Terry Gilliam Talks ‘Monty Python,’ ‘Brazil’ and Boris Johnson: ‘Blake Edwards Wanted to Direct or Produce “Life of Brian”‘

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Terry Gilliam is on a whirlwind stop in Los Angeles 48 hours before he returns to the U.K. where he now resides.

Gilliam is in L.A. to remind people about “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” his 2018 film starring Jonathan Pryce and Adam Driver. In true Gilliam style, it’s a mix of fantasy and adventure, and Driver, according to Gilliam “gives the best performance of the year” in the film.

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It’s the first time he’s been to the Variety offices and seen a newsroom. His spirits are high as the man famous for “Monty Python,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “Brazil” sits down to reflect on his long-admired and esteemed career.

On his start in animation:

When I graduated, I had no idea what I was going to do. I was reading Moss Hart’s autobiography.

I walked in the door, and Harvey Kurtzman was doing the first issue of “Little Annie Fanny,” which he did for Playboy. He had all his great cartoonists in this one room. I walked in and it was like heaven.

Harvey comes out, and his No. 2 was quitting. I walked in and that was it. I worked as Harvey’s No. 2 for about three years. I was out getting locations and finding the actors for the comics. I was basically out there making films.

Jack Davis, Al Jaffee, William Elder and Arnold Roth were all there. Charles Alverson‎, who I wrote “Jabberwocky” with, was there, but before him, Gloria Steinem was there.

Gloria had moved on by then. She hardly talks about her time with Harvey. She was amazing. She ended up doing “The Beach Book.” She was a great babe. Men loved her and women loved her. She was so smart. She wrote about Playboy and had a sense of humor.

On the “Monty Python” years:

I started in 1969. I started animation the year before. I met John Cleese in New York and then I turn up in London and he’s now a TV star. I was cartooning and illustrating. I said, “Introduce me to someone in TV.” He gave me the name of a producer; it took me two months to actually pick up the phone and he turned out to be an amateur cartoonist. I brought in my cartoons, and he was producing this program “Do Not Adjust Your Set” with Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Jones writing and performing. He forced some of my sketches on to them, much to their chagrin.

John and Graham rewrote the script for “The Magic Christian.” I didn’t like the film at all because they didn’t understand the American idea.

The most irritating thing was that Kubrick, before he died, he was going to ask me to do the sequel to “Strangelove.” I found this out subsequently. Why didn’t he tell me that? This was one of the great movies. When it finally came out as “Eyes Wide Shut.” That’s where it all began. The idea was doing a porno film with two of the biggest porno stars. “Blue Movie” never ended up getting made.

We did the Hollywood Bowl here. Eric has always been the key to famous people in our lives. Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty were there.

It’s easier to perform in front of 17,000 people because they loved us so much. We could have done anything. They were eating it up.

At “Monty Python Live at Aspen” (1988), I kicked over the urn. It was so funny. We planned to do it, but no one knew when to do it. I looked over at Mike, and we both grinned and I did it. The noise from the audience was one I’d never heard before. It was an exhale and a gasp. The audience did both at the same time. For a moment they really believed it was Graham Chapman’s ashes. That is why it was such a great time to be in Python, you could do the most outrageous thing and get away with it. In the world we’re living in now, you can’t.

His Career High Point:

“The Life of Brian.” It was about something real. It was really funny and a classic. I felt that we never got “Meaning of Life” right. Henry Jaglom and I were in a car. I apologized because it was such a mixed bag. He said, “No, that’s why it’s so great. The bits that don’t work make it even greater.”

We had a moment with Blake Edwards. He wanted to direct or produce “Life of Brian.” He was a big Python fan. I don’t think it would have worked because we don’t take direction. [Laughs]. When I was doing “Jabberwocky,” he was doing one of the “Pink Panther” films. They were throwing away sets all the time. There was a wonderful sewer set, I went to use it. There were a few things I went to pick up because it was junk. They got word of it. They burned everything rather than let me take some of their scraps.

On “Brazil’s” distribution and the L.A. Film Critics:

I was very naive, I met [DP] Ken Adam, but we could never afford him. Pier Paolo Pasolini was the one for me. I could smell and feel his worlds. It was Pasolini who was the visual influence. “Brazil” is a palette based on Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” I was at the USC, and I came in to do that, the studios embargoed “Brazil.”

We couldn’t show it anywhere in America. I said I wanted to bring audiovisual aids with me. We went down there. The projectionist wouldn’t show it. I was doing one of my moments. “There are six million dying out there, and you won’t show it.” My lawyer got on the phone and said I could show some of it. Universal’s lawyer was Mr. Middleman. You couldn’t invent that. He said I could show a clip of the film. All it needed was the dean of the school to pick up. We ended up going to CalArts and we showed it there. It was like the black hole of Calcutta. The L.A. critics were in that crowd and there were all these screenings.

“Out of Africa” won all these awards and the L.A. film critics announced “Brazil” [as their winner]. It was a brilliant moment. They released it in big cities. We ran ads saying, “Genuine journalists, take a bus to Tijuana, we’ll pay for your bus,” because you could watch it in Mexico.

I think the moment I really loved the most was when I was doing “CBS Morning News” and [Robert] De Niro was being interviewed. He agreed to do an interview, and he brought his friend along. That friend was me. Maria [Shriver, who was hosting] was asking about his movie. She turns to me and says, “Terry, I understand you’re having problems with the studio.” I said, “I’m not having problems with the studio. I’m having problems with one guy. His name is Sidney Sheinberg, and he looks like this.” I ran to the camera, and that got his attention.

Sid’s wife loved the movie. He had no idea what the movie was, but it had to be changed. I took out an ad in Variety. It was a full-page ad that looked like a funeral announcement. I wrote, “Dear Sidney Sheinberg, when are you going to release my film, ‘Brazil?’” The shit flew because back then arguing was fun. We were like pirates.

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On Trump and the British General Election Results:

One of the most despicable human beings is the [U.S.] president. Boris is Mini-Me compared to him. Once Pandora’s Box is opened, they spring up like mushrooms. It’s very hard for me to think that there’s anything good about him. He’s a vile human being. The idea of him trying to run a country, the way he ran his company — he just can’t do it. Trump is appalling, but the Republicans are awful.

I thought we could have held him [Boris Johnson] back. I’m surprised we got a majority. Here, I’ve chosen to be in this country. Great Britain, I thought was a pragmatic place with pragmatic people. They’re just as crazed as this country. I renounced my citizenship the year [George] Bush was reelected. Once is stupid, but twice? It’s time to leave. When you renounce, you get put on parole. I could only be in this country for 30 days in any one year. The week after I had renounced, I got a call from Hollywood. That’s how it works.

I find at the end of my 10-year parole I’m 100% British and my attitude was that I was 100% European. It was the year of Brexit. I said, “What the fuck is happening to me?”

This is the problem. Someone pointed out, I was the weird Zelig character. I was there at the great Martin Luther King march. I was at the Monterey Festival. I was a photographer. I was always doing things.

With Johnson, you’ve never seen a man lie so blatantly. I give up trying to understand what people are like nowadays. No one changed their mind.

On “Tideland” being his most underappreciated work:

People have been turning up in recent years to talks and they’re saying how much they love the film. Jodelle Ferland was the most brilliant actress. Brendan Fletcher was great too. The audience sees this girl cook heroin and they shut down. It’s a dance of love. It’s this girl who is more mature than her father. It’s just this dance. She knows the moment his cigarette is going to drop.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” being hated in Cannes:

In Cannes, Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro and I were ready for our first day of press, and the French PR guy had been in the screening and we were ready to go. This guy comes in and the lady who was the female editor of the L.A. Times culture section hated the film so much, she wouldn’t give it an inch of space.

The best review I ever got was from a 15-year-old who was being asked by his parents why he liked it so much. He said, “It’s the first movie I’ve seen that’s not hypocritical.” A cleaned-up version is being released in London. I haven’t seen it in 20 years and thought, “F— me. This is good.”

On animation and what he likes now:

It’s got to be Disney. Look at “Pinocchio,” it’s one of the most extraordinary pieces of work ever. Bill Plympton is great too. He’s a genius. Stan Vanderbeek is great too. His stuff is nice looking. Everything I’ve done is based on not being a student. I have to learn on the job. When you have two weeks and you have $400, you start cutting things out. When I talk to Scorsese and Landis, those guys are walking encyclopedias. I’m not. For me, it’s about learning within the confines of what I’ve been given to do. I don’t know why it’s worked out that way, but I’ve been thrown into these things where I’ve had to produce something.

The best stuff I’ve done is not because I’ve written a script and the only way to get around that problem was learning how to tap dance.

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