Dreams: Terry Gilliam talks Tideland on location


In September 2004, Terry Gilliam started shooting his latest project, Tideland, based on the novel by Mitch Cullin. The film tells the story of a young girl who travels with her father to live in a rural farmhouse. Her life takes some unexpected turns, and she invents a fantasy world where “fireflies have names, bog men awaken at dusk, monster sharks swim down railroad tracks, and disembodied Barbie heads are all-important confidants and advisers.”

The girl, who is in every scene, is played by Jodelle Ferland and Jeff Bridges plays her father. The picture was shot on location in Saskatchewan, Canada and then in the studio in Regina. Early in November, after a long day’s shoot, Gilliam spoke to Dreams in a Japanese restaurant.

He talked about Tideland and also provides an update on The Brothers Grimm, a picture featuring Matt Damon and Heath Ledger, which was shot in Summer 2003. Gilliam also speculates about what his next project might be…

Gilliam watches monitor
on the set of Tideland

Phil Stubbs: Can you tell me how Tideland is going?
Terry Gilliam: Surprisingly well…. almost disturbingly well. I think maybe after today we’re probably one day over schedule, but for the first five weeks we’ve been right on schedule. We were up against the weather, because when the weather sets in in Saskatchewan, it sets in forever. Snow is the thing we feared.

For the first three weeks, we were out in the Qu’Appelle Valley. During pre-production, the weather was terrible! It was snowing, it was doing everything. It was terrifying. But we went out shooting for three weeks, and it was beautiful. The weather did all the right things. And when the character Dell came on, played by Janet McTeer, the winds always came up in hurricane force, which became part of her character.

I remember on the last day we finished out there, we woke up in the morning, and there was three or four inches of snow. So we scurried off into the studios for a week, hunkering down, and then went out again last week, and the weather was stunning. So we’ve managed our exteriors, and now we’re safely ensconced in our soundstages for the next five weeks.

What are you happiest with so far?
I think I’m happiest with the actors. The cast is just extraordinary. Jodelle Ferland, who plays Jeliza-Rose, is breathtaking. She’s now 10 years old – she celebrated her birthday a couple of weeks ago. She’s in every single scene. Every day she’s working. She’s astonishing. I think she’s actually about 35 years old squished into this little 10-year-old body. Yesterday Janet McTeer was having to lift her up in a scene, and the kid was clearly much heavier than a child her size should be! She’s fantastic.

Brendan Fletcher, who plays Dickens, is extraordinary. I keep on thinking of him as Quasimodo and Jodelle as his Esmerelda. And he’s absolutely tragic, beautiful, funny and mad. It’s great working with actors who have no vanity. Janet has got this blind eye in. We’ve made her look like a monster, and she’s loving it.

On the creative side, Nicola’s been great. He’s working like a madman. The crew is full of really nice people. I’m not used to such nice people working with me. No matter how badly I behave with them or towards them, they seem to bounce back with a sunny smile every morning.

How is working in Regina?
I’ve become quite a fan of Canadian filmmaking. The crews are great, they really work hard. They’ve got really bubbly, positive attitudes. In the beginning I was very suspicious of this. I was really irritated by their happiness and their pleasantness. But as things go on and you get more and more tired, it’s really nice to be around really nice people.

Gilliam excited by a take

I remember when we first flew into Regina, you look down and you’ve got nothing but squares with longitudinal and latitudinal roads. It’s very flat and I thought it has a strange quality. In fact even though we are up in the middle of Canada, it’s a semi-arid desert. At first you think this is really boring, flat and dull, and repetitive. But it becomes rather hypnotic after a while and I’m enjoying it.

The skies are beautiful. Maybe I’m being infected or affected by this place – I’m not sure which. Maybe I’m becoming more placid. Maybe it’s something to do with the film, because the exteriors are these vast open spaces, and the interiors are very dark claustrophobic spaces. When we were out shooting in the Valley, the space around us was beautiful, almost exhilarating, and liberating. Whereas in the studios it’s claustrophobic and irritating – just like the film should be.

The script you wrote with Tony Grisoni – what challenges did it present?
The script was really easy because the book was so well written. Tony did the bulk of the work. He just took it away, and he threw it together in a form. Then we sat down and started moving it around, shifting it. The trick was to try to not betray the book. I think we’ve got a pretty accurate version of that book in the script. As we’re working through it, we’ve changed lines and moved things around because they play differently when you actually start working with the actors. But hopefully we’re true to the book.

Mitch Cullin comes out to the set this week. I warned him that we were ruining his masterpiece, so we’ll see what he thinks of it. I’ll be very curious to meet him because I’ve never met him before. I’ve just talked to him on the phone and emailed.

Gilliam in Dell’s house

It will be strange for him to see his ideas made real in front of his eyes.
He keeps telling me to forget about his book. He wants to see a Terry Gilliam film. And I keep on saying that he’s to blame for this thing – they’re going to string him up first!

Any techniques you are using for the first time on this one?
No, it’s the same old stuff. I’m getting old and tired I think. We’re just ploughing in there. We’re using wide angle lenses. We use some very strange angles, but I hope it’s about what the film is about. Because it’s this little girl’s strange twisted journey. We’re maybe a little bit freer in pushing it a bit further than we normally would, only because it’s low budget and it’s a strange film and I get bored. So let’s play! The 14mm lens is now known as The Gilliam. There’s only two lenses wider than that – and that’s the 10mm and the 12mm. And that’s the way we’re working – at that end of the lens scale.

You thrive on conflict. There doesn’t seem to be any conflict on this picture – does this cause a problem?
There’s no real conflict there. There are restrictions because we’re working on a very small budget, so I can rail against that. But it’s surprisingly free of conflict. I am curious about what this is going to result in. I may be asleep for most of this because there is nothing to fight about. The difficulty is just trying to stay on budget, stay on schedule, and work through very cramped sets. I can actually whip myself up at any particular moment into thinking that there is conflict – and my paranoia can take over, and find somebody to blame!

What choices have you made with respect to the music on this film?
Everyday I’m being hassled: what are we going to do for the score; what are we doing for music on this thing. I keep saying that I don’t know. We’re half way through now, and I really don’t know. At the beginning, the name of Tom Waits has always been there. I had a discussion with PJ Harvey, because I really like her music, and I thought that would be very interesting. She sent me over some tracks that haven’t been released yet. So I’m pretty certain she’ll be on this thing, in one form or another. But other than that I don’t know.

But until I actually see enough of the film put together, I don’t really know. I want to play against the images sometimes, and that’s why PJ intrigues me. She can be quite lyrical but she’s also quite minimalistic, and there’s some rawness in her stuff. And also I like the idea that since it’s the story of a young girl, what better than to have another young girl writing the songs. Tom Waits’s music is… well I keep listening to it because of the textures, the rhythms and the pictures that I’m actually thinking of. We’ll see where it goes, I don’t know yet.

Now, what is the current status of The Brothers Grimm?
The current status of Grimm is still a little bit unclear. Up until a few days ago we thought we had to deliver the film for financial reasons by the end of March next year. But now I’ve just been told I have to deliver the film sometime in June.

Your final cut?
Yes. Due to the funding, there’s restrictions on when it has to be delivered, so that’s now the current date – we have to deliver by June. And at the moment over here Lesley Walker, who’s also editing Tideland, and I have been working on the weekends on Grimm.

What work remains on it?
We’ve still got quite a few shots that aren’t finalised on Grimm cgi-wise. In the end there’s been about 750 cgi shots, and there’s about 50 that aren’t finished yet. And right now there’s a lot of going round in circles about how much is left financially and the budget to pay for these things and how many shots are critical. So there’s a lot of negotiations going on.

Any re-shoots in the pipeline?
No. It was finally agreed that I would finish the film with my cut with no re-shoots. That’s been agreed, that is the current plan.

You have executive-produced the latest Brothers Quay picture, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. How is that going?
They’ve done a cut. I’ve actually been sent a DVD of it, which I haven’t had a chance to look at. And they’re trimming that down. So, they’ve finished the shooting and they’re in the editing stage now. Keith Griffiths got the money together from a variety of sources. They shot the film and they came in pretty much on schedule, and now they’re cutting it. I’m delighted because the Brothers Quay are not the easiest people to get money to make movies for. They are geniuses, they’re brilliant.

After Tideland and after Grimm what would be next?
I don’t know. We’re still trying to rescue Quixote from the clutches of the former production company and insurance company. Johnny Depp is in London. We keep talking about Quixote, and we keep talking about Good Omens. So there’s a lot of talk going on.

Now that I’m sitting in Regina making a film, with about 5 weeks to go, I have no real interest in doing anything else except getting through this thing. So these things all float around. When I get back to London, I’ll have a better idea of where we’re going and what we’ll do next. I’m sure I’ll be running around the world next year promoting Grimm and Tideland. So it will be an interesting year to have two films in one year – it’s a record.

More to explore

Jabberwocky: Analysis

Adapted from “Terry Gilliam: El Sonador Rebelde” by Jordi Costa and Sergi Sanchez. Used with permission.

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