Reel Talk is NME’s weekly interview feature with the biggest names in film and TV
“So is there a new Arcade Fire album? HURGH-HURHHHH! Or an Arctic Monkeys? HEEE-HEEEEERGGHH!”
Terry Gilliam’s laugh is a thing of legend. Sometimes a high-pitched wheeze, sometimes a choking simian chuckle, it wracks him constantly, keeps his cheeks permanently reddened, his eyes streaming. Everything is cause for immense hilarity – in this case, the chance to catch up on the latest music releases via an interview with NME. Life, for Gilliam, is one endless, enormous joke.
What’s the root of his relentless hysteria, you wonder? Was something in his genetic make-up altered during his early years as illustrator and then full member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus which has caused their funniest moments to embed themselves in his DNA and play out in IMAX on his mind’s eye for all eternity? Perhaps the imagination that has been splashing absurdist visions across our cinema screens for 45 years is in a constant state of bemused hysteria. It could be he’s enjoying sowing mayhem in the press – in a separate interview which takes place on the same day as NME’s, Gilliam will describe the #MeToo movement as a “witch hunt” and declare “I’m tired, as a white male, of being blamed for everything that is wrong with the world”. Or maybe Gilliam is consta-giggling with relief that the unfinished, nay cursed film that has been tormenting (and, in a strange way, comforting) him for the past 30 years has finally been completed.
“Can I die happy now?” he grins, lounging in a panoramic meeting room overlooking King’s Cross. “Well, I can die quicker now, let’s put it that way. HAAGH-HAAA!”
The film is The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam’s pet project that became a much-thwarted albatross of a production and one of the most legendary cases of ‘development hell’ ever undertaken. When the original shoot for the film began in Spain in September 2000, with French actor Jean Rochefort playing Quixote and Johnny Depp as time-travelling marketing executive Toby, misfortunes stacked up fast and the production was cancelled. Insurance and legal wrangles continued for years in the aftermath. Yet Gilliam couldn’t shake the project. He tried to resurrect it in 2005 with Gerard Depardieu in the title role, in 2008 with Michael Palin and Depp as Quixote and Panza, in 2010 with Robert Duvall and Ewan McGregor, then in 2014 with John Hurt and Jack O’Connell. Each attempt was thwarted by funding issues, clashing schedules or Hurt’s diagnosis with pancreatic cancer. Were there moments he wanted to give up on it?
“So many reasonable, decent people said, ‘give it up’,” Gilliam chuckles. “How can you give it up when reasonable people are saying that? No crazy person said ‘give it up’, they all said ‘come on, you gotta do it’. So I listened to the crazy people and not the reasonable people…”
So he powered on and finally completed his near lifelong obsession, with Jonathan Pryce as Quixote. Having been re-written virtually every year since 1989, the finished film now concerns an advert director played by Adam Driver who inadvertently revisits the locations from a student film of Don Quixote he made 10 years earlier, only to find his local cast deeply affected by the aftermath of the film – his leading man is convinced he actually is Quixote and his leading lady has run off to chase tragically failed dreams of stardom.
Against three decades’ worth of insurmountable odds, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote arrives in UK cinemas this month after receiving a 20-minute ovation at Cannes 2019.
Finally wrapping on what IndieWire called “one of the most troubled productions in the history of cinema” has given Gilliam a chance to pause and look back on an illustrious directorial career. He remains proud of his accepted masterpiece Brazil (1985) – “it’ll be on my gravestone” – but also of following the lead of Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges on The Fisher King (1991), “disturbing so many people” with Tideland (2005) and going full gonzo with a bald-capped Johnny Depp on 1998’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.
“Pow-pow-pow, just go, don’t think, work it out later. That I love… What I like about my films, most of them stand the test of time, they maybe improve. Maybe I’m really a winemaker. I had to look at Fear And Loathing recently because [film and DVD distributor] Arrow have just done a new version with all sort of extras on it. And I was sitting there watching it… and I couldn’t believe what we had done. I was like, ‘who made this film?’…There’s Johnny [Depp] firing like mad. There’s Benicio [del Toro] firing in a completely different way and with him you never knew what was happening. And the end result, I just love it.”
You’ve come a long way from having to wear a policeman’s helmet full of crispy frog vomit…
Gilliam cackles, recalling his most notorious role in Monty Python Live At The Hollywood Bowl in 1982. “Vomiting in front of 16,000 people? HAAA-HAAARGGH! I guess so. It was still fun. Doing things like that, it’s like being a kid again, just being ridiculous.”
We tell him that we always felt a bit sorry for him, only ever getting the gross walk-on roles. “I’m convinced it was [John] Cleese [to blame] because he’s never understood what it is I do. He can’t explain it. We’re doing the thing on the stage show where he’s the Pope, I’d go out and do this ridiculous, demented intro. He hated it. He just wanted me off. ‘Just get out of the way, I’ve got my moment to come on’. I did a lot of that stuff out of sheer boredom because otherwise I’m just sitting around in the studio doing nothing.”
Gilliam is immensely grateful for the life Python gave him. “If I hadn’t turned up in England and that hadn’t happened I wouldn’t be making films. I don’t have the patience to be a tea boy and work my way up. I just came in the top. There was Terry Jones [who sadly passed after this interview took place] and I, neither of us had made a feature film before and suddenly there’s our credits up there, and people see it and they think you know what you’re doing. So I’ve been working my way down for a long time from the top.”
After hearing of Jones’ death yesterday (January 22), Gilliam took to social media to praise an “outrageously funny and generous and kind human being.” It’s yet more proof of the gratitude he still holds towards his fellow pythons.
Behind the surrealism and fantasy, of course, Gilliam’s films often bear a socio-political subtext, the Orwellian ideas of the individual versus a dystopian society being a running theme since Brazil. Gilliam on 2020, though, is brutally frank.
Blimey, you could break it to us more gently. We meet the day after last December’s general election and Gilliam is cheerily aghast at the result. “I mean, what is going on with the world where a serial liar can win?” he says. “The British have really let me down. I always thought the Brits were pragmatic, it’s one of the reasons I came here, rather than as ideologically confused as Americans. Where’s the pragmatism?
“On my Facebook page I was doing a lot of Remain campaigning, and just getting the anger from the Brexiteers. The anger was what amazed me, and I think the people who voted to leave are the ones who will be screaming the loudest in a couple of years… And this desperate need to be America’s poodle. Is this what happens when you lose the biggest Empire in the world, you become somebody else’s poodle? It’s horrible. What I liked about Britain was that they dealt with the loss of empire with self-deprecating comedy. It was wonderful, but that’s all faded away. And now this new ‘make Britain great again’ – is that what we’re talking about?”
How do you feel about our shift to the far right, with Trump and Boris?
“Well, Pandora’s Box has been opened and they’re sprouting like mushrooms now. The autocrats, this fake nationalism, this anti-‘the other’. Some of it’s genuine, I understand it, but during the referendum all the people who voted Brexit because of the immigrants, there’s no immigrants out there where they’re voting against them.
“London has always benefited from immigration. Idi Amin was a ‘great hero’ of mine – and for heaven’s sake, this is in quotes – because the Ugandan Asians all came up here, so the shops are open ‘til midnight, we get decent kebabs, we can get everything. That’s why I always said America owes a great debt to Hitler, Hollywood in particular, because all the Billy Wilders, all the Jews made their way to America to create basically, in many ways, America as we know it, all the great films, everything. Hitler. So there’s always a silver lining somewhere on the planet. I don’t know where the silver lining is going to be from what’s happening in this country. Who’s going to be the beneficiary? Great Britain is not great, its only power is being part of Europe. I actually do despair. Trump has depressed me beyond belief and then Boris comes in as mini-Trump. Who do we blame? The internet, because we’ve become atomised? We’re spread all over the place, we don’t talk.”
If the above sounds controversial, it’s a big day for it. When NME asks him about falling out with Harvey Weinstein during the making of 2005’s The Brothers Grimm, and whether the Weinstein scandal was waiting to happen, he’s rather more diplomatic than he has been with other interviewers.
“Yeah, eventually,” he nods. “My theory is Harvey fell not because he’s a monster, which he is, but because he’s an asshole. So when he stumbled there was nobody there. All the boots went in and that was it. Power corrupted – Harvey could get away with murder. Outside, we watched it over the years waiting for him to fall and thinking ‘how has he got through it?’. When we were doing Brothers Grimm I hated Harvey, but we knew, girls do not go in that door. We all knew it. That’s what bothers me about the hypocrisy of all these people in Hollywood saying ‘we knew nothing about this’. Give me a fucking break.”
As in his films, behind the dazzling smile lurks, you suspect, a darker slant on life. Gilliam admits to finishing every project in a ditch of depression, and dismisses the new strain of ‘intelligent blockbuster’ as “sufficiently intelligent but I don’t find anything really profoundly intelligent in them. They’re enjoyable, they’re impressive, but they’re not making me think. Joker, I’m not sure what I really think was being said there. I did find it odd that someone’s doing a very social, realistic backstory of a cartoon character. When a cartoon character becomes something you can worship and believe in, and talk about as a really profound character, I think it’s really worrisome. ”
Likewise, he’s heartened by and supportive of the Extinction Rebellion movement, but can’t help but be drawn to the more horrific solutions to the climate crisis. “I’m actually just trying to work out who’s going to be in charge of the cull?” he chuckles. “There’s too many of us, too many people is the basic problem, and all the people want the same things. How do we deal with the basic problem?”
Over history it’s been war, disease and famine.
“This is the idea I’ve been thinking about. Can I do a good comedy about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and how they’ve failed in their jobs?”
He guffaws again and, as Gilliam as it gets, heads off through a hidden door in a bookcase for a photo shoot in a magical secret backroom. In his wake he leaves a lifelong wreckage finally fixed, and a personal example for the world. No matter how steep the odds or dispiriting the challenge, nothing worth fighting for is impossible.
‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ is in cinemas from January 31
Design: Simon Freeborough
Photography: Andy Ford