The Hot Seat: Terry Gilliam

For Heath Ledger's final director, the show must go on.

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Illustration: Rob Kelly


Terry Gilliam isn't interested in being remembered as simply the one American component of Monty Python. Since the dissolution of that famously droll outfit, the 69-year-old illustrator and director has gone on to helm such quirky film classics as Time Bandits, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Twelve Monkeys. While his insistence on doing things his way hasn't endeared him to Hollywood's big-money producers, it has earned him friends among some of the world's most sought-after names (cue Johnny Depp). Unfortunately, his projects seem dogged by ill fortune—in 2002, a documentary was made about his aborted attempted to film Don Quixote (Lost in La Mancha), and more recently, Heath Ledger tragically died in the middle of making Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. That project was salvaged when actor friends of Ledger and Gilliam (Depp, Colin Farrell, Jude Law) stepped into the breach to ensure that Ledger's last performance saw the light of day.

RECOMMENDED: Full list of Hot Seat interviews

Some of your projects seem to displease God.
There are forces at work. I don't even question them anymore. They're out there.

You just go with it?
Yeah, with a lot of screaming. I don't go quietly.

Dylan Thomas would be happy, at least.
There's a weird kind of fatalism that's taking over in my life. C'mon, throw the next thing at me, see where it goes. Heath dies, Bill Vince the producer dies, and then I get hit by a car and break my back a year ago. I thought, You fuckers, you went for the triple and you failed. [Laughs] Star, producer, director. Clean slate. But they failed!

You're too tough to rub out!
Too stupid to know when to stop.

Amazing the film got made at all.
Yeah, when Heath died, I didn't even want to make it. That was the big problem at that point. I was the guy that gave up. This was a really, really close friend, someone who I thought, This is the guy I could do every film in my head with, because he's got all the skills. All the stuff. It was just a great working relationship. And then he goes and dies on us, the bastard. [Laughs]

The devil features prominentIy in the film. If you had to make a deal with him, Tom Waits or otherwise, what would it entail?
Oh, I don't know. I've tried in the past, and the devil was never there when I needed the deal. I was ready to sell out many times along the way. But the devil is Vegas. The devil gets you.

I heard you're working on Quixote again. Fitting.
Yes. After seven years, they finally read the script and we finally got it back from the French legal system. Time for a major rewrite, which is done. I was lucky not to finish that film, because the script wasn't good enough. And now, I think we've cracked it. Or maybe I'm just fooling myself again. Unfortunately, Johnny's [Depp] dance card is full with other things—piratical adventures and Tonto-esque moments.

He's a popular guy.
He's lucky to be in the position he's in now, while the rest of the system is collapsing and nobody is making movies. He certainly paid his dues. So I have to recast that part and get the money. Easy. This is where my new fatalism takes over. It'll either work out or it won't. If not, we'll all go on holiday. I keep saying, with the terror in the film world right now, all of us should take a year's holiday, and then we can go back and do some work. Otherwise, you're just pissing against the wind the whole time.

You can go live on Johnny's private island!
[Laughs] Exactly. He could do the work, we could hang around on the island.

Whatever, just go and be a butler there.
Johnny... I think Marlon Brando got to him, because Marlon had his island, so Johnny had to have his. When he bought it, he said, "I've got this 36-acre island." I said, "What? In ten years you'll have a 20-acre island. The water is rising. What you need is a boat, John." So he got a boat.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus opens Fri 25.

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