Terry Gilliam is one of the most imaginative and original directors of his time. His films paddle between reality and fantasy and many occur in the minds of his protagonists, raising questions about identity and sanity. His characters are always battling higher powers and bureaucracy. This theme is repeated in many of his notable films, including Time Bandits, Brazil, 12 Monkeys and The Fisher King.
Like the characters in his movies, Terry Gilliam’s film career has been plagued with battles against the Hollywood system and production disasters. One such disaster, the collapse of the multi million production The Man who Killed Don Quixote in 1999 , was documented in Lost in La Mancha.
In his most recent project, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, his star, Heath Ledger died in the middle of the shoot, after which Terry Gilliam and his producer had a car accident. This time, however, he prevailed and succeeded in completing the film.
Frankly, I was expecting to meet a bitter, angry, subdued and frustrated man, but Terry Gilliam was far from it. He is one of the most jovial and gregarious film directors I’ve ever met. Dressed in a loose, colourful shirt and wearing a greying beard and constantly smiling or giggling, he truly looks like a holy man, whose presence, like his movies, delights and inspires. He shakes my hand warmly and hugs me tightly as if we have known each other for years.
I couldn’t resist but ask Terry Gilliam ,”How do you deal with all these calamities that keep reoccurring in your productions?”
“It’s becoming normal,,” he laughs. ,”All the other calamities were a preparation for this one [The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus]. I don’t think if I hadn’t been through Lost in La Mancha and some of the other things I would’ve been able to do this one. You get used to these things. ”
Terry Gilliam is eager to tell and show the truth about filmmaking. Therefore, he keeps diaries in the form of books or documentaries while making his movies.
“I am so tired looking at these buff pieces about the joy of film making,” he says. “It’s really hard, and anybody who makes films knows that. Other filmmakers who saw Lost in La Mancha say that they have worse stories to tell, but they didn’t have the documentary crew on the day. So it’s not true that I had it worse than others; I am just well recorded” he giggles.
Terry Gilliam fought many battles with the Hollywood establishment while seeking finance for his projects, won some and lost many.
“Film making is different from other crafts. If you’re a painter you will need a brush and if you’re a musician you will need a guitar, but if you’re a film maker then you will need millions,” he quipped. “It’s an interesting dance and the trick is: when you’re selling out or you’re not selling out? It’s a daily occurrence. Will you use this actor? Well, I do prefer him but I won’t get the money with him so can this other actor work? So this is the kind of living you gotta go through.”
Ironically, Terry Gilliam believes that the restraints that are imposed on him produce better results than if he was given 200 million dollars and a free rein do as he wishes.
“I am not interested in that, ” he stresses. “I like this paddle between money and time, and dreams of what you wanted to do. The worst thing is to be given everything I ever wanted. Who wants to watch this movie?,” However, Terry Gilliam despises financiers who interfere in his work and try to take charge.
“You loose the joy of filmmaking when they try to take things from you,” he says. ,”I say â€˜don’t hire me if want to be in charge. You pay your money and I do what I do and I do it well.’ That’s the way I work with an actor. If I am hiring him then I listen to him. I am not gonna tell him what to do. We discuss and find ways to work together.,”
Terry Gilliam’s successful films and his attitude to actors have attracted A-list stars to work with him. Actors come to him wanting to show the world that they’re not what they are paid 20 million dollars to do.
“I like to show that people aren’t what they are pigeon-holed to be. I like to break that. My actors play opposite to what they have played before. You’ve never seen Brad Pitt as motor mouth, and suddenly he is all energy and sapping. Bruce Willis is suddenly restrained and internalised. Fantastic! Actors are great and I encourage them to take chances. I like taking chances all the time and happily expect other to take chances. ”
When Heath Ledger died, several Hollywood stars offered their services to Terry Gilliam and even encouraged him to complete The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, at times when he was hesitant to do so.
“After Heath’s death, the reasonable thing to do was to stop the project, but the turning point occurred on day two when I called Johnny Depp, just to commiserate, because he was very close to Heath. I said â€˜I am not gonna do it and probably will close it down.’ And he said â€˜whatever you decide to, I am there.’ Three weeks later we were up and running.”
“Once we decided to go, it was very easy,” Terry Gilliam says. “We wanted more than one actor to replace Heath because the character goes through the mirror three times. The three we’ve had were prepared to change their schedule.”
In spite of the tragic events that plagued this production, Terry Gilliam had more fun making it than any other.
“It was sweet and sour affair this one â€“ very Chinese,” he giggles. “Everybody in this film loved Heath so much they were determined to get through it. It was joyous, full of life and seamless.”
In this film, Terry Gilliam was trying to reach audiences regardless of age and make a statement against the mundane, societal conformities and repetitiveness in today’s films.
“It’s full of surprises and magic” he stresses. “It’s not about your age, but about your attitude to life. Are you willing to be open to what is out there; are you willing to be surprised or do you want a safe little structure you can march along and say â€˜OK at the end of this reel there gonna be a car chase, at the end of that reel there’s gonna be a gun shootout and so onâ€¦’ There is a pattern in film making right now that I find totally repetitive. When I watch trailers, I have seen this film twenty times, why am I watching this again? Why are we doing this? Why is this system repeating itself again and again. And the more disturbing question is why the public is still going?”