Terry Gilliam on never compromising in Hollywood: 'You don't mess with stories'

Terry Gilliam on never compromising in Hollywood: ‘You don’t mess with stories’

Terry Gilliam walks, or rather trots, through the white alleys of Monopoli. Humming while he says: “I have two legs from the hips to the ground / And when they move they walk / And when I lift them they go up the stairs / And when I shave them they have no hair.”

“It’s the most important and well-known song I’ve ever written,” he jokes, “and I understand that now more than ever: being a nearly 83-year-old man, I thank my legs every day. They haven’t cheated on me yet!

Far from being an “old man”, Gilliam remains a force of nature. In person, he’s almost too much: sensitive, raw and irreverent at times, with a sharp wit and an irrepressible imagination. The only American member of the legendary British comedy troupe Monty Python, the man whose contributions to film include such gems as Brazil, Time Bandits AND The Fisher King, just to name a few, is the guest of honor of the Ora! (Now!) Party. He took time out before a gala screening of his 1988 classic The Adventures of Baron Munchausenexplain to THR Rome through a whirlwind tour of his phenomenal career, because he sees society’s sense of humor – “the seventh and foremost sense” – as threatened and because Hollywood studios consider him a “terrorist”.

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How does an artist, especially an artist as irreverent as you, feel about today’s world?

In ’68, well, actually the first show (Monthy Python) came out in ’69, and that was an incredible time. I mean, we know it’s never going to happen again, there’s never going to be a time where the BBC is giving that kind of space and freedom to six dudes (like us). It happened very quickly that all the smart young people wanted to watch Monty Python. We were flippant, sarcastic, and made fun of everything. I think we have five senses, a sixth sense, which is kind of intuition, and the seventh, which is humor. A sense of humor is the most important. You may lose your hearing, you may lose your sense of touch, but you should never lose your sense of humor. And it is the most threatened at the moment.

I am very depressed about the state of the world we live in. I’d hate to be a young man because he’s totally confused. We want to make them comfortable and safe, keep them locked up in their comfort zone, but that means not allowing them to grow, it means rejecting new ideas. We are so dominated
from fears and the rhetoric of victimhood.

There is no sense of community, everyone feels offended, victims. All that matters these days are the selfish ideals of many small communities, increasingly fragmented and increasingly extremist. There is no longer the will to argue or the joy of having different opinions. Paradoxically, the sense of community and of being genuinely eccentric, different from others, being “queer” in the original sense of the term has been lost: which once meant being eccentric, bizarre, having fun. (Now) everything is driven by hatred, phobias and ignorance. Yes, this is the heart. It’s ignorance. Because if only one person’s point of view matters, there can be no progress. There is no sense of reality. The only truth is your truth or my truth. What matters is my version of reality, and if you disagree, it’s not just that we disagree, you’re phobic of my view. They use this fucking word, phobic. Well, I’m a phobophobic. hate hate. Fuck all this phobia.

Can we talk about what you’re working on now?

I wrote a movie called The Fair of the Apocalypse, subtitled: “Fun for all who like to be offended.” It deals precisely with the themes that I have just mentioned. God, disgusted by what has become of humanity, decides to permanently eliminate the creatures of him. Paradoxically, Satan is the only one standing in his way. The story is an opportunity to make fun of everything I can’t stand, so much so that those who read the script told me: “If Hollywood reads it, you’ll never make a movie again.” But now I’m an old man, an old white man, and if this world sucks, it’s my kind’s fault. At this point in my life, I don’t give a damn about the consequences.

During a video interview with THR Romeyou told us about a script you wrote that never saw the light of day, The Defective Detectivelocked away in Paramount drawers since 1995. What is it about?

It’s about a middle-aged New York cop in the midst of an existential crisis, who finds himself in a child’s fantasy world, where the rules he knows, the harsh rules of the road, don’t apply. He has become cynical and violent, but neither his methods nor his gun can slay dragons and dark knights, nor save damsels in distress. To rebel and win, the policeman has to deal with a side that he has kept dormant for many years: his fantasy world, his inner world. Eventually, we discover that the child who created the world in which he is held captive is none other than himself. A simple but beautiful story.

Director Terry Gilliam talks about life in Italy, his prolific career and what makes him happy | THR videos

You also told us about Orson Welles, what is your connection with him?

I revere Orson Welles. He was 24 when he made it Citizen Kane. I’d say it’s almost unfortunate to produce such a masterpiece so early in its career and reach its pinnacle at such a young age! I admired him so much that I said to myself: “One day I will surpass him in something.” I never reached his level, but I definitely managed to do something he didn’t: complete Don chisciotte. It’s taken me 30 years, and while it may not seem like it at first, I’m a patient man.

Have you ever met him?

Never! I never wanted to meet my heroes. I’m afraid they will disappoint me. I prefer my heroes to be abstract ideas. Of all the Beatles, the one I’ve never met is John Lennon, he’s another of my heroes.

On the contrary, George Harrison, as a producer through Handmade Films of Life of Brian AND Time Bandits, he was a key figure for you and for Monty Python.

Right. Of all my heroes, the only one I met was Clint Eastwood. I had lunch with him and it was worth it. I don’t question his political views, which are far from mine, but I consider him a great artist, very intelligent. I appreciate the way he interprets the film system, making a film for them – a commercial film – and one for himself. And it must be said that the films he made for himself have always been successful.

What relationship have you had over the years with Hollywood and the film industry?

It’s always been kind of an adversarial relationship. I have become known as a bit of a terrorist. I’ve never compromised. I’ve always fought for my stories. Because storytelling is what it’s all about, you don’t mess with stories. But there’s always a moment at the end of every movie where the executives, who are basically panicked people, get paid a fortune to supposedly know what they’re doing, even if they don’t know, where they’re getting nervous. Always at the end, they say, “Oh, change this or cut this, blah, blah, blah, and then it’ll work.” I always fight it. The only way to win these arguments is to make sure the main players are on my side. Because I don’t have the power. The stars have power. That’s how I was able to make my films. People putting money must always believe that you know exactly what you are doing, even if you don’t have a clue. It’s just fiction, fiction. I’ll tell you a secret: everything seems cheerful to me, a bit of a clown. It’s just fiction. The truth is, in real life, I’m a big jerk. I am very sorry about my wife. I know how much she suffered to be with someone like me.