It is often said that our personalities can be affected by the company we keep. If one accepts that premise, it thus easily explains the uniqueness of Terry Gilliam. A one time successful cartoonist, the Minnesota native met John Cleese in the late 1960’s while working for Help! Magazine and soon found himself the resident animator for Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Performing as well with the troupe, Gilliam began writing several sketches, moving to the big screen as actor and writer with AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT (1971).
In 1975, Gilliam was afforded the opportunity to co-direct MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL and one year later, made his solo helming debut with JABBERWOCKY. An acknowledged visionary, Gilliam soon found himself among an elite core of filmmakers testing the boundaries of conventional cinema. Films such as BRAZIL, TIME BANDITS and THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN were critically praised for their bold style and fantasy elements.
His first Hollywood picture, THE FISHER KING, brought an Oscar nomination for its lead actor Robin Williams; a feat he repeated a few years later with TWELVE MONKEYS with kudos for Brad Pitt.
Called “visually intoxicating”, “wildly ambitious” and “at times perplexing”, Gilliam admits that he goes out of his way to make films that are hard to define. But the 64 year-old has a legion of admirers (including Johnny Depp and Robin Williams) who consider his slice of cinematic life to be some of the boldest and most refreshing images on screen today.
How much did you know about the real Brothers Grimm prior to making this film and what changed when you did all your research?
GILLIAM: I knew that they wrote these stories. But they didn’t. I actually found out that they were merely collectors. There concern was the oral tradition of folklore was dying in Germany and so they wanted it to be written down before all the grandparents of the peasantry died it. So they did write it. Their first publication was over 500 stories and it was a flop. It was too academic and thick so they cut it down to a much smaller number and it took off.
When did it spread from Germany to the rest of the world?
GILLIAM: I am not sure of exactly when but I presume it happened in the 19th Century. Perrault in France had done it in France almost a Century earlier so the tales were out there. The German version was that much darker, more dangerous and more twisted (laugh). They come from the Old Norse sagas and they go way, way back.
Did you understand the Tales as a kid?
GILLIAM: When I was a kid they all didn’t make particular sense. They were interesting but I didn’t know what they meant or why they happened. Maybe as you get older it makes more sense. But as I read more about the Brothers, I learned that they became more political active and got themselves in trouble. I think Jacob got exiled for a while. They then set out to write the first German dictionary. It helped create the German language. What was interesting about it was that they only got to F before they died and then there work was carried on. I guess F was for Fairy Tale (laugh).
So let’s set the record straight for another about to see this film. This is not a biography.
GILLIAM: I am hoping the trailer will make that pretty clear. This is not two academics going around collecting tales.
When you first got the script, why did you decide not to venture down that accurate historical path and just capture more the flavor of what they were about?
GILLIAM: I didn’t even really care about that. I was more interested in creating the kind of world of Fairy Tales that they brought into international existence and into my childhood. We didn’t have a TV when I was growing up so I read books. That is what I was more interested in. The two brothers were interesting because we turned them into two sides of the brain – one was the pragmatist and one was the dreamer. Now you have an interesting conflict developing ad so you can start telling the story. When I was looking at the Grimm book recently it hit me that Jake was actually the older brother. We made him the younger brother. On the other hand, factually we do have the right events happening in the world. Napoleon’s army did invade Germany as it was sweeping across Europe. The Age of Reason and Enlightenment was being spread with that. The German culture was older and more superstitious, more complicated at least in the peasantry, and so that new Enlightenment affected the German painters of the time. German romantic painting was a result of the French invasion and as things became more reasonable, they returned to go back to the old world, which was what the Grimm’s were keeping alive.
You mention about the Age of Enlightenment. Here we have a world inside this film where people are superstitious and fearful of the unknown – that there are enemies out to get us. Without being too analytical, it does seem that this could almost be a political metaphor for the world today.
GILLIAM: You could argue that point. The Age of Enlightenment was about materialism. There was no God anymore. It was things we could measure and what man could do. God was pushed to the background. Today we are in an age where those who are inventing God, looking for God or bringing God back from out there are on the rise and that really worries me. Fundamental religion has always ended up in battles. Fairy Tales are pagan and they are not like that. They are not religious based and I think that is another reason why I liked that. We are in an age that is totally secular although there are those who are looking for something greater to give meanings to their lives.
I was fascinated with how and when you decided to drop fairy tale references into the story. You could have chosen more but you were quite selective. What were your criteria?
GILLIAM: I don’t remember precisely how it all came about. In the first script in the tower with the Queen, there was a painting. I knew it had to be a mirror. Mirror, Mirror on the wall had to be said. So we moved in a mirror and things started growing that way. Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel were in the original script but I kept pushing others in. There was that moment when the old crone in the village goes to the door and knocks. I had her have an apple because I knew people would have the reaction of seeing the witch in Snow White. In the Queen’s bedroom, I had the bed about twenty mattresses high so it was the Princess and the Pea. I had the Queen have this incredibly long hair so when Heath jumps out the window, he can yell “Rapunzel” instead of “Geronimo” (laugh). I just kept doing it and it became a game to have these notions of various Fairy Tales.
Your films are known for their visual style. Coming from a strong visual background, as you were an artist, when do you start mapping out the look of the film?
GILLIAM: It is all worked out. I write a script with not visual images. It is first and foremost all about character and narrative and story. Then I start building it. I get books out and in this case, 19th Century German romantic painting and then looked at people like Carl David Freidrich, who drew landscapes and light, and Arthur Rachim, who illustrated Fairy Tales. I looked at illustrations and paintings and that led to me to look for certain locations. Ideas come up there. It is an organic process. There is no clear moment and so I then start slowly building up the world. It is all about the details. When you get the details right, the thing feels believable even though it might be heightened reality or surreal. If the colors are right and the textures are right, then it tells you that we are in a place that exists and not just a CG fantasy out there.
George Lucas sets up his movies where he makes almost all his world CG. As technology has advanced so far, why does Terry Gilliam still like to shoot in camera?
GILLIAM: I will use any tools that are available. I have my own effects company and always have used computers. This film has over 750 computer generated shots in it but I want to combine the computer generated part with something that is real. It is good for the actors to be around things that they can smell or get filthy or have scratch and hurt. But to me it is all about mixing the things that are real and the things we can add to make it more magical. I don’t enjoy what is happening with STAR WARS. They are visually stunning films but they are dead films. I don’t believe their worlds. You can’t smell or taste them or feel them. My first film JABBEROWCKY, someone came out of the theater and I heard someone say they had to go home and take a bath because they felt dirty. I liked that because I felt I had done something.
Heath and Matt were both initially cast in the others part. What do you find interesting in casting against type?
GILLIAM: For the actor, it is exhilarating because they can go into new territory and stretch themselves. What is frightening is that so many people become stars and they become nervous and so they have to keep delivering the same thing because that is what they think their public is looking for. To me, that is the death of acting with that mentality. For me, good actors given the chance to play something they normally never get to play is a great moment of freedom. I just like it also for the audience. I want to keep awaking audiences and give them things they haven’t seen before. I want to surprise them in showing them how Matt could do this or Brad could do that.
You originally cast another actress in the part of Angelika. What did you need to see in that role that led you to Lena?
GILLIAM: It was tricky. She is a peasant but one whose father saved enough money to get her out of the town for a bit of education. My concern was that she was part of that world and not just a beauty sent from central casting and stuck down there. Samantha Morton was my original idea for the part because I felt her face was very Germanic. When Lena came in, she is more delicate and we had to rough her up a bit. I think it is successful. We had to have her learn to ride horses and do archery. The best was watching her learn how to skin a rabbit. We then discovered that she was a vegetarian (laugh).
With the role of the Queen, you only had a few short scenes in which to establish the power of the character. I can only presume Monica Bellucci was an easy choice for that.
GILLIAM: I think that Monica just leaps off the screen and not just because she is stunningly beautiful. There is an added sensuality about her in that she is this animal in there. Not many people have that. I guess it is the gene pool of Italy that produces people like Sophia Loren or Gina Lollabrigida. When her name was mentioned, I knew that she would just lift the film because she brings a different quality than anyone else in the screen. When we see her in the tower, it heats up more than we could have imagined.
You could have easily shot this film in Hollywood or even at Pinewood in London. What did Prague provide you as a filmmaker?
GILLIAM: The first thing which was very pragmatic as to why we went to Prague was that it was cheaper. You start with that. Then you have a great studio built by the Nazis. Barrondov, it is big and up to date and easy to work with. It also has a huge backlot that is only 15 minutes from downtown Prague. It leads into a forest so that was very special. The town itself is a total fairy tale town. It to me was like a kid going to Disneyland. It imbued to me that I was in that fairy tale magical world. In a studio, it would be dirty and ugly with lights and then I would go home and look out of the rooftops of Prague, I knew I was in magic land. It is what got me through the movie.
What is interesting to note is that even back when the Brothers Grimm wrote their stories down, there was some censorship. They were edited.
GILLIAM: This is one of the things I discovered when I was doing my initial research on the real Brothers Grimm. I was always blaming Walt Disney for sanitizing the Grimm’s tales. I felt he took the guts out of them, even though I loved those films and think they are some of the best ever. But I was reading that the first edition of Rapunzel had not only the witch climbing up to see Rapunzel but so had a Prince. In the original version, Rapunzel starts complaining of her clothes not fitting across her belly and you realize that she was pregnant. In the second edition, the Grimm Brothers censored themselves and make it more accessible to a middle class audience. So now I forgive Walt Disney (laugh).
Talking to actors about working with Terry Gilliam, they all say they are so impressed with your enthusiasm on set, even through all the good and bad times. How do you maintain such a sunny disposition all the time?
GILLIAM: When I get up in the morning and I really don’t want to go to work, because there is this nightmare going on behind the scenes, but then I get to work and there is all this beautiful stuff on the set. I choose my crew very carefully because they have to be good people with good attitude. I realize that I am amongst friends and so I forget about all the stuff behind the scenes and just go for it. I feed off of people and if they are having a good time, then so am I. I am a pretty good cheerleader. I was in high school and college and I still am on sets as well.
Watching the film, the tone does seem to change a few times. There are elements of black comedy, tragedy and then whimsical in nature. How do you manage to move all of these chess pieces of emotion around to make it cohesive?
GILLIAM: There are a lot of different tones and moods in films I do because I am greedy in that sense. I want to put people through a real ride. I want tragedy and romance and real beauty and these things are not mutually exclusive. I don’t think most people to see movies that allow all those things to live in that world. Most films go down a much narrower road. I throw it all in and hope people can go with it. That is why some movies are better the second time you see them because the first time you are not sure where it is going. I remember when I first saw 2001, I had not idea what was going on. It seemed ridiculously long and unclear and once I got through it, I understood what it was. I like the fact that audience might not be sure of which way it is going and I hope they trust me to get them through it.
What do you hope audiences will take with them when they walk out of this film?
GILLIAM: I do want the audience to go out with a lot of the film still stuck in them. Whether it encourages them to read the original material or changes the way they look at the world. I remember with FISHER KING, there was a story of a girl who left the theater and walked twenty blocks but in the wrong direction. She was so caught up in the film. Do you know that they now have waltzing in Grand Central Station on New Years Eve? I am not sure if that is because of FISHER KING but the film left its mark. I want people to remember it consciously or subconsciously, I want them to have the effect of my film. I don’t want them to just say it was okay. I would like them to like it or dislike it, but not feel it was just okay.
Are you more like Will or Jacob?
GILLIAM: I am a bit of both. I am a dreamer and a pragmatist and practical. As I get more older, I also become a bit more cynical (laugh).
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