In a Bangkok cinema lounge, director Terry Gilliam plunges his hand into the largest tub of popcorn I’ve ever seen. It’s his lunch and dinner, after a schedule of impromptu press meetings. “It’s very bad for you, I know — salted air,” chuckles the ex-Python.
How are you liking Bangkok?
It’s funny being here. I’ve been on the streets for the last several days and I’ve ended up in this other Bangkok. I think the thing I find curious — I was in Japan last year promoting Grimm — is the way they just absorb the West and take it further, and you think, well, ‘Cling on to your own stuff’. I drove in from the airport and thought, I’m in LA, look at all the motorways. I like that building — I think it’s the tallest one — which has the giant advertisement, “Drink, Don’t Drive”.
So it was an… entertaining… master class. [Gilliam, amongst other things, took a giant swipe at the Weinsteins over The Brothers Grimm.]
[Laughs] I’ll probably get in trouble for it. There was all that stuff in there about Bob and Harvey.
It’s probably on the Internet as we speak.
Well I suppose I was making a serious point about the DVD… but it doesn’t really matter whether I was making a serious point or not. Who cares? [Laughs]
Too much importance is placed on serious stuff.
Everybody’s becoming so serious is the problem. Everybody thinks each thing has significance now and there’s just a lot of noise out there. And if you add controversial things into the noise it becomes like a magnet.
How do you feel about the cultural and political climate now? Everything is, as you say, so serious, that it’s permeated art and culture, especially being a film maker like yourself.
Well everything’s become so politicised, and you begin to wonder. I read one piece about some Sheikh who was bringing people to a demonstration and they were peaceful, they were making a point, but — where were all the cameras? — pointing at the ones going crazy. The media whips it up. After 9/11, I mean — we shot Life Of Brian in Tunisia — and I shot part of Time Bandits in Morocco — and I was getting paranoid like everybody and then I thought, This is stupid, I mean. It was my daughter’s birthday, so we got on Royal Emirates and we flew into Fez where we spent the long weekend; and it was one of the best times I’ve ever had in Fez, because everybody — well number one, there were no foreigners there — was coming up and apologising, saying “Islam is peace”. The vast majority are really good, decent people and the media has turned them into these monsters, and it’s bullshit. The thing that also made it good when I got down there was I gave in and let this guy take us around a few places, which I’d never done before, and he said do you want to come to our place for dinner, so we went to his house and he had all these satellite dishes on his building. Here’s a guy who had every television station on the planet, so he was more informed than half the people in America, who’ve got Fox news. So it’s so misrepresented the world, and that’s what I hate about the media and television at the moment. It’s a distorted vision of the world; good for selling papers and getting people to watch television but it’s a lie.
Is it a difficult climate to work in at the moment?
Well, Tideland, the film I’ve just done with Jeff Bridges, we showed it at the Toronto Film Festival in the big cinema, 1000 people, and got a standing ovation at the end — which surprised me, cause I didn’t think most people would get it. The independent distributors ran a mile.
I heard the reception was quite mixed; so audiences have responded?
Well it’s meant to be. When numbers come in they’re all wrong. Half the audience should not like the film — I guarantee it — and the other half will. But that’s the idea. The film is divisive in that sense; it’s not trying to be divisive, it’s trying to make people think. I’ve just gotta push buttons. Some people won’t be able to take it and some people will.
Why is the film so divisive for an audience?
Well the word David Cronenberg uses is “transgressive”. It’s going down lines. What do we hear about? Little girls in difficult or disturbing situations. What does that mean? These are buzzwords; paedophilia is everywhere with us now. People are reacting in a certain way, because it’s almost like, we are so programmed now with hysteria. That’s why at times you just say, I’m gonna switch off and stop, because I don’t know my own thoughts at a certain point. Little girls in disturbing situations is something you don’t do in films. This is not a horror film, but things are in there that you don’t normally see. You’re seeing this little girl just floating through it, and surviving.
Is it something people won’t expect to see from Terry Gilliam?
Probably. That’s what I mean, when we were making it, the producers were saying, Well this is very different from what you normally do — it’s more emotional, it’s more tender, it’s all sorts of things. But I don’t think that’s it. I remember when we were cutting the film and I wanted to show it to people in an informal kind of testing, and you’d get 30 people together and show it. Normally at the end of the film, you know, we talk and say, “Was it too slow, was it boring, was it confusing, tell me all the bad stuff — I know the good stuff.” I found with this, people didn’t want to talk about it. They didn’t know what to say. So I said, okay, here’s an email — whenever you want to tell me something, email me. And people would take two or three, sometimes four or five days, before they’d worked up what they wanted to say.
I remember Mike Palin saw an early cut of it and he left, straight away. I called him the next day and said, “Okay Mike, what do you think?” and he said, “Well I don’t know what to say. When it finished, I didn’t like it — there were so many things I didn’t like. But I woke up this morning and it’s all in my head. I can’t get it out of my head, I can’t stop thinking about it. The ideas and the images won’t go away.” He said it’s either the best film I’ve ever made or the worst film I’ve ever made. And I like that, you know. I haven’t felt that kind of response since I made Brazil. So it feels good.
What attracted you to the novel?
The voice of the little girl telling this tale.
It’s all told from her perspective…
The first scene in the film, when you see the parents arguing — Jeff and Jennifer Tilly — and she’s in the kitchen, and you think, well they could be at lunch or something. Mum flounces off and Jeff sits down in his chair and you see she’s cooking heroin.
So right there you’ve lost your audience if that’s the first scene.
That’s right. If you can’t deal with that, then get out now.
Was it a conscious new direction for you?
No. It’s just this one book that I really wanted to make. It was a really beautiful book. I’m maybe overplaying the disturbing, dangerous nature of it. Maybe it’s not as dangerous as it is. But it’s a film you have to submit to. If you bring all your shit with you, you won’t enjoy it; but if you let it take over you, it does something to people. And people have seen it several times; there’s this one woman who represents one of the greater American distributors and she said “I love this film” — and that’s the kind of impassioned thoughts that I really like. On Brazil, half the audience was out — on every screening of Brazil. By the end of it, half the place was always empty. They were that angry with it.
Why do you think that was, when now it’s considered a classic?
I know… same reviewers. They thought it was a mess, they thought it was too incoherent, it was dealing with serious subjects in a less serious way. I think that’s one of the things — you’re supposed to deal with serious things with a solemn face, and I don’t. [Laughs] It’s a simple as that. I remember the time I used to describe Brazil as a “cinematic mugging”. People would just be so angry afterwards. I haven’t done one of those movies in a long time, and I think Tideland might be one of those.
So they come along once every twenty years for you?
I think that’s it. It may be my last.
There are reports that you’re doing the Larry McMurty book, Anything For Billy.
It’s a possibility. It’s been following me since 12 Monkeys. When we were shooting 12 Monkeys Larry turned up and said “I would like you to make a film of my book, Anything For Billy”. It’s been this long, running thing. For various reasons I’ve always gone and done something else. It now looks as though it’s more likely. Obviously it makes a big difference with Brokeback.
Any ideas about how you might approach the film?
I never really have ideas about how I approach films, I just sort of go in there and jump off and see what happens. People always want me to explain what is is and how I’m doing it — I don’t know. Everything I do is instinctive; I never intellectualise it. I try to make sense. I try to immerse myself in it, so that what I’m doing is instinctive. I’m not even sure if it’s a film at that point, but the whole thing is in there. I think it’s a trick I play with myself, I mean, I just pretend I don’t know what I’m doing; it’s easier that way. But I do my homework very seriously, I do. I do a lot of very detailed prep work on everything I do — and then we see what happens. You just steep yourself in it, and then throw it all away. That’s how it works. [Laughs]
Just thinking of the Hamster Factor, and the shot that gives the film its title –
How much of your shots are planned to that extent, and how much of it is chaotic?
[The documentary director] was actually on 12 Monkeys, and he would have gone crazy that day. What it became is sort of an obsession with me. It was not just about the hamster, it was about the crew. This was what the shot was gonna be, and we’d talked about it in advance; and so I wanna make sure that the hamster’s trained and everything is gonna work. Because we’d done so much prep on it and I go in there and it’s not working, I go crazy. And I have a certain day where I say, “We’re gonna sit here until we get it right.” It’s kinda like in Lost In La Mancha, when you’ve got a whole crew there, and this should have all been rehearsed, we’d storyboarded the whole sequence, and so, when you go in there and it isn’t happening, I go crazy. It’s lack of respect for everyone else out there who’s done their job. In so many case it can just be one person and the whole thing falls apart. So that day, because of the stunt guy — well, there had been several fuck-ups at that point — I made a public spectacle of the whole thing. [Laughs]
How much of Quixote survives? There’s that great shot of Johnny talking to the fish…
Basically that’s it. We pretty much put everything that we shot in there. It was terrible. I mean possibly, and I hesitate to say it in case it doesn’t happen, but there’s a chance — we’re supposed to have the script back in a month. We’ll see if it happens. It’s still a long way before we get it up and running again.
Will you have Johnny back on board?
Well I’ve made him say it publicly that he’s still on!
So you’ve got him at a price that’s less than his megastar salary? He’s quite expensive now…
Well we haven’t talked about that yet. The argument is that he’s made so much money on Pirates that he can afford to work for the minimal fee. [Laughs]
— March 2006
Originally published in Empire