A Conversation with Terry Gilliam

Movies Features Terry Gilliam
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It was nearly 50 years ago, in 1967, that Terry Gilliam began contributing animation to a British television show called Do Not Adjust Your Set, the creation of the group that would eventually become the legendary Monty Python. Ever since then, he’s been a geek icon. He was almost single-handedly responsible for the crazy, eclectic, pop-art Boschean animation in the Pythons’ work, as well as acting in the skits and films himself. With fellow Python Terry Jones, he wrote and directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail, then followed that up with the cult hit Time Bandits.

But it was once the group split up that Gilliam really began to spread his wings. His first post-Python film was the dystopian classic Brazil, which many critics regard as the best film of the ‘80s. After a flight of fancy in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (less successful, but still beloved by fans), his next two films were The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys, both of which produced Oscar nominations and have stood the test of time. His films since have been a bit hit-or-miss, but the hallmarks of his work have never disappeared, even in his failed experiments. When you go to see a Gilliam film, you know you’re going to get an imaginative premise, outside-the-box thinking, a willingness to embrace the surreal, and a seriousness about analyzing the way we live now combined with a playful sensibility. (It will also probably be very long.)

His new film, The Zero Theorem, is no different. Christoph Waltz turns in a bravura performance in the lead, and the issues Gilliam treats feel monumental. As with many of his other films, it not only feels interesting, it feels important. Gilliam spoke with us recently about the new film, why he won’t wear the colors of his soccer team and his favorite member of Monty Python.

Paste Magazine : I want to start off by saying, if you told me this conceit, I would have known immediately what director it is. It’s such a Terry Gilliam twist. This guy has missed a phone call about the meaning of life and is waiting for the call back. It is simultaneously so emotionally evocative and so darkly funny, and it seems to be kind of the essence of adulthood in our modern or post-modern world. As a child we kind of take for granted that we’re going to learn the meaning of life. Then we sort of go, “Wait, wait. Did I miss anything?” I’m wondering if that sort of childhood/adult split was part of what you were thinking about when you developed that idea?
Terry Gilliam: Not really. The whole thing was very strange because Pat Rushin had written the script, and it was sent to me. I liked it because it seemed like he had seen every film I had made. It seemed like it was familiar territory. So I sort of jumped in.

I think I’ve learned more about the film now that I’ve finished it than when I started. It’s often like that. I often find I’m not sure what I’m doing, except that instinctively I know this is interesting. In fact, the thing that intrigued me most was the idea about somebody who choses to be alone. In a sense, I built the world around him, which wasn’t in the script. It was a world that is a lot like ours, in which everybody is connected, and everybody is bombarded with information and things like advertisements and everything. It’s about somebody who chose to step out of that, even though in the script he was stepping out of it in order to get that phone call. I just liked the greater idea of somebody choosing to be alone. That’s where I was coming from when I started.

I’ll almost go out of my way not to intellectualize anything when I start. I just keep working. I get reactions, and I use the reactions to reflect on the world we’re currently living in. I became more and more concerned about overloading on all the religious symbolism. A call, waiting for a call seems to have a strong religious background. The altarpiece behind Qohen’s workstation is the baptism of Christ. And then there’s the call, the Holy Spirit descending from above with white doves.

Paste : Sure.
Gilliam: So, it was about the symbolisms and the loss of the old religion. Now it’s like The Church of Batman, The Redeemer. [laughs]

Paste : And you have a female lead that’s sort of a Beatrice character from The Divine Comedy, but in fact—spoiler alert—she turns out to be just a webcam girl. That seems to be a quite potent critical look at modern religion.
Gilliam: Very much. Yeah, there’s another one, about church and its whole lifestyle. Yes, she is basically the seductress, the lurer, but she’s paid to do the job. Everything is corrupted in that sense.

Paste : I love what you said a moment ago about finding it in the edit. It reminds me of that wonderful E. M. Forster quote where he says, and I hope I’m going to get it right, “How do I know what I think, until I see what I say?”
Gilliam: There you go. That’s it. This was a different experience than most other films, because the other things I got involved with were much more intense and for a longer period. With this, we just up and went. It’s when you get into the editing room, and you say, “Oh fuck. I thought that was a good idea, but it’s a piece of shit.” We did a lot of shifting in the editing room. In fact, we threw the whole ending off, which was a bullshit Hollywood ending. You would never accept it as a honest ending, especially not for this particular film.

Paste : Yeah.
Gilliam: That’s why it became a sort of…now I’m actually going to do the work of actually making it into something that I understand and will sign my name to. [chuckles]

Paste : The ending has echoes of Pascal’s Wager to me. I don’t know if that was from either your mind or from the writer’s mind, but it seems to be a look at truth versus illusion. Is there a difference? And if so or if not, which side do you come down on? I don’t know, it was a very interesting ending.
Gilliam: It’s very funny because the ending was one of the scenes I actually wrote…literally going into the sunset. But when we cut the thing together, I did not like the original ending, nor did Pat Rushin, the writer, when I talked with him later. That’s how you get films made. [laughs] And I said, “No, you’ve got to move on with dignity, with a sense of some control over life, whether it’s virtual or not.” That’s it, and it seemed important after the battering we put the character through for most of the film. We leave him getting strong, dignified, almost zen.

Paste : That’s true, you do. Well, if there’s ever a director who’s not going to accept a bullshit Hollywood ending, it’s Terry fucking Gilliam, I’ll let you that. That certainly characterizes your work. I want to ask you too about this concept that your movies are loose trilogies, and they are loose trilogies that sort of interlock. Some of the movies are part of two different trilogies. I think that’s a really interesting concept. Obviously, Brazil and Twelve Monkeys are the ones that either other people or you have sort of grouped together with Zero Theorem. Looking back at Brazil, which was such an informative and eye-opening movie for so many of us, how much of your headspace in that movie kind of holds up, and how do you see Zero Theorem echoing that sort of dystopic vision?
Gilliam: I think Brazil certainly holds up. I mean, it’s now institutionalized, with Homeland Security. [laughs]

Paste : Ah, yes.
Gilliam: I’m very proud of that.

Paste : You should get a medal from George W. Bush.
Gilliam: Exactly. So, I’m very proud. We did our best. Brazil was the way I saw the world then. The world was like that, and it’s just a fact. This [Zero Theorem] is my reaction to the current world we’re living in. I’m much clearer about where it’s all going and what to get angry about, but I do know we’re kind of in a frenzy. What was in the script is not the world as it’s described out there. That was my invention to make it a very colorful and happy utopian place. Shopping is available all the time, and advertisements are attacking you left, right and center. The workplace is fun. You’re on your roller skates or your scooter, and it’s all bright and breezy. The idea is that’s the world out there, and you’re the guy who chooses not to engage in it. That’s what was intriguing about it to me.

In the course of it, I added things all through it. Surveillance could have been just like it was in Brazil, but I thought it would be more interesting if it’s not governments, it’s corporations controlling everything. It’s my little joke. It’s important to understand how the world is changing. I fear for people who have to be connected all the time. Not loneliness, but aloneness is something that I am trying to encourage with my family. Who are you? How do you know who you are if you are constantly tweeting? You may just be a neuron. You may just be a dendrite. You don’t even exist. You’re just connecting tissue between other things.

Paste : Yeah.
Gilliam: How do we hold on to our individuality, or a view of the world that is separate from peer pressure, if we’re in the world that everybody seems to be living in now? Nobody wants to say anything that might be considered rude or to cause trouble or to offend. I don’t know how you can go through life without doing that, unless you don’t have any ideas about anything.

Paste : Especially when the approval of others and the affection of others are such potent drugs. We all get hooked on them. The idea of being alone with yourself, with only yourself and no one around to tell you how funny you are or how great you are is kind of terrifying to a lot of people, I think.
Gilliam: I know. I agree. That’s why I’m encouraging people to take time out to find out what that feels like.

Paste : I totally agree.
Gilliam: Again, another thing that came up when we were getting into the shooting was the way the web works. There’s something about Qohen that keeps him from really relating properly with people. He finds fulfillment, I suppose, from a virtual situation. Porn seems to be the majority of traffic on the web. I might find comfort there.

I find that the whole idea of how we connect is backwards, because there are a lot of people who are completely unconnected now. No matter how it’s going, I don’t think this is bringing us together; it’s isolating us more and more in many ways. The computer can be your best friend or your enemy in the end. You don’t have to deal with the difficulties of running off and living dangerously. To me, that’s the great tragedy of the film. He doesn’t leave with her because he can’t.

Paste : Sure.
Gilliam: He’s so damaged. To me, that was the key scene in the whole movie. It’s a killer when I watch it. They are both so good in that scene.

Paste : Yeah, and for her too, it always grabs me when someone loses their love and has no one to blame but themselves, when someone loses their love through something that they have done. They have incredible remorse and regret, but there is nothing they can do. The bell can’t be unrung. She can’t go back and not have ever been hired to make him fall in love with her.
Gilliam: Oh yeah, totally. It’s basically a tragedy, the film is. No matter how funny it is, deep down it is a very sad, tragic film. I think Cristoph is breathtaking. The way he does that character is just wondrous to me.

Paste : Yeah, you use him very well. He’s a very unusual instrument for a director to use, and you have used him very well.
Gilliam: Well, I let him lead. As I said in the beginning of our relationship, “It’s your movie, Chris. You’re 90 percent of the movie, so I will follow you.” That’s what we did.

Paste : That actually leads into another question that I wanted to ask you. Tell me about how you’ve spent most of your career directing actors in these very highly stylized, very fantastic pieces. Starting with the absurdity of working with the Pythons and working with the absurd situations there, not necessarily science fiction always, but certainly absurd and unreal situations. Moving on to your own films, how is it different working with actors in that environment? Is it different? Do you try to approach it just exactly as you would a naturalistic performance? What’s your goal there?
Gilliam: Yeah. I suppose my main job is casting the right people. People need to get the sense of what we’re doing. In that way, I don’t really direct them that much. I support them, is what I do. I’m not setting out to be overtly comic these days, except for in scenes like the one with the doctors. That’s a comic scene, and the clones are comic characters. They are incidental characters. The main character has got to be believable and real.

I just try to keep it completely honest and real. The environment and the situations that they’re put in makes their performances slightly heightened. I think the environment encourages people to act in a slightly different way, but that’s not me saying, “Do it this way.” You walk on the set and say, “Hmmm, I’ve got to work here.”

The one I suppose I directed the most was Mélanie because she is very sedate and very beautiful. She’s very elegant and calm and not at all like the character she played in this. Actually, I got advice from a couple of French friends. One was Bertrand Travernier, who had her in a film where she played a medieval princess. I said, “Tell me about Mélanie,” and he says, “She’s a Stradivarius. You can play her any way you want. She is just extraordinary.”

I told her to look at Marilyn Monroe and Judy Holliday. That’s her professional character, but when she pulls that pink wig off, to me, that’s a great moment. She’s like a plastic doll. It’s beautiful and sexy, but when she pulls the pink wig off, she’s suddenly not so beautiful anymore. Those are moments that I really cling to because there has got to be truth in there. There has got to be honesty. Secondary characters can be funny, but I just play it straight.

But it’s casting, to me, that’s always the key. You have to make sure you and the other person are both on the same wavelength and that they’re right for the part. I just support them; it’s what I do.

Paste : That’s really great.
Gilliam: When Christoph is going crazy and smashing up the computer, I think he picked up a lot from me there, but he managed to pull out the kind of energy that was necessary. He was smashing things and jumping up and down.

Paste : Well, I’ve got a lighter question for you. I know you directed the awesome “Little Less Conversation” soccer commercial. Paste just started a soccer section before the World Cup started, so I’m curious if that was just happenstance, or are you a fan? If so, who are your favorite teams? Who do you follow?
Gilliam: Oh, I suppose I’m in support of Arsenal.

Paste : That’s my team too! It’s gonna be a good year.
Gilliam: Yeah. I’m not an avid fan. I watch football because I just love to watch it. It’s a beautiful game.

Paste : Sure.
Gilliam: That’s kind of it. I’m not a fan. I’m not going to go out there and slap on my red and white colors and watch the game.

Paste : Yet. That might be coming later. [laughs] Another fun question, I was wondering if it got back to you that Game of Thrones had thrown in a little Monty Python reference in the last season? If so, do you have any reaction to that?
Gilliam: No. I haven’t even watched Game of Thrones. I haven’t even seen a single episode of it, so it’s a mystery to me. What is it?

Paste : They took some of the insults from the French castle in Holy Grail and translated it into one of the native languages on Game of Thrones. They had it in the background. It was very subtle.
Gilliam: [Chuckles] That’s good. My proudest moment was when I finally got around to watching Breaking Bad last year, and there is one episode with a fly in the lab. I’m afraid that might be a homage to Brazil.

Paste : Oh sure. Absolutely.
Gilliam: I’m thinking of changing my name. There’s only a couple of letters difference between my middle name…my middle name is Vane, and it could almost be Vince Gilligan.

Paste : That’s perfect. That’s like the story about how Bill Murray got into Garfield. He was sent a script from the “C-O-H-E-N” Cohen Brothers. Do you know this story?
Gilliam: No.

Paste : And he thought that it was the “C-O-E-N” Coen Brothers, and he signed without even reading the script. He said, “Well, yeah. I’ll do anything the Coen Brothers do.” (laughs) Alright, last question. My editor will crucify me if I do not ask you something about Monty Python. What I want to ask you is, when you look back on every skit, every movie, every whatever, what is it in watching it, for you, that brings you the most joy? Whether it’s what you think was done so well, or something that you have good memories of doing. What’s your Python moment that really makes you feel all warm inside?
Gilliam: I don’t know. I find that I still laugh at it because I don’t watch it. If by chance I put on a movie like Holy Grail, like a few months ago I checked it out again from a technical perspective, and I watched the whole thing. I thought that it was really funny. It’s crazy because sometimes I don’t even connect myself with it. It’s so weird. It’s like, at last I can watch it like an outsider.

Paste : As a fan, right?
Gilliam: Yeah. I wish I could be a Python fan.

Paste : Who did you laugh at the most as a fan while you where watching it this last time? Or can you say? Is it impolite to say?
Gilliam: No, it’s okay. I find Mike is still the funniest. I mean, John is brilliant as John, but Mike could do characters better than anybody else. He is just innately funny. John has made himself become funny. Mike is innately funny. He’s just a funny man.

Paste : Yeah, his eagerness is hilarious.
Gilliam: Absolutely.