It is August 2005. Director Terry Gilliam has just finished two films, The Brothers Grimm and Tideland, and is waiting to find out how they will be received by both public and critics. Here, he chats while munching food just outside a quiet Indian restaurant in Soho.
Gilliam somewhere in Soho, London.
We first talked about Tideland, which follows the bizarre adventures of Jeliza-Rose, a young girl who moves out of the city with her father (Jeff Bridges), after her addict mother dies. The girl, played by Jodelle Ferland, is a young fantasist who has conversations with squirrels and dolls’ heads on her fingers. Tideland is based on the Mitch Cullin novel, and is produced by Jeremy Thomas, who has worked several times each with directors Bernardo Bertolucci, David Cronenberg and Nic Roeg.
Phil Stubbs: Is Tideland now finished?
Terry Gilliam: Yes, Tideland is finished. We now have the finished final combined print, no more pissing about. And I’m not sure if I want to watch it now because there’s nothing I can do to change it.
What were the final changes?
Well the editor Lesley Walker and I had done this big rush to try and get it ready for Cannes, which we didn’t make. But when the film was finished, Jeremy kept pushing us saying that it was too long. I said that cutting it short might make it a less good film – there’s always a balance. So Lesley and I had one last go, to go through the whole thing, and we made sixty cuts. Some of the cuts are only 12 frames long, but some of them are longer. It has probably picked the pace up a bit. And that’s all – it hasn’t changed anything. I even put a scene back in that we had previously cut out. The film ended up shorter than it was, and pacier. I think it’s OK.
How long is the film?
It’s under two hours, so it’s not a long film. What’s interesting about the film, why for some people it may seem long is that there’s a particular part of the film, somewhere in the middle there, because you don’t know where it’s going, you begin to get a bit impatient. “I’ve been sitting here for an hour, where’s this thing going?”
But if people can relax and just watch what’s happening and not push forward, demanding the next bit of the story, that’s better. I think one of the problems now is that we’re so conditioned to narrative pace, which Hollywood is really good at. It may be useless with ideas and original thoughts, but you get used to its pace.
To me it’s just a matter of whether we can we keep the audience’s attention. And even if they are a little bit twitchy, does the twitchiness pay off? You need the low bits for the other bits to really kick – so hopefully we have provided a few low bits!!!
When I visited the production of “Tideland” in Regina, a city in the Canadian state of Saskatchewan, Jeff Bridges had just arrived for his studio scenes. However the actor was suffering from a back pain which made everyone anxious, especially since Jean Rochefort’s illness had helped Gilliam’s Quixote movie fall apart.
Jeff’s back was a bit of a worry. Was that a problem in the end?
No. He was very nervous about that, especially when he does his rock ‘n’ roll moment. But it worked, it was fine. We had to pump him with some painkillers. And he was a little bit stiffer than he probably would have liked to have been. But it’s all fine, you would never know.
Were there any challenges during the postproduction of Tideland?
Actually, it was a breeze. The only challenge was this desperate attempt we had to try to get it into Cannes, which didn’t quite work but what it did do was it made us work at a really fast pace. Very similar to the way we shot the film, and I was really enjoying that.
Up to the very, very end all the decisions we had to make about which scenes stayed, and which scenes weren’t working were just so fast, we were just so clear. That was the nice thing. That’s not working, we don’t need that, out it goes. So that part was really enjoyable. Then we did have the interesting advantage that we were cutting “Grimms” at the same time. Two cutting rooms, with Lesley and I going back and forth. And it was good, it kept us from becoming too obsessive. You had to say: OK, we’ll go and do that one for a while.
Visually the two films were so different, and in spirit they were so different. Too often you get caught in your own obsessions. You focus more and more until you are going crazy, and the film may suffer from that. But here it was really good, because you can escape from one and work on the other. For me it’s always a love-hate relationship so reaching a point where I’m beginning to hate one, then you can go to the other one… oh that’s nice!
Last year in Regina you were talking about maybe using tracks from PJ Harvey or Tom Waits on Tideland
Nope, we threw it all out. It’s a score. Michael Danna and Jeff Danna worked together and did it. It’s not so much that PJ Harvey’s songs don’t work, I kind of don’t need them. In fact she was just fantastic. She wrote two songs and it was a nice relationship. She really loved the movie and it was kind of on spec. If it worked, it worked and if it didn’t, it didn’t. They didn’t do quite what I felt the film needed at the end. So we stayed with the score. I felt the invasion of another element that wasn’t there in the rest of the film. The songs are really good, so luckily they’ll turn up on one of her albums. So nothing’s wasted.
When the book’s author Mitch Cullin joined the set, you had him featuring in the film itself.
He’s still in. He was there, and we were doing the bus journey. And I said, well you can be one of the passengers. He doesn’t say or do much, we stuck him in right behind Jeff and Jeliza Rose. He’s got his moment.
Was he eager or reluctant?
I don’t know. He was willing to play the game that’s all I can say. Whether he had sleepless nights I don’t know. I think he enjoyed it. I think he’s good. We also have his name on the mailbox of Noah’s house. You see “M. Cullin”.
Tideland will be premiered in the Toronto Film Festival on 9 September 2005.
When will it be released in the rest of the world?
I don’t know. Jeremy has deals in France, Japan and Canada. Toronto is really the moment that will dictate a lot of what goes on in the rest of the world. So until then I don’t know.
Then will it spill out to other film festivals?
There is talk of San Sebastian. I like festivals, they’re jolly. As long as I don’t do too many interviews! You can have a good time to meet people. I’m hoping that we get the film out in some form before the paying public before the year is out, because I would love to see Jodelle nominated for an Academy Award, because it is an extraordinary performance. It’s amazing.
How did your relationship with Jeremy work?
Brilliantly, smoothly. He’s really great. He doesn’t interfere, he supports, he has his own opinion about things and we can argue about things. But it’s always really positive with him. He’s very brave, he’s not frightened. He wants to do dangerous things, things that push the envelope. But that’s great there’s not many producers like that. I think he’s really the last of the independents to be honest. Because in Britain things aren’t particularly good at the moment. And he’s slogging away.
He had a birthday party the other night and just two days before, he decided to have a little dinner, and he got together a few friends at the last moment. And it was an extraordinary collection of people. You walk in, there’s Nic Roeg, Hanif Kureshi, Bob Geldof, Mike Figgis, Stephen Frears, John Hurt… It just went on and on… Anjelica Huston. That was just a couple of days before, so people really love working with Jeremy, they’ve stayed loyal to him. Jeremy is a genuinely good man. It’s a rare thing – somebody who cares about film. He’s passionate. I can’t think of anyone else who’s quite like him.
Gilliam has often commented on how he has identified with characters in his films. For example, In his struggle to get Brazil released, his struggle was analogous to Sam’s defiance of the system in the film.
Stills from Tideland
In Tideland did you identify with any of the characters?
Like a scattergun, I suppose I identified with all of them in many ways. At 64 I got to play a nine and a half year old girl. I got to play with dolls. It was great fun trying to feel that set like a child would. So I’m for a little bit like that character. In the course of playing with the dolls I discovered the characters of the dolls, and what they represented to Jeliza-Rose. It’s good being a kid occasionally. And I love Dickens, because he is another side of me.
And with Jeff’s character Noah, Jeliza-Rose’s father… anything you share with him?
Yeah, total. Middle age… life hasn’t worked out as good as it ought to have. Angry, tired, can’t communicate with family properly – yeah I understand all that.
In the script Noah tells an anecdote about Keith Moon. I understand you knew him too?
Yeah, he was supposed to be in Life of Brian. In fact he died before he got down to Tunisia and although I didn’t know him well, I had bumped in to him. The first time we met him was when we were out in Barbados writing Life of Brian. And he turned up, he was wonderful. What you saw was what Keith Moon was. He was funny, he was smart, he was crazed, and these people keep disappearing. He did it then, Hunter S. Thompson did it recently. There’s not much craziness left. There’s craziness out there but its dumb craziness. There’s a difference between craziness that is smart and funny and witty and clever, and dumb brutish craziness, which there’s too much of.
How will audiences respond to Tideland?
I don’t know. I just know what it is, and I think it’s good. There was an early screening we had, a group came from Peerless, who have done the effects on my films. I just didn’t know what they would make of it. Afterwards there was almost a fight between those who thought it was fantastic and one guy who was apparently the liberal in the group, who found it just offensive and outrageous. He was really outraged and the others who said no, no, you don’t understand. It was great.
My wife Maggie’s response was great she said it was shocking because it was innocent. I really don’t know. To me it’s a litmus test for people about who they are and how they perceive the world and how secure they are about themselves. I just feel that people… I can’t predict what people are going to make of it. I know I’ve got a great response, and there are people who just think it’s terrible.
I think the best thing was Mike Palin who saw it very early on, the film was probably half an hour longer than it is now, maybe more, maybe 35 minutes longer, and he didn’t like it. And he woke up the next morning, and he couldn’t get it out of his head. It was just in there and he began to think. In the end he said it’s either the best thing I’ve ever done or the worst thing I’ve ever done – he doesn’t know. And I think that’s what people should be doing: making films that are more on the edge.
But it’s not salacious, it’s not manipulative, it just goes through it. When I watch films now they bother me, the technique of films bothers me, because it’s so obvious how you do things, sell things. I don’t like that any more. It’s becoming a cliché the way things are done. And I think ours looks different. Hopefully it feels different and hopefully it’s not too alien. It’s just whether there’s a little girl inside of you!
But Gilliam has not just finished one film, he’s got another one out soon. “The Brothers Grimm”, about which there is much elsewhere on this website, was shot in Prague before “Tideland”.
“Grimm” was funded by Miramax division Dimension Pictures, and stars Matt Damon and Heath Ledger as the siblings. The picture also features Monica Bellucci, Jonathan Pryce and Peter Stormare.
Is Grimm finished?
Yes, Grimm is finished too. It comes out in the States on 26 August. It’s going to be in the Venice Film Festival. So I’m actually going to go from the Venice film festival with Grimms to Toronto with Tideland, so I’ve got two films in two festivals in one week!
Disagreements about Grimm between director Gilliam and Miramax chiefs Harvey and Bob Weinstein have been much reported.
The conflict that arose during the production and afterwards…
Now, which one is that…?
How are you going to answer questions in interviews about that over the next few weeks?
I’ll say that there is no sense of history in America. And there won’t be any during the press conference. That’s the great thing about America: history has no meaning. So we might as well forget history while I’m in America.
The important thing is that they really like the film now. A year ago we reached the point where there was great disagreement about what the film was. And rather than doing what you normally do: i.e. have a head butt contest, and the biggest ego wins, and the film suffers, I went away I went away and did Tideland to let the air clear, go back to our quarters. And come six months later, they asked me to finish the film, so I’ve done it. And it’s good.
Harvey said when he saw it that he was laughing and he said he loved it. He didn’t realise how funny it was, until they’d put the music and all the effects on and when they cleaned up the dialogue. So it’s a happy ending there. The screenings we’ve been having with the press, we’ve been getting really good reactions.
Stills from Grimm
There was a scene in the middle of the film where the brothers are attacked by trees…
It’s gone. You’ll have to buy your DVD to see it. It’s the world’s most expensive DVD extra. I just couldn’t bring myself to pull out the most expensive scene in the movie which had been so painful to do, and was really good in itself. But when we did, it was clear that the film benefited from it, because it’s such a climactic scene, it’s so spectacular, that it’s hard to follow it.
Terry Jones early on said he felt the film was broken backed, because it’s getting bigger and bigger and instantly you drop it all and go somewhere else. By pulling it out, it makes the film much more tense because you know less about the forest and more importantly it allows Matt’s character to be able to say tha the forest is not enchanted, because there’s still some doubt as to what you’ve seen. The minute that tree scene was in it, there was no doubt anymore.
We were arguing. Ray Cooper said you don’t need it. Others had said no, but I kept holding on to it. In fact it was Steven Soderbergh who was the one who finally pushed me over the edge. He said you don’t need it. It was the idea of all that money, all that expense, all that work being thrown away. I just don’t like waste. It’s just if one has spent the money, and people have done the work, I want the world to see it. So they’ll enjoy it on their DVDs and their home cinemas.
In the first week of shooting Matt Damon had a big nose?
Actually we never got to shooting it. We did tests on it and that was blocked at more than the eleventh hour – the twelfth hour. So we didn’t shoot on it. BUT that nose on Matt just transformed him. And it made him really just a better character. It was fantastic, it really worked. It was good for his character, it was good for him as an actor, like Dumbo and his feather, but that didn’t happen.
There was this rumour that Miramax sent someone to stand in front of the camera to prevent any shooting of Matt and his nose.
No, that’s more interesting than what happened. No, it was “Put the nose on him, and we close the film down.” It’s as simple as that. And that was the night before the first day of shooting. Good timing.
If you look at Finding Neverland, look at Johnny – he looks like he’s about 18 years old, and beautiful. JM Barrie was a big guy with a walrus moustache. I think Finding Neverland with Johnny as somebody less beautiful is more interesting. JM Barrie is a great character. What was interesting about Pirates of the Caribbean, Johnny wore this make up and gold teeth and eye liner and they loved it.
When should we expect Grimm in the UK…?
I don’t know. They’re talking about September but nobody has confirmed anything. It’s being released around Europe all through September and October, so I can’t believe they’re going to wait too long for the UK, but again that’s all in the air at the moment.
Back in 1998, Gilliam had to battle with the Writers’ Guild of America to have a writing credit on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, despite the fact that he and co-writer Tony Grisoni had written most of the script. There are echoes of that struggle on Grimm too.
Gilliam and fellow dress pattern maker
Tony Grisoni doesn’t get a writing credit, and nor do I. However the great thing about the film – something we tried to do on Fear and Loathing, was to make a film based on a dress pattern. Well on this one we did. You see a credit in there – Dress Pattern Makers: Terry Gilliam and Tony Grisoni. The idea of a screenplay by one person is such a nonsense, it’s basically the Writers’ Guild, an ancient bureaucracy, holding on to a false idea of how films are made. And so that’s why we’ve ignored that side of things and made a dress pattern, and the crew worked from the dress pattern.
The Writers’ Guild is just bizarre. The problem is and this is what happened on Fear and Loathing is: if you are a director and write, you have to produce two-thirds maybe even 70% of the script to get a credit and another writer only has to produce a third or 30% to get a credit. But if the director works with another writer, as co-writers like Tony and I do, that writer is also tarred with the same brush, so the two of us would have to show that we had written over two-thirds of the script to get a credit and that’s a hard thing to do word-by-word. And basically I took my name off. I said to Tony I don’t want a credit because then he wouldn’t be tarred by the same brush. But he was so angry with the Writers’ Guild for the credits not being an honest representation of what happened. And he said no, so we will continue our careers as dress pattern makers.
And moving on from Grimm, Gilliam has been at work on a Python retrospective show, called Monty Python’s Personal Best. Each member of the group is compiling 60 minutes of their favourite bits.
It’s just a way of recycling old stuff to take advantage of our faithful fans.
So, a minute of new links and the rest of it old stuff?
Yes, yes, could be!!! Michael Palin does a few, he’s very good. Mine is unique because mine is all animation. I finally got all those connecting links out of the way. All those sketches that have ruined my animations for years, they have now been chucked out and now you can see the genius of Python!!!
I read that Spamalot is going to hit Vegas
I heard that the other day as well. It’s Steve Wynn who is the big man in Vegas. His new hotel, they’ll build a permanent theatre with a permanent version of Spamalot. So Eric is going to be the richest Python on the planet.
The rest of you get a cut?
We get a little cut. Somewhere down the line we get something. I’m not sure exactly what it is. I don’t think we’re going to be hurting though.
And there’s a film coming out called the Aristocrats with comedians telling the same joke. I understand you had some involvement with that.
Yes, I did. Penn Jillette called me up, they came over here and they filmed me doing my bit on the Aristocrats and apparently I was quite funny, but for whatever reason the sound recording didn’t work so it’s just me with no sound. So I’ve been cut out of the film.
The Brothers Quay project, “The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes”. I’ve seen some stills from it, and what I’ve seen is a lady and six very thin looking German guys.
That’s more than I’ve seen, and I’m the executive producer. But I’ve not seen it. I’ve got a DVD but they then asked me not to look at because they went back to doing some more work on the sound. So I’m very much like the Hollywood executive getting credit for doing bugger all.
What films are you enjoying at the moment?
None. I haven’t liked what I’ve seen recently. With War of the Worlds, I’m beginning to feel that Spielberg can only direct scenes now, he doesn’t know how to make a film. There’s no coherency in it. I really haven’t really seen anything that’s got me excited.
The one thing that did there’s a little festival I’m involved with in Italy. And it was Turtles Can Fly, an Iranian film. It’s pretty amazing. It’s a good one. But other than that I haven’t been watching movies. The ones I’ve seen have all been Hollywood films which I’ve found instantly forgettable. I’m like a junkie wanting a proper fix these days. There’s nothing that hits me that stays with me. Hollywood produces really slick, technically brilliant films with really no substance to them.
There’s got to be change. I keep feeling like 19th century academic painting. You’d see the huge canvasses they’re brilliant, the technique is brilliant. Horses, the people, the battles. They’re fantastic, but you don’t respond to them and along came people like the Impressionists. Which must have looked incredibly bizarre and crude, but suddenly there was stuff there that grabbed the imagination again. And I just keep feeling that it has to happen in films.
In fact the one I did love was Kung-Fu Hustle. Stephen Chow is now my new hero. It’s just a very funny film. And the martial arts stuff is brilliant and funny. It’s good filmmaking.