Terry Gilliam's Three-Reel Circus
The filmmaker and Monty Python alum on imagination, his "Tom Sawyer" childhood, and why he scares Hollywood's money people.
At 69, Terry Gilliam, the iconoclastic Monty Python animator who rose to greater fame as the director of films like Time Bandits, Brazil, and Twelve Monkeys, still sounds like an excitable middle schooler, joking constantly and punctuating his thoughts with a nervous, geeky chuckle. But Gilliam had nothing to laugh about in January 2008, when, deep into the shooting of his new movie, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, leading man Heath Ledger died.
In an echo of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a Gilliam effort doomed by injury and foul weather, his frenetic dream world came to a grinding halt. "I've had enough of this shit," he recalls thinking. "Fuck films! Fuck everything!" As luck would have it, his central plot device—a mirrored portal into a realm of imagination where the title character (Christopher Plummer) wagers with the devil (Tom Waits)—provided a lifeline. Gilliam recruited superstars Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to play different aspects of Ledger's character that emerge each time he enters the Python-esque world beyond the portal. "Imagination, in this case, did work," Gilliam told me.
Mother Jones: This is an honor. In high school I considered Monty Python a form of sleep deprivation because they broadcast it at like 2 a.m.
Terry Gilliam: We suffered for our art. You have to suffer for our art as well!
MJ: So is it true? You're really taking another crack at Don Quixote?
TG: Somebody has to, so I guess it's me.
MJ: People must think you're the one tilting against windmills. Is it hard to raise the money?
TG: That's the part we're about to discover. We've got a budget, a schedule, an actor, and a few other things. The plan is to shoot next April.
MJ: Speaking of similarities to your protagonists, Doctor Parnassus is this old guy with something extraordinary to share, but nobody's listening. Is that you?
TG: No, I'm a very young guy, and everybody pays attention to me. Look, I'm talking to Mother Jones! [Laughs.]
MJ: But your collaborators are all saying, "Parnassus is Terry!"
TG: I work with liars; you know that.
MJ: Heath Ledger's character, Tony, shows Parnassus that ideas aren't enough; you have to sell them, too. Is that the part of moviemaking you find frustrating?
TG: No matter what I've done in the past, and no matter how much all the people who are in charge of the money say they love it, the new project is invariably not the thing they want to do.
MJ: It seems like you're always struggling to raise enough money.
TG: But everybody is. I just seem to have gotten the job of being the one who has to mouth off about how difficult it is all the time, and I'm really kind of bored with that job.
MJ: I suppose too much money is also a curse.
TG: Oh, yeah. The more money you have to work with, the more people you have to deal with that you probably don't want to be spending time dealing with. Munchausen and Brothers Grimm were both very big projects, and things get out of control; you're running an army, and it's harder to control the money. Invariably, what I'm trying to do is more ambitious than the budget, but we manage to do it somehow.
MJ: It strikes me that your budgetary workarounds are part of what makes your films distinctive.
TG: Exactly. I've always sworn that not having enough money has saved me from mediocrity. Whatever I do might be good, it might be bad, it might be all sorts of things, but it's not mediocre.
MJ: Your protagonists tend to be dreamers. What do you dream about?
TG: Getting money to make my next project.
MJ: No. Really.
TG: It's funny, I can feel my dreams but I can't remember them.
MJ: Your movies tend to pit imagination versus realism, with some cynical figure who's trying to suppress the imagination. What forces are you trying to depict?
TG: The forces that run the world always try to keep things under control. The population might be having a wonderful time, buying iPods and going to nice restaurants, but I still feel they're all kind of under control. I'm trying to escape that by forming my own kind of world. Basically, I'm trying to encourage others to do the same. I'm more prone to anarchy than I am to control—even though I'm a film director.
MJ: You also have a rep as a guy who fights with studios. I read an anecdote about how J.K. Rowling wanted you to direct the first Harry Potter film and Warner Bros. said no. I gather you were pissed?
TG: No, I was relieved. I went out there because I got a free first-class British Airways flight out to L.A., which allowed me to spend some time with my lawyer dealing with problems about Don Quixote. There was no way I was ever going to get that job, despite the fact that Rowling wanted me, and also the producer, but I just knew the system was not going to be happy with someone like me.
MJ: They think you're unmanageable?
TG: I think that was basically it. The irony is that the three films I actually did in Hollywood—The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys, and Fear and Loathing—were the easiest films I've ever made. There were no major fights, just the normal tensions. And yet I rail against Hollywood, and they're terrified of me.
MJ: So has anything inspired you lately?
TG: No! That's the problem.
TG: I'm reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, and I seem to have been reading it for the last seven months. It's the thickest, most word-heavy book I've ever read. And it's wonderful!
MJ: Where do you generally look for inspiration?
TG: I don't. It finds me. I become possessed by these thoughts and they make me go out and have a terrible time making movies.
MJ: You could always quit.
TG: Once the voices are in your head, it's either make a movie or kill a lot of people. That's probably what I should be doing to get money for the movies: saying, "If you don't give me the money, I will have to slaughter large numbers of people to deal with these voices in my head."
MJ: You grew up on a lake in Minnesota, the eldest of three siblings. What kind of kid were you? What were your obsessions?
TG: I was a happy kid. We lived a Tom Sawyer kind of childhood. We didn't have a television, and my dad was a carpenter, so we were always making things, whether it be a tree house or drawing something or building an igloo. There's something about living in the country that I think makes you inventive, because nature is full of miracles and wonder and surprises, and if you don't have much money, you have to make things if you want things. We weren't poor; we just didn't have a lot of stuff. Now there's so much stuff. You don't have to build it. It's all done for you.
MJ: Like Legos—they all come in kits now.
TG: Do they? Aw, Jesus. I loved Erector Sets. And my dad being a carpenter, I was good at woodworking. I learned to carve, do all of those things. I think that's the problem with kids now. Everything is manufactured. And then they're sitting there watching the television, where all the work is done for them. Radio made me use my imagination.
MJ: You drew all the storyboards for Parnassus. Did drawing come to you naturally?
TG: Yeah, that was just there from the beginning. I was always drawing funny creatures.
MJ: Such a great skill.
TG: I know. I'm overwhelmed by writers. Most people aren't impressed by writers, but if you can draw a cartoon or a picture, they think you're magic.
MJ: Your family moved to Los Angeles when you were 12. Is it true you were voted high school class president and prom king and most likely to succeed?
TG: I was everything you'd ever dream of being.
MJ: Aren't creative, theatrical types supposed to be the losers in high school?
TG: I wasn't creative or theatrical. I was just doing everything. I was head cheerleader, valedictorian—it was ridiculous! The one creative thing I was doing was I was always designing and building sets. My father worked for a company putting up these movable partitions that came in these four-by-eight-foot cardboard boxes. So you spread that out and you've got an eight-foot square piece of corrugated cardboard. You can cut that out and make the most wonderful sets out of that—paint it—and that's what I used to do. For the senior prom, I barely got the sets done so I could change into something smart and go to the prom. It was always last-minute. But I just loved doing that kind of work.
MJ: So after college you landed a job at Help magazine working for Harvey Kurtzman, who ran Mad back when it was still a comic. And that's where you met [Python's] John Cleese?
TG: Yeah. We used to do these fumetti, which were basically a comic book story except you use photographs. So you'd hire actors and you'd go and get sets. It's like making a movie with nothing moving.
MJ: National Lampoon used to do that.
TG: They copied it from Help and Help copied it from the Italian romance magazines.
MJ: How did you end up in England?
TG: The magazine was on its last legs. We finally closed it and I took what little money I had and went hitchhiking around Europe for six months. And I fell in love with it. It was like a real eye-opener: I'm sitting in America doing antiwar cartoons during the Vietnam War and angry about the country. But when I go to Europe and found these Europeans were criticizing my country, I found myself suddenly defending it, even though I didn't believe in what I was defending. It became an interesting moment. I went back to L.A. and got a job in advertising that lasted for just under a year. I was living with an English girl who wanted to get back to London, and I said, "Let's go." And that was the end of my American sojourn.
MJ: As Monty Python's only American, did you feel a cultural disconnect?
TG: No, I was an incredible Anglophile. I found people who shared the same sense of humor and attitude toward the world. Theirs was expressed with writing and incredible characters, and mine with pieces of paper that rattled around the place and made noise. I was still trying to learn to speak English at that point, so it gave them an incredible sense of superiority. The English are such a frightened, nervous, insecure group of people—they no longer rule the world!—so I was the answer to some of their psychic problems.
MJ: I always wondered how much of the silliness in your films is Python's influence as opposed to sensibilities you brought to Python. Like the dancing cops in the Imaginarium: classic Python.
TG: Yeah, well, that whole sequence actually came out of a Python sketch I always liked that's called Confuse-a-Cat. I used to think that what I did with Hollywood is try to Confuse-an-Executive. In Parnassus, I thought, how do you confuse violent Russian mobsters? Well, by being silly! Outrageous!
MJ: In 2006, you renounced your American citizenship to be a full-time Brit. Seems pretty extreme.
TG: Well, I don't live there. I got tired of my taxes paying for exciting little wars around the world. Then I discovered that when I died, my wife would probably have to sell our house to pay for the taxes in America. The fact that Bush was there made it easier.
MJ: Did you get any shit for your decision?
TG: Not really. It was very funny, 'cause you have to go down to the US Embassy and say, I want out, and then they counsel you and you go away for a month and think on it. And then you come back and they beg you to stay. Sorry!
MJ: They counsel you? What do they say?
TG: Oh nothing, just, "We're great friends! We love your work! Oh, don't leave us!" Sorry!
MJ: Is it true that they limit your movement?
TG: Oh yes, I'm on probation. I can't be in America more than 30 days a year for 10 years.
MJ: Speaking of blowback, why'd you sign the petition supporting Roman Polanski?
TG: I think the whole thing is so far in the past. Roman isn't a difficult fugitive. He could have been picked up any time. When he won the  Oscar for The Pianist, I don't remember the public demanding his extradition—because it didn't happen! The way people are behaving now, I don't even think they know the difference between extradition and execution. Here is a 76-year-old guy. The girl involved, everyone involved, has said, Forgive, forget, it's over and done with—until suddenly the long arm of the law decides now is the time to strike. His behavior was not right, but I think what is going on is even more suspect.
MJ: Hmm. Okay. Let's talk about Heath Ledger. You cast him in The Brothers Grimm. But you hadn't set out to cast him in Parnassus, right?
TG: I went about it in a roundabout way. Listen, I would have happily done all the rest of films in my life with Heath Ledger. He was extraordinary, wonderful. He was just great to work with. I had thrown a few things at him the year after Brokeback Mountain. He was kind of in a funny mood after that whole nonsense of having to go out and whore himself.
MJ: What nonsense?
TG: Having to go on Oprah Winfrey and all those shows. He was doing the publicity tour for the Academy Award. He hated that side of things and was not a happy camper doing it. And so I didn't want to pressure him. He had read the script, and he was working in London, and I put him up in my new special effects place to work on this Modest Mouse video he was doing. I was showing the effects guys my storyboards one day in the boardroom, and he slipped me this note: "Can I play Tony?" And I said, "Are you sure?" And he said, "Yes, I want to see this film." And that was it.
MJ: So even with Heath on board you couldn't get financial backing in America?
TG: That's the joke. A $25 million film with Heath Ledger! The next film after the Joker and The Dark Knight. I thought, "This has to be an easy sell."
MJ: Are the money people afraid of you?
TG: It's the same old thing: "God, Terry, we love your work; we love every bit of it. You are so good, but this one just doesn't seem to be, uh, I don't know." I've heard that for 25 years!
MJ: Can you recall what you did when you learned of Heath's death?
TG: You fall down and you just lie there for a day. That's what you do.
TG: Yeah. You just stop. Your whole system collapses. Fuck everything. I've lost a friend. That's what happened. And of course everyone is flapping around saying, "We have to do something." Thank god they were doing that, 'cause they eventually they got me to sort of consider the possibility that there was a way of salvaging the film. When a star dies in the middle, the money is all running away; it just knows the film will not get finished. There was a turning point when I called Johnny Depp and I said, "I might just pack it in." He said, "Whatever you do, I'll be there. You can count on me." That was the moment that I began to think maybe—maybe. It was more of a mental thing, because once I actually got my head around the problem, I rewrote the thing in a day.
MJ: Tom Waits as the Devil. That's perfect. And you hadn't set out to cast him either?
TG: A Dutch animator was trying to get me to get Tom to do voiceovers for this cartoon he was doing. Tom didn't want to do it, and then he asked, "Do you have anything going for me?" And I said, "Well, there is this part of the Devil," and Tom said, "Okay, I'm in!" It was as simple as that. Nothing more. He hadn't read the script. When he said that it was like, yeah! You begin to feel that there was something about this film that was like a magnet, drawing people toward it.
MJ: Let's end with some short-answer questions: Name one person you've always wanted to work with but never have.
TG: Aaagh! Just one? This is really mean of you. Let's say Ed Harris.
MJ: A project you've turned down and regretted it.
MJ: A project you took on and regretted.
TG: I always swore I would never work with the Weinsteins. That was my regret, not the film [The Brothers Grimm].
MJ: A movie other than Quixote that you're dying to make.
MJ: Your all-time favorite Terry Gilliam film.
TG: [Laughs maniacally.] That is my secret. That's like asking which of my children is my all-time favorite Terry Gilliam child!