Catching Up with Terry Gilliam


Is the world ready for another Terry Gilliam movie?

That’s the question people may be asking when the director releases two very different films in the next month. After all, it’s been six years since his adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-induced Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, starring Johnny Depp, failed to find the critical or commercial acclaim of his earlier hits 12 Monkeys and The Fisher King.

A new century has arrived since we last saw Mr. Gilliam, and in that time, movies like Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and even the “Harry Potter” films have found success using the same quirky mix of comedy and fantasy that have been the key defining factor of Gilliam’s films. The musical “Spamalot,” based on the Monty Python films Gilliam directed, has found huge success on Broadway, winning a number of Tony Awards, and twenty years after Brazil, the world is looking more and more like Gilliam’s dystopian vision of the future.

Despite being a true visionary, Terry Gilliam still doesn’t get the respect that he deserves in Hollywood. 2005 may be the year that changes, as the world remembers what an important filmmaker he is with the release of not one, but two new movies. First, The Brothers Grimm, based on a script by Ehren (The Ring) Kruger, comes out nationwide on August 26. It may be Gilliam’s most commercially viable films to date with a premise that will appeal to anyone who loved the classic Grimm fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. A few weeks later, Gilliam’s next film Tideland, a smaller-scale adaptation of Mitch Cullins’ novel about a young girl with an active imagination, will make its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Needless to say, this should be an exciting year for the director, and by some twist of fate, all the stars aligned so that was able to get this exclusive interview with the director a week before he was preparing to fly to Los Angeles for the full-fledged media blitz for The Brothers Grimm. Although obviously exhausted from all the post-production work he’s been doing on both films, he turned out to be as jovial and friendly as one might expect.

CS!: “The Brothers Grimm” is a project you’ve been working on for quite some time. Why has it taken so long for this to see the light of day?
Terry Gilliam: It started way back in 2002, and I finished shooting at the end of November in 2003. I have two films in the next year. I finished off “Grimms” and went off and did “Tideland” and then came back and tidied both films up. I literally had to go off in the latter half of last year and go to Canada to shoot another film, so “Grimms” was put on hold for a bit, and then I came back and finished “Grimms” and “Tideland” together.

CS!: How did you first get your hands on the Ehren Kruger’s script for “The Brothers Grimm”? Did he write that even before writing “The Ring”?
Gilliam: Well, I don’t know exactly. Chuck Roven, who produced “12 Monkeys”, he was trying to get me to do something again. He gave me this script, and it was intriguing, because I grew up with Grimms’ fairy tales and thought it was an interesting way to take advantage of these decent, hard-working good German people who’ve brought us all those great fairy tales. In effect, they’ve been trapped in a fairy tale of someone else’s making.

CS!: Was it made completely outside the studio system or did you have studio backing?
Gilliam: No, this was done with Dimension. We began this project with MGM, and we were in pre-production in Prague–everybody just turned up–when we got this call that MGM had pulled the plug on it, so everybody had to get on their planes and go back to wherever it was they were. Within about 24 hours, we got a call from Dimension that they wanted in, so I came out to L.A., met the Weinsteins, talked about it, and basically, off we went.

CS!: Between “Baron Munchausen”, “Don Quixote” and now this, you’ve built your reputation on deconstructing folklore and fairy tales. What about doing that intrigues or appeals to you?
Gilliam: In this particular instance, it’s really about two brothers, one who is a cynical pragmatic, and the other who’s a romantic dreamer and in many ways, who is going to win? There are two different views of the world, and this particular instance, magical enchanted fairy tale aspects of the world rears its ugly head, and that’s what’s going on in it. To me, fantasy and reality, I wouldn’t say they were two sides of the same coin unless it happens to be my life, and that is two sides of the same coin. (chuckles)

CS!: How did you end up choosing Matt Damon and Heath Ledger to play the two brothers and how did you decide which one of them would play which brother?
Gilliam: Well, I actually think both are doing different roles, because Matt normally is doing the more introspective character until he started doing “Bourne Identity,” but even in that, he’s still quiet and is introspective to his actions. In this one, he’s the extrovert, the big mouth, the guy who charms women. And Heath, who’s often playing the leading man is now playing the twitchy, funny brother, who’s sort of vulnerable. Basically, it was about casting against type, as usual. I just like putting people through things they haven’t done before and the same goes for the audience, trying to give them a different ride where they can see these people as actors, and not just extensions of one particular aspect of their character.

CS!: In some ways, the Brothers seem like Baron Munchausen’s personality split in half, each with their own take on reality and fantasy. Did you see any corollaries between the two films?
Gilliam: My wife keeps accusing me of making the same film but just changing the costumes. (chuckles)

CS!: The movie looks absolutely amazing, and I think the team you put together was great. Can you talk about creating the look for the film?
Gilliam: Yeah, Guy Dyas, it was the second film he’s ever designed. He was quite incredible. He had done “X-Men 2” and he’s just this fantastic artist. He draws beautifully and quickly, and it was just a joy working with him. I got Gabriella Pescucci back, who had done “Baron Munchausen.” She’s spectacular. It was a really fantastic team. The trick was trying to create a world that is both magical and totally realistic at the same time, rather than escaping what I see in a lot of fantasy films where the feet are no longer on the ground. I wanted to keep our feet firmly on the ground, so that when it does become clear that we’re in an enchanted forest that it’s a real forest suddenly coming alive in different ways then you normally see. I just thought that was essential, so everybody involved, even in the computer generating animators, I kept trying to destroy their good work, because they tend to make things beautiful and floating around the place, and I just wanted to make it more realistic. Hopefully, I achieved that.

CS!: Your movies tend to have a look and vision that people automatically relate to you. If “Gilliamesque” were an actual word, how would you define it?
Gilliam: I don’t know. I mean, that’s my problem. Everyone keeps talking about a “Gilliamesque” quality or a “Gilliamesque” look. They start seeing a movie or a trailer and they realize immediately that it’s me. I honestly don’t know what they mean, because it’s just the way I see the world. It’s very hard for me to get outside of my view of the world and look at it objectively. I just do what I do. Pretty much everything I do I’m fairly instinctive about the way it looks and feels. I do think whatever they’ve got, whatever else happens in my films, there’s always a lot of humor that punctures some of the potential pretensions that I have.

CS!: Lately, there seems to be a lot more movies that have that sort of feel from “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Do you feel that way, too?
Gilliam: Well, I just think that the big, heavy macho action stuff is now becoming very repetitive. We’ve seen so much of it for so many years that I guess people are bored with it. When I go to the cinema and watch trailers, I swear I’ve seen that trailer twenty times already. They feel like the same films and they tend to take themselves so seriously, and it’s nonsense. The real world isn’t like that. Also, I tend to think if you spend too much time making macho movies of people shooting each other up, it starts infecting the real world.

CS!: Are you almost done finishing “Tideland”?
Gilliam: Yeah, I mean “Tideland” is finished now. We just finished it last week, and it opens in the Toronto Film Festival on September 9th. It’s quite different than “Grimms”. It’s nice, because one’s big and beautiful and fun. I keep saying “Grimms is designed to scare the children, and Tideland is designed to scare the adults.”

CS!: Who’s going to distribute that?
Gilliam: We don’t know yet actually. We made it completely outside of American money in any form, and the opening in Toronto is the moment that Jeremy Thomas is selling the movie, so hopefully, by the end of that week, we’ll know who’s distributing it. I quite like the two films, because they’re balancing each other in an interesting way.

CS!: Just to show how times have changed, the musical “Spamalot” based on the Python movies is now the biggest hit on Broadway. Would you be interested in directing a film version of that like they’re doing with “The Producers” musical?
Gilliam: No, to me “Spamalot” is great, and it’s fantastic that it’s a success. I think there is talk about making a movie of it, but I don’t know where that’s got to yet, but I can almost guarantee that I won’t be directing it.

CS!: Not into musicals anymore?
Gilliam: No, I really don’t like going back. We learned a lot about filmmaking when Terry Jones and I directed that, and it’s a wonderful film, and it’s in the past as far as I’m concerned. The fact that Eric [Idle] has reinvented it for Broadway is clear that there’s an audience out there for it. That’s fantastic, but I don’t know, I want to just keep moving forward rather than reinventing the past.

CS!: Over the years, there’s been a lot of talk about you directing movies based on well-known books like Alan Moore’s “Watchmen”, Neil Gaiman’s “Good Omens” and even the first “Harry Potter” for a while there. Tom Stoppard, who wrote “Brazil,” has adapted the fantasy book “His Dark Materials” for the screen, and they seem to need a director. Is that something you might consider doing?
Gilliam: It was actually very funny when I heard about “Dark Materials” being made into a movie. I kept raising my hand at the back of the class saying “Me, sir! Me, sir!” but nobody’s seen my hand, I guess. (chuckles) I know my agent was following it very closely. It seems to have gone to various people’s hands at the moment. It’s a big project and I’m not sure the studio really understands what it is, which may be why it seems to be languishing at the moment.

CS!: From what I’ve seen in “Brothers Grimm”, it definitely seems like you can handle it.
Gilliam: The thing is that I know how to do that kind of movie. I can do big movies with a lot of effects, but it doesn’t mean that I really enjoy them that much. It’s a very different way of working. It’s hard work. You’re running an army and on the other hand, when I did something like “Tideland,” it’s a cast of four people, it’s a small budget, and it was really refreshing to be able to work quickly. Guerilla filmmaking is sometimes a lot more fun than the big stuff. The big projects, I really gotta believe in them totally and utterly before I immerse myself in them.

CS!: Going back a bit in time, it’s been twenty years since “Brazil,” but it still has a lot of resonance, especially with what’s going on in England today. Are you surprised by how much of the things you depicted in that movie have come to pass?
Gilliam: No. The problem, particularly in America, is that people have lost any sense of history. They think that history began this morning when they woke up. When I made that film, there were a lot of bombings going on. The I.R.A. were busy working in London. They were at the end of their campaign. There were terrorists in Germany, the Red Brigade in Italy, so terrorism was alive and well. What I was interested in was a response to big bureaucracies where their job is terrorism, how that even if there aren’t terrorists, for bureaucracies to survive, they need to invent terrorists. Now, maybe we’re in that situation now. All I know is that the Bush administration is very much closer to the Ministry of Information in “Brazil” than anything I’ve seen before.

CS!: At this point in your career, do you think that Hollywood is finally starting to understand you and what you do?
Gilliam: I really don’t know. I’m hoping that there’s a lot of people that were fans of my early work who are now running studios. Maybe they’ll remember how much pleasure I gave them when they were young. That’s the best I can hope for! (chuckles)

CS!: Incidentally, the trailer was very well received at Comic-Con last month and “The Brothers Grimm” was picked as the top movie for August in’s monthly readers’ poll.
Gilliam: That’s quite interesting, especially since you haven’t seen much in the ways of advertising for “Grimms” yet. I mean, that hopefully will start this week, and I hope they do a TV blitz, so that a few other people out there get to know about it before it opens.

CS!: So what do you think? Is the world ready for another Terry Gilliam movie or even possibly two?
Gilliam: Well, I think we’ll find out in a month’s time. (chuckles) Let’s hope!

The Brothers Grimm opens on August 26, while Tideland should kick off the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9.