Sometime my job is weird. This past September, I was awoken by a phone call from a publicist asking if I wanted to come down to DragonCon-Atlanta’s major geek convention-and interview Terry Gilliam, the director behind such classics as Brazil, Time Bandits, Twelve Monkeys, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, for his upcoming film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. I had to get downtown in less than 90 minutes, which usually wouldn’t be a problem except DragonCon, a huge college football game, multiple concerts, and pretty much every major Labor Day event were happening at the same time.
Thankfully, I made it just as Mr. Gilliam was finishing up his Q&A with his many fans who came to hear him speak about Parnassus and his upcoming projects. I was lucky enough to ask him about those projects as well along with his legacy, his past, and why he didn’t really care for this year’s Watchmen, a graphic novel he attempted to adapt twice: once as a movie and then as a miniseries after deciding the story was too dense to be crammed into a motion picture. It was really a great interview because Gilliam was very open and has no need for politic because he doesn’t care about working with a certain person; he just cares about getting his films made his way and that alone is impressive.
I was doing some research before I came to interview and I noticed a trend where whenever someone mentions your name, they always precede it with the word “beleaguered”. Is that how you see your legacy or would you use a different word?
TERRY GILLIAM: Things kind of develop. I think it’s because I’ve had enough books and documentaries about things going wrong where other people don’t. I remember when Lost in La Mancha came out and other filmmakers started coming up to me and telling me their stories and they were worse than mine. I’ve just been lucky (or unlucky) to have these things reported. I’m the one who gets stuck with an adjective like the word “beleagured,” and I actually think I’m lucky.
Well since you’re getting a second chance at The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, are you bringing back [Lost in La Mancha filmmakers] Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe to make a “Found in La Mancha”, if you will?
GILLIAM: Strangely enough, that’s exactly what they were going to do. They were in London a month or two ago and they asked, “Well, what do you think?” and I said “You’ll probably just make a really boring film because everything is going to go right this time, and there’s going to be no drama; there’s going to be nothing. It’s just going to be another EPK [Electronic Press Kit], another puff piece that the studios love. So if that’s what you guys want to do, that’s fine. But you made a good film because we had a tragedy. We crashed and burned and you guys recorded it.”
I also had a question about animation since I know that’s where you got started and I read you would do anything to get involved with Pixar and I believe the quote was along the lines of you offering to sweep the floors.
GILLIAM: That was at the premiere of WALL-E and the director [Andrew Stanton]; well I think Pixar is great and I think it’s extraordinary what they do and the way they’ve structured themselves internally and the way they work is fantastic; it’s really creative people running the show. And that’s a rare thing. But I have to think about my future when I’m old and ancient and I can’t get any money and I can’t walk.
But would you want to do a short or a feature or…
GILLIAM: I actually have no interest in doing animation at all [laughs]. I think there will maybe be a time when I slip back into that, but the thing with Parnassus is that there are great chunks which are like my animation and that kind of freedom, so I have a feeling I’m going to want to keep working with real people no matter how fantastical and animated the world might be.
There’s such a devoted following for your animated shorts; why did you decide to let it go?
GILLIAM: I just got bored with it. I really thought my cut-out technique was very limited in what you could and couldn’t do. I thought I’d pretty much beaten this one to death and there wasn’t much more I could do and I never wanted to be an animator. I wanted to be a lumberjack!
That didn’t work out did it.
GILLIAM: [laughs] No, it didn’t. No, it’s film! Film directing is what I do and what I’ve always wanted to do. And I fell into this thing with animation and it was brilliant it actually gave me the possibility for me to do now what I do. It was great fun for a while, but it was also exhausting because I was also working on my own and I might get one assistant to come in and help me color in bits and pieces and I was just exhausted. And there was a certain point when Holy Grail came along and Terry [Jones] and I looked up at the screen and it said “Co-directed by” and once it says that, you’re a director and then bingo! We got Jabberwocky and I was off.
I was looking into projects you had planned but I didn’t know where they were so I just wanted to run the list. Is that alright?
Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens?
GILLIAM: It’s sort of sitting there. That was one of the questions out there and I said, “I think if Parnassus is a big success, the likelihood of that becomes greater, because it’s an expensive movie. There’s no way out of that one. It’s not in some abstract world. It’s a real world. And it’s going to need reasonably big stars and that combination of success to get it made. But I would love to do it if we can get it together.
Tale of Two Cities?
GILLIAM: Nah. That’s dead. That’s over.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court?
GILLIAM: That’s script has languished for a long time. I’d even forgot about it. I still think it would be a good one to do, but no one’s been pursuing me. I don’t even own the script that we were working on. Now that you’ve reminded me I may have to go look into it again. [laughs]
Alright, The Defective Detective?
GILLIAM: That’s one I’d still love to do. In fact, I stole one of my ideas for that and put them in Parnassus, because the whole idea of what I was trying to do is every time he went into one of these fantastic worlds, it was all two-dimensional objects in a three-dimensional space and I’ve done that; it’s good. That would still happen, but I have to get the right guy to play the lead. Unfortunately, all the films I’m doing all require stars to get the money. I’m stupid. If I could get my budgets down to $5 million or $10 million, I’d have more freedom, but to do what I want it costs more.
I would think that with your body of work it would be easier to get a star-
GILLIAM: Doesn’t matter. Tideland didn’t work so it’s finished. I mean we’re in Hollywood!
I know! But at the same time, I mean, there are actors who do the big project but then they’ll do the smaller project for no money…
GILLIAM: There was a flurry of activity about Good Omens just before this one, and I was going after a particularly big actor and I thought I had a chance and it didn’t happen and then a couple of other things happened, and I didn’t know who else could take that part. It was a funny time after Tideland where I wasn’t sure what I was doing and I started up some of the old ones but they didn’t come together quickly so I backed off. You get to a certain point, which anyone involved with Hollywood in any way does, where you have to start taking the things that don’t come easily and let them go. But I got these things in store and they’re all good projects so if the atmosphere changes. Of course, we’re in a crunch right now and there’s no money anymore anywhere on the planet…except if you’re doing a $300 million dollar film. There’s a lot of money there somehow! I’m not sure how it works. [laughs]
And just to finish up, where’s Zero Theorem at right now?
GILLIAM: See, the thing with Zero Theorem is that it was going to be a very cheap film, a very containable film. And I was trying to do it between finishing this one and the beginning of Quixote but I’ve gotten so stuck up in publicity that the time has just disappeared. It’s sitting up there.
But back to what you were saying about the $300 million dollar movie, but also the difficulties you’ve had, and I know you tried to direct Watchmen and I was wondering how you felt about the version that finally came out this year.
GILLIAM: I was impressed with the look of it. I think he got it. It looked like the book. But I think it was too reverential to the book. I think it needed a kick in the ass, frankly. Because Charles McKeown and I had written a script just after I’d finished [The Adventures of Baron Munchausen] and it was frustrating because I felt to get it down to 2:15, we were getting rid of so much and I wasn’t happy with what we did and we didn’t get the money so that was the end of it. I said at the time I think it should’ve been a five-part miniseries for television, and I still think it would be better.
[Zack Snyder's Watchmen] started so well and then it just was, “Come on…it’s not moving anymore…” But I thought technically it was a good job.
I’m not sure what you had planned but in terms of visual effects, I don’t know how you could’ve done, for instance, Dr. Manhattan-
GILLIAM: No, I think it looks good. I think it’s silly-didn’t he get an R-rating because we saw his dick?
GILLIAM: What was the point of that? It wasn’t really that big of-well it was big, what am I talking about? [laughs] It was like, “Why do you want an R-rating if you’re going to spend that kind of money?” You don’t need it. I don’t think it was an essential part of the story to show Dr. Manhattan’s dick. I just thought, “Come on,” but that was minor. I think there were other things, like I’m not sure if the ending worked and it just went on and on, the fighting. I was really bored by the end.
The problem to me always was that this comic book, or “graphic novel”, it’s about these characters and you need time to develop each one. I mean I thought Rorschach was great in the film. He was cracking. All that stuff with Rorschach just worked. But I think with Nite Owl and [Silk Spectre], something got lost there and it wasn’t clicking the way it should. I think Rorschach really held up. I think the Comedian really worked well. We were actually going to cut the Comedian out of ours, but I think the thing where it was probably too loyal. It’s like, in a book, in a comic, you can set the pace. I mean, maybe I’m remembering this wrong but I think the Comedians funeral is just three panels long.
It’s like it is in the movie where they show his funeral inter-cut with his back story so it’s that fidelity again. But with the book they also throw in other mediums like newspaper and book clippings.
GILLIAM: And the whole pirate thing.
The Black Freighter.
GILLIAM: Right. It’s just about pacing so in the comic book: bump-bump-bump, Comedian’s buried. On film, it’s this long shot as the coffin goes…in…to…the…grrrrr…ave. That’s pacing and that’s what bothered me is he wasn’t getting those things right. But it was a huge undertaking and probably a better attempt than anybody else would’ve pulled off, frankly.
Do you think if you ever attempt a $300 million dollar movie you’ll run into the same-
GILLIAM: But I don’t want to.
You don’t want to.
GILLIAM: No, because there’s too much pressure. And you have all these terrified executives running around you and you work in that kind of atmosphere and neurosis around, it affects you. Like Harry Potter, they were never going to hire me, but I was glad because I watched friends work on it and it was horrible; it’s factory work. I mean the last factory job I had was in Chevy plant working the night shifts so no, no, I’m over it.