Fear & Loathing in Hollywood

Tales from Down the Front goes Down to the Front Row for a second time to talk to another Hollywood legend. This time, maverick director and ex-Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam…

Terry Gilliam last released a full length feature film in 2009. The ex-Monty Python animator has spent the three years since The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus struggling to get a long list of follow-up projects off the ground. When he staged a well-received production of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust at the English National Opera last May, many thought Gilliam’s days as a film director were over.

However, rather than abandoning cinema, Gilliam has kept in the game by making short films, the latest of which, The Wholly Family, opened the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival in April. Nick Amies met him there to discuss the current state of his career, the film industry and the world in general.

You’ve been living in London now for 45 years. Do you consider yourself to be more European than American these days?

I’ve lived the majority of my life in London so I guess I do feel more European than American. But then London doesn’t want to be European, does it? London lives in its own dream. In actual terms, I am closer to being European as I renounced my American citizenship about six years ago when George W. Bush got re-elected. I just thought, this idiot has been voted back in by more American idiots so it’s time to leave. I’m still in the probation period so I won’t truly be free of the US for another four years. At the moment I can only spend 30 days a year there, less than if I had a British tourist visa. My kids can spend more time there than I can.

How does this interfere with your film-making?

America isn’t the only place where you can make movies but the citizenship situation has certainly added another layer to my problematic film-making relationship with the US. The irony is that two weeks after I renounced my citizenship I was offered a film in California. I couldn’t take it. I can still make films in Canada, which looks like America, so I’ve made a couple of films there (Tideland in 2005 and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus in 2009), and there’s Mexico on the other side if I need that kind of environment.

When you originally left the United States in the 1960s after becoming disillusioned with the government’s response to the social unrest there, you began channelling your anti-establishment politics into your art. Where do you see parallels between the response of artists then and the response to the current global instability?

To be honest, I don’t see anyone dealing with the state of the world, asking questions or making challenging statements in their art. I don’t think there’s any kind of artistic response to this current situation. People are just looking for jobs and looking to get paid.

What’s your own personal opinion on the current state of the world?

The situation today is depressing because we kinda predicted it in Brazil back in 1985. A couple of years ago I was considering suing George Bush and Dick Cheney for the illegal and unauthorized remake. They infringed on my copyright! What else is the Department of Homeland Security than the Ministry of Information made flesh? In fact, Homeland Security is even worse. It’s terrible and what’s worse is that people accept it. It’s incredible how easily intelligent people have been convinced by this idea that we’re under threat from terrorists. There was a lot more terrorism going on 30 years ago; there was the IRA bombing London, Baader Meinhof was terrorizing Germany, the Red Brigade in Italy… Scary stuff was happening. Today’s situation is based on fear and the best way to control people is to keep them scared.

How is Hollywood reacting to this situation?

Hollywood has been afraid to take risks for a long time now. All the studios want is a safe pair of hands who can deliver the package. That’s been my experience of Hollywood ever since I’ve been involved in it. They don’t want to take chances so they continue to hitch their wagons to the same old tried and tested formulas. That’s why the studios are so obsessed with franchises and comic book heroes. I’m concerned about where this is taking us. I love super heroes but not to the extent that they should be dominating not only cinema but consciousness.

To what extent do audiences have a responsibility to challenge the film industry and say enough is enough?

I’ve been moaning about the dumbing down of audiences for years now because the longer you keep churning out this production line crap, the more audiences are going to like it – and need it. There’s an element of security that re-makes and re-hashes provide which supplies audiences with a kind of visual soma. We’re at the stage where audiences just want to know that everything will be the same and I feel a real sense of desperation about that. Maybe it’s because the world has become so diffused and unclear that people just want to go back to what they know over and over again. Maybe that’s one of the clearest reflections on the state of the world right now. Maybe that’s what people need to do rather than exploring new things all the time, to reassure themselves that Spider-Man can still do the things he’s always done.

Given the critical and commercial success you’ve enjoyed in your career, are people still put off by your reputation as being something of a maverick director?

Even now, I’m still seen as a rebel in Hollywood. They see me as someone who won’t be controlled as easily as a young guy straight out of making commercials. They don’t want some 71-year-old hippie who still hasn’t learned to play the game after all these years, coming in and having his own ideas. And that goes against me sometimes. Take the first Harry Potter film, for example. I was the perfect guy for that movie. They all knew it. JK Rowling wanted me to do it, David Heyman the producer wanted me to do it. So I went into the meeting feeling really positive and one half of the people there wanted me and the other half I won over. But one guy from Warner’s over-ruled everyone and Chris Columbus got the gig. I was furious at the time but in hindsight, the level of studio interference on a project that size would have driven me insane.

You’re famous for having numerous projects in various stages of development at any one time. What’s the state of play with the current batch?

I still have the Terry Pratchett-Neil Gaimon project Good Omens sitting there, I have the Defective Detective screenplay in the catacombs of some studio gathering dust… These need digging out and brushing up but people in Hollywood don’t like hard work and resurrecting projects is hard work. They only want whatever is hot at the moment. They live on today’s heat. The truth is I spend most of my life depressed; I get depressed about trying to get the money I need to do what I want to do. It’s a very frustrating experience trying to find the money to do what you love. People think that there’s a sell-by-date on my projects and that makes it hard to find investment. There’s no sell-by-date on anything.

You recently said that you were worried that you may never get the chance to make another full-length feature. How much does that have to do with the struggle for financing?

Well, I need about $20 million to make my kind of films. If I could do it on $10 million, I’d be making a movie every week. So the money’s a factor, for sure. But the Hollywood structure is another. There is someone who has the capacity to make big budget films outside the main framework who could help. I just need to get off my ass and get back over to Hollywood – which I dread. It’s getting back into a world that I despise.

So if you get the financial backing you need, will we finally get to see The Man Who Killed Don Quixote?

I can’t tell you what’s happening with Quixote. Not because it’s a great secret…I just don’t know! I wish I did.

This interview first appeared in edited form in the May 17 edition of the Economist’s Prospero culture blog.

Photographs ©benitalipps