Terry Gilliam on Monty Python, fighting Hollywood suits, and doing it your way

A man, a myth, a legend.
A man, a myth, a legend.
Image: Reuters/Jean Blondin
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When I catch up with Terry Gilliam to discuss his excellent new memoir, Gilliamesque: A Pre-Posthumous MemoirI immediately tell him that after reading it, I’ve finally figured out his role in the early days of his career with Monty Python.

“You were the George Harrison of the Pythons,” I tell Gilliam, whom I’ve interviewed on many occasions, and who has shared stories about his friendship with the former Beatle with me in the past. “You were the dark horse. You were able to do what you did, the animations, without anybody bothering you. Obviously it was a collaborative experience, but you were a bit of a grower, and you were able to develop your sensibility without a lot of meddling, similarly to George.”

Gilliam, fit and remarkably energetic for a man approaching 75 next month, seems to like the idea, and immediately seizes on it.

“Yeah, totally, that was a great thing to have, in that sense,” he says. “With the Pythons, everybody was working separately, or in their pairs, writing. Then we would meet and go through the script, and all that stuff would be read out. I would throw in an idea or a line somewhere along the line, but they could never understand what I was talking about, so I kind of gave up after a while. But they also left me alone to do my animations—whatever I wanted to do and could dream up—so that was amazing, and the other side of it. But, unlike George, who was in the background a bit in the early days, my animations got loads of press when we were first on the air in England, because it was the new element. The comedy bits people there accepted because similar things had come before, but there was so much written about my animations, as if they were the key thing, because they were completely new and totally different.”

Gilliam made his mark with those groundbreaking animations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but it has been his films—first with the Pythons as co-director of the classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which just celebrated its 40th anniversary, and then a long string of unique and visually stunning feature films of all shapes and sizes—that have set him apart, yet again, from the rest of the troupe.

Known for his visionary style and single-mindedness as a director—and as an enfant terrible by many studio executives—Gilliam, surprisingly, doesn’t see himself as someone who has railed against the suits and usually, at least artistically, won.

“I wouldn’t say anybody has won,” Gilliam says, with a hearty chuckle. “Survived is more like it! Got away with murder, sometimes. But I’ve had less bad films than other filmmakers, because I wasn’t allowed. I don’t know, the only way I know how to work is to do whatever it is I think I’m able to offer. And it’s not about ego. Everything I do is always joint projects. I work with other writers, actors; it’s a lot of people agreeing that we’ve made what we think is a good film. The problem is that you’re up against the studio system, in which everyone is terrified of films not succeeding. So while their approach is to operate from fear, mine is to operate from the opposite direction: from a position of confidence.”

Gilliamesque, out Tuesday (Oct. 20), which was originally intended to be an illustrated coffee-table book that pulled from Gilliam’s archives but morphed into a gorgeously illustrated and remarkably candid, breezily written memoir, is full of that sort of bluntness. In fact, it could be subtitled “What I’ve learned about dealing with Hollywood and how to get things done.” For all the intimate details of growing up in the Midwest, coming of age in California, and his remarkable days with Monty Python, in many respects Gilliamesque is a guide from someone who has been in the trenches of Hollywood who isn’t afraid to share how it really works. While it’s not a memoir that’s finely detailed, it’s also not just a bland, top-line view. Instead, Gilliam shares an enormous amount of insight into what he experienced and the way he felt during the making of his many classics, including Time Bandits, Brazil and The Fisher King, which were all recently reissued in director-approved form, as well as 12 Monkeys and Heath Ledger’s final film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

“I think what the Python experience did was it set us all apart,” Gilliam says, by way of explaining how he’s approached his career, and dealing with the Hollywood suits. “There were so many people in positions of power that neither understood what we were doing, nor liked what we were doing. But despite all of that the Python thing grew and grew. It allowed me to build up a kind of confidence, or arrogance; probably both. But I was successful—by the time I wanted to make movies seriously Holy Grail had become a success and Time Bandits was a success, so why shouldn’t I be allowed to do what I do? My problem with Hollywood then—and now—is that I want to hear individual voices, and that’s not what Hollywood tends to do, and probably never will. Except there’s enough people who slip through the system and come out of it, and there they are: the Cohen brothers, Quentin Taratino, people like that. They find a way, like I have, to make the movies they want and need to make. But you have to fight for it. For me, it was very easy in a sense, because I never thought in terms of “career.” I only thought of my films in terms of them being individual projects, and trying to make them as good as I could make them. It’s in the book: I always thought, all along, that my mistakes and even sometimes my failures were a lot more interesting than my successes.”

Perhaps best known for his battle with Universal Pictures over its failure to release his film Brazil in 1985, Gilliam proudly recounts that Variety recently—and quite mistakenly—published his obituary.

“The autobiography is called a ‘pre-posthumous memoir,’ and just before it came out, Variety declared me dead! It was totally coincidental, but I find it intriguing. It did say “director of Brazil dead at XXX”, though, so I suppose Brazil will always follow me around, even after I’m gone.”

Quartz is pleased to present an exclusive excerpt of the chapter entitled “Brazil,” from Terry Gilliam’s Gilliamesque: A Pre-Posthumous Memoir:

“The reason Time Bandits had happened in the first place was because I was trying to sell the idea of Brazil to Denis O’Brien, but he had absolutely no interest in it. That was what triggered me to say, ‘OK, if you don’t want me to do something for grown-ups, I’ll do a film for all the family.’ It took no powers of persuasion at all on my part to get that one through, and when Time Bandits ended up being the most successful film I—or HandMade—ever did in America, that inevitably led to me being offered all sorts of other Hollywood projects that I didn’t want to do.

Before I and my new producer Arnon Milchan could finally get Brazil off the ground (just a couple of feet off the ground, obviously, we didn’t want to fly as high as the scale model of Jonathan Pryce would have to), there were two last big pieces to be fitted into the Monty Python jigsaw. There’d been a time somewhere around The Life of Brian when I’d started to become uncertain as to what my exact function in the group was, and the whole thing began to feel a bit frustrating. Obviously I knew I did the animations, but I wasn’t sure how many more of those I had in me, and I’d enjoyed being a solo helmsman so much that I didn’t really want to do timeshare at the wheel with Terry J. again.

I think all six of us were pulling in different directions by that point, and even though there were inevitably mixed feelings when the group finally disbanded, I’m glad we had the sense to quit while we were still good. It’s always best to leave people wanting more—otherwise how can you justify getting back together for lucrative reunion shows in aid of Terry Jones’ mortgage thirty years later? And Live at the Hollywood Bowl in 1980 and then The Meaning of Life in 1983 made for a pretty good send-off.

My wife Maggie made one of the great, unheralded contributions to Hollywood Bowl. She’d been due to pop out our second child two weeks before, but somehow managed to
keep her knees together till the shows were finished so I could
get home to London in time for the birth. How best to commemorate this achievement? It seemed unfair to saddle the newborn with the name ‘Hollywood’ outright, in honour of the circumstances of her birth, so we went with Holly Dubois instead, which ensured that even as an infant she would be unknowingly playing to a gallery of multilingual sophisticates—a precocious foundation which she would build on by making an acclaimed big-screen debut in Brazil at the tender age of four.

The creative dilemma I was wrestling with in the run-up to The Meaning of Life was defined not by the sophistication but the child-like crudity of the cutout methodology I’d defined as my own over the past decade and a half. While the artwork I’d done for the various Monty Python books and album sleeves had got progressively more elaborate, it was a mark of the elemental simplicity of my animation technique that I took it to the top right from the beginning. Beware of the Elephants, which was only the second or third of those animations that I ever did, was as good as anything that came later. It was a bit like working on Photoshop—I never got past page three or four of that particular manual, either.

The truth was that even if some way of adding extra layers of nuance had presented itself, I wouldn’t have wanted to develop it. Partly because I lacked the patience, but largely because it felt like the brutal directness of what I’d done had been integral to its efficacy. It’s the same with certain kinds of music that resist additional ornamentation—why would you want to get more complicated than Chuck Berry or the Sex Pistols? So once I’d got bored of working within the restrictions that stopped my mind wandering, there was no option but for me to do something else.

This was how The Crimson Permanent Assurance—my segment of The Meaning of Life—started out as an idea for an animation, but then became a live-action short. Perhaps partly as a result of this formative shape shifting, it also ended up being my first experience of going over-budget. I don’t really know what the numbers were, but shortly after selflessly renouncing my directorial ambitions with regard to the film as a whole, I was deemed by the others to be totally out of control—drunk with power in charge of a limitless budget that no one had ever actually specified to me. The basic story concerned a group of accountants who get angry with their new corporate masters of the universe and decide to become pirates on the high seas of international finance. If any amateur psychoanalysts out there wish to discern a subliminal echo of my own need to break out of my restricted role within Monty Python, I suppose it would be churlish of me to deny them this pleasure, but I don’t remember that line of thought surfacing consciously at the time. And rather than being a product of anxieties about my own advancing years (I had by this point reached the grand old age of 42) the decision to use 80-year-old actors reflected my determination to do for the elderly what Time Bandits had done for dwarves, i.e. dramatically expand their employment opportunities. I’m that guy who’s all about helping the minorities . . . so long as they stay minorities of course—once they start becoming powerful, then it’s a different matter.
The tone and feel of The Crimson Permanent Assurance were so different to the rest of the film that we had to remove it from its original slot in the middle of The Meaning of Life and run it as a separate mini-feature at the beginning, where it functioned like a sumptuous illustrated letter at the start of one of those medieval manuscripts I’m always banging on about, at the same time bearing witness to my increasingly marginal status within the group and growing willingness to fly the coop. Up on the big screens at the Cannes Film Festival, it looked fucking great—a real spectacle with genuine scale to it. Then when the actual film came on, it felt like you were watching TV, which given that this was how most people would ultimately end up seeing it, was probably for the best.

The happy memory of Time Banditsbig box- office numbers combined with the commercial and critical success of the last three Python films contrived to maximise my allure as a director and foster the general misconception of me as someone who knew what I was doing. But as hard as Arnon and I milked that moment, we were still struggling to get a full enough bucket to sustain Brazil.

If we’d been willing to do another time-travelling dwarf comedy, we’d have been awash with Hollywood doubloons, but having recklessly decided to exploit this moment of possibility to do the thing I’d wanted to do all along, getting the investment we needed was going to be much more of a challenge. I’d never been responsible for pitching a film before—other people had always been kind enough to do the money stuff for me—but this time Arnon and I were doing the rounds at Cannes.”