Fast questions to Terry G.
"Recently my three-year-old daughter began seeing ghosts. I mention this to director Terry Gilliam, for if anyone can appreciate the inner workings of a child’s imagination, it’s him. I relate how she converses with a little boy in the garage who is looking for his mother and a crying baby in our friend’s basement who, she tells me, has lost her way. Gilliam is delighted.
Gilliam remains enchanted by the visions and voices that belong only to the very young. But if he still sees ghosts, he’s keeping it to himself -- although, he does confess to being in possession of a vast imagination. And there’s the difference: while my daughter openly carries on endless conversations with the occupants of her imagination, Gilliam puts his on film.
For me, he has proved himself to be a series of dichotomies. He’s a futurist with a fixed gaze to the past (consider how many of his films feel like they exist light years ahead of us but are so frequently subverted by spectres of the past); he’s a cynic who believes in miracles; an innocent who succumbs to experience; and a realist with infinite imagination. No one with less could possibly dream up such films as Time Bandits, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King, Brazil and now, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
But we know the cosmos has not always been kind to Gilliam. More than once he has found himself tilting at windmills. His film on Don Quixote was plagued by troubles to the point of extinction, and his lead actor in Imaginarium, Heath Ledger, died tragically before the film’s shooting was complete. That none of these things stopped him suggests that he might not just be a filmmaker, but a man on a quest.
Q: Nice to speak with you, Mr. Gilliam. I only have 15 minutes, and like everyone else I want to get as much from you as I can, so let’s begin.
A: Can I be difficult throughout this if they’re not fresh questions?
Q: Please, be difficult. It’s a straight Q&A, and a difficult interviewee makes for great reading [laughs].
A: All right, OK. Here we go [laughs].
Q: First, congratulations on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. I thought it was a great accomplishment.
A: Thank you.
Q: How important is imagination and the magic of storytelling, to us, in the real world?
A: I can’t speak for other people. Most people are just happy being drones. They become drones and watch television and march to the beat of the drum of their employers, which is a real pity. I’m trying to break those people out and remind them they were children once. And stories are essential to childhood because, you know, it’s defining your view of the world. And imagination is the thing that makes life worth living. I can’t see how you can carry on if you can’t imagine a slightly more interesting world than the world presented by, say, the media now.
Q: Is there some insight in that answer as to how you survive such things as the Don Quixote fiasco that is now finding its way as a movie?
A: Yeah, I know. I think I’ve got thick skin. It’s also very perverse. And over the years I’ve developed patience and what else, I don’t know? I learned long ago that filmmaking is not an inalienable human right and it’s a difficult business and it’s hard. Unless you’re absolutely dedicated and passionate or possessed or obsessed, don’t do it. At the moment everybody wants to get into media studies and everybody wants to be a film director – everybody wants to do this. I think this is nonsense. They shouldn’t be allowed near it [laughs]. Unless they can’t stop themselves.
Q: Technology is affording everyone the chance to make a movie. Does the cream still have a chance to rise to the top?
A: Yup. I think it does. There’s no question. Talent or, if not talent, perseverance will rise to the top. In Hollywood, look at some of the really successful directors, and they surely have no talent but they have perseverance and charm and they know who to have lunch with. That’s one way to make it to the top. I do think talent rises, ultimately, but the thing that always bothers me is there’s a lot of talent that’s less strong or more delicate and it’s crushed along the way. And I always find that a pity.
I was in a film festival in Poland – it's a very famous film school where Roman Polanski, Andrzej Wajda, all the great Polish directors came from – and I was being interviewed by a couple students, and they were film directors or claiming to be. And they wanted to know where people get ideas. I said, “What?” [laughs]. If you don’t have ideas, you shouldn’t even be thinking of being a director. I mean, ideas either find you or you find them, but I thought that was extraordinary, that they just wanted to be film directors without having that kind of driven passion to say something.
Q: You must be haunted by your ideas, being that they can be so otherworldly.
A: I think they’re just infantile [laughs]. I let my mind wander. I always daydreamed as a kid and I loved my dreams, and so it seems quite easy to do it. Most people, as they grow older, start closing those doors and windows and put structures around the way their mind works. Not me. I’ve got a million ideas, and the reality of life is that I know I’m not going to get most of those on film because I find it difficult to get money each time. So I do something that I hate doing but I actually repress my ideas for certain periods because I know I’m going to go crazy and know that, ultimately, I can’t get them on film. So I stop thinking. I spend a lot of my time just doing that, switching off and not thinking.
Q: Hmm. Yes, youth and its imagination – my three-year-old daughter keeps seeing dead people.
A: [Laughs.] That’s a wonderful daughter to have.
Q: I think so. But then is it true that as we get older and as the world starts imposing its view on us, that we stop seeing the dead people?
A: I think it’s probably true and I think we stop seeing the elves and the dwarves and all of the things that are out there. And it is what life tends to do to people, they start as a kid, full of enthusiasm and every day there’s something new to discover. So the world is a really exciting and wondrous place. And people, you know, if you have decent parents, are reading fairy tales and all of this is blossoming and then along comes life and, slowly, you just say, “Nope, that’s what children think, that’s not what life is capable of giving us.” And I think that’s a pity because I do think you can reinvent the world around you all the time. The world the media gives us is certainly not the real world, and yet we find ourselves believing in it.
I remember when my son was 12, we lived in a nice part of London and the shops were about 100 metres down the road. And he watched endless television and was frightened to go out the front door and down to the shops because he was going to be raped, mugged, you know, killed, any number of things. I said, “Harry, this isn’t the real world, this is a small percentage of the real world.” And I think that’s what I dislike about television, particularly that it just harps on all the negative aspects of life, which are definitely out there and one should be weary of but not to the point that it restricts the way you live your life.
Q: And yet when I watch your films, many of them, they do have those horrors about them. Still, there’s always the innocent. Will the innocence be our saviour?
A: I don’t know. As long as you look both left and right when you cross the street, yes [laughs].
Q: Good advice. But, in your case, they could be run over by a charging knight on a steed.
A: Yeah, but then you can bounce back because you’re made of rubber [laughs]. It’s the big buses and all those cars, the real ones, that you don’t bounce back from. But if it’s an imaginary thing running you over, I think you’ve got a reasonable chance of surviving.
Q: Even when you’re dealing with dystopian societies, and I’m thinking Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, innocence reigns. Do you remain an innocent at heart?
A: No, to be honest I’ve just developed a very interesting form of schizophrenia [laughs]. No, it depends on what time of day it is. There are parts of the day where life in wonderful, worth living and then other parts where [you want to] get the rope out and tie it to the ceiling somewhere.
Q: There’s also always the dichotomy in your films between the very young paired with the very old. It’s almost like a William Blake poem in a lot of ways. Innocence versus experience.
A: Yeah, I think that it’s – I mean, you look at kids and, you know, you want to slap them around because they have such enthusiasm for life half the time [laughs]. What they do are also the things that keep you going ... I must admit, when we started having children I hated them, because for the first time in my life I actually experienced fear – the fear of losing them or the fear of something going wrong with them, and that I had never experienced before so I really used to hate my children for doing that to me [laughs].
Q: That is a very real experience all parents go through – similar perhaps to the child’s fear of losing their parents. What struck me when I saw Time Bandits was that it was a great fairy tale and fantasy. But when the child’s parents are killed I couldn’t help but that that there’s a real difference in the way the British see their children’s films and the way North American’s see their children’s films.
A: Well, it wasn’t the British, it was me because everyone wanted me to change that ending and I said, “Fuck 'em” [laughs]. You know, it was very important because the kid said, “Don’t touch it, it’s evil” and his parents didn’t listen to him. They must be punished [laughs].
Q: It’s a very good ending.
A: I also thought it was a way of saying the kid could walk on his own two feet now. He had seen and experienced things and he could actually make it on his own. It was a bit of both of those.
Q: When we’re dealing with magic in the worlds we’ve been speaking of, and it’s certainly been apparent in your own life as far as a filmmaker goes, the magic seems to come with a certain amount of curses. And I need not go into specifics because you’ve been caught with them a few times.
A: [Laughs.] Yeah.
Q: How do you deal with the curses that come with the magic?
A: I don’t know. It’s usually the result of being surrounded by people that are less depressive than I am and who say, “Come on, get off your ass and let's solve this one.” That was certainly the case with Heath.
And with Don Quixote – there’s certain times you’re almost relieved, because I find the whole business of starting a film, early days, it’s terrifying. You spend ages getting it together and you don’t know if you’re going to make it. So in that weird way I was almost relieved when Quixote went down, not really, but there was a side of me that does that because I could see problems on the horizon that hadn’t even erupted yet.
But then you just go on. I mean, you have got to find other things that are interesting ... I’ve got this ability to go very small, so if I need to I can just sit down and do drawings and I can occupy my creative needs quite easily. So that’s what I always fall back on.
What I really do now is go to my house in Italy and I look at grass and I look at leaves [laughs]. And build stone walls and do manual labour, and that is a good thing. There’s lots of ways of doing it. I’ve just been determined that I’m not going to have my life ruled by other people and other events, so you just keep shape-shifting, is what you do.
Q: I guess it would be really easy to make an analogy between what you’ve just told me and Don Quixote himself, his philosophy.
A: That’s why I love Quixote, because he will not accept the world as it pretends to be and he tries to make it into something more interesting. And he keeps just falling on his face and so he keeps getting up. And so it's at the end of the book when he finally admits he’s sane that he dies. I’m not ready to die yet.
Q: You broke my heart just by the retelling of that. You know, when I saw Jabberwocky – and at that time I attributed the film as a Monty Python film – I thought, Boy, these guys should do a horror movie.
A: [Laughs.] Actually, that would be a nice blend in, but those guys didn’t.
Q: No, and then when I saw Imaginarium, I thought, I would like to see a Terry Gilliam musical.
A: Ah, now you’ve hit on the one I keep thinking I should do somewhere down the line because I think it could be great fun. That was a nice thing about [Imaginarium], at least we got a couple songs in on this one and one little dancing sequence [laughs].
Q: People rush to your films because you know you’re going to see something you’ve never seen before. Is that kind of pressure unfair to you?
A: No, no, I love that. I mean, that’s what I strive for."