Terry Gilliam (left) on the set of "The Wholly Family."

Terry Gilliam: On Ideas, Unlearning & Avoiding Debt

Film director Terry Gilliam has one passion in life: to make movies that truly affect his audience, to enhance their dreams (or their nightmares), and to welcome them into an alternate reality.

In his 40+ years of filmmaking, giving us classics like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Twelve Monkeys, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, few would argue that he has ever failed in this mission. Gilliam recently made a return visit to Morocco, where he filmed Time Bandits 30 years prior, to receive the highest honor bestowed at the Marrakech International Film Festival, a golden star. At the ceremony, his old friend Emir Kusturica described him grandly as the Franz Kafka of cinema.Here, he opens up about where his ideas come from, the travails of finding money to produce films while trying to keep the momentum going, and how we’re all becoming disconnected from reality (by being too connected to our phones).

How do you feel about being called Kafka’s counterpart?

It’ll do. It’s nice. I remember somebody said when we were doing Brazil that it was like a cross between Franz Kafka and Frank Capra, which I thought was a great quote. That was perfect. The way Emir was describing it, it obviously had a really strong effect on him. And that to me is all it’s about. I want to make films that affect people strongly.

When you quit your job in the ’60s on a Chevrolet assembly line, you claimed you would never work a job for money again. What is it you work for today?

To keep myself from being bored [laughs]. I still just think there’s more films I want to make, and that’s all that it’s about. I like trying to keep making things to try and get people to react and think. There’s nothing specific. It’s just a general, being a gadfly I suppose.

With Python we sort of had enough money to live reasonably comfortably. I’ve always lived within my means. I’ve never been in debt in my life. I refuse to because I know the minute I’m in debt, I’m then at somebody else’s behest, and it’s the way Hollywood works. Hollywood is very good about getting everybody out there to live richly. So they’re all in debt. They’ve got mortgages, and they have to keep churning out whatever Hollywood wants them to make. And I can’t do that.

Still from Brazil.

From dealing with natural disasters to fighting with studios to hunting for financing, how do you stay motivated to keep doing what you’re doing?

I don’t. I Just spend my time being depressed [laughs]. But it fills the waking hours.

There must be something that keeps you motivated.

You just carry on. You do things. I’m always doing something, I can’t stand sitting around. I mean emailing takes up half my day. And it’s a complete waste of time, but it keeps me occupied.

I’ve always lived within my means. I’ve never been in debt in my life. I refuse to because I know the minute I’m in debt, I’m then at somebody else’s behest.I think over the years, maybe it’s just in the last few, I seem to spend more time trying to repress my ideas, or suppress my ideas. Because I’ve been disappointed probably too many times and I don’t want to get excited about anything until I know that it’s a possibility. Because that’s why, that little Wholly Family film,* somebody came to me and said, “Here’s the money. Do you want to work? We can do it in January. Boom.” That was great. It’s nice to have that with films, and some films have just been so many years, either they have momentum or they don’t. Momentum is everything.

*”The Wholly Family” is Gilliam’s most recent project, a short film that tells the story of a bickering family torn apart and brought back together again by a group of masked tricksters, or pulcinellas.

What is the key to telling a great story?

I wish I knew. I don’t know. It’s something that for me it’s got to have some substance to it. It isn’t just a little romp. Romps don’t interest me. It’s just, what’s it about? And for me it’s always trying to get something out of my system. All this stuff starts welling up, and I’m angry and I have to say something about it. And that’s how it goes.Then you try to frame it in a way that I guess keeps the audience’s attention. You got to get their attention in the beginning, even though you don’t, because they paid their money. But it’s still nice to get their attention. And then there’s the end and you get that right. And then there’s that bit in the middle that you just gotta fill up for time. That’s the story [laughs].

Still from Twelve Monkeys.

Your Trilogy of Imagination: Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen are meant to help us escape from our “awkwardly ordered society.” What does it mean to you to create these alternate universes?

For me they’ve always been a way of looking at the world we’re living in at that particular moment.  And so by stepping out of it, you can end up back in it more clearly. And so most of my films are kind of removed from reality as we know it. But they’re all about the reality that we’re living in. If you go back to Life of Brian, it was a satire of things at that time, even though we dressed up in Biblical costumes and all that.And it, I just think it’s, well, it’s the only way I actually know how to function, because I like being able to step back and not just recreate. I don’t ever want to try to recreate reality. I’ve always thought when I’m making a film, I like reassuring the audience this is artifice. It may be truthful. It might be closer to the truth than anything else, but it is artifice.

You just carry on. You do things. I’m always doing something, I can’t stand sitting around.

Would you ever make a satire about the world we’re living in today?

Well that’s the part… I don’t know how to get at it. I mean, how do you get at it? I think if there’s anything, it’s about how people are becoming so disconnected from reality even though we live in a time when everything is connected.  And that’s the irony of it. And that’s why I’ve got this house in Italy. When I’m there, I just do manual labor. Just physical work, and dealing with trees, birds, bugs, rocks.And then I start talking to younger people and I realize that they don’t understand where things come from. They don’t understand how the system works. This is terrifying. They just are consumers, and that’s it. And that’s like the dream if Orwell had written the dream. We don’t live in a socialist or capitalist society; it’s a consumerist society, and nobody cares, as long as they’ve got their goodies. And if it’s well-designed, it’s even better [points to an iPhone on the table].

And yet at the same time we’re supposed to be getting cleverer and thinking. What may be happening is, I just think people are becoming neurons, and they’re just part of this big thing. Hollywood was always like this. A new idea pops into the system “Boom!,” all these neurons start firing, synaptic gaps are being leapt. And then it dies down and the next idea comes. It goes like that. And the world is becoming like that now.

Gilliam on the set of The Wholly Family.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned throughout your film career?

If I’d actually learned any of the lessons, I wouldn’t be making films anymore. I try not to learn. I spend most of my life unlearning.

What advice do you have for young artists today?

Perseverance, patience, pigheadedness, the three Ps.

The scenes in your films, are often reminiscent of great masterpieces. How do you get your ideas to come to life?

I used to say I knew where the ideas came from. Because I’d go to bed, and I’d leave my shoes by the bed. And I’d wake up and there’d be these little elves that would come in and put ideas in my shoes, and I’d just use them.

I refuse to intellectualize, or try to understand how it happens. It happens, and I just try to ride with it. And the frightening thing is when it doesn’t happen, it’s actually terrifying because you realize, “I’ve dried up. It’s finally happened: the well is empty.” But, then if you get through those periods, then something starts happening again. A lot of what happens, it’s like doing a painting without actually doing a sketch in advance. You just start and you got this, you add another thing, boom, boom, boom.

Just for one example, The Wholly Family, is the scene in the hospital. There was always going to be a hospital scene and the boy would see himself as a baby. But then, I was in this place that repairs dolls, the hospital of dolls, and there was this little plastic egg with a Pulcinella in it, so OK, now we have eggs and that’s how babies come. And it just changed it. It was beautiful. I think it’s about having an idea and never letting it become rigid. It’s just the beginning, and then you just see what you can pull into it. At the end, there you are.

Do you have a favorite scene throughout the years?

I think I’m pretty proud of the Brazil flying sequences. They were pretty spectacular. Actually, the most sublime shot, there is one. It’s in Baron Munchausen. There’s a scene where they go to the moon, and there’s this big storm and then suddenly we cut to what looks like a starscape. And then the little boat comes in, but it’s upside-down, it’s the wrong way around, and then the stars disappear and become sand. It was all done in one shot, which I knew what I was trying to do. But it wasn’t until we actually turned the film and pulled that, and we did the light change, and I actually went “ohhhhhh, that’s fantastic.” And that was one of those moments that all the planning wasn’t as good as the final result. The final result was a quantum leap. Those are nice moments.

More insights on: Interviews, Motivation, Perseverance

Ariston Anderson

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For over 10 years, Ariston has been covering all things culture: art, film, fashion, travel, and music. She is a leading identifier of current trends, a sought-out speaker, and a frequent contributor to numerous blogs focusing on art, entertainment, and luxury. She is an expert in digital strategy and marketing.
load comments (39)
  • Mars Dorian

    He’s one of my most favorite directors. Genius at work, with lots of battles to fight through.

  • Chris Bird

    Yay! Nice interview of a relentless creative.

  • K-eM

    His point about never being in debt is true. Being in debt means you’re a slave to the money and it holds back your creativity because you’re always thinking about money. When you don’t have debt, you aren’t worrying about it and no one has power over you to say, “you can’t do it that way.” You own yourself and your creativity.

  • filmsthething

    Love Terry Gilliam’s work. Some really great moments in this interview.

    However, this may be the final example to make me accept that it is simply human nature to say, ‘Oh my, kids today! We’re doomed!’ I mean, is it really true that kids knew where things came from back in, say, the 80s? Doubtful. There’s more at their disposal, surely, but that includes a vast encyclopedia online where I, for one, would have loved to turn when I wondered about my Bach trumpet, or the italian recipes my mom said she could never find again…or the animation technique that Monty Python used to create some amazing films. ‘Go look it up,’ would have meant more than just a ’72 Encyclopedia Brittanica (although those plastic overlay entries sure were cool).

    The elves are still putting ideas in shoes, just like they’ve always done.

  • Ayse Birsel

    Great article! Loved “unlearning”. Worried about “neurons”. Inspired by “quantum leap” at the end. Thank you.

  • revrafa

    He’s the best–a clown and a holy rebel.

  • Stijn Windig

    Inspiring interview!
    Pretty hard to stay out of debt these days though. And even if you’re not in debt you have to work to stay out of it. Maybe it’s important not to make your art (whatever it is) to make money, that way, you stay free, cratively.. I notice that when I mix these things up, I get miserable and less creative.

  • David Chabashvili

    Thank you!


    I feel so releived that I am not alone about my thoughts regarding being realistic as far as a potential project goes -especially filmmaking: people tend to criticise very harshly when one prefers to be cautious about their hopes and expectations, as they say “you are so negative, how will you ever succeed if you do not have a winning attitude”.

    Well I am happy to know that Mr. Gilliam is a cautious, realistic person as far as his projects go, for it is true that, especially in filmmaking, there can be lots of disappointments -maybe there are many good intentions but no money, or even worse, people either trying to rip your ideas off, or plain simple milk you off your talents for free then just ditch you, all of which has -sadly-happened to me all too often.

    I’d personally rather work as hard as I can, hoping for the best, while always preferring surprise over disappointment.

    P.s. Mr Gilliam, if you ever read this comment, did you ever get to watch that DVD with the short film, ANDANTE MA NON TROPPO, which I handed you after the screening of Brazil, at the opening of the Deauville Film Festival in 2011?


  • Jillian

    Interesting perspective. Nice to read. Thanks for bringing his thoughts to us.

  • destroy_all_humans

    if you think selling out is the only way, this one man proves it all wrong. I just wished the public appreciated this kind of inspiration and not the greed/lust version.

  • francesca de la cerveza

    Wow, nice article. I have been pondering wealth myself as an artist. Being a slave to my job and my mortgage sucks the creativity right out of me.  However, I look back on the great masters of art and think of how desperately poor they were.  I am lucky to have a whole pile of saved up art supplies and materials to recycle. We can create masterpieces from one little digital image captured on a cheap camera.  There is hope!  My favorite idea from this article is “And so by stepping out of it, you can end up back in it more clearly.”  That is the key to surviving in today’s messed up society.

  • Pooky Amsterdam

    What matters is that the work we do has meaning and lives up to our best efforts and beyond. In Film making we are always pushed to show a truth that resonates. We have found a way with real – time animation to put forward a vision and message for our time.
    Thank you so much for this post – http://youtu.be/SVSrbms2mjo

  • Lookman

    I think we can all learn a lot from Terry. I also create fantasies. I have also embarked on a very similar journey with two TV animation series in production. The greatest challenge yet is to make my first movie, because they do not regularly payoff. But Terry’s words have encouraged me and we are quite simular in or world view of a consumer world living in a fantasy.

  • Erik

    “people are becoming so disconnected from reality even though we live in a time when everything is connected”. So true.

  • Pippa

    You’ve gotta love Terry! Check out this BAFTA video where he doles out even more gems of wisdom…. http://guru.bafta.org/terry-gi

  • Adam Wheatley

    I didn’t realize until I compiled my top 20 films that all Terry Gilliam’s work was in it. 
    Nice to hear a bit of truth.
    I would like to work with Terry on his next project. 
    Currently working as a sculptor on the Hobbit. Working to become an art director. 

  • Kaye K Freeman

    He inspires me no end how lucky we are to have such thinkers in the world! Thankyou.

  • Matt

    That scene he mentions in “Munchausen” IS sublime.

  • Russell Searle

    Debt is the ultimate drug of addiction. Kudos to Terry Gilliam for never taking that first hit. To me, he stands as a fine example of what you can make of your life if you insist on freedom (so long as you have the good fortune of living in a tolerant society). I’ve found much of his work idiosyncratic and sometimes flawed, but Gilliam is always engrossing, sometimes magical and exhilarating, and he always makes me look at the world through fresh eyes.

    And three cheers for “just letting it happen”. Perhaps we may need to follow conventional methods until we master our discipline, but while we build our own body of work we can aspire to follow our own instincts, write our own rules and make our own indelible mark in our field.

    Thanks again for the post.

  • Asko Kauppi

    Thanks. Makes me think, maybe scarcity is good for creativeness. Having all the resources would indeed be “splendid” but maybe it would degrade the quality of stuff being produced.

  • Dan Lucyszyn-Hinton

    In response to your question regarding the origins of things… he’s talking about the switch from a manufacturing, making culture to a consumer culture. Lots of kids from the 90’s upwards don’t know that potatoes are where chips (ok, fries) come from; that milk comes from a cows udders.. it’s because the methods of production have been industrialised beyond the point of reason. 

    Always feels good to use a bit of my liberal arts education.. ;)

  • filmsthething

    You’re speaking for him and suggesting that kids before the 90s understood where fries (ok, chips) come from and kids from 20 years ago to today do not…and the reason for this is because the methods of production have been industrialized beyond the point of reason?

    I may just be a computer science nerd but that doesn’t seem to make much sense to me. Kids ‘get it’ today just as they did 20 or 30 years ago. The methods of production, as perverse as they may be, do not seem to be the issue here.

    Argh! Kids today!

  • Cobi

    I’m just wondering whether whatever Terry Gilliam said was recorded word by word and then blogged down or whether it was edited. Because if it was word by word…….. Terry Gilliam your my new inspiration BRO :)

  • Cobi

    I’m just wondering whether whatever Terry Gilliam said was recorded word
    by word and then blogged down or whether it was edited. Because if it
    was word by word…….. Terry Gilliam your my new inspiration BRO :)

  • Megan Scarborough

    Shouldn’t it be “few would disagree that he has never failed in this mission” ? Although that’s a lot of negatives. Might read better as, “few would argue that he has failed in this mission” or “few would disagree that he has succeed in this mission”… Just a thought. :)

  • jkglei

    Taking one of your edits, Megan. We want a smooth read! ; ) -Jocelyn /// Editor-in-Chief

  • fred flux

    A few years back I gave a little lecture to a few design school students, and the first point I made was don’t go into debt (oddly school is debt, so the school was probably none to happy.) But basically it was the same point Terry made. Debt is the killer of dreams. Skip school, buy a mac and a camera (or rent one), find an internship or work for free, and go nuts.

    The other things I mentioned were always say yes to everything at that age, not only because you have the time and stamina to do things and make mistakes, but also because you never know what it will lead to down the road.

    Thirdly, and this one was for the boys, don’t waste one second chasing skirt. It’s debt of a different kind really.

    And last, create, create, create, put in your 10,000 hours. It’s amazing how many people, will find you when your work is good.

    Terry seems to follow a pretty soto zen / situationist path. Always approach things like your reaching for a pillow in the dark, with the beginners mind. It will keep you young and interested in life, that is for sure. I couldn’t agree more.

  • fred flux

    Someone somewhat famous once told me your ship might come in, but your are still going to have to swim to it.

    Swim Adam swim. Make it happen.

    PS: I love this idea of the tree being generated from a mainframe, as though it was all a work of G.O.D. (the General Operations Director)

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  • DoctorMelkor

    Three!  Three dreams!!  Terry Gilliam has THREE dreams…

  • Jack

    Wow, 99 percent articles are always worth a read, but that was something special! Thank you!

  • Michael

    Very nice! Too bad no credit is given for the pictures – they are awesome, the first one especially.

  • Raymond Roman

    Great interview. Gilliam’s words are always an inspiration.

  • Brennan Letkeman

    In my experience, this is exactly true.

  • michel bialkowski

    “don’t work for money”. How did he pay his home in Italy? Another zillionaire giving lessons.

  • Anonymous

    He says he didn’t work FOR the money, means, he wouldn’t change his idea if someone would offer him more money for doing it. But, of course, he had to make a living, and as the people started to like what he did he became richer and richer. Easy thinking, isn’t it?

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