The visionary auteur and Monty Python man talks comic books, surrealism and the ‘genius’ of Banksy
Terry Gilliam is synonymous with a certain brand of fantasy absurdism. Since lending Monty Python its anarchic visual streak as the team’s animator-in-residence (and token American), he’s gone on to develop an instantly recognisable, baroque signature style as the director of films such as Brazil, Time Bandits and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. As such, the title of his new autobiography, Gilliamesque: A Pre-Posthumous Memoir, is no mere wishful thinking. Instead, it’s an inspired rummage through the creative wardrobe of one of cinema’s most influential stylists, tracing his journey from a cartoon-obsessed kid in rural Minnesota to an American ex-pat in swinging London and on to his legendarily tempestuous relationship with Hollywood as a director (Gilliam’s failures are almost as legendary as his successes, his cinematic roll-call of the damned including The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a planned adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and a sadly never-to-be-realised sequel to Dr Strangelove). The book also sheds fascinating light on the inspirations that helped shape his teeming aesthetic universe – here, Gilliam guides us through a few of them.
There used to be all sorts of comics in the Sunday newspapers. The tradition of comic books (in the States) goes way back to the 30s if not earlier, it had always been there. I never really bothered to dig deep into the whys and wherefores – I just liked it, so I copied it. With cartoons, you get immediate feedback. If people like what you’ve done they laugh, and you think, ‘That feels good, I’ll do some more.’ It’s as simple as that! Superheroes were part of it, but they didn’t dominate like they do now. If things had gone differently, those are the films I would have ended up making – comic-book films. But it just didn’t pan out that way, and by the time I’d got into a position to do bigger-budget films, I wasn’t really interested, I guess I had grown out of it. (Marvel comics legend) Stan Lee, whose daughter worked with me on Jabberwocky, has been doing comics for years, so there’s this huge storeroom of characters (for Hollywood to draw on), but the repetition we’re seeing on the big screen now is boring. It’s not that they’re bad films, necessarily – a lot of them are incredibly well made, there are good performances – but my mantra has always been, ‘Do what nobody else is doing.’
I did meet with Alan Moore (to discuss the Watchmen script Gilliam wrote with Charles McKeown, which never got off the ground). His comment was, ‘I’d rather you fuck it up than me,’ which I thought was great! (Zack Snyder’s Watchmen) started really well, it was very bang-bang-bang, and then it sort of fell apart, the big ideas of the graphic novels were just being ignored. But there was a lot of really good work in it. I thought it was funny (when Snyder said he made the film to “save it from the Terry Gilliams of the world”) because so many people went crazy, he really got hammered for that. So it was like, ‘Serves you right, Zack, ha ha!’ The thing is, a large budget compromises you all the time, because there are always nervous people around terrified that you’re gonna waste the money. And films now cost, like, £150 million dollars to make, plus marketing, so they’ve got to work for a broader audience, and to a certain point audiences are becoming numb. Rather than dumbed down, they’re becoming numbed down!
Mad was the magazine of my youth. It was basically a satire on comics, and it was making social and political statements that were funny, there wasn’t anything like it in America. (Former editor) Harvey Kurtzman and all those guys were really brilliant, they became like a pantheon of gods, basically. It was just so groundbreaking. Harvey went on to do Help! magazine, which was the beginning of my connection with him, I became his assistant editor in New York. But really the most important thing for me was doing these fumettis (photographic comics), because it was like making a movie without a motion picture camera. That was also how I met John Cleese – I got him a job and years later he got me a job (with Monty Python)!
DISNEYLAND (AND DISMALAND)
I was a huge fan of Disney’s films, the quality of the work was always brilliant. Before Disneyland (in California) opened, theme parks were very rough and ready. But this was so beautifully ddesigned, and the workmanship was fabulous. I used to go almost every weekend. I think part of it was me wanting to go to Europe, because the castle and a lot of the architecture was European-inspired – remember, films like Cinderella and Snow White were all Grimms’ fairytales.
(I read about Banksy’s satirical theme park) Dismaland – it looked fantastic, the whole idea of it was great. Banksy is my hero, he’s the best thing out there. I love that he’s taking all the material used to build it and taking it to the refugee camp in Calais. Banksy is a genius, he’s my guy. He’s so smart, so socially and politically aware of everything. And he has a great sense of humour.
They’re just great, profound stories – it’s dangerous stuff. When I was reading his books in the late 50s/early 60s, the Russian menace was front-page news every day in America. The communist hordes were at the gates! So I guess it was just me being perverse – like, if the threat is going to be Russia, I’d better start reading about the place, just to know what the Russian mind is like. And I fell for it. In college I took Russian as a foreign language. I said, ‘OK, if they’re coming, I want to be able to say welcome!’
Kubrick was my great hero. One time my wife and I were on holiday in Greece, and when I got back and found out he wanted me to do the titles for A Clockwork Orange. But he wanted them done in, like, a week, so it never happened. I also found out just a few years ago (that Kubrick wanted me to direct a sequel to Dr Strangelove). Nobody ever contacted me but, boy, I would’ve loved to do it. Kubrick was an odd person – his wisdom was Spielberg to do A.I. and Gilliam to do Strangelove! But it seemed like a kind of obvious choice, because I had the skills and I had the right attitude. Why didn’t he call me?
I love the surrealists, they make the mind do something. Your mind works so hard to make sense of it, and the result is new ways of looking. I didn’t even know about Max Ernst until (TV critic) George Melly wrote a piece (comparing Gilliam’s animation work on Monty Python’s Flying Circus to Ernst’s paintings). Dalí was probably the first of the surrealists whose work I came across. His stuff was great - and he was the best at self-promotion, ha ha. There’s a bookshop in New York I would always go into and browse when I was younger – in winter I would go in there just to stay warm. And I remember one day I was in the art section, and this new book of Dalí’s work had just been published, it had this big gold-leaf cover. Anyway I saw this guy rearranging the books, he was putting all the Dalí books out in front of the other books. I looked over to see who it was, and it was Dalí! Hahaha. What a wonderful thing that was.