In a town filled with echoes, his is a solitary voice. Long after the similarly innovative styles of his contemporaries have been watered down for mass consumption, he continues to sidestep opportunities to sell out in the name of megaplex acceptance. No matter how many times it has come back to nearly destroy his career, Hollywood's greatest dreamer continues to believe in a tenet too many consider naive: Tell a good story, and the audience will come.
"There are so many stories of people coming out of my films [in a daze]," laughed Terry Gilliam, his receding hairline and wrinkled visage contrasting with a brightly colored Hawaiian shirt and sneakers with pink smiley faces. "There was a girl in New York after seeing 'Fisher King' who walked 20 blocks home, got there and realized she had walked 20 blocks in the wrong direction. She'd just been entranced. When I hear things like that I think 'OK, I've actually been successful.'
"I love to do that to people," the legendary writer/director continued. "To get them to look at the world in a different way. Open your eyes, see it, imagine something other. I think life — if we just only look at the facts — is a pretty boring existence."
Boredom is the last word that comes to mind for the enlightened fans of such Gilliam eye candy as "Twelve Monkeys," "Time Bandits" and "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen." Now, as the 65-year-old prepares to return to theaters for the first time in seven years, he's looking back on a career as bizarre as the images he's brought to the big screen.
"It's interesting; I mean, 'Brothers Grimm' is kind of like 'Time Bandits' again for me in a way," Gilliam said. "I got to create a lot of different worlds in 'Time Bandits,' and in this one, I create one world, but I have more time to do it in-depth."
In 1981, when "Time Bandits" hit theaters, the Minnesota-born Gilliam was still largely believed to be British due to his longtime association with the legendary comedy troupe Monty Python's Flying Circus. After writing for and creating the Pythons, as well as contributing the fantastical animation sequences that became their trademark, he co-directed their classic film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975) before making waves with "Bandits," the original tale of a band of time-traveling dwarves pillaging from history's most sacred moments.
It wasn't until 1985's "Brazil," however, that film fans realized they had a Stanley Kubrick-esque auteur within their ranks; naturally, Gilliam's studio originally considered the film an incomprehensible disaster.
"So many people in the studios, they are not creative people," Gilliam said, shaking his head. "They are executives, bureaucrats; they're people that work in a very big, complex system and there are often times, because they work so closely with creative people ... that they begin to lose the ability to distinguish between creativity and what they do."
Wanting to add a happy ending to Gilliam's gleefully pessimistic vision of the future, Universal Pictures took possession of the film, essentially holding it hostage and causing the writer/director to take out a full-page ad in Variety which read: "Dear [then Universal CEO] Sid Sheinberg: When are you going to release my film 'Brazil'?" Eventually cut from 142 minutes to the Hollywoodized-"Love Conquers All" version at 97 minutes, the edited version opened and closed quickly in theaters. After Gilliam broke the law and risked his career by screening a banned print for the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, they named it their best picture of the year. Now, with both versions on DVD, "Brazil" has come to be regarded as one the greatest science-fiction films ever made.
"That's the line they cross, and it's always a disaster when they get their hands on things," Gilliam reflected. "I've always fought really hard to create a little barrier around my films, so the creative people all get to play in that safety [zone]. If I have to go to war with the studios, I'll go to war with the studios to protect that."
Gilliam added that he took particular interest in the recent story of Paul Schrader, whose "Exorcist" prequel was similarly butchered and then resurrected: "I've never met Paul Schrader, but I have a great sympathy for people who have to go through the nightmare of dealing with a studio that has a different 'vision' of what the film is. I always side with the creative people, because their mistakes are usually more interesting."
Turning down films like "Forrest Gump," "Braveheart" and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" to pursue the unique fantasy-reality blurring of "Fisher," "Monkeys" and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," Gilliam crafted a rebellious career that earned him nearly as many admirers as it did enemies. In 2000, those enemies appeared to have gotten the last laugh.
While shooting his dream project "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" in Madrid, Spain, Gilliam and star Johnny Depp were besieged by freakish storms, low-flying airplanes, and a wide array of on-set disasters, including a back injury that prevented the actor portraying Quixote from riding a horse. After the production collapsed in expensive failure, however, the world's first 'un-making of' documentary, "Lost in La Mancha," used behind-the-scenes footage to bring the Gilliam legend to new heights.
According to "The Brothers Grimm" star Matt Damon, actors are instilled with an intense desire to get Gilliam's visions onscreen: "I would have done anything — moved heaven and earth — to make sure that Terry was happy."
"We wanted it to just be perfect, for him," agreed co-star Heath Ledger.
Now, Gilliam has readied the 1-2 punch of "Grimm" and the upcoming "Tideland," with the hopes that people will continue to leave their inhibitions — and their differentiation between fantasy and reality — in the theater lobby.
"I wish people would learn to look at life like that, where you mix the two things. We seem to be so conditioned into saying, 'OK, your dreams belong out there in that world, and then there is reality.' To me, the two things have to mix together. I suppose I do that in all my films, trying to find that borderline between where reality ends and fantasy takes over. Basically, I want both of those — in my life and in my films."
As the interview wound down, Gilliam reverted once again to his impish grin and offered one last insistence that "Quixote" will get made. "I certainly hope so. We're trying to unravel this gory and legal knot that it's tied up in, but there's a bit of light at the end of the tunnel."
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