are we capturing everything I want to see? Does it look as beautiful as I would like it to be? That’s the end of the conversation. It’s like the people who collect vinyl records, I have no interest in vinyl—I love digital because it’s clean, there are no scratches on it. Having worked with film for so many years, staying digital is easier now. It’s a different way of working, and I think that’s the advantage of having worked in film for years: you realise the benefits, but also all the things you hate about it, because it’s slow and complicated. While you hop on and edit digitally, and bing bang bong, it’s very quick. If you just started digitally you really don’t get to experience the joy of digital in the same as an old guy does.
How did you experience giving an actor like Adam Driver a chance to explore areas that have not been seen in his other films?
I had avoided watching Adam in everything he had done, basically. I do this—I don’t want to know! In his instance, I was just intrigued with him as a human being and the way he approached life. The thing that really convinced me that this was the guy was, not only does he not look like a movie star, which is a important, but when 9/11 occurred, he joined the Marines to go and do the honourable thing and fight for his country. I thought that was so amazingly naïve, and even Quixote-esque. His range is incredible, and because he doesn’t think like a movie star, he is not thinking about his career in that sense, or his image or his “fanbase.” He just goes for what is right for the character. So in the beginning, he is a complete asshole, there’s no question about that—while another actor might hesitate, as irredeemable as he is at the start.
I’m curious about whether you talked to Heath Ledger about the role of Toby before he passed away…
Well, listen, before Heath died, he and I were planning to make all of the rest of the films I was planning to make in my life. I had finally found the guy I wanted to work on any project, whatever it is, and then he went and died on me. That was the end of my dream. Heath was capable of everything and anything, that was what was so wonderful about him, and he was just a joy to be with and work with. He understood the reality is that we get paid a lot of money to play, and he played, always.
How frustrating was the muted reaction to the film once it finally was released in various markets?
It was kind of expected in many ways. My fear when making it—and it took me several weeks into the shoot to get over this fear—was the expectations of the audience. They had been hearing about it for so many years, and I’m sure everybody had their own idea of what it was going to be. I felt I could only disappoint a lot of people. So in that sense, I was quite successful [laughs].
Well, I literally took a 16-hour bus ride to Paris to go see it.
Oh really? [Laughs] How disappointed were you?
I absolutely love the film, and I was happy that it was not what I expected.
But that’s the point: it is unexpected, it was not what anybody thought it was going to be like. For those who know Quixote, it’s not like the book. The reaction I really loved was in Spain. I met the number-one translator of Quixote, and in Paris the person doing the same job, who knew Cervantes and Quixote inside and out. And both of them, completely separately, said this is the best Quixote version they’ve ever seen, period. Now that’s what really struck me. Wonderfully well, I think they understood what I was trying to do, and how I was avoiding the book, basically.
For your last few films, the distribution has been less than ideal. What do you think has gone wrong with the distribution system for independent films? I am probably the only person in the world who paid three times to see it in the theatre!
[Laughs] Has there been any distributor, I ask myself? It’s very funny. When I was promoting it in Italy, I remember somebody, somehow in the audience had been able to see it twice—it’s better the second time. Subsequently I’ve read on my Facebook page, people have been saying they’ve seen it four or five times and it gets better. I like making that kind of film: that it might not make sense the first time, but the more you watch it, you realise what’s going on. It becomes quite seductive that way, you start to see a lot more that’s happening. I don’t want to compare, but my experience with 2001: A Space Odyssey was very similar. When I first saw it, I was “oh god, I don’t know what to make of it.” And I’ve probably seen it seven times now—it does get better.
My dad always flip-flops on it: he loves it, and then he hates it, and so on…
I’m a bit closer to that, to be quite honest. When I saw it a few years ago, I thought “this is interminably long and boring.” It does that, and it used to be that way with every film I make: I’m watching it with audiences afterwards, and I either love it or hate it alternately with each screening. I can’t really judge it, but the point with Quixote is, I screen my films a lot before they get released, so I do know how they are playing to a lot of different people. I think the nicest thing I’ve been told was by a lady, she was an agent with somebody, I’m not sure who, she said “I walked out and it was like I was flying out on pink clouds.” I was like, “that’s the review I want.” What the reviews were like, many of them—and many reviewers would ask me the question—“was it really worth the wait of 30 years?” and the answer is always going to be “no.” I found those reviews irritating, because they were coming in with a preconceived idea, and it doesn’t fulfil that idea. Well, fuck them, is my attitude.
What do think has gone wrong with the distribution system for independent films?
I think it’s been almost wiped out. The studios are very good when independent films were propping up everything, and then they would do their “cadet version,” and each of them would have what would be a kind of independent branch. It managed to push a lot independent distributors out of business by doing that, very cleverly. They appeared to be independent, but these were owned by big corporations, and they had money that the others didn’t. I don’t know, I really don’t know… I think Netflix has had a big impact. Before the lockdown in England, I had Netflix but never watched it. The only thing I had seen was Breaking Bad, and I thought it was better than any of the films out in the cinema, quite frankly, I thought it was great. I’ve now been watching Netflix, I’ve been doing Homeland—I’m on the third series now. You get into the rhythm of these long series. They are very slow: if you were watching some of those episodes in the cinema, you would walk out, it’s so fucking boring. You are sitting in your living room, slumping, you are half-awake, all comfortable, and they kind of lull you and you are happy to lulled because, particularly with the lockdown, they are not great. I’m wondering if it’s changed the audience’s perception of what is good and what is not good in a film on the big screen. We have to wait till we are back up and running, I didn’t see Tenet, so I have no idea what people thought.
It was good. I went opening night and it was maybe half-full.
Really? Oh god.
It’s not in good shape.
Again, because Nolan has been so hyped and pumped for so many years now, every review I had read of it was pretty much disappointment.
It was a impressive movie, it’s Christopher Nolan.
He is always impressive technically, but the ideas are always questionable, in my opinion. But that’s my opinion, that’s all.
My little quote about it, I always call it “0012 Monkeys”.
[LAUGHS] Jesus Christ!
Because it kind of is.
It’s very funny! 12 Monkeys has really benefitted from Covid—it’s on every list of what to watch during the pandemic.
How scary is it to see that Brazil is just as relevant—if not more so—35 years later?
Is it? Yeah, well I didn’t know I was so utterly prescient, I am a prophet of my own time! What the fuck is going on? It’s been like that every time I go to promote a film, in especially in America. They all start talking about Brazil— “How relevant it is now.” It was relevant when I made it, it was relevant to 10 years later, five years later it keeps being relevant. I don’t know, I think we got it right. It’s very nice to know it captured the heart of what the system really is, and how someone should deal with it. It really affected people, it seems. I guess that’s the one that will be stuck on my gravestone.
Not to blow any smoke up your ass, but it is my favourite film of all time.
Oh, great, thanks. I will have to watch it again to see what I think, I haven’t watched it in years.
Are you still interested in making a film of Geek Love?
It’s very funny—I just finished the first book Katherine Dunn, who wrote Geek Love, wrote. It’s called Truck… god, she was brilliant when she started, and I don’t know what to do with it. I would love to do Geek Love, I was talking to somebody about it just a few weeks ago, but whether and how… It’s easy with effects now, it’s possible to do much less expensively, but whether one can find a backer who is willing to go for it… I don’t know, it’s very “strong stuff.” I just think it’s an utterly beautiful book, it sort of lingers in my mind always. That’s why I started reading some other books by Katherine Dunn, which I hadn’t done before. Her people had said yes at one point. A few years ago I was thinking of doing it as a theatrical piece, it might be better than a film.
Maybe a mini-series would be the way to do it these days.
That’s the other way, at least Netflix is taking chances. That’s why I’m enjoying looking at things on Netflix. These things are smart, they are well-written, they’ve got “ideas.” Maybe that’s the way to go.
I’ve always thought Tideland was a very sweet film, and found accusations that it’s creepy off the mark. Do you think people just misunderstood the relationship between Jeliza Rose and Dickens?
Yep! Totally. It’s a very innocent film in that sense. It’s a child. It’s very funny—when I was promoting Quixote in the States, I had to do something to bring some attention to it. But anyway, I think it was Variety, and I was doing a interview with the guy at Variety, and he asked me “What do you think is your least appreciated, most misunderstood film?” and I said Tideland, and he said, “I think it’s your best film,” which was very nice to hear.
Jodelle Ferland and Jeff Bridges in Terry Gilliam’s Tideland
I think the script is great: Mitch Cullin, who wrote the book, wrote a brilliant bit of work. The cast was breathtaking, and the sadness about Tideland is Jodelle Ferland, who played Jeliza-Rose… what has become of her? She had a little moment: she was in Silent Hill, and that was kind of the end of her career. She was total genius, in fact, everybody in that cast is so good. We got the mood of it right. Why people find it “creepy” always shocks me. I was in Germany during some talk, and the guy in the front row turned out to be a child psychologist, and he was asking about Dickens, Brenden Fletcher who played him. He thought he was a real mentally disturbed person and I was “no that’s an actor… acting,” and he was just blown away by that, because we got it right. What happened to Brenden? I haven’t checked. I don’t know what it is: you get to work with these absolutely brilliant actors, and you think “OK, this will be the first step in a great career,” and then nothing happens. I am always amazed by the limited mentality of so many people in the business who don’t understand that’s somebody who is wonderful and can do so many things, but for whatever reason doesn’t fit whatever is the pre-conceived thought in the running that day in Hollywood.
There was a very fun series of films he did with Uwe Boll called Rampage.
I don’t know these at all.
He plays like this anarchist who just kills people.
GREAT! Is he good?
He’s great, it’s just complete riot porn—it’s very entertaining. Is there any news on Defective Detective? Of all your unmade projects, that’s the one I’m obsessed about.
If only there was something to say! I sent it to a few people, I got some wonderfully excited reactions to it, but not from the people who’ve got the money and power to get it made, that’s the problem. I don’t know. It’s not a cheap film, that’s one of the problems. Most people who you send it to… now I’ve sent the script, because I have illustrations in it for people, so they can imagine it more easily, because they can’t see it. They can’t see the imagery, they can’t see how it works. I’m in that stage. If I had a career, it would be the stage where you are over the hill and on the way out. It’s been disappointing about Quixote, with the appalling situation we were in with the release of the film—I’m talking about across the world, because of the legal bullshit from Paulo Branco, the man who couldn’t make the film and ended up doing his best to kill the film. And failed at that, but he certainly succeeded at stopping it being a commercial success… That doesn’t help me in raising money for whatever is the next project. I was really hoping it would do very well, and I’ll be back up and running again.
I know you got at least like €30 off me.
[Laughs] There is no question about the way the system is—and I don’t criticize it, you’ve got to make money so people will want to give you money for the next time around.
I also think Coronavirus has totally fucked everybody, I think the whole industry is totally fucked.
Yeah, look at what is going on. Where is David Lynch? Where is David Cronenberg? Where is Steve Soderbergh? They are all struggling, everybody is struggling right now. People who really want to say things. It’s interesting: we will see how it all is and if the world recovers. Some people seem to be getting money—I don’t know who they are, but the money people are frightened to hand any of their loot over at this time. Wait till the taxes come in. Once we’re back on our feet, we will be knocked off our feet again with high taxes.
I know you were working on a project called Lunatic at Large. What is the news about that, and how did you get involved with that, because it sounds like a bit of a change of pace for you?
That was the whole point, it was going to be a change of pace. The idea was originally Kubrick’s idea, and then he got Jim Thompson to write a treatment of it, and then the script was written by Stephen Clark, who’s Roy Clark’s son, the Last of the Summer Wine writer. It was so unlike anything I’ve ever done, it was going to be up and quick. I just wanted something that I could do quickly and easily, and have some fun and try to do a different kind of film than I normally do, and then… Covid came along and just killed everything. I was suppose to be shooting it in September, so I’m already past the shoot date.
What kind of relationship did you have with Stanley Kubrick?
None really. What I had from him was one letter from him, no, I had two letters from Kubrick and two phone calls, that’s it. Kubrick was one of my heroes, I just thought “this is a extraordinary filmmaker.” Paths of Glory, I suppose, was the film that changed my view of what films could be about, they could be about real and serious matters rather then just entertaining me. There was an egotistical giggle that I would be making the last Kubrick film.
WelI, that kind of answers my next question. I had heard a rumour that you shot some second-unit footage for Full Metal Jacket.
Nope, not at all, not true, completely. Nor did I shoot the moon landing! It might have been after the second series of Python, my wife and I were travelling around Europe, and I get back and there is a letter from Kubrick wanting me to do the title sequence for A Clockwork Orange. But the letter had been sitting in my house for a couple of weeks, and the time had passed by the time I had got back, so that never happened. I got a call from him at one point, he had seen Jabberwocky and for whatever reason he was excited by it, he liked it a lot and he wanted to see if I could help him find an art director who would work the way he wanted to work on The Shining. Kubrick had lots of catalogues full of architectural features, doors, windows, and he wanted me to sit down with the guy and say this, this and that, and the guy would go away for 10 or 15 minutes and come back with a big drawing and it would be assembled. I went out contacting everybody I knew, and NOBODY wanted to work with Kubrick. Those who had worked with him before… “NEVER AGAIN” was their attitude, and I couldn’t find anybody. But finally, after a month and a half of this, I wrote him a note apologizing for my failure and was like “I would love to get coffee or lunch with you someday.” Then this one conversation, and I never heard from him again. So that was my relationship with Stanley Kubrick.
I’m sure that like everyone you have been watching more films than usual… What films have you liked recently?
I haven’t seen any films for ages now, I can’t even think of one that got me excited…
Did you like Parasite?
Oh yes! That’s two years almost now, isn’t it?
No, it was this year, it came out this year! [Note: he might have seen it in late 2019 with an Awards screener, silly me]
I love that, I literally lost track of time during the lockdown. I don’t know what day of the week it is, the only reason I know the day of the week is popping my pills in the morning: there it says “Monday” or “Tuesday” on the pills. [Laughs]. Parasite, I thought was terrific, that was a really good bit of work. That really stands out.
Are there any current directors who you like at the moment? It’s the same kind of question, but…
It’s the same kind of guys: The Coen Brothers, I always like what they get up to. Who else is out there… actually, my favourite guy is Albert Dupontel, he is French and he just made a new film, Adieu Les Cons which basically means Bye Bye Morons or Bye Bye Cunts [Laughs]. He has made several films, he is very successful in France. He made a film years ago called Bernie, he did a couple years ago, 9-Month Stretch. He is brilliant, he really is, he is funny. He does stuff… it’s very weird, I did a interview about him last year. He is a friend, and I ended up being in three of his films now, maybe even four. He brings me over as some kind of good-luck charm, he puts me in a little part where I make a fool of myself. I’m sure they are available with some subtitles, I don’t know, I’ve always seem them with subtitles. This last one is just coming out this week, in fact, this week the new one. He is really one you should check out. so: Albert Dupontel.
Gilliam and Albert Dupontel in the studio filming Adieu Les Cons
I have a final question—if you don’t want to answer it, it’s fine—but how did you feel about your comments about Weinstein being taken out of context by really shitty journalists?
You know, FUCK ‘EM. That’s the world we live in: you say anything, and immediately if they can get a good headline out of it, it’s removed from context. The mob comes after you, that’s how it goes. To actually say “Hollywood is full of ambitious women who are adults” is a thing you are not supposed to say, but it’s just a fact.
And there are evil people like Harvey Weinstein who will prey on them.
EXACTLY—and Harvey Weinstein is a monster, there is no question. Brothers Grimm, we got caught with a Brothers Grimmer with Harvey and Bob. It was the worst experience making a film I’ve had, and I always said they took the joy of filmmaking away from me. Every week I have a moment of. “what is Harvey like being in this cell, a guy who feeds on other people and their opinions and his ability to manipulate them?” To remove him from interaction, I can’t imagine. He must be just a shrivelled little bit of fat, except there isn’t any fat on him anymore, so just a little shrivelled, dried-up thing, because that’s how he survived. Unless he is able to live on the phone all day berating people, it’s kind of horrible. I think he earned it, as they say with Private Ryan, I think Harvey earned his downfall.
I had hoped Coronavirus might have taken him out.
No, that would be letting him off the hook.
The Blu-Ray & DVD for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has now been released for UK and Republic of Ireland, released by Sparky Picures.
Follow Ian Schultz on twitter at @Psychotronicci1, or at the website Psychotronic Cinema