Terry Gilliam On Depp, 'Potter' And The Film He Panhandled To Promote

The legendary — and legendarily difficult — director's latest opus, 'Tideland,' finds his vision as singular as ever.

If you've ever shrugged your shoulders at a dumb remake, stared in disbelief at an awkwardly tacked-on "Hollywood ending" or simply wondered how many "Donnie Darko"s will never exist because their funding went to "Big Momma's House 2," then you need to know the story of Terry Gilliam. Like so many of his classic flicks — "Twelve Monkeys," "The Fisher King," "Brazil" — his is a tale filled with hideous monsters, omens of doom and breathtaking moments of triumph. Thankfully, it's also filled with laughter.

Embattled and bitter yet again over his treatment at the hands of the Hollywood establishment — with which he's tussled many times over the last 20-odd years — Gilliam has just released a fantastical new movie, and you've most likely never heard of it. So if a homeless man walks up to you and says, "Go see 'Tideland!,' " don't brush past him. Instead, you might want to ask about the next "Harry Potter" film, or what's going on with "Watchmen," Johnny Depp and Jon Stewart, because that beggar might be legendary filmmaker Terry Gilliam. After decades of making you dream, the least you can do is drop a nickel to the guy's cup — or $10 toward his box-office returns.

MTV: "Tideland" stars Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Tilly and a great 12-year-old actress named Jodelle Ferland, but nobody's heard anything about it. So, what is it, exactly?

Terry Gilliam: It's a film of innocence and grace and beauty, and that disturbs a lot of people. [He laughs.] People aren't used to that sort of thing. My cheap description is "It's 'Alice in Wonderland' meets 'Psycho' " — because we're all busy people, we don't have time to spend a couple of hours talking about what the film really is.

MTV: A lot of fantasy films like "Chronicles of Narnia" and "Harry Potter" push along the lines of true darkness, but they would never cross it. Does a fantasy film need to acknowledge that sometimes dreams can become nightmares?

Gilliam: Unfortunately, most fantasy movies don't disturb people; they're escapist stuff. I'm trying to avoid escapism — one can be imaginative, one can show all different versions of the world, but I like trying to make people think and react, as opposed to just feeling good and floating off into a magic world.

MTV: Your battles with movie studios are legendary, because you're the rare director who fights them over things like lazy endings and commercial concerns. Is there any truth to the story that you got so stressed-out during "Brazil" (1985) that you lost the use of your legs?

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Gilliam: It was actually more than just my legs. I was totally catatonic. I couldn't get up; I'd just lie in bed. It was almost a week, and when the doctors came by, they said, "There is obviously nothing wrong with you." We'd shot for nine months, and I think my brain just shut down and said, "This is madness!"

MTV: Well, nobody has seen any ads or posters or trailers for "Tideland," and now it's about to open. That would stress a lot of people out — how's your body holding up?

Gilliam: [He laughs.] I know this one works; I'm not worried. I've been with it in enough places to know it's an interesting movie that people react very strongly to. It will not be the biggest moneymaker I have ever been involved with, I can guarantee you that. I taught "Tideland" to walk; now it's on its own.

MTV: Because of Hollywood's lack of support, you've had to resort to some unusual advertising techniques. Is there any truth to the rumor that you've been seen wandering the streets in New York?

Gilliam: [He laughs.] Well, the sign I made was a big sheet of cardboard that said "Studio-less film director with family to support — will direct for food." That seemed to be a pretty good joke. I had this plastic cup with some coins in it, I started shaking it, and it's quite interesting to discover how people don't want to even look at a bum. [He laughs.]

MTV: So you'd just walk up to people on the street and they'd have no idea that they're dissing a legendary film director?

Gilliam: I'd come up to people and say "God Bless You!," "Have a Happy Day!," or maybe "Support Independent Filmmaking!," and they would turn away. It took a few minutes before somebody recognized me — and then it started.

MTV: And you had chosen to stand outside "The Daily Show" offices — so what happened once you were recognized?

Gilliam: Security guards kept trying to push me along, but people were gathering, and half the Jon Stewart show — the staff, the writers — were all coming out of their offices to talk. It was wonderful, because suddenly you're back with people and you're absorbing their enthusiasm.

MTV: And then you went on the show and got the word out.

Gilliam: And, I looked in my cup and had made $25. [He laughs.]

MTV: That's an interesting way to promote your film.

Gilliam: Right now, when you talk about independent films, most of them are financed by an arm of the studios — like Fox Searchlight or something. Well this one isn't, nor is it distributed by them, so I don't have any of the money of a studio. This sends you back to the old age of advertising — just go out on the street, make a fool of yourself, draw attention.

MTV: But "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" [1998] is a big cult film, "Fisher King" [1991] did very well, and "Twelve Monkeys" made tons of money. So why is it so difficult to get someone to trust that your work will return their investment?

Gilliam: That's not what studio executives get paid for. It's a nice idea, but it's not true. They are nervous people — that's the reality. They get paid an enormous amount of money, and they are terrified of losing their jobs, so the job with most executives is to say 'No'. That's the safer road to take.

MTV: A lot of directors might just look in their back catalog for an easy hit, like a sequel to "Twelve Monkeys." Is it tempting?

Gilliam: When you make a movie, it's like creating a world during that time. You're completely absorbed in that world — and when I'm finished with it, that view of the world is over for me.

MTV: Another no-brainer hit film would have been making a "Harry Potter" flick, and J.K. Rowling fought with the studio to let you direct the first movie. So would you ever direct one of the sequels?

Gilliam: Warner Bros. had their chance the first time around, and they blew it. It's a factory job, that's what it is, and I know the way it's done. I've had too many friends work on those movies. I know the way it works, and that's not the way I work.

MTV: What would your "Potter" have been like?

Gilliam: Alfonso Cuaron's ["Prisoner of Azkaban"] is really good, but the first two I thought were just shite. They missed the whole point of it; they missed the magic of it ... Alfonso did something much closer to what I would've done.

MTV: The documentary "Lost in La Mancha" (2002) showed you battling executives, sickly actors, and having general bad luck while ultimately failing to get your passion project made. Will you ever be able to finish "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote"?

Gilliam: We're getting very close to getting the rights to "Quixote" back.

MTV: And Johnny Depp will still star in it?

Gilliam: Well, I'm not sure if I want to work with him — he's just too big a star now. I'd rather work with a young unknown. [He laughs.] No, that will be the first phone call I make when I get the script back in my hands ... then, when he's free, we go because he's on board.

MTV: You also nearly directed a movie version of the most critically acclaimed comic book of all-time, "Watchmen." Now, it's finally going forward with a different director.

Gilliam: Is it? We keep hearing this every few years — that Paul Greengrass was doing it a year ago — and then I think the studio started looking at the budget and got cold feet.

MTV: Well, now "Dawn of the Dead" director Zack Snyder's going to do it, and he told me that, like you, he's thinking of turning the epic story into more than one movie.

Gilliam: You have to. You need at least four hours, I think, to do justice to it. Who's putting up money? Warner Bros.? This will be interesting to see if they really can do it, because I did see the last version of the script. It was very good, because it went right back to the book, and it was a very long and incredibly expensive script. If they can do it, great.

MTV: Maybe it's your battles — or maybe it's because a different "Don Quixote" was the passion project he never got to finish — but it's becoming harder and harder these days to think of you and not also think about Orson Welles. Do you see him as a kindred spirit?

Gilliam: I always think about Orson, because he makes me look thin. [He laughs.]

MTV: But seriously, he had such a hard time getting support, then after he died he was hailed as a genius.

Gilliam: I have always looked up to Orson Welles ... yeah, there are moments where I begin to think that those who take on "Quixote" — those of us who get too big for our boots, who don't play the studio game — we get punished. I hope I don't get as crazed or as desperate as Welles did.

MTV: People love to praise artists after it's too late.

Gilliam: Yeah, when they're about to kick the bucket, they give them the Lifetime Achievement Oscar and they expect them to show up — and they do! That's the silly thing. I would've thought that after being ignored by the Oscars all their life, why would you turn up at the end? Don't!

MTV: You'll be 66 next month. Do you think they'll be giving you a Lifetime Achievement Oscar someday?

Gilliam: I hope not. Then I'd be put in the position of having to go back on my word!

See everything we've got on "Tideland."

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