Terry Gilliam on The Wholly Family




edited by Phil Stubbs



When Gilliam spoke to Dreams in April 2011, it was primarily to discuss his opera, The Damnation of Faust. Yet he also spoke about a short he made in Naples at the start of the year, called The Wholly Family. And the filmmaker talked about other projects he has worked on and what his next project might be…

What personal themes were you able to bung into the script of The Wholly Family?
My love of Pulcinella. My love of dancing in chapels! And my love of dysfunctional families. Garafalo Pasta has sponsored it. The rules of doing this little film were as follows: it has to be about Naples and nobody gets killed in it. There’s a place called San Gregorio Armeno, which is a street in Naples which I’ve been fascinated with because they sell all these little carved figures, presepi, which are nativity scenes. They are wonderful elaborate things, and I’ve always liked that street in particular and what they do there.

One of the things they also carve out is Pulcinella, and I have always loved them. We started with that, and I though what better than an arguing unhappy family? One that can be transformed by an experience with Pulcinella.

You didn’t have to show anyone eating pasta
No, but we do. It’s not because I had to, it’s because I wanted to. That’s the good thing about it. I wrote the thing very quickly, and these were just the things that intrigued me.

Was the experience a happy one?
It was good fun. Nicola and I say we must keep making these one-reelers, these short films: 20 minutes long. That’s all we ought to keep doing, it’s good fun – one week’s shooting and off we go, and another one is done. It was great fun, great to be able to spend time in Naples, because I have always been intrigued by Naples, so I got to see a lot more of it and understand a lot more of it: a wondrous place.

You were shooting digitally, how did you find that?
It was fine. It’s got its limitations, but it’s fine. It still looks good. I’m not convinced though… and if I do another film, it’d probably still be on film.

How does it look blown up on to a big screen?
It’s fine, no problem, looks good. We used the Arriflex Alexa which is the best camera out there at the moment.

I understand you used a Canon 7D as well
Yes, Nicola has his own Canon 7D. He just went out grabbed some stuff on a Sunday without the crew, just with the camera. At one point, we needed a Steadicam shot and we didn’t have a Steadicam. We couldn’t afford a proper Steadicam rig, so Nicola built a little basic form of Steadicam. It’s very simple – anyone could have one, probably cost nothing. We did some shooting with that and the Canon – and it looks great. I think Canons are fantastic. That’s what we used when we did the Talledega movie – that was all done on a Canon.

I’ve seen great results from a Canon 7D online…
Well, if you blow it up big, it looks really good.

Our chance to see it will be on the web
I think when they release it at the end of May it will be on their website. It’s not the way to see it. But it really looks good on a big screen. You really get absorbed by the whole thing.

In March, it wasn’t available at the Bradford Film Festival as advertised
I was just finishing it… actually we just couldn’t get the DVD done in time. The Wholly Family is supposed to get its premiere in Italy in May. I’m to go to Rome on the May 24 to present it. So that will be its first official viewing.

(interview continues below)

Gilliam with the Arriflex on the set of The Wholly Family – click on the image for more detail

When the opera is finished, have you anything else in the pipeline?
We’re still battling away at Quixote. In the next few weeks, we might get a better idea of what our chances are of raising it. At the same time I’m just dredging up an old script – the one Richard LaGravenese and I wrote years ago after The Fisher King – The Defective Detective. And we are just snooping around to see if there is any way we can move that one forward.

I’ve just got to get something going, and this opera in many ways has just been standing in the way. I’m only able to do one thing at a time. It’s like until I get it out of my system, I can’t get on to the next thing.

I’ve got another script I’ve been reading, because I just know I’ve got to get moving. It’s April now and if we’re going to do anything this year with Quixote, money has to materialise very quickly.

How much will The Defective Detective cost in its present form?
A lot more than all my other films – but on the other hand, Richard and I have been talking about what will the traffic bear? Is there a way of trimming the script down, changing the way of doing things? One of the things I tried doing with Parnassus tried doing what I wanted to do with The Defective Detective. Particularly in the scene where the drunk goes through and finds himself in the forest and the trees are two dimensional but the space is three dimensional and that’s what I wanted to do in The Defective Detective. I know that kind of thing works.

Can you reveal anything about that script you’ve been reading?

Do you have any ideas for anything that might be low budget, 5 or 6 million? There seems to be more funding at that level.
No – you can have a few people walk around, talk and get in the car, drive and talk. You can do that, but I’m just more interested in trying to get more spectacular imagery up on screen.

There’s something called The Monster of Nix that you have been involved with…
A friend of mine a Dutch animator named Rosto, he does really interesting stuff and he talked me into doing one of the voices on this animated film. I was in there for a day doing voices and convincing him I couldn’t sing the song he had written. I connected him with Tom Waits as well, who has done a voice for it.

Tom and I we keep in touch trying to find something we can do together. I love him, maybe we can find a project we can work on… I think we could do a musical together, a very dark musical. He’s deep into his next album. Like me, he disappears from the world when he’s busy. I won’t hear from him in a while.

You appeared in a film for Christophe Goffette?
Yes, he publishes a magazine in France called Brazil. He’s great, he’s passionate, he’s mad. He beat me into submission. I have no idea what the result will be. I did my duty, let’s put it that way.

What did you do?
I don’t know! I don’t know what his film is?

You must have turned up and worn a costume or something?
I was in Deauville, for this retrospective and they gave me the Hommage award. I called it the Fromage award. Christophe grabbed me one afternoon, and said now you’ve got to do it. We went into this building and shot four different scenes. I still don’t know what it was about!

You are also appearing in Dixiewood
I’m a voice in a telephone conversation. That’s Theresa, I couldn’t say no to her! She’s been such a great supporter!

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