And now for someone completely different

Marcelle Bernstein / 21 January 2014 ( 11 June 2018 )

Terry Gilliam, the surreal genius behind the great Monty Python's iconic animations, talks about both life as a Python and – with a new film out soon – as a wildly innovative film director.

On a hot July afternoon 40-odd years ago, at an ordinary block of flats in West Hampstead in London, I pressed the doorbell labelled – for no discernible reason – Frog.

I could not have known that I was about to interview the man who is now undoubtedly one of the most astonishingly inventive and visually creative film-makers of our time.

Back then, Terry Gilliam was one-sixth of the team behind a three-year-old television show that was already a cult classic. Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a series of sketches – original, bizarre, funny, frequently cruel, malicious and usually very, very rude. They sometimes lasted just a few seconds and often didn’t go anywhere.

All that linked them were Gilliam’s surreal and macabre animations of weird antiquated machines and little humans squashed by a giant foot. A disembodied hand reached out to snatch the fig leaf from Michelangelo’s frantically resisting David. A man lathered his face, picked up his razor and neatly sliced off his own head, all accompanied by terrible shrieks and squeaks – also produced by Gilliam, under a blanket with a cheap tape recorder.

Such horrid episodes managed to unite disparate elements into a cohesive whole. They remain many people’s favourite bits. Terry Gilliam appeared on-screen  only very occasionally: he was, he claims, the quietest member of that vociferous group.

Perhaps that isn’t so surprising.

While his fellow Pythons were bright and worldly Oxbridge graduates, Terry was raised in Medicine Lake, a community with a population of just 350 in the Midwest of the USA.

After a degree in political science he found himself working for a comic magazine, Help!, in New York where he met John Cleese. A short while later he came to London looking for work and Cleese sent him to the BBC to see Eric Idle, then writing a children’s TV series. Idle was taken with the shy American, and ‘adored’ his furry Afghan coat. The rest, as they say…

Terry isn’t quite so shy today. Now in his 70s, he has the grizzled glamour of an ageing rock star and the verbal delivery of an excited kid.

‘I don’t really see myself. I mean, I see pictures and think, who is that guy?’, he confides.

He retains all the passions of the 27-year-old he still feels himself to be, keeping up an incredible pace that would tax someone many decades younger. ‘I’m always doing something, can’t stand sitting around. I work very hard at not growing up. I refuse to submit. I’m not a fantasist – I just don’t want to give up till I’m buried, and that’s it.’

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Making films is what drives him. He finds it impossible to define where his uniquely fantastical style originated. ‘That’s the way I see things. I escape through imagination.’

He is talking so fast in his slightly gravelly American voice, untouched by some 50 years in north London, that his cappuccino cools before he takes a first sip.

He believes that ‘dreams inform everybody, they make life worth living’.

He claims to wake in the morning ‘physically exhausted from my dream adventures. There’s a moment in half-light – and then it’s gone. But my waking ideas are more fantastic than my dreams.’

He declines to intellectualise his creative process. ‘It happens, and I just try to ride with it. And when it doesn’t happen, it’s actually terrifying because you realise, “I’ve dried up”. It’s finally happened: the well is empty.

But if you get through those periods, then something starts happening again. It’s like doing a painting without actually doing a sketch in advance. When you make a film, ideas are coming from all angles. You just start and you got this, you add another thing, boom, boom, boom.’

A list of influences would include – though not necessarily in any particular order – radio, science fiction, comic magazines, the Industrial Revolution (‘all those gears and pulleys’) and art galleries (‘steal ideas from dead painters, you don’t get sued’ ). Then there’s Goya (‘pain, tragedy, humanity’), Hieronymus Bosch (‘satire’), Brueghel (‘the detail’), Max Ernst and Magritte, C S Lewis – and Lewis Carroll.

Of Carroll he says, ‘Reading the Alice books again, I see how much Python was influenced by them.’

A voracious reader, he always has at least three books on the go. ‘Books get my imagination going because I have to create the imagery.’

The Pythons consistently waged war with the BBC censors on the subject of his animations. Told he could not include a Reubens nude (no frontal nudity permitted), Gilliam chose instead to use the famous mid-18th century François Boucher portrait of Marie-Louise O’Murphy lying provocatively on her front. But now he was instructed to cover up ‘the offending area’. Finally capitulating, he used a Victorian nude with holes cut out where her breasts and crotch would have been, so that only the background was visible: even then he was admonished for drawing too much attention to the offending – although now invisible – parts.

The films he makes are art-house movies married to hallucinatory excess: think of The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus; Time Bandits; The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. His outstanding films are the multi-award-winning Brazil and The Fisher King. Everything he has brought to screen, however, provides a rich banquet for critics to endlessly pick over, because even his less successful work is full of interest and extremes.

He is breaking new  ground now – and almost by accident. In 2011 he directed The Damnation of Faust for the English National Opera to critical acclaim. In May 2014 he directed more Berlioz at the ENO with a stellar cast for Benvenuto Cellini. Yet he only accepted the original offer because ‘I thought I’d never work again’. ‘My life,’ he observes ruefully, ‘is one failure after another. A certain weariness starts creeping in, I get tired. There’ve been times in the past few years when I was quite convinced it was over. I’m in my 70s and all I think about is how many films can I make before I kick the bucket.I want to leave a mark behind.’

The other face of his tremendous creativity is the occasional bout of depression: ‘I sink to the bottom– and then, hopefully, I float.’

He lives with his wife of over 40 years – Maggie Weston, a former head of make-up and hair at the BBC, a striking woman, in heels slightly taller than Terry. They worked together on several of his films until their three children were born.

‘I would call from Philadelphia or wherever. But she had to bear the brunt of raising the family.’

She did so in their beautiful old house high above Hampstead Heath, bought when the children arrived: from his study he can see the North Downs.

 The philosopher Francis Bacon died from pneumonia in the room below in 1626 and, Terry claims, still haunts it. It’s freezing in winter.

‘I don’t want to downsize. I don’t know where we would move – but…’ he pronounces each word separately, ‘but… Maggie… does!’

The garden – her domain – backs onto a church.

‘Maggie’s going to throw my ashes over the wall into the cemetery,’ he remarks cheerfully.

Their son Harry is a fashion model, and their two daughters work with their dad. Holly is currently archiving all his work, Amy co-produced several of his films, including The Zero Theorem.

Set in a future gone mad, all strobing lights and phials of luminous ooze and crazy  billboards for the Church of Batman the Redeemer, it’s ‘about everything. And nothing’. Shot almost entirely in a disused chapel in Romania, it reveals ‘the absurdity of our over-connected lives’.

He cannot tolerate ‘the frightened number crunchers’ of Hollywood and no longer even has an agent there. Raising money for his films is a constant battle.

Despite this, Hollywood stars – Matt Dillon, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Jeff Bridges, Tilda Swinton, Jonathan Pryce – flock to him because he draws outstanding performances from them. ‘I want brave people. Fearless ones. A good actor just goes out and leaps off the edge and develops wings on hisway down, hopefully. Playing safe isn’t much fun. I like danger.’

His love of danger may have played into his decision to go with the ten scheduled Python reunions in 2014, the first of which, at the O2 in London, reportedly sold out in 43.5 seconds. The other Pythons, he says, were certainly partly driven by money: for divorce settlements, mortgages, the court case over Spamalot royalties, which they had recently lost.

 Maggie told him, half-tearful on the phone from a French airport, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing, you old farts? It’s going to be an embarrassing shambles.’

‘Don’t worry,’ he replied drily, ‘it will go bad at some point. I hope so, because when it went bad when we were doing the TV shows, it produced interesting moments.’

Of the Pythons themselves, he says: ‘I don’t like ’em, but we’re friends.’

He laughs. ‘No, no, it’s family! It’s more than friends. ‘Mike Palin, Terry Jones and I all live within five minutes of each other here. The thing that I find quite funny about it is that I immediately go back into my old role of being the monosyllabic Minnesota farm boy. There’s no way I can compete with them, with what they do.’

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Gilliam enjoys perhaps even more admiration in the rest of Europe than he does here.

In 2013 he received a prestigious honour from the French Ambassador, who spent a long time telling him how wonderful he was, and he replied with a speech admitting he didn’t like to talk about his career for fear he might be coming to the end of it. At the end of his speech he paused.

‘People,’ he added, as if he’d only just thought of it, ‘die when they are not able to dream.’

This article appeared in the February 2014 edition of Saga Magazine.

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