Conducted ~10/2000 & ~8/2005
Terry Gilliam was the first member of Monty Python I ever had the pleasure to interview. As you can imagine, it was quite a momentous event for a comedy fan such as myself. I confess to being a bit nervous, but I needn’t have worried - of all the Pythons I’ve had the chance to chat with, Terry G was easily the most open and candid, with no subject taboo.
This first interview was conducted a month out from the start of principal photography on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, and while he had his usual pre-shoot jitters, this was a very confident Gilliam, still riding high on the financial and critical success of 12 Monkeys and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Unfortunately, as we all were able to view in the documentary Lost In La Mancha, the production of Quixote unraveled quickly, leaving Gilliam emotionally drained.
Over the next few years, audiences would be hard-pressed to even find theaters playing Brothers Grimm (marked by battles with the Brothers Weinstein) and the gothic Tideland (both are worth a second look on DVD. And, as we all know, tragedy marked the production of his latest film, The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, further fueling the ludicrous chants of the so-called “Gilliam Curse”.
Immediately following this 2000 interview is my second in-depth conversation with Terry, which took place as Brothers Grimm was being unceremoniously dumped in theaters in the Fall of 2005 as part of the slate of final Weinstein films pushed out when they departed Miramax. I think both pieces, read consecutively, provide an interesting study of Gilliam as a filmmaker and man who, above all, keeps on pushing forward.
Parnassus, though, feels like a Gilliam film from his classic period - like Time Bandits and Brazil - and will hopefully mark a new era of productivity from a remarkably gifted filmmaker. Heck, even Quixote is back on the docket.
A quick aside before we dive into the interview itself. In 2006, THINKfilm was doing a rather horrendous job of marketing Tideland, and I worked with Terry on guerilla marketing techniques. After a failed attempt to get him booked as a guest on The Daily Show, I suggested instead that he crash the line of guests waiting to see the show. At first a bit reluctant, Terry eventually embraced the idea - and enthusiastically made the sign you’ll see in the video below, shot by Terry’s daughter (and now producer) Amy Gilliam and edited rather slapdashedly by myself. I still think it’s a nice bit of absurd fun - and proves just how beloved Terry is by audiences, if not executives.
And now, here’s the original interview…
KEN PLUME: If you could, give me a little background on yourself - pre-industry…
TERRY GILLIAM: I was born in 1940 in Minnesota - in Minneapolis - and grew up in the country… dirt roads, swamps, lakes, woods… Huckleberry Finn / Tom Sawyer existence. When I was 12, we moved out to Los Angeles, to the San Fernando Valley - to a place called Panorama City. At that time, there was a panorama - now you can’t see it for the smog. I went to school out there, and went to college at Occidental College - where I graduated as a political science major. After college, I took off for New York and got a job with Harvey Kurtzman at Help! magazine. I was the assistant editor. Basically, three people did the magazine - it was Harvey, myself, and a production man. One of the things we did there were fumetti, which were a series of photographs done like cartoon strips. I think it was the beginning of my filmmaking, in a sense, because we had actors, we had sets, we had locations, we had costumes, we had lighting - all the things that go into making a film, except nothing moved. I was always in charge of putting those things together. Help! magazine was an amazing place at the time, because Harvey Kurtzman was one of the great idols of my generation of cartoonists. So it being, at the time, the only real national comic magazine - Mad being, up to that point, infantile - all the people like Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton (”Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers”) - all the guys that became the great underground comic artists in the late ’60s were applying their stuff to the magazine. So I got to be friends with all these people. Out of that, came a meeting with John Cleese - who was over with a group called Cambridge Circus, which was the Cambridge University Footlights revue, who had come to New York - and I got him to appear in one of these fumetti. We became friends, and years later that produced a certain team effort.
PLUME: A little cult show not known outside many circles…
GILLIAM: Exactly. The magazine eventually folded and I went off and hitchhiked - this was in 1964 or 1965 - and I hitchhiked around Europe and fell in love with Europe. I came back to the States and stayed there for another year and a half working in LA in advertising, because as a freelance cartoonist and illustrator. I was only making enough money to get me one meal a day - so I got a job in advertising at an agency. The guy who got me the job was Joel Siegel, who is ABC Good Morning America’s movie critic. For one of the jobs there, Joel and I did the movie campaigns for Universal Studios - which, again, these circles keep completing as life goes on. After 11 months, I quit.
PLUME: What kind of a transition was it, going from sort of outside, avant-garde on Help! magazine to as mainstream as you can get in an advertising agency?
GILLIAM: Help! was free and New York was very interesting because I got to meet a lot of really interesting people and work with them - Gloria Steinem, Esquire Magazine, Paul Krasner had The Realist…there was The Outsiders Newsletter, … all that was going on. In LA - Carson Roberts was the name of the agency, and I think Carson Roberts are responsible for the phrase “Have A Nice Day”… the creative director who hired me had formerly worked with Stan Freberg - Freberg had done some of the great puppet shows and comedy albums of that era. So it was an interesting time. I got hired as an art director and copywriter, so I was able to do all aspects of a campaign. It was a pretty free and easy place, and I very quickly didn’t like it - but it was a job. I would arrive late in the morning and go into my office, lock the door, and hide there until lunchtime, and then go take a very long lunch - then come back, lock myself in my office, and leave very early.
PLUME: What aspects of the job did you not like?
GILLIAM: Office life. Brazil is very much a result of my time in the agency. I was frustrated by having to deal with the client. One campaign I did - which was for Anderson Split Pea Soup, whose selling point was that, unlike Campbell’s, you didn’t have to add water - I wrote and designed the whole campaign with radio ads and everything. They did a test of the whole business, but it didn’t increase sales. It was only later that they discovered that one reason it didn’t do well was that the soup wasn’t available in the shops. So that kind of ridiculous stupidity got to me.
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