Terry Gilliam is a director famous for dreaming, and frequently realising, the impossible. He also likes a good fart joke. “Taste bothers me, because it restricts the way you look at the world,” he says. “That’s why I always put something in my films to embarrass the intellectuals. In Tideland, there’s a whole scene with Jeff Bridges farting. Some people have taken offence, but it’s integral to the story. Honest!”
With Eric Idle’s musical adaptation of Gilliam’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, re-named Spamalot, currently playing to capacity crowds at London’s Palace Theatre, Gilliam is looking forward to receiving a “small proportion” of its takings. “We agreed on a deal,” he says, “but if we’d known it was going to be such a success, we’d have asked for a better one. Still,” concedes the outspoken director, “it helps with the pension fund, and it helps to keep Python alive. As much as we’d like to pull the plug on the whole thing it carries on. It’s got a life of its own.”
Relinquishing his U.S. citizenship earlier this year, the former Python animator and creator of such distinctive entertainments as Time Bandits, Brazil and current release Tideland, is noted for his distaste of most things American, his warring ways with artless Hollywood producers, and his outspoken despair at the state of modern cinema.
“I wrote Johnny Depp an e-mail recently,” says Gilliam, smirking. “I had to, because Pirates of the Caribbean 2 was so atrocious. I said, ‘I hope somebody’s looked at the script for Prats 3,’ as I call it. ‘They can’t keep relying on you to save the show!’ I’m probably wrong about that though.”
Though his films divide opinion, the one thing everyone can agree upon is that Gilliam’s work is distinctive, to say the least. Simply put, the only films his films remind you of are his other films. “I’m a genre film-maker,” he notes with a mischievous smile. “But I’m the genre! That’s what I always thought filmmaking was about, though. Growing up, my heroes were Bergman, Buñuel, Fellini… These people made films unique to themselves. Today, everybody just wants to make films like Steven Spielberg. The problem is trying to find individual voices.”
Sipping and chatting in a quiet Highgate café, Gilliam, 65 years old and pony-tailed, when asked about his dreams, makes a rather startling revelation. “I know I have really good dreams, that they’re incredible and real, but I can never remember them,” he says bemused. “I don’t seem to fantasise much in the day any more, either. Actually, I don’t think I have any imagination left! It just switched off.”
It doesn’t appear to have abandoned him, not if Tideland, available now to add to your list, is anything to go by. “You’re just seeing elements of the past!” says the celebrated self-deprecator. “Even if I came up with some brilliant movie ideas, I can’t see how to get any of them done. So rather than wasting my imagination, I don’t use it.”
“To be honest,” analyses Gilliam, “all my best stuff has been pragmatic, not imaginative. When my back’s against a wall and I have to figure out the solution to a problem, that’s when I do my best work. With Time Bandits, I wanted to tell the story from a child’s point of view, so it made sense to cast the boy with dwarfs. That way, I could keep the camera low. Ultimately I guess it’s a matter of having enough imagination to come up with a good pragmatic solution!”
More alarming than Gilliam’s self-diagnosed imagination failure was the loss of mobility he suffered in 1985 while shooting the darkly comic Brazil. “I went catatonic for a week,” he remembers. “Just from stress. My whole system shut down. This was after eight months of shooting what was only supposed to take twenty weeks. It took nine months in the end, but somewhere around the eighth I found I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t move.
“The doctor kept saying, ‘We’ve tested everything and the results show you’re perfectly healthy’. But still I couldn’t move. My mind controls my body much more than a lot of people. When I’m depressed, physically everything stops functioning. I was so worn out, so frazzled, I was paralysed for a week. It was a mental thing.” It surely was.
Not every filmmaking experience has been a nightmare though, says Gilliam. They’re just less fun to write about, so rarely reported on. “Fisher King was a breeze. So was Tideland, my latest. The book was there, the script was easy, my trick was not to fuck it up. But probably the best time I had was shooting Time Bandits. It was a low budget film, everything went smoothly, we had a good time, it wasn’t complicated, great performances, good script – easy!”
The tale of a boy and a mad pack of time-travelling dwarfs who plunder their way through history, Time Bandits – now 25 years old – featured a career re-defining performance from the great Sean Connery, cast in a small but memorable role as good King Agamemnon. “I read an interview with Sean where he said that of the four directors he’s most enjoyed working with, I was one of them, and Time Bandits was one of his greatest experiences.”
“Sean’s career after Bond was sinking fast. He’d made some amazing films but none had been successful. He felt he had something to prove, and I think he managed it. It was like Johnny in the first Pirates, or Bruce and Brad in Twelve Monkeys. His performance was so fresh, it blew everybody away. He was the Sean of our dreams.”
Partially responsible for Connery’s success was make up girl Maggie Weston, a genius with a wig, and Gilliam’s wife since 1973. “He’d work all day in that amazing wig and he looked fantastic. Like he was 40 years old. But when he’d come to dinner in the evening, I’d always have trouble spotting him because I’d forget that really, he was a tired, grey, bald man of fifty or more. Not that that stopped him flirting with my wife. The first time she met him, she went up to his hotel room, and he answered the door wearing nothing but a towel!”
Cut to the present and, despite the documentary that chronicled his failure to make dream project The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam is on the verge of having another go. See Lost in La Mancha for Gilliam unhinged. “My concern is, will I meet people’s expectations?” says the director, rising to leave. “They’ve seen glimpses of it now, and have probably imagined a much better film that I’m going to make!” Again with the self-deprecation. Just don’t be fooled by it. Gilliam’s imagination isn’t dead. It’s only resting.