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.

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Still from Brazil.
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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].

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Still from Twelve Monkeys.
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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.

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Gilliam on the set of The Wholly Family.
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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.
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