Movie Interview: Terry Gilliam

The "Fear and Loathing" director stomps on Hollywood and American literalism.


David Wallis
June 5, 1998 10:26PM (UTC)

When I first meet Terry Gilliam in his cramped London office, I expect
him to either offer me peyote, cut off my tie or hit me over the head
with a giant inflatable hammer. But the former Monty Python animator
and director of lunacy like "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," "Brazil," "12 Monkeys" and the
recently released "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (which Gilliam calls a "cinematic enema for the '90s") disappoints. Dressed smartly in a mauve wool sweater and hunter green cords, he is gracious and somewhat subdued, although he smiles like a little boy eyeing an ice cream sundae
when given a chance to rail against his native America and the Hollywood
establishment. Which he did -- with abandon -- when he spoke to Salon about his films, life in England and his failed career as a Presbyterian missionary.

What was the most surrealistic moment of your life?

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It's nonstop surrealism. But I remember something of a reverse
surrealistic experience. In the '60s, I had reached a point where I felt
television had taken over my mind. I'd walk down the beach in
California, the sun was setting, the seagulls flying overhead, a pretty
girl at my side, and I didn't know if I was enjoying the experience
because it was really beautiful or because I had been brainwashed into
doing it because of television commercials. I no longer knew what were
my real, unique experiences as opposed to ones that I had been programmed
for. It's one of the reasons I left America for England.

The great thing about coming to Europe is that there is such a sense of continuity
here. History surrounds you. You are part of a long continuum, which
you are constantly reminded of. Living in California, history begins
the morning you wake up each day. The truly surreal thing about
living in America is that history has been de-invented. There's no
grounding for anything.

If you were America's first dictator, would you eliminate television?

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I would limit it. I would have less of it, and less channels. I would
decree that half the programs would have to be made with no image, only
the sound. I grew up with radio, and my imagination muscles developed with radio.
I had to make the sets; I had to put faces on the people; I had to design the costumes. I think that my whole visual sense came from radio.

If, as part of your power, you could bestow a behavior or personality trait on
the average American, what would it be?

A sense of irony. What predates the ability to understand irony is a
certain amount of wisdom, knowledge, awareness and intelligence.

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You have said that Americans don't understand symbolism. Why?

Everything is so literal. That's why the Catholics haven't done too well
in America -- the Protestants marched in and got rid of symbolism. But
when you do that, you cut out abstract thinking. Symbols are about
abstract thinking. Americans aren't totally devoid of it because they
love cartoons, which are symbolic in a sense.

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What do you think of "Seinfeld"?

I don't watch television much, but I've seen a few episodes of "Seinfeld"
and think it's very funny. I also saw him when I had a tooth problem
in America and had to visit the dentist. There Seinfeld was on all the
walls, with those huge teeth of his, encouraging me to floss. The basis
of all the films I've done is a reaction against perfect American
teeth. I grew up with film stars with perfect teeth, and when I got to
England I started making medieval movies where all the actors have
rotted teeth.

Can you explain the British predilection with fart jokes?

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When I came to England, I thought [the people were] the height of
civility and politeness. But they are the least polite. They are the
most tribal group of people on the planet. They hate one another and
they're stuck on this f---ing little island. That's why they
went out and created an empire. Anyone with any energy had to get out
of this place and kill somebody else. So they've invented this veneer
of civilization, but it's only to keep them from killing each other.
The farts and bodily functions are really what the English are all
about, and the jokes are a way of dissipating it.

If you were reincarnated as a Monty Python character, which would it
be?

I'd be the big animated foot. Why not? It's the all-powerful entity
that stomps on everything.

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During your epic battle with Universal Studios CEO Sid
Sheinberg over the final cut of "Brazil," you took out a full page ad in
Variety, sardonically asking him when he planned to release your film.
In the end, he was shamed into complying. What did you learn from the
encounter?

If there's going to be a mistake, I want it to be of my making, not
someone else's. I have control over my films only because I'm in a
position to have control, but most directors don't. So many people in
Hollywood see an opportunity and grab it because they are interested in
"careers," making money and paying the mortgage -- not about doing artwork.
If your name is going to go on something, then you've got to take
responsibility for it. That's why I fight for control. If my name is
not going to be on it, screw it.

What's the best part about having money?

When I left the late shift at the Chevrolet assembly plant in Van Nuys,
Calif., I made a pact with myself that there were two things I
would do: One was that I would have control over whatever I did; the
second was that I would never work just for money. I kept my living
standards so low that I didn't need it. In Hollywood they get you to
live beyond your means, so people have to keep taking jobs that they are
offered.

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At one point in your life, you studied to be a Presbyterian missionary.
Where would you be today if you had taken that path? Any regrets?

No regrets, but I may have gone to darkest Africa. The idea of being a
missionary was a chance to see the world and have an excuse to do so.
I basically got fed up with the church because they couldn't take a
joke. I was a real little zealot, but was constantly making jokes about
God. I used to say: "What kind of God is this that you believe in that can't take my little
jokes?" The people in the church were appalled by this. So I walked away.

Monty Python reunited for one night at the Aspen Comedy Festival a few months ago. Do you envision getting back together on a more
permanent basis?

We got together about a year ago to discuss making another film. We're
still this family of brothers, and yet the idea of working together would
be very difficult, because we've all developed different work habits.
To be honest, the idea fills me with fear and trepidation. I'm not sure
what my role is in it. I don't want to be an animator anymore, and I
don't want to direct Python. I don't know what that leaves me doing.

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Your colleague Terry Jones compared comedy to poetry.

Isn't he a pretentious Welsh git! Both are about surprise and helping
people look at the world from a different perspective, so ... I have to
agree with the pretentious Welsh git.

The proliferation of chemical and biological weapons has been in the news of
late -- are we heading for a "12 Monkeys"-like existence?

I don't know if we are or not, but we seem to have the need to feel we
are. It seems that we have this doomsday scenario hanging over us.
Maybe we've gotten used to it with the bomb. Maybe we miss the bomb.
There's another side to it: it's the sense that maybe we've gone too far
and screwed nature too badly. Look at the Ebola virus: It had been
sitting there quietly in the jungle, bothering no body but a few
monkeys, and as man ravaged the jungles, this virus leapt out and
suddenly found a new source of food and was ready to ravage us.

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If you got ahold of a time machine, where would you want to go?

I always wanted to time travel, but as I've gotten older, all I want to
do is sit in this room right now. I'm happy to say that we're living in
an interesting time. I don't know if it gets better than this.

Imagine for a moment you had to give up one of your senses -- which would it be?

Taste. I've always had bad taste.


David Wallis

MORE FROM David Wallis


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