A Short Biography of Terry GilliamWritten by Phil Stubbs
Terry Gilliam, one of cinema's few uncompromising iconoclasts, has divided the critics throughout his career. He is regularly admired for his dynamic mise-en-scene, yet is often dismissed for his indulgences. Gilliam's trademarks are plentiful,.... he has a penchant for wide-angle lenses - these distort the faces of his characters in close-ups, but they also pack a huge amount of background detail into his shots. His scripts are full of personal themes - his love of history, his championing of the imagination, his dislike of bureaucracy, and his distrust of doctors and science... and there is a cage in every movie. There are in fact many autobiographical elements to be found in his films, and he often adds plenty of cheap gags into the mixture.
For a director whose reputation lies in his visual imagination, Gilliam has enticed a great number of top-notch performances from actors Oliver Reed, Michael Palin, Robert de Niro, Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams, Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, and many others. Gilliam's own cinema hero is Fellini, whom he met in Rome while filming The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Like Fellini, Gilliam is determined to stamp his own imagination and personal obsessions onto the silver screen.
Terrence Vance Gilliam was born in Minnesota on 22 November 1940. After eleven early years of a Huckleberry Finn/Tom Sawyer-type childhood (his description), his family moved to LA. There he was a witness to the Hollywood system, from the fringes. As a kid, his drawing and cartooning skills developed. After graduating from school where he apparently excelled at pole vaulting, Gilliam went to the Occidental College, studying Physics, which he later changed to Politics. In his last year at college, Gilliam sent copies of his college magazine work to comic maestro Harvey Kurtzman in New York.
Kurtzman was running a magazine called Help!, and was impressed. When writer Charles Alverson left the magazine, a vacancy arose, and Gilliam took a job there. He spent the next three years there - writing, designing and drawing - but being paid very little. During the time at Help!, he met John Cleese, who was roped in to star in a photo-story spoof - as a guilt-ridden man involved in an affair with a small doll. Gilliam's time at Help! terminated when national service loomed. He joined the National Guard for a few months, after which Gilliam did not return to Help!. Instead, he spent some time on welfare, and then decided to leave America temporarily. Gilliam spent six months touring Europe, hitchhiking and on motorbike. For part of the time, he worked as a cartoonist in Paris. Gilliam returned to America, and first went to New York, staying in Harvey Kurtzman's attic. He then moved back home in Los Angeles, and found a job in an advertising agency.
"I got it because I was
stylish", says Terry, "They hired me because of my hair. One day I
went to a girl's place and took with me a cover of Beatles for Sale and said,
'Come on, let's just do it. Pull it all down and cut bangs like The
Beatles.'" "This hairstyle had become a threat to the structure of the
entire society. America then had a real problem about conformity." Gilliam
was stopped by the police while driving a Hillman Minx. He was frisked,
"because they knew who I was - I was an out-of-work musician, living off
some middle-class man's daughter, peddling drugs." That Gilliam was
actually working in advertising, making twice the money of the policemen, did
not endear him to them. Whilst working at the advertising agency, Gilliam was
living with a British journalist Glenys Roberts, who recalls, "We had this
little glasshouse together in LA. He worked so hard for such little money. I
remember he did a cartoon strip for a surfing magazine, for nothing really, yet
he stayed up five nights running to finish it. We couldn't afford tables, so he
took all the doors off, laid them on bricks to make trestle tables. He walked up
and down all night working on storyboards for his strip. His enthusisam was
incredible. And his work rate amazing. I never personally liked his sense of
humour, but I could see his work was brilliant and original."
Barry Took, a British producer and broadcaster, was at the time selecting
comedians for a new television show. It was at Eric Idle's urging that Gilliam
be included. That television show became Monty Python's Flying Circus, and
Gilliam became the resident cartoonist. Gilliam was responsible for the whole
visual style of the Python TV shows, and later either co-directed or designed
the Python films. "I knew the techniques of animation in theory, having
read a book or two, but I had never done anything in practice. The cutout
technique I had seen years earlier in New York. It was fast and crude. If I had
been given the money and time, I would probably tried to do a Walt Disney style.
I think I was good with sound effects and the timing. The noises are fifty
percent of the effect. I'd literally work day and night when we were doing a
series. The BBC had an excellent rostrum camera set-up. I'd be going seven days
a week, usually with two all-nighters, churning out artwork, then I'd go down
there to play with it under a camera." Gilliam can also occasionally be
seen as a performer, most notably as Cardinal Fang in the Spanish Inquisition
sketch (pictured). It was during the TV shows that Gilliam met his wife, Maggie
Weston, who was in charge of make up for the TV shows. Weston has subsequently
contributed to Gilliam's films.
Gilliam then gained valuable movie experience with
the first Python film outings: And Now for Something Completely Different and
Monty Python and the Holy Grail - the latter he co-directed with Terry Jones.
This led to his first solo outing as director - Jabberwocky, a medieval fantasy
starring Michael Palin. Later, Gilliam contributed to the Python films The Life
of Brian and The Meaning of Life, but left Jones to direct on his own. In the
1980s, Gilliam created four hugely personal films: Time Bandits (1981), The
Crimson Permanent Assurance (1983), Brazil (1985) and The Adventures of Baron
Munchausen (1989). Gilliam created Time Bandits as a film all ages would enjoy.
In this he succeeded - his picaresque tale of six time-travelling thieves was a
hit across the States. He follows it with an outrageous short film The Crimson
Permanent Assurance, a live action cartoon - Gilliam in unadulterated form,
which documented the adventures of a band of piratical accountancy clerks. It is
a hugely enjoyable folly, which was to be featured in the middle of the film,
but was wisely moved to the start. This was Gilliam's contribution to the final
Python movie, Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. This is an uneven film, but
contains some of the best work that the Pythons ever did, including Every Sperm
So for Gilliam, his
reputation now rebuilt thanks to The Fisher King, the offers came in, and he
began developing his next movie The Defective Detective, with Richard
LaGravenese. The theme is of a burned-out New York cop who ends up inside a
child's fantasy world. Not just any fantasy world, of course, but maybe more
original, outrageous and weird than anything previously seen on celluloid.
However, Gilliam entered "Development Hell". By the end of 1994,
Gilliam had still not got this project off the ground, since Paramount put the
project into "development", but refused to believe that Gilliam could
make it for $25m. Gilliam said he "begged, grovelled and humiliated"
himself, but to no avail. Gilliam was unable to get any of his projects off
the ground. At the time he said, "I'd like to get a couple more films done
before I die. The joke is that I did The Fisher King with an eye to suddenly
changing my rhythm and trying to make films quicker and more often. I thought
'Now I've proved to them that I can work in Hollywood, they trust me and we'll
be able to get another project off very quickly.' It hasn't worked out that way