The Auteurs: Terry Gilliam
One of the co-founding members of the famed British comedy troupe Monty Python, Terry Gilliam is a man with a distinct artistic vision. His wildly imaginative films often deal with men battling all sorts of realities. While he has gained much praise for his works, Gilliam has also been viewed as a pariah within the film industry. Seen by some as an uncompromising artist, he has routinely fought with studio executives to maintain his own creative principles.
Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on November 22, 1940, Gilliam was the son of a former traveling salesman turned carpenter. At the age of 11, Gilliam discovered MAD magazine which became a major influence of his offbeat humor and animation. His work in animation caught the attention of British comedian John Cleese, who invited him to travel to Britain to work on animated sequences for the television show Do Not Adjust Your Set. It was while working on the show that the director met rising young comedians in Terry Jones, Eric Idle, and Michael Palin. After working on several short-lived television projects Gilliam, Cleese, Jones, Idle, Palin, and Graham Chapman decided to form their own comedy troupe and Monty Python was born.
Prior to taking part in Monty Python, Gilliam made an animated short centered around three different loosely-connected stories. One story involved the life of a cockroach, another shared the same name as renowned physicist Albert Einstein, and the last tale was told through various Christmas cards. All three featured an inventive style, and an irreverent approach to humor, that he would eventually build on in his Monty Python animated work.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus
For five seasons, spanning from 1969 to 1974, Monty Python served as the benchmark for British comedy. They showed that it was possible to have sketches and jokes that didn’t play into any kind of conventional structure. Gilliam’s animated sequences ranged in tone from risqué to surreal, and often toed the line between absurd and taboo. He was not afraid to touch on hot button issues like sexism and homosexuality.
Along with his animation work, Terry Gilliam was among the writers on the popular series. Though he would only appear in occasional sketches at the beginning, he became a little more prominent in front of the camera when John Cleese departed from the show to do other projects. Following its end in 1974, the show would find new life when it was released in America . Though the 1971 cinematic version of their sketches, entitled And Now for Something Completely Different, was a flop in the U.S., it did little to dampen Python’s growing popularity.
The Miracle of Flight (short)
After the Flying Circus ended, Gilliam used the time to create another animated short. The Miracle of Flight is an amusing tale that explores man‘s foolish desire to fly, and the hilarity that comes with such a venture. In making the film, Gilliam played with several stylistic techniques that became prominent in many of his for years to come.
Monty Python & the Holy Grail (review)
With John Cleese returning to the fold, the Monty Python troupe embarked on a new film project that was a major departure from what they had done before. The result was Monty Python & the Holy Grail, a parody based on the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Documenting the knights’ quest for the Holy Grail, the film is full of irreverent and absurdist humor including gags about men riding imaginary horses while coconuts mimic the sounds of horse galloping. The film even features characters conversing about things that clearly did not happen during that time period.
With funds provided by British music impresario Tony Stratton-Smith, and British rock bands such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Jethro Tull, the production began in 1974 in Scotland. The shoot endured several problems due to both the weather and Graham Chapman’s struggle with alcoholism. Adding to the chaos was the conflicting styles between co-directors Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam. Jones was often concerned with the performances, while Gilliam wanted to focus more on the visual approach. Members of Python were also annoyed by Gilliam’s desire for numerous takes in his quest to get every scene just right.
Monty Python & the Holy Grail debuted in April of 1975 and was a major hit critically and commercially. Not only did the film defy expectations, but it also raised the troupe’s popularity worldwide.
In the wake of the success of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the troupe took some time off to do other projects. This gave Gilliam the chance to helm a film that was different from his previous work. Tackling a fully live-action piece for the first time, he made a very loose adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky. Gilliam’s version told the story of a cooper’s apprentice (Michael Palin) who goes to town to make a new life, but only seems to get ahead through accidental means. Collaborating with Charles Alverson on the script, the film explores themes of bureaucracy and commerce in a kingdom profiting on off of the terror of a mysterious creature stirs up.
Terry Gilliam worked with a crew of mostly unknowns; the exception being hair/makeup designer Maggie Weston who eventually became his wife. Though the budge was small budget, he was still able to create some entrancing images like the creature design of the Jabberwocky. The film was released in the spring of 1977 in the Britain and the U.S. but received mixed reviews from critics. Though not a box office hit, many were starting to take note of Gillaim’s unique visual work.
Time Bandits (review)
Following the controversial release of Monty Python’s third feature film, the critically and commercially successful Life of Brian, Gilliam got support from the new British company HandMade Films production company through its co-founder Denis O’Brien. After conversing with The Beatles’ George Harrison, who help to fund Life of Brian, the company’s first project was a film written with Michael Palin. The first in a thematic trilogy involving imagination, Time Bandits is a story about a young boy who encounters six dwarves and embarks on a time-traveling adventure to steal riches from different periods.
The film featured future Gilliam regulars likes Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Jack Purvis, and Jim Broadbent. The large cast also included notable performers such as Shelley Duvall, Ralph Richardson, Peter Vaughn, Kenney Baker, and Sean Connery in the role of Agamemnon. Gilliam also got the services of Python collaborators, such as cinematographer Peter Biziou and editor Julian Doyle, to lend their talents behind the scenes. Believing in the film early on, Harrison even contributed songs for the soundtrack. The overall collaborative nature of the project is evident on screen.
Time Bandits premiered in November of 1981 and received overwhelming praise from audiences and critics. It gave Gilliam the chance to break away from the Python pack. The film’s success made HandMade Films one of the most influential British independent film studios at the time. Following the film’s theatrical run, Gilliam returned to Monty Python to handle the release of their 1982 concert film Live at the Hollywood Bowl, as well as prep for the troupe’s next project.
The Crimson Permanent Assurance (review)
During the process of writing and assembling what became Monty Python’s final project, Gilliam worked on another story that was originally supposed to be an animated short film. The short involved a group of elderly workers at a corporate firm who rebel and wage war against their younger bosses. Turing it into an elaborate live-action short film, Gilliam created a keen sense of fantasy and even incorporated several meta moments.
The Crimson Permanent Assurance made its premiere at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, proceeding the Grand Jury Prize winning Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life . While the feature and Gilliam’s short became a commercial success, the troupe decided to split up. They reunite one more time for a 1989 TV special, which was sadly Graham Chapman’s final appearance as he later died from throat cancer ending all hopes of a full reunion.
Following the unofficial break-up of Monty Python, Gilliam moved ahead on his most ambitious project to date. The second of his imagination trilogy, Brazil follows a man, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), who fantasizes about being a hero while working an office job in a dystopian society driven by consumerism and machines. The project was originally going to be called 1984 ½ in reference to both George Orwell’s novel 1984 and Federico Fellini’s 8 ½.
The script written by Charles McKeown, Charles Alverson, and famed playwright Tom Stoppard infused a lot of slapstick humor into the dystopian tale. Gilliam rounded out his crew behind the scenes with Roger Pratt shooting the film, Julian Doyle handling the editing, Michael Kamen orchestrating the score and Norman Garwood doing the production designer. While the supporting cast featured many of Gilliam’s regulars, the biggest coup was getting both Robert De Niro and Bob Hoskins in the film in roles of maintenance men. For the role of Lowry’s love interest Jill, Gilliam wanted Ellen Barkin even though actresses ranging from Jamie Lee Curtis to Madonna expressed interest in the part. The director reluctantly went with Kim Greist, but admitted later that he wasn’t satisfied with her performance in the film.
Brazil was released in Europe in February of 1985 with a running time of 143 minutes. Though it received rave reviews in Europe, the U.S. release was hampered before it even hit theaters. Poor test screenings led Universal Studios boss Sid Sheinberg to order the film to be re-cut into a 93-minute romantic-comedy. This caused a very public war of words between Gilliam/Milchan and Sheinberg. Gilliam decided to hold private screenings of his version of the film for Los Angeles film critics. This proved to be a smart more as the L.A. Critics Association awarded the film Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Director prizes. Brazil eventually hit theaters in December of 1985 in a compromised 132-minute cut that got rave reviews. Gilliam garnered his first Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay and the film received a second nomination for Best Art Direction. Though Brazil’s box office wasn’t great, it made $9 million against its $15 million budget, the critical praise validated Gilliam as a viable name in cinema.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (review)
After the chaotic release of Brazil, Gilliam took some time off to work on the third and final film in his imagination trilogy. Based on the stories of the German adventurer Karl Friedrich von Munchausen, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen captured the spirit of the tall tales that various writers had compiled over the years. The film was set during the Ottoman Wars of the late 18th century and involved Baron Munchausen attempting to save a town while coming to terms with the cruel of reality of the situation.
Actor John Neville took the role of the titular character, while the key supporting roles where played by young Canadian actress Sarah Polley, Uma Thurman, Oliver Reed, Eric Idle, Valentina Cortese, and Alison Steadman. The expansive cast also featured appearances by Jonathan Pryce, Jack Purvis, Charles McKeown, Sting and Robin Williams. Behind the scenes, Gilliam hired both famed production designer Dante Feretti and costume designer Gabriella Pescucci to work on the film. Similar to his previous film, several problems arose during filming. Things got so bad that even Polley admitted later in life how traumatic it was for her, at nine-years-old, to be around so many explosions and working such long hours in cold water.
The biggest hurdle Gilliam had to deal with was conveying his grand vision while working with a limited budget that was originally set at $23.5 million. Adding to the chaotic production, whose budget ballooned to a reported $47 million, was a change in leadership at Columbia Pictures. With Dawn Steel taking over the top role at the studio, Gilliam felt he did not receive the support he needed to make the film right. Columbia Pictures eventually gave The Adventures of Baron Munchausen a limited released in April of 1989. While it won three British Academy Awards, and received four Oscar nominations, it only made $8 million at the box office and was considered a major bomb.
The Fisher King (review)
With several extravagant films under his belt, Terry Gilliam decided to scale things back a bit. Based on the script by Richard LaGravanese, The Fisher King tells the story of a radio shock jock, Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), who, after making a terrible mistake, seeks redemption by helping a deranged homeless man, Parry (Robin Williams), find the Holy Grail in New York City. The film’s sense of adventure and fantasy was intriguing to Gilliam and became the start of a new America centric trilogy of sorts.
With a $24 million budget in tow, Gilliam reveled in shooting on location in New York City without much use of special effects or elaborate set designs. He maintained a sense of fantasy by playing up the darker aspects of both Parry’s mind and Jack’s reality. A great example of this can be found in the practical way Gilliam approached the red knight who haunts Parry. Despite the bleak themes in the film, Gilliam infused several moments of levity such as the dinner scene where Jack and Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) watch Parry and Lydia (Amanda Plummer) try to eat Chinese food.
The Fisher King premiered in September of 1991 at the Venice Film Festival where it shared the Silver Lion prize with Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern. A few weeks later the film picked up the top prize, the People’s Choice Award, at the Toronto International Film Festival. The Fisher King was a major hit with critics upon its release and did modestly well at the box office making more than $40 million worldwide. The film received five Oscar nods for Best Supporting Actress (Mercedes Ruehl), Best Art direction, Best Score, Best Original Screenplay, and a Best Actor nomination for Robin Williams. Though Williams did not win an Oscar, he did nab a Golden Globe award in the same category.
12 Monkeys (review)
When his plans to adapt A Tale of Two Cities got scrapped, Gilliam was approached by producer Charles Roven to helm an adaptation of Chris Marker’s seminal 1962 sci-fi short film La Jetée. Set in a dystopian world, 12 Monkeys revolves around a man traveling through time in hopes of stopping a dangerous man-made virus from eradicating a large section of the world. Although Universal Studios owned the rights to the film, much to Terry Gilliam’s dismay, the director was able to get final cut privileges as well as a $30 million budget.
Playing the lead role of James Cole, Bruce Willis agreed to take a pay cut in order to keep the film’s budget low. With Willis signed on, Gilliam rounded out his supporting cast with talent actors such as Brad Pitt, Madeline Stowe, Jon Seda, and Christopher Plummer. Due to the narrative’s non-linear approach, the film required many re-shoots. For its post-production, 12 Monkeys marked Gilliam’s first collaboration with editor Mick Audsley, who was known his work on Stephen Frears’s film.
The film was a major box office hit raking in more than $57 million in the U.S. and an additional $111 million worldwide. Brad Pitt won a Golden Globe for his supporting work and also garnered an Oscar nomination. 12 Monkeys second Oscar nod came in the category of Best Art Direction. Terry Gilliam also received some award love as he was honored at the 1996 Berlin Film Festival for his directorial work.
Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas (review)
While on vacation Gilliam was approached to take part in an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal cult novel Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, which had been in development for years. Thompson’s novel follows a journalist and his attorney as they travel to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle racing event. Along the way they indulge in drugs that lead to several psychedelic escapades. For many, the novel seemed impossible to adapt as Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone both failed to get the project made.
Assisted by his friend Tony Grisoni, Gilliam decided to abandon the original script that filmmaker Alex Cox and writer Tod Davies wrote in favor of an entirely new one. With Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro secured in roles of journalist Raoul Duke and lawyer Dr. Gonzo respectively, Gilliam got several notable actors to appear in small roles. These actors included Katherine Helmond, Michael Jeter, Tobey Maguire, Cameron Diaz, Christina Ricci, Christopher Meloni, Gary Busey, and Ellen Barkin. Gilliam even got Hunter S. Thompson to make a cameo in the film. Production began in late August of 1997 and found Gilliam working with cinematographer Nicola Percorini for the first time. Shooting in entirely in Las Vegas, the production was not without its problems.
Some of his Hollywood-based crew found it difficult to work with the amount of improvisation Gilliam wanted. There was also a dispute between Gilliam and Davies over whether or not the latter deserved a writing credit on the film. The Writer’s Guild Association of America ruled that Gilliam and Grisoni had to share the credit with Cox and Davies. This verdict led Gilliam to publicly burn his WGA card during a book signing tour in New York City. Despite the conflict, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May of 1998 to mixed reviews. Making only $10 million against its $18.5 million budget, the film became a cult classic thanks to its home video release.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote / Lost in La Mancha (review)
After two decades of successes and failures, and with a great disdain towards the American film industry, Gilliam returned to Europe to being his dream project…adaptation of Man of La Mancha. The film was to be both a satire and a fantasy-adventure tale. The premise involved a 21st century accountant named Toby who not only ends up being mistaken for Sancho Panza, but also embarks on the adventures of Don Quixote. The project was to star Johnny Depp as Toby, while French actor Jean Rochefort was cast in the role of Don Quixote.
Terry Gilliam also hired Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe to shoot a making-of documentary for Man of La Mancha’s DVD special features. What Fulton and Pepe captured on film was a nightmarish shoot for Gilliam and the production as a whole. Harsh weather conditions, Rochefort’s injury, and numerous other issues led to the plagued productions eventual shutting down. Fulton and Pepe eventually released their documentary, entitled Lost in La Mancha, in 2003 with Gilliam’s support. The failure of Lost in La Mancha marked the start of a very tough decade for Gilliam, one that would test his desire to remain a filmmaker.
The Brothers Grimm (review)
In need of work, Gilliam agreed to direct Dimension Films’ fictional tale about the famed Brothers Grimm. The story revolved around the Brothers Grimm (Matt Damon and Heath Ledger) taking on a mysterious witch who has been kidnapping young women. With Miramax co-funding the film, Gilliam took his $75 million budget and went to the Czech Republic to shoot the film. He filled out his supporting cast with the likes of Peter Stormare, Monica Bellucci, Lena Headey, and Jonathan Pryce who made his first appearance in a Gilliam film since Baron Munchausen.
Six weeks into the production of the film the Weinstein Brothers, who were running Miramax at the time, fired Gilliam’s cinematographer Nicola Percorini and hired Newton Thomas Siegel. This angered Gilliam and was the first of several battles between the director and the powerful brothers. After nearly two years of post-production setbacks, the much delayed film was finally released in August of 2005. The “compromised” version that both the Weinsteins and Gilliam agreed to release made $100 million worldwide against its final $88 million budget. Unhappy with the released version of the film, Gilliam publicly voiced his issues with both the Weinsteins and the film itself.
While on break from the halted post-production for The Brothers Grimm, Gilliam and producer Jeremy Thomas got the chance to make a film version of Mitch Cullin’s novel about a young girl, Jeliza-Rose, who travels to Texas with her father following her mother’s death. To cope with the ordeal, including the new environment, Jeliza-Rose retreats to her imagination. With Jeff Bridges bringing star power to the film, the rest of the cast consisted of Jennifer Tilly, Janet McTeer, Brendan Fletcher, and Canadian actress Jodelle Ferland in the lead role of Jeliza-Rose.
Production began in late 2004 at Regina, Saskatchewan, where the Canadian fields offered a perfect substitute for the Texas landscape. Filming went much smoother than his previous experiences since Gilliam went for a much simpler approach to storytelling. Tideland made its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in the fall of 2005 to rather mixed reactions from critics and audiences. Later that month, at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain, the film won the prestigious FRISPECI prize. However, the picture struggled to find distribution and was ultimately given a small platform release by THINKfilm. Unhappy with the companies work, Terry Gilliam criticized THINKfilm,on the film’s DVD commentary, for tampering with the aspect ratio of the theatrical release.
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (review)
Enduring a series of failures and disappointments for a bulk to the 2000s, the director decided to return to original projects that continued his fascination with the world of imagination. Reuniting with Charles McKeown after a nearly two decades apart, the pair wrote a script that evolved into The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. The film revolved around a theater troupe whose mystical guru, Dr. Parnassus, falls in love with a mortal and makes a deal with the devil, Mr. Nick, to trade his immortality for youth. Part of the agreement involves Dr. Parnassus handing over either his son or daughter to Mr. Nick upon the child’s sixteenth birthday. With his daughter Valentina approaching that crucial age, the duo make one more bet to see who wins her forever. The new deal involves Dr. Parnassus and Mr. Nick competing to be the first to secure five souls within the magical mirror known as the “Imaginarium”.
Filming in London, and with a $30 million budget to work with, Terry Gilliam assembled a top-tier cast. Christopher Plummer took the lead role of Dr. Parnassus, while Verne Troyer and Tom Waits, who had previously worked with Gilliam in other films, played the roles of the doctor’s assistant Percy and the villainous Mr. Nick respectively. The rest of the supporting cast included model Lily Cole as Dr. Parnassus’ daughter Valentina and then-newcomer Andrew Garfield as the troupe member Anton. Heath Ledger was cast in the role of the mysterious outsider Tony, but sadly died of an accidental prescription drug overdose during filming. To honor Ledger’s work, Gilliam decided to keep his scenes in the film and have other actors play Tony during the fantasy sequences.
Johnny Depp immediately volunteered his services as did two of Ledger’s close friends, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. The three men even gave their wages from the film to Ledger’s daughter Mathilda. Despite the unfortunate delay, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus finally made its premiere at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. A rousing success at the festival, the film went on to receive solid critical reviews and did modestly well at the box office.
Changing gears a bit, Terry Gilliam agreed to direct a concert film for the Canadian art-rock band Arcade Fire in 2010. The film was part of a series of concert films shown on YouTube. It was around this time that Gilliam decided to return to making short films. The first of these two shorts, The Legend of Hallowdega, is mockumentary involving a investigative news show host and a paranormal expert who travel to Talladega to explore claims that the race track is cursed. Made for the AMP Energy Juice company, the film starred David Arquette and Justin Kirk and featured NASCAR racers Dale Earnhardt Jr., Darrell Waltrip, Buddy Baker, and Buz McKim. Releasing the short on Halloween, it was clear Gilliam had a lot of fun spoofing the sensational nature of supernatural inspired shows.
In 2011, Gilliam was asked by the Garafolo Pasta Company in Naples to shoot a short film for them set within Naples. Agreeing to the condition that no one dies in the short, Gilliam crafted a tale about a child on vacation with his parents. While in Naples the child encounters a mysterious figurine that causes strange things to occur. The Wholly Family allowed Terry Gilliam to indulge in his whimsical playful side by including scenes such as the boy encountering a world where lots of pasta is made.
The Zero Theorem (review)
During the time period in which Gilliam was working on the script for The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, he was approached by producer Richard D. Zanuck on a project that appealed to Gilliam’s fascination with dystopia. The Zero Theorem focuses on a computer programmer who tries to find the meaning of life in a dystopian future only to find himself lost in a series of surreal adventures. Though Ewan McGregor was originally cast in the lead role of programmer Qohen Leth, he was unavailable by time film eventually got rolling so Austrian actor Christoph Waltz came in to play the role.
French actress Melanie Thierry came on board as the love interest Bainsley, while David Thewlis and Lucas Hedges played key supporting roles. Matt Damon was cast in the role of the mysterious figure known as Management, while several Gilliam regulars and newcomers such as Peter Stormare, Lily Cole, Ray Cooper, Ben Whishaw, Tilda Swinton and Robin Williams all made cameos in the film. The Zero Theorem premiered at the 2013 Venice Film Festival and received a decent reception. The film received a limited theatrical release before hitting video-on-demand. Though the critical reception in America was mixed, Gilliam was praised by some critics for continually making the kinds of film that studios aren’t brave enough to make.
Throughout Gilliam’s career, there have been a slew of projects that he tried to get off the ground. Often due to financial difficulties, or his contemptuous relationship with the film industry, many of these projects never came to fruition. Among them was a sequel to Time Bandits that got scrapped in the mid-90s due to the deaths of several of its cast members. There were also some adaptations that Gilliam had been attached to such as Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and the seminal Alan Moore graphic novel Watchmen. The former fell apart due to disagreements with studio executives over budgets and casting, while the latter languished due to financial issues.
Another project that Terry Gilliam had been considered for was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as writer J.K. Rowling was a fan of his work. However, Warner Brothers decided to go with Chris Columbus instead. Gilliam also had co-written a script with Richard LaGravenese called The Defective Detective which had laid dormant for years. Recently he announced that Detective might finally surfaces as a mini-series. He also has high hopes that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote will eventually find life on the big screen with Robert Duvall as Don Quixote and Ewan McGregor as Toby.
While his notorious reputation has hampered his ability to make films as often as he would like, there is no question that Terry Gilliam is an important figure in the world of cinema. Bringing a sense of imagination and wonderment to everything he touches, Gilliam’s films are unlike anyone elses working in the industry. He has been considered a key influence to many filmmakers including Tarsem, Zack Snyder, and Guillermo del Toro. Terry Gilliam is that man who understands the power of cinema and will continue to rally against the system in order to keep his artistic sensibilities at the forefront.
© thevoid99 2014