Terry Gilliam fans are a hardy bunch: what with the rumours, half truths and natural disasters that often surround the filmmaker’s work, they have to be.
Five hundred of those fans gathered on Friday evening at the BFI in London to hear the director reflect on a career currently being celebrated by a month-long retrospective on the Southbank.
For once, the fallacies, what-might-have-been’s and the will-they-ever-be’s that dog discussion of Gilliam’s output were put to one side by interviewer Dick Fiddy as he focused firmly on the the work he actually completed.
Opening with a clip from an early piece of Gilliam’s TV work, a short animation from a Christmas edition of the pre-Python series Do Not Adjust Your Set in which Christmas card characters come to life and begin to attack others nearby, this example showed Gilliam’s signature stream of consciousness style.
Arriving in the UK in the 1960’s, Gilliam was encouraged by John Cleese and TV producer Humphrey Barclay to submit animations to comedy series, Monty Python’s Flying Circus soon forming from the fertile imaginations of of its six creators.
Gilliam recalled how he soon became accustomed to the freedom allowed by the production process: he would turn up to planning meetings with the finished animations in hand while his colleagues had to fight to get their personal visions on screen.
Fiddy then brought up the fact that many of Gilliam’s films feature older actors in key roles – John Neville in Baron Munchausen, Jean Rochefort in the aborted Don Quixote, Christopher Plummer in the forthcoming Dr Parnassus.
The director admitted that he loves working with more mature actors, almost seeing them as father figures that he can look up to, while he enjoys having characters with some history to them such as Munchausen. Gilliam then claimed that he’s now of an age that he can identify with the Baron.
Following a clip from Munchausen, the director went on to describe how easy acting actually is, actors payed to play on set.
It was at this point Gilliam admitted to suffering from nominal aphasia, a condition which leads to spells of memory loss, something evident from his momentarily forgetting actors names or his train of though during the course of the evening.
Gillian acknowledged that he preferred to collaborate with the same people time and again, familiarity leading to a faster filming process. He’s not opposed to working with new people though as this can often lead to surprises.
When pushed to name actors he’d like to work with, Gilliam mentioned Robert Downey Jr, Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman as particular favourites.
Discussion then moved on to the legendary Brazil, Fiddy noting its recent position in a Total Film poll of top 100 science fiction films: it came 17th.
Responding in mock disgust at the low placement, Gilliam admitted he felt it still stands up as film but that events in the real world, namely George Bush’s stance on terrorism and the war on terror, means it’s effectively been remade, or at least acted out by politicians and governments.
Gilliam feels strongly that films are the perfect place to discuss topics such as terrorism, satire a good weapon against current events.
Moving on to Twelve Monkeys, Gilliam revealed that early studio intervention meant we very nearly saw Tom Cruise in the lead role, that is until Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt signed on.
In fact, despite a superb script from Unforgiven writer David Webb Peoples and a top notch ensemble cast, Gilliam told how the studio executives saw Twelve Monkeys’ success as purely being down to the presence of Brad Pitt, something which drew both laughs and gasps from the audience.
This led to a brief rant on the huge problem of stars being allocated to projects before scripts, something Gilliam strongly believes is not right and is a major problem in today’s cinema: with money men in charge of filmmaking instead of the creative types who used to be, the problems will only continue.
Talk of DVD commentaries followed, Gilliam admitting he didn’t listen to his own and that he thought home cinema was often the best way to watch his older films, citing issues with a recent screening of Munchhausen he attended where the sound was muffled and the picture blurred.
TV is where Gilliam sees some of the best new work appearing, HBO the home of many talented actors, writers and directors. The larger global audience is another benefit to working in the medium, though he hadn’t been approached to make anything for TV himself, bar some discussion in the 80s to perhaps make a Time Bandits series.
Tideland was next up for discussion, the film which splits even Gilliam’s loyal followers down the middle. He admitted that the film was designed to put people’s backs up, that he enjoys making adults uncomfortable and that the main point of the film – that children see magic everywhere and that central character Jeliza-Rose saw nothing wrong in helping her father inject drugs or in feeding his corpse – was lost on many viewers.
An audience member noted that the music in the film was at odds with what was going on on-screen, dreamlike melodies accompanying scenes that for adults would find terrifying.
Talk of The Brothers Grimm clearly agitated Gilliam as he told of how he hasn’t watched the final film and has sworn never to work with the Weinstein’s again. The scars are still healing and when asked if a Director’s Cut DVD was likely he responded, “I can’t be bothered”, much to the delight of the crowd.
Another question noted that in each of his movies there is a cell or prison present – does he feel trapped? He agreed this was probably true.
As the evening drew to a close, discussion turned to The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, the film which nearly fell apart following the death of Heath Ledger. With production halting for a week, everyone involved saw the film as dead in the water, until Gilliam phoned Johnny Depp to ask him to help portray Parnassus in the fantasy sequences inside the Imaginarium.
Gilliam told how the once disastrous Don Quixote is now ramping up for production in Spain in 2010, though little of the original script or cast remains – Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort long gone from the line-up.
Excitable, full of life and with a passion for filmmaking unrivaled by the majority of his peers, this evening of frank and often very funny discussion opened a window into the mind of a man whose imagination is clearly aching to be channeled into only the most challenging of projects.
Gilliam needs Parnassus to be a hit if other much discussed films such as The Defective Detective, Zero Theorum and Good Omens are every likely to see the light of day, so it’s firmly in the hands of us, the fans, to help spread the word come release time.
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