Dreams: December 1997 interview with Terry Gilliam

Edited by Phil Stubbs

"Itís coming together. When you first put it together, youíve chosen the block of marble, and somewhere in there is the film, is the statue. Itís like chipping awayÖ You chip away and it comes closer to the thing youíve imagined."

Itís early December 1997, and Terry Gilliam is in his office in the West End of London - working on the post-production of his latest project, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, based on the 70s writings of Hunter S. Thompson.

Gilliam wrote the script with assistance from Tony Grisoni, at a frenzied pace. It was put together in eight days. He rejected it, and a further script took two days to prepare. Filming took place in Las Vegas during the summer, and the project has attracted many famous facesÖ Johnny Depp is the hero, with Benicio del Toro as his attorney. Also cropping up during the movie will be Christina Ricci, Gary Busey, Cameron Diaz, Lyle Lovett, Harry Dean Stanton and Ellen Barkin, amongst others.

Here, he talks to Dreams about Fear and Loathing, and his possible next project, The Defective Detective, about a burnt out cop who ends up in a child's fantasy world.

What have you been doing this morning, Terry?
Weíve been trying to put some music on the film. Weíre at that stage - fiddling with music. One room is busy trimming the film shorter. And Iím in the other room where weíre slamming sounds on.

Music will be crucial to a project like this.
Yes, thereís a lot of different kinds of music on this thing. It keeps shifting gears and we can use the music to tell the audience where they are. In a lot of cases weíre using stuff thatís obvious, itís obvious music. The film itself needs signposts along the trail and the music is one way of doing this.

How do you feel about the movie at the moment?
Youíve got a book and you write a script that hopefully captures the book which still works as a script and then you go and shoot the movie and you deal with all the realities of shooting. Some things go the way you want and some things donít, but then you put together ways that you intended when youíve wrote it and shot it and you realise that half the stuff doesnít work that way. So then you start shifting it around. Whatís so interesting about this stage is trying to find the best film from of all the stuff weíve done as opposed to best version of the script or the best version of the book.

I read a couple of days ago that Katherine Helmond was in the movie. Sheís given you two of your best performances - Mrs Ogre and Mrs Lowry. What role have you given her in this one?
Unfortunately she has a very small one. She turns into a moray eel. Sheís a reception clerk in a hotel. She becomes a moray eel. Due to the effects of LSD on the hero.

Do you think thereíll be a controversy when the movie is released?
Probably. I hope the movie becomes fairly controversial. I hope it makes a noise - I donít want it to go unnoticed. A lot of people will get angry but theyíll probably get angry for the wrong reasons though. I actually donít think itís a drugs movie, strangely enough.

Why is that?
If you make a film where people are at a bar drinking and smoking a lot, you donít say itís an alcoholicsí movie, or a smokersí movie. Itís not about that. The fuel may be drugs just like in other movies, with Sam Spade the fuel may be alcohol and cigarettes. What we do is allow our characters to get caught in a distorted world, which is already distorted by reality. We make it an altered reality which may be for the better and sometimes for the worse, depending on how much you have just imbibed.

Do we get to see the bats?
Oh, Iím not gonna tell you thatÖ you gotta pay your money!!!

What assistance did you get from Hunter S. Thompson?
Hunter was on the end of the phone quite a bit. What was the most useful thing was that Johnny spent a lot of time with him. And basically stole a lot of his clothing and his car which were then used in the movie!!!

Are there any filing cabinets in the movie?
Let me see, I donít think so, I think this may be freeÖ there is a cage in the movie. Thereís always been cages in my movies.

And in The Defective Detective thereís Nicolas CageÖ?
There you go, see.

Has The Defective Detective been green lighted yet?
No. This is one of the long unclotting open wounds that I carry with me. Youíre pushing a project up the hill and then it rolls back on top of you. You push it up and it rolls back again. Iím not sure if weíre pushing it up or if itís rolling back at the moment.

I understand that in The Defective Detective, you intend to film some of the fantasy sequences that you were unable to do in Brazil. Is this true?
Not really. The script started from me going into my files my drawers and digging out all the bits Iíd cut out of Brazil and Munchausen and everything else Iíd ever done. These are all good bits, letís knit them together. And some of them have found their way in and some havenít. It was a starting point, really.

Would it share more with Brazil, Time Bandits & Munchausen than your other moviesÖ?
Itís all of Ďem - it combines all of those elements. Itís all of those things - like Fanny and Alexander was kind of a compendium of all the best of Bergman. Thatís the idea on this one.

Do you intend to shoot in the UK or in the US?
Well the idea was that Iíd do it here. I mean itís proving to be a very frustrating project. Itís the one I want to do and itís the one that keeps eluding me and, because of different glitches that come along I end up doing other films like 12 Monkeys and Fear and Loathing. Iíve had this ever since I finished Fisher King a few years ago.

Is Don Quixote still a possible future project?
Well again itís another one that floats around. Iíve never felt weíd got the script right; itís a very complex project to get it right. Itís a bit like a painter whoís got several canvasses going at once. You walk away from it for a bit and donít look at it. And you look back at it and you begin to see whatís right and whatís wrong. And this is one we havenít got right yet. Thatís all I can say.

I understand that during the filming of Munchausen you met Fellini - what happened?
Actually the first time I met him was when Jonathan Pryce and I were in Rome promoting Brazil. He was shooting Ginger and Fred. We went down to the set - he was a big hero. What was interesting about being in Rome [making Munchausen] was that there I was in Cinecitta with Dante Ferretti who had designed several of his films. I was on Felliniís home turf with his people - an interloper clearly. Federico would pop into the art department - my office was in the middle of the art department. He would pop in occasionally and he would bless the whole thing and walk out.

One of the funniest things was when he was shooting Intervista, he actually put Mastroianni up in this Mandrake the Magician costume in a tree right outside the door of my office in the art department so we couldnít get in and out while he was shooting. He was saying "This is mine; this is my place. You work when I let you". He was great, I just loved him. And then during the course of the film, there were several dinners arranged which never quite happened and then finally on the very last night before I left Rome after weíd finished shooting finally I had dinner with him and Giulietta Masina and Dante Ferretti and it was great. One of the great memories was wandering around after dinner around the Trevi fountain arm in arm with Fellini - that was worth all the pain of Munchausen.

How do you feel about the pain of Munchausen, now. Do you feel you have learnt from it, adding to your experiences, or do you box it away at the back of your mind?
It all goes into the computer. Certain things you donít do again. And thereís certain things you do. Itís because it was so painful that Iím not really the best judge of the whole thing. The pity isÖthe thing that bothers me the most was not the making of the film, or any of that. It was the final hurdle in dealing with the studio, trying to get them to show an interest in the movie.

I agreed to cut it down to under two hours. I think it probably would have been a better film at two hours and five minutes. It just needed a bit more space and air around it. And I did and I mean it was my cut but, they made all the noises that if I co-operated with them they would then get behind the thing and that was then what they didnít do That was a big betrayal and thatís what hurts the most, not anything else. Itís the only time I made a trim for political reasons and it didnít pay off. Thatís what really is painful because the film would benefit from a few more minutes in there. Itís a pacing thing. Itís not about scenes, itís about pacing.

In The Fisher King, Tom Waits puts in a really memorable performance. Iíve been a fan of Tom for ages. It was a real shock to see him since he wasnít credited. How did Tom get involved?
He was a friend of Jeff Bridges, basically. He said, "You ought to meet Tom". Itís funny because when I met him and even in the course of making the film, Iíd never heard a Tom Waits record. Iíd never listened to them at all. I just met him and liked him immediately. So into the film he went, and he was great. The studio was trying to cut him out. They felt it wasnít advancing the narrative in any significant way so they thought that was things that could go. They were totally wrong.

Thereís been a lot of discussion regarding 12 Monkeys about the insurance woman at then end. Was the intention of that scene to close any ambiguities in the movie? Or should the ambiguities remain open?
I think there are several ambiguities but the intention was in our minds there was no question that she was the scientist from the future. My reading of the whole thing is that she gets the virus with which she is able to go back to the future and eventually save the future. Five billion people still die - all thatís necessary. So it was a very long term solution!!!

Quite honestly I like the fact thereís all of this discussion. I just read something on PythOnline - the whole thing about the kid - is it all in the kidís head. I think thatís wonderful so I donít want to limit the possibilities. Certainly our intention was that she is the scientist. She does get the virus and she goes back to the future and somehow allows the future generations of her generation to eventually reclaim the earth. A lot of people canít accept the idea that five billion people have to die in the course of all this.

Quentin Tarantino has said that you taught him the importance of delegation in movie making, but I understand you have very specific demands about what goes on screen. How does your relationships with other artists on the movie actually work?
You gather hopefully a really good group of people and then spend a lot of time talking about what youíre trying to do. I donít spend a great deal of time saying "Roger [Pratt], youíve got to light it like this". Weíll talk about it. Itís a very collaborative thing. You discuss it - theyíve got ideas and Iíve got ideas and we tend to leapfrog. I start with a specific idea and they come up with a better one and I come up with a better one and they come up with a better one. It works that way so, if everything is rolling right, my function is just to be the filter to say, "Yes, that goes in, and that doesnít go in."

I end up getting what I want, but I canít say that I did it. Some directors I hear about are just so specific. They leave no room for creative partners to do anything and I donít want that. I want everybody to bring their own skills to the film and then I take full credit for the whole thing in the end. Thatís where the unfairness comes in. Itís a lie. You can print that!

I understand that in March Ď98, youíre going to meet up in Aspen with your Python colleagues.
Thereís this comedy festival there and we all seem to have agreed to turn up there for an evening of I donít know what. Itís really I think just a Q&A.

Do you expect to put any firm plans together at that meeting?
Well when we got together in May we decided we were seriously going to talk about doing another film. And in October, Mike, Terry and Eric were supposed to be getting together to get started. They didnít, so nothingís happened so far, so weíll get together in March in Aspen. Weíll talk again and see what happens. I think itís less likely than we thought it was going to be in May. We all seem to be so stuck in doing our own things now.

You said before that you go to Hollywood to get a bag of money and you go away and make your movies. If you didnít get any money from Hollywood in the future for whatever reason, what would you do with the rest of your life?
Go to France and get money. Go to Germany and get money. Go everywhere else and get money!!! Whatís interesting about 12 Monkeys was that 52% of the budget was from England, Germany, France and Japan. So it was really a co-production and on this one even though Universal has come in, thereís been a lot of pre-sales before Universal got in, to Germany and France. Itís kind of a hybrid - thereís a lot of money floating around in Europe at the moment. The trick is that if I canít get it in the States then Iíll go elsewhere and ultimately Iíll have to reduce the scale of what Iím trying to do to whatever I can get. Itís as simple as that.

What future work remains on Fear and Loathing?
In the next few weeks weíll get a fine cut of the thing and then the soundtrack becomes the biggest thing plus a lot of the opticals and the special effects thatíre still in the works. The idea hopefully is that weíll be done in time for Cannes.

So itíll be ready for May?
Yeah. And I think theyíre talking about releasing it in the States in May as well.

Are you hoping itís going in competition?
I donít care if it goes in competition or not. It doesnít really matter to me. I just wanna make sure weíve got the best film we can get out of it. So far the thing seems to be forming itself nicely.

© Phil Stubbs, December 1997

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