Terry Gilliam on directing 'The Damnation of Faust'
Filmmaking visionary Terry Gilliam has turned his beady eye to Berlioz. Time Out investigates
'Maverick' is an adjective too carelessly employed to describe creative artists. But, in the case of Terry Gilliam, it has been well earned. The 'Monty Python' animator and occasional actor turned filmmaker has made more big-budget follies than a director still working ought to - his projects are often outrageous in their ambition. Yet, on meeting the man, it becomes clear how this apparently crazed genius has charmed millions of dollars from various sources to finance his flights of imagination: the surreal and fantastical (1988's 'The Adventures of Baron Munchausen', 2009's 'The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus'), the sometimes doomed ('The Man who Killed Don Quixote') and the box office winners (1991's 'The Fisher King').
The lithe, 70-year-old American is at English National Opera's London Coliseum, overseeing a lighting rehearsal. Sporting a remarkably loud shirt, his grizzled look is enhanced by roughly shorn grey hair and a long, wispy ponytail. He smiles easily and his flippant self-deprecation is regularly concluded with an infectious chuckle. But, at turns, he reveals a steely core, such as when he threatened to put a nail through the negative of 1982's profitable 'Time Bandits' if the studio tinkered with his vision, and later published an open letter in Variety to the head of Universal, enquiring why 1985's 'Brazil' had not been released.
Fortunately, his current project - directing 'The Damnation of Faust' at ENO - is a good fit: the visionary artist taking on Hector Berlioz's uncategorisable 1846 opera (conceived as a dramatic cantata) for a company leading the way in bold collaborations (recently employing another film director, Mike Figgis, for example).
A latecomer to opera - this is his first time directing one - Gilliam has, according to his blog, cursed the French composer more than once.
How is your relationship with Berlioz?
'Well, I think the marriage is working out. I have come to terms with him. Whether he has come to terms with me remains to be seen.'
What does your set look like?
'I am a big fan of German culture and my idea was, “Wouldn't it be wonderful to start with German romanticism, moving through expressionism and then into the tidy world of fascism?” And it works. So, visually, it shifts. It doesn't just sit there with one stunning set, and lighting moving beautifully - this is wham bam!'
Your films are very operatic. Why has opera been missing in your life?
'Because I don't like it! [giggles] I like listening to opera more than seeing it. Too often I've seen the wrong shaped human beings up there - singing beautifully, but they just don't convince me when you have a 72 year old playing a 25-year-old revolutionary.
Is opera the same as directing films?
'No, it is easier to see it earlier in film. We have been rehearsing for weeks with nothing to imagine. In film, you have very little time to rehearse, but you just start shooting and gather material that I can spend six months editing. Here the process is backwards: we have to get it all right before it opens.'
…and you can't edit the score.
'The score is there and you can't piss around with it, apparently. But it is interesting: I think I am beginning to enjoy this dialectic with the score. It is there, but it is how you deal with it - like setting a scene differently to play off what the music is doing.'
Is Faust still a seminal myth?
'I think creative people are obsessed with it because it is just so easy to sell out. We all want to succeed, we all want to be loved by the audience and the temptation is always to lower your standards to go to Hollywood. And it probably feels stronger for artistic creative people than normal people - the bankers don't have a problem with it.' [giggles]
Are you going to film it?
'Negotiations are going on. The cast is so good and, if everything goes as it should, it should
be out there where you can see it. The ephemeral nature of opera bothers me: ten shows and it's gone.'
Surely Sky Arts would be interested?
'They spent all their money on Mike Figgis… Whoops, he got there first.'
As a twenty-first century guy, what you would change about this opera?
'I just wanted to shorten a couple of the long-winded bits, but we are not going to. What has been interesting for me is my time clock, everything about me, runs faster than opera, normally. And it has been quite interesting to realise I don't have to have ten million ideas in the next 30 seconds - one would do the job.'
You've not been tempted to chop up Berlioz like the Old Masters?
'That's how I started; why stop now? But Berlioz, we are not fiddling with him. At times it has been funny. We went to the sitzprobe [rehearsal with orchestra and chorus] and I said, “Oh Jesus, why are we even bothering to put anything over this music? This music is so utterly stunning and I hope
we are not just distracting from it.”'
So there won't be a big foot crushing Faust at the end?'
'Naah, I'm a high-class guy now. We have moved on from comedy - I'm an opera director!'
'The Damnation of Faust' runs at English National Opera Fri May 6 - June 7, 2011. (www.eno.org)