Terry Gilliam's Hollywood reputation seems to change on an hourly basis. Originally a writer, performer, director, and animator for Monty Python's Flying Circus, Gilliam came into his own with a series of dark, brilliant, lavishly produced fantasy films, including Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, 12 Monkeys, and The Fisher King. But studio battles over his uncompromising artistic vision, as well as production problems and massive cost overruns (as documented in books like Jack Mathews' The Battle Of Brazil and Andrew Yule's Losing The Light: Terry Gilliam And The Munchausen Saga), have at times made him look unemployable. Still, he's consistently bounced back with new, critically acclaimed projects. Gilliam's last completed film, 1998's Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, adapted Hunter S. Thompson's 1971 book of the same name into an intense, delirious cinematic fever dream. (The massive Criterion Collection DVD release of the film is due out Feb. 18.) After Fear And Loathing, Gilliam had two major projects on his plate: Good Omens, an adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's hilarious novel about the antichrist, and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, an ambitious adaptation of Miguel De Cervantes' Don Quixote. But Good Omens is currently stalled, and Don Quixote fell apart due to an extraordinary run of production problems, which directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe document in their new film Lost In La Mancha. While in England waiting on the latest chapter in the Don Quixote saga, Gilliam recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about Fear And Loathing, the long-rumored film adaptation of Alan Moore's Watchmen, why fantasy is a necessary part of cinematic reality, and why Darth Vader wasn't really evil.
The Onion: When The Onion A.V. Club last spoke to you, just as Fear And Loathing was coming out, you were asked how a book written in 1971 related to contemporary society. You said it brought perspective on a period when things were much simpler—when there were criminals in the White House and we were immersed in an unjust war. Does the current political situation make the film more or less relevant than it was five years ago?
Terry Gilliam: Well, the times have caught up with what I was talking about. It's very simple now. I don't know why people try to complicate it. There are criminals in the White House and there's possibly an unjust war about to be fought, so there you go. It's cyclical, you do begin to feel at a certain point. We were in the war [when Fear And Loathing was written], so it wasn't something that was being talked about, or that people were trying to find an excuse for going into. All that was past, and everybody had gotten wind of what was going on and began to realize how wrong it was. I'm not sure if enough people in America have gotten wind of what's about to happen now—and, if it does happen, whether it's right or wrong. That may be the only difference. But we certainly have criminals in the White House. These are even more successful than the last time. I mean, Nixon and company were kind of petty in their ambitions. These guys are ruthless beyond belief, and boy, are they pocketing a lot of money.
O: If we're moving back toward the early '70s politically and socially, what about culturally?
TG: Well, after Fear And Loathing, he wrote another piece, about a nation of frightened sheep. [The Great Shark Hunt. —ed.] And I think that's where we are now. The sheepdogs and shepherds seem to be the media. And the people are unfortunately… It's very hard to speak, because the people are not letting their voices be heard. If you look at the midterm elections, where the Republicans are claiming they got a mandate to lead the nation into better times for the rich, it's nonsense, when you realize that only 39 percent of the electorate voted, and the Republicans just barely won, so you could say they have a mandate from 20 percent of the voting public. Now, that's quite frightening, especially when in places like Serbia, the elections are having to be fought again because they only got like 47 percent of the electorate voting, and that was deemed not to be democratic. Nobody seems to be making much noise about the undemocratic voting in America. The sad thing is, the people who should be voting aren't participating. They seem to have washed their hands of politics, or they're so desperately trying to make ends meet that they aren't thinking about what's causing their problems.
O: Few of your films are in contemporary or real-world settings, but do you have contemporary political and social issues in mind when you're making them?
TG: Always. I think everything I've done has been me making my comments disguised with period costumes and silly sets. I mean, it's a way of abstracting, because I think it's easier for people to swallow some of the things I've put forward because it's not right on the nose. I've always argued that my approach to making statements about the world is the Mary Poppins approach, where a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine goes down.
O: Is there really sugar involved, though? Your films tend to be dark and grim, almost bitter.
TG: But they're funny. There's laughs akimbo through them. I don't find them that way—I find my films funny. And luckily, when I sit there with audiences, there's laughter all the way through them, normally. Or enough laughter. I mean, they vary, and each film is approached in a slightly different way. But they're meant to be enjoyable experiences, not painful. Now, admittedly, when Brazil came out, people were walking out in droves. They found it painful, or offensive, or irritating, or just maybe dumb. But they left. And now, somehow, enough people realize it was about something… Fear And Loathing, in a strange way, was like that. It was interesting: When we made it, I felt the prime audience would have been college students, who were ripe and ready to consider new ideas—or old ideas, at least—of anarchy, or whatever. But the college kids, it didn't seem to work for them as I'd hoped. And I discovered that what seemed to be the prime audience… The ones who were really receptive were high-school students, who hadn't yet committed to their careers. College used to be about expanding your mind, and ideas, and now it seems to be just stage one of your career, and if you don't do well in college, you might as well just commit suicide, like Japanese students used to do in the old days. But the high-school kids were still open-minded and willing to consider things. A lot of college kids, the film seemed to worry them, I think because it was too anarchic for them. It's just a theory, though. I have no proof of any of this.
O: Given the fantasy elements of your films, and the way fantasy is usually associated with light escapism, do you think viewers who aren't familiar with your work are more likely to have trouble accepting the darker themes and the sense of anarchy?
TG: Quite possibly. I mean, that's always the hard part about selling a film: How do you prepare an audience for what they're about to experience? Unfortunately, what happens with studios is that they try to sell everything as the lighter side of something. Take Fear And Loathing: That was marketed in absolutely the wrong way, as the wacky weekend adventures of a couple of guys, two buddies hanging out in Vegas. Which is not at all what the film was about. Fortunately, these days you have alternate venues for everything, so a film that's marketed badly can find a new life in video, on DVD, cable, overseas, in broadcast… It's kind of a nice time we live in, in that sense, because while we seldom get a chance to see films re-run on the big screen, you can actually see them in some form whenever you want.
O: Which of your films do you feel holds up best in revival?
TG: I don't know, to be honest. Brazil, I can't seem to escape from. It just seems to be some kind of benchmark, a watermark where the flood got really high. People have different responses. It's nice—when they come up to me, they'll say their favorite film is The Fisher King, because it's the most romantic and sweet. Or their favorite film is Munchausen, because it's the most beautiful, or it's Brazil, because it's unfortunately the most timely. [Laughs.] Fear And Loathing, I'm never certain. It's still new, so it hasn't settled down as to what it is… 12 Monkeys keeps popping up as a favorite. It just depends on who I meet and what time of day it is, and how much they've had to drink, I suppose.
O: Speaking of things you can't escape, Monty Python is still hanging over your head in some sense. Do you think your association with the group makes people approach your serious work differently than they might otherwise?
TG: I don't think so. I think I've done enough things on my own now that if they see my name, they aren't going to be rushing in because of Monty Python. I think enough time has elapsed. I mean, I'm not even sure whether anyone goes to see movies because my name's attached to them. I don't know how any of this works. But Python certainly lingers on. I look at Python and I kind of see a different guy there. It's certainly not me that did that stuff. I couldn't do that now, because my brain isn't able to free-associate as wildly as it could then.
O: Do you ever miss the simplicity or the hands-on process of animation, as opposed to the massive job of writing and directing live-action feature films?
TG: Yeah, sometimes. It's a lot easier than having to deal with the multitude of people you do on a film. On the other hand, I did it for long enough to realize that working in combinations with other people is in many ways more exciting. I love the leapfrogging of ideas that goes on when you work with other people. I've got an idea, they've got a better one. Then I have to better them, so I come up with what I think is a better one, and then they top me. That's exciting, because it's not about egos. It's about coming up with the best ideas, and a great idea… I don't care who comes up with it. It's something to get excited about.
O: You've made efforts with some of your films—The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, especially—to get away from Hollywood financing and the Hollywood system. With Good Omens, are you working primarily inside Hollywood?
TG: Well, I'm not doing anything with Good Omens at the moment. It's sitting there quietly vegetating, marinating, because we just didn't manage to get it together. We went out to Hollywood—because it's a very expensive film—in November of 2001, trying to sell a comedy about the apocalypse. So I think our timing was unfortunate.
O: Do you think there's any chance for it outside of Hollywood?
TG: No. We'll need Hollywood money. With any likelihood, half the money will probably come from abroad, but we'll need a big whack of Hollywood money. Unfortunately, at the moment, financing in Europe is not the easiest, because a lot of things have happened this last year that have made it harder to get money here.
O: What's your current stance on Hollywood? Necessary evil, or unnecessary evil?
TG: Unfortunately, it's there. It's what it is. If you make films of a certain size and scale, you're not going to be able to get away from Hollywood. That's unfortunately, to me, the most depressing aspect of Man Who Killed Don Quixote falling apart, because we'd managed to raise $32 million without a penny from Hollywood, without even a distribution deal, nothing. It was me trying to show that we could make it. By European standards, that's a really big budget; by Hollywood standards, it's below the norm. But it was enough money in Europe to make a spectacular film, and I was determined to show that Hollywood doesn't have to be everywhere all the time. But I'm afraid that with the failure, the inability to make the film, we lost that. At the moment, the way financing is in Europe, Hollywood is absolutely necessary. So I think for the next few years, we won't be able to escape Hollywood at all.
O: What's Don Quixote's status? Have you despaired of it, or is it still a possibility?
TG: No, no, the timing is absolutely exquisite. Today, all the relevant parties have been meeting in Paris, to sort out how I get the rights back once and for all. This has been going on for a year and a half, and it's complex, and it's blah blah blah. But today, we're finally in meetings with all the parties. Everybody wants to get it off their hands and get it back to me, but it's just been complex. With any luck, I'll have it back in my grubby little hands shortly. [Laughs.]
O: Do you consider that your current project, or are you working on something else?
TG: There is something else I'm working on, but I refuse to talk about that right now, because every time I mention what I'm doing next, it somehow collapses. So I'm keeping it quiet.
O: Your production ups and downs, both budgetary and idealistic, have been well documented. Do you think you have more production problems than other directors, or are you just more heavily scrutinized?
TG: A little bit of both, actually. I think it's all of that there. I guess the subject matter I've been trying to deal with just costs more money. If I were doing cheaper films, it wouldn't matter at all. But my films happen to be expensive, and they're trying to say something at the same time, and the combination seldom goes together. The irony is, the films I've had the easiest ride on have been the Hollywood films. Movies like The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys were a breeze, and they were both very successful, and I had no fights with the studios, nothing. Everything went hunky-dory. That was even true with Fear And Loathing, even though I didn't like the way it was sold. As far as the making of that, I was completely left alone. So I shouldn't be complaining about Hollywood at all. As far as… Brazil was the big fight, but that doesn't happen very often, and it certainly doesn't get chronicled and made public that often. So that kind of has stuck with me as the norm, but it's not, really.
O: Given an unlimited budget and complete creative control, what would you be working on today?
TG: You know, I'd probably be panicked, in such a state that I'd be catatonic. I wouldn't know what to do. I've never been in that situation. That's a terrible responsibility. Luckily, I can always complain that somebody didn't give me enough money, and so I didn't make the perfect film. Given all the time and money, I think I would just freeze. It's just too much of a burden that way. There'd be no excuses for fucking up.
O: Is there any hope for the Watchmen film project? Do you ever still think about that one?
TG: I hear someone has actually written a script now, and it's supposedly good, but that's all I've heard. Whether it's going ahead, I have no idea. Nobody's told me. I've heard somebody else is going to make it, but I spend no time thinking about Watchmen at all. That was a really difficult one, because I thought it was such a wonderful book, and I didn't see how we could condense it and not destroy it at the same time. I was never totally comfortable with the project: I really thought it should have been a five-part miniseries for television, and then you would have had the time to develop the characters as they developed in the book.
O: Are there projects that still stick with you mentally? Films you completed but would like to go back and change, or incomplete projects you want to revisit?
TG: I wouldn't waste time thinking about the things I could fix on the films I've made; I just don't do that. I've still got several projects that I would love to do someday—a thing called Tideland, Good Omens, what else, The Minotaur—and I don't know whether any of them will ever come together. It's always a funny thing: Things go in waves. Sometimes, you're riding high and things are all falling together, and at other times, they're not. But I go back to all those projects at different points and look at them and see if I can get them going again. Momentum is the key to everything, and at the moment, the thing I'm working on now that I won't tell you about has momentum behind it, and I'm just riding the momentum at the moment. Because all these other projects have been developed outside of Hollywood, and it's very hard to go into Hollywood and get them excited about things they haven't already invested in, especially when they're more complicated projects, or less easy to sell. The thing I'm working on at the moment is a Hollywood project—they initiated it, they spent money on it, and they want to get it made. So I'm trying to fix it so I'm happy with it, as opposed to fighting this continual uphill battle of trying to get them to cough up money for something they have no involvement in.
O: Getting back to Fear And Loathing: It's your most real-world film, but it still has touches of surreality. Do you think you'd have any interest in a film without those nods to the fantastical?
TG: I just don't think it'd be about reality, then, a film with no fantasy in it. [Laughs.] That's the problem. I mean, I suppose I keep making those films because I think fantasy is an aspect of reality. Without those leaps, it's pretty banal, and there are so many other people who are better at doing that. I mean, I just do things that relate in some way to the way I experience the world, and fantasy is a huge part of that. Reality is extraordinary, but the best parts of it don't make good movies, I think.
O: Do you think fantasy in cinema has changed significantly since you started making films?
TG: Not really, except that it seems so much of it is… I think Star Wars kind of set the level of it, and that's just good comic-book romping. It's not the kind of fantasy that's awe-inspiring or terrifying, and that's where I'm interested in fantasy. Fantasy isn't just a jolly escape: It's an escape, but into something far more extreme than reality, or normality. It's where things are more beautiful and more wondrous and more terrifying. You move into a world of conflicting extremes. So much of the fantasy I see is just a sort of cartoon romp, a kind of wish-fulfillment. I remember, years ago, talking to George Lucas about evil. He thought Darth Vader was evil. And I said, "No, he's not evil. He's just the bad guy. You can see him coming a mile away—he wears black. Evil is Mike Palin in Brazil, your best friend, the father of three, a good man, who just does what he does." [Palin's Brazil character was a nervous, mild-mannered government torturer. —ed.] That's the difference. The big jolly escape… Filmmaking has become amazingly baroque now. The camera can go anywhere. We can do anything, and it's just "Wow!" And yet I find that most of the films I see are just rides, E-rides at Disneyland. They're nothing that tends to stay with me. They don't touch any core that is either worrisome or inspiring. They're good fun, but usually when you walk out of the cinema, they're gone. They don't leave bits of shrapnel in you.
O: Obviously more serious movies can have a lasting effect, but do you think it's possible to have an action movie, a ride movie, that's fun and escapist but lingers after it's over?
TG: Well, I hope I've done a couple of them. I'm sure a million people run up to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and say they're the greatest people ever, that they've changed their lives. Well, I've affected a few people's lives. That's all I know.
O: Is there any particular form you'd like those effects to take? If a film has a lasting impact, does it matter exactly what that impact is?
TG: Not really. It's really just, have I gotten into some nerve tissue that's made them think, or possibly perceive the world differently? I hope there's a certain level of humanity in my work… The best review I ever got was when I was in Dallas doing a radio talk show, while I was promoting Munchausen. And it was a phone-in show. I got a call… [Adopts a Southern drawl.] "Mister Gilliam, ah gotta thank you for, ah, that Baron Munchausen. Ah giggled in awe." [Laughs.] I thought that was the best thing I'd ever heard. In fact, I'm going to have that carved into my tombstone: "He giggled in awe."