Terry Gilliam
Photo by Alex de Brabant

Terry Gilliam: “Things happen”

Short Profile

Name: Terrence Vance Gilliam
DOB: 22 November 1940
Place of Birth: Medicine Lake, Minnesota, USA
Occupation: Director

Mr. Gilliam, you’ve been given the nickname “Captain Chaos” because of all the things that have gone wrong on your film sets. Do you need chaos on set to be creative?

(Laughs) It isn’t really that. I don’t want chaos, I actually want order. I really want it ordered very well and I want to surround myself with really well organized people so that when we’re on the set and an idea comes in we can play with it because we’ve got a really good structure. So it’s not chaos. Between me and the actors, or between me and the director of photography, it’s more like, “Oh, what if we did that? Okay, we can do that.” So the organized people think it’s chaos, but it’s not. I just build a structure that’s really solid so even if the lead actor dies, we can finish the film. (Laughs)

Heath Ledger died in the middle of the shooting of your film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Where were you when you got the sad news of his death and did you think you would be able to finish the film?

We had just finished in London. I went to Vancouver and Heath went to New York and two days later he was dead. I am sitting, working in Vancouver and Amy my daughter, who was producing the film, said, “You’ve got to come into this room.” And I said, “What’s up?” And there it was it on her laptop, on the BBC website: “Heath Ledger found dead.” It’s impossible to believe, there’s no way he could be dead. It seemed it took all day before it began to really sink in that he was dead. Then I just didn’t know what to do, so I said that he had shot about 40% of what was supposed to be done – we can’t finish the film, it’s over.

“None of it is planned, none of it is hoped for – things happen.”

What changed your mind?

Amy and the others wouldn’t let me quit. It took us a week and a half before I began to think that maybe there was a way of fixing it. But I was never sure. Even when we started shooting again there were certain scenes I’d thought we were going to do one way and we couldn’t do it, so it was constantly adjusting to reality.

After his death the media tried to make Heath into a myth, a new version of James Dean. What was he really like?

All the stories were bullshit. They were trying to turn him into this… that playing the Joker had made him crazy. Absolute nonsense! Heath was so solid. His feet were on the ground and he was the least neurotic person I’ve ever met. Heath was just great and that’s why it became so impossible to understand. But for the outside world they had to sort of invent a reason. But it wasn’t drugs. It was prescription drugs – but even that doesn’t make sense completely. Nothing makes sense about it except that Heath was not what the public thought he was. He was incredibly intelligent, generous, sweet, wise, solid as a rock, and unbelievably playful. So when he acted it was like playing, but wherever that playing went he followed it fearlessly. But then I would say “cut” and we’d be talking about football. So there was none of this twisted neurosis that a lot of actors suffer from.

There are some other examples where the chaos on your set has gotten out of hand. When you did Brazil, for instance, you were paralyzed afterwards. What happened?

After nine months of shooting I just went catatonic because I was worn out. I just thought, “This is never going to end.” I couldn’t move anymore and I thought maybe that’d stop the film.

Lost in La Mancha (2002) is a documentary that follows Terry Gilliam's experiences attempting to shoot a remake of Don Quixote. Gilliam was forced to abandon the project after various setbacks.

The list goes on: you started shooting The Man Who Killed Don Quixote and there were storms and your lead actor got very sick before you ultimately had to shut down the set. With The Brothers Grimm you got into a fight with the producers and the movie got delayed. Do you just attract disaster or do you court it willfully?

(Laughs) I don’t know. I used to blame Herzog for the kind of movies he made because he brought danger and disaster to his own set. I used to laugh about what he did and then I find I’m being dragged into that world. I don’t know, none of it is planned, none of it is hoped for – things happen.

At least you’ve experienced it all now – illness, the wrath of mother nature, fights, death – what disaster is there left for you?

That’s the problem. I can’t top the last one, Heath’s death. It’s weird, but that was one of the most tragic things ever in my life but also one of the most magical things in my life because I had Johnny, Colin, and Jude come in and rescue the whole thing, working for nothing, with all the money going to Heath’s daughter. That was pretty extraordinary.

Did people ever tell you that they love your work but they can’t work with you because they fear the chaos too much?

No. Eric Idle is the only one who said that he doesn’t want to work with me and he seems more convinced now because of Heath’s death. “It’s clear that something is wrong.” No, Eric has always been very funny. He says, “He’s just making these films, they're too uncomfortable and I’m too old for this.” You really should ask the actors, I shouldn’t be defending myself. You should ask them and see what they say.

“I affected somebody. I made a difference in their life, they had a reaction – that’s what movies are about.”

Some of your movies troubled not only your producers but also the audience to an extent that they couldn’t even think clearly afterwards. There is this story about your film The Fisher King where a woman in New York…

Yes, she left the cinema, she loved it, she walked home twenty blocks, then she got there and she’d realized that she’d walked twenty blocks in the wrong direction. She was lost. There was a guy, a lawyer I know about who saw Brazil and he was so disturbed by it, he went back to his office locked himself in for three days. There was this woman who was doing publicity for Universal on Brazil and she told me when she saw the film, she thought it was amazing, she went home, prepared dinner, cooked dinner, ate dinner, was getting ready for bed, decided to take a shower, she went into the shower and just started weeping, crying, and she couldn’t stop.

Do you think “Brilliant!” when you hear those stories?

Yeah, I affected somebody. I made a difference in their life, they had a reaction – that’s what I thought movies were about. Movies did that to me. They completely altered my view on the world. Movies were constantly changing me, every time I saw them I was blown away – not by the normal movies, not the Doris Day, Rock Hudson movies but by real movies. They really changed me and I’ve just wanted to carry on that tradition.