Terry Gilliam walks, trots actually, through the white alleys of Monopoli. Humming as he goes: “I’ve got two legs from my hips to the ground/And when they move they walk around/And when I lift them they climb the stairs/And when I shave them they ain’t got hair.”
“That’s the most important and well-known song I’ve ever written,” he jokes, “and I understand this now more than ever: Being an almost 83-year-old man, I thank my legs every day. They haven’t betrayed me yet!”
Far from being an “old man,” Gilliam remains a force of nature. In person, he is almost too much: At turns sensitive, raw and irreverent, with a razor-sharp intelligence and irrepressible imagination. The only American member of legendary British comedy troupe Monty Python, the man whose contributions to cinema include gems like Brazil, Time Bandits and The Fisher Kingjust to mention a few, is the guest of honor at the Ora! [Now!] festival He some took time, before a gala screening of his 1988 classic The Adventures of Baron Munchausento explain to THR Roma through a whirlwind tour of his phenomenal career, why he sees society’s sense of humor — “the seventh and most important sense” — as under threat and why Hollywood studios consider him a “terrorist.”
How does an artist, especially such an irreverent artist like you, feel about today’s world?
In ’68, well actually the first [Monthy Python] show went out in ’69, and it was an incredible time. I mean, we know that is never going to happen again, there’s never going to be a time again where the BBC gives that kind of space and freedom to six dudes. [like us]. Very quickly it happened that all the smart young people wanted to watch Monty Python. We were irreverent, sarcastic and making fun of everything. I think we have five senses, a sixth sense, which is sort of intuition, and the seventh, which is humor. The sense of humor is the most important. You can lose your hearing, you can lose your sense of touch, but you should never lose your sense of humor. And it’s the one most under threat at the moment.
I’m very depressed about the state of the world we live in. I would hate to be a young person because it’s totally confusing. We want to make them comfortable and safe, to keep them locked in their comfort zone, but that means not allowing them to grow, it means rejecting new ideas. We are so dominated
by fears and the rhetoric of victimhood.
There’s no sense of community, everyone feels offended, a victim. All that matters these days are the selfish ideals held in many small communities, which are increasingly fractured and increasingly extremist. There is no longer the will to debate or the joy of having different opinions. Paradoxically, the sense of community has been lost and of being genuinely eccentric, different from others, being “queer” in the original sense of the term: Which used to be about being eccentric, bizarre, about having fun. [Now] everything is driven by hate, driven by phobias and driven by ignorance. Yes, that’s the heart of it. It is ignorance. Because if only one person’s view counts, there can be no progress. There’s no sense of reality. The only truth is your truth or my truth. What counts is my version of reality, and if you don’t agree, it isn’t just that we’re disagreeing, you are phobic towards my view. They use this fucking word, phobic. Well, I’m a phobophobic. I hate hate. Fuck all this phobia.
Can we talk about what you’re working on now?
I wrote a film called The Apocalypse Fair, subtitled: “Fun for all of those who enjoy being offended.” It addresses the very themes I just mentioned. God, disgusted with what has become of humanity, decides to eliminate his creatures for good. Paradoxically, Satan is the only one standing in his way. The story is an opportunity to mock everything I can’t stand, so much so that those who read the script told me: “If Hollywood reads it, you’ll never make a movie again.” But I am an old man now, an old white man, and if this world sucks, it is the fault of my kind. At this point in my life, I don’t give a damn about the consequences.
During a video interview with THR Romayou told us about a screenplay you wrote that has never seen the light of day, The Defective Detectivelocked away in Paramount’s drawers since 1995. What is it about?
It’s about a middle-aged New York cop in the midst of an existential crisis, who finds himself in a child’s fantasy world, where the rules he knows, the hard rules of the streets, don’t apply. He has become cynical and violent, but neither his methods nor his gun can slay dragons and dark knights, nor do they save damsels in distress. To rise up and win, the cop has to come to terms with a side he kept dormant for many years: His fantasy world, his inner world. In the end, we discover that the child who made up the world in which he is held captive is none other than himself. A simple story but a beautiful one.
You also told us about Orson Welles, what connection do you have with him?
I venerate Orson Welles. He was 24 years old when he made it Citizen Kane. I would say it’s almost unfortunate to produce such a masterpiece so early in his career and peak at such a young age! I admired him so much that I said to myself, “Someday I’m going to outdo him in something.” I never reached his level, but I certainly managed to do something he didn’t: complete Don Quixote. It took me 30 years and, even if it might not seem so at first, I am a patient man.
Did you ever meet him?
Never! I never wanted to meet my heroes. I’m afraid they will disappoint me. I prefer my heroes to be abstract ideas. Of all the Beatles, the one I never met is John Lennon, he’s another hero of mine.
By contrast, George Harrison, as a producer through Handmade Films of Life of Brian and Time Bandits, was a key figure for you and Monty Python.
That’s right. Of all my heroes, the only one I met was Clint Eastwood. I had lunch with him, and it was worthwhile. I don’t question his political views, which are far from mine, but I consider him a great artist, very intelligent. I appreciate the way he plays the film system, making one film for them — a commercial film — and one for himself. And it has to be said that the films he made for himself have always been successful.
What relationship have you had over the years with Hollywood and the film industry?
It’s always been kind of a conflictual relationship. I became known as a bit of a terrorist. I never compromise. I always fought for my stories. Because storytelling is what it’s all about, you don’t fuck with the stories. But there’s always a moment at the end of every film where the executives, who are basically panicky people being paid a fortune to supposedly know what they’re doing, even though they don’t, where they get nervous. Always at the end, they say: “Oh, change this or cut this, blah, blah, blah, and then it’ll work.” I always fight that. The only way I win these arguments is by making sure that the leading actors are on my side. Because I don’t have the power. The stars have the power. That’s how I was able to make my movies. The people who put up the money must always believe that you know exactly what you’re doing, even if you don’t have a clue. It’s all about make-believe, pretending. I’ll tell you a secret: I seem to be all jolly, a bit of a clown. That’s just make-believe. The truth is, in real life, I am a big jerk. I feel most sorry for my wife. I know how much she’s suffered being around someone like me.
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