terry gilliam memoir

Chaos Is a Way of Life

During one summer break from college, Gilliam took a job directing children’s theater and his production of Alice in Wonderland is awfully ominous for anyone who knows his future Hollywood career. The overambitious production was canceled at the last minute and he writes that it still haunts him fifty years later:

I ended up pulling the plug in the final week before the show […] The scars run deep… even unto today when I often wake from a dream of the fear of repeat failure on whatever my current project might be.

It’s no secret that Gilliam is, well, kind of cursed. His tortured, long-in-development The Man Who Killed Quixote is the most famous example of one of his movies falling apart around him, but it’s not the only calamity he’s faced. Disaster seems to follow Gilliam wherever he goes. Sometimes, this chaos is channeled into his films. His best movies often feel unhinged, like they’re ready to fly off the rails at any moment. The fact that Brazil and Twelve Monkeys and Baron Munchausen stay on track throughout the chaos is why they’re remarkable.

Gilliam shares other stories of chaos, but some of them are actually funny and not heartbreaking. Like the time he decided that the motorcycle that was making his journey across Europe a living hell needed to go:

By now I’d become obsessed with this bike, which must have been prophetically possessed by the spirit of Don Quixote, because it seemed to be doing everything it could to humiliate me […] Once I reached the next youth hostel after Barcelona I just said, ‘That’s it – this bike must die.’

He then gathered a crowd, took his ill-fated vehicle to a field, and lit it on fire. Unfortunately, the local authorities thought the flames were the result of a smuggling operation and Gilliam was forced to flee the area. This escalation from innocent bad idea to a serious police incident feels like it was torn out of one of his movies.


A Problem With Authority

Almost every Gilliam film treats institutions and authoritative figures with distrust at best. The system, his filmography says, is broken. Break free. Do your own thing.

Gilliam’s rebel instincts kicked in early, when he found himself alienated by his fellow students in the New York City-based film classes he was taking while working at Help! magazine. His public image as an artist bucking the establishment begins here, for better and worse:

From then on, I knew all I needed to do as far as film studies was concerned was go to the movies – that’s always been enough for me – get myself a camera, write some little stories and get together with some friends to shoot them.

Naturally, when he started dipping his toe into animation a few years later (and the rest is history, etc.), the chief targets of his comedy were anyone or anything that could potentially cause offense. The rest of Gilliamesque tracks his constant battle with censors and producers and movie studios. The root of all those creative battles, which have defined Gilliam’s public persona in a huge way begin here:

I’d find people in serious situations – soldiers in war-time, politicians on the campaign trail – and liberate them by putting them in a dress or making them do something ridiculous. The more solemn and even humorless the original character, the more potentially funny he or she was.

fisher king

Learning From the Masters

Living in New York allowed Gilliam to fully explore the arthouse and foreign film landscapes. He recounts devouring everything, literally walking out of the theater with his horizons widened:

One of the themes of my New York years was the wonder of discovering foreign films – whether they be Ealing comedies, Kurosawa or Bunuel – and realizing that not everyone in front of the camera had to look like Rock Hudson or Doris Day […] I’d devour Chaplin retrospectives, and come out of Eisenstein films in a reverie thinking ‘Wow, angles.’

However, he dedicates almost an entire page to the work of Richard Lester, who was still a few years away from directing The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night when Gilliam first discovered his short films. Seeing what he accomplished on such small budgets changed the way Gilliam thought about filmmaking:

I’d never seen anything that felt so free. Lester’s frenetic and fun-packed jeu d’esprit was a far cry from the more studied and sombre work coming out of New York’s experimental scene of the early sixties.

You can see all of these influences in Gilliam’s work, from the Akira Kurosawa-inspired samurai in Brazil to the Lester-esque sense of constant movement and energy that runs through his entire filmography. Hell, Brazil‘s original title, 1984 1/2, is a clever nod to both George Orwell and Federico Fellini. Gilliam has never been shy about paying homage to those who influenced him when he was still learning his trade.

Continue Reading Notes on the Fascinatingly Mundane Origin Story of Terry Gilliam >>

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