Roger Ebert Home

KVIFF 2018: Terry Gilliam Dreams the Impossible Dream

Terry Gilliam was running late for yesterday’s press roundtable, and neither I nor the other journalists in attendance would’ve preferred it any other way. After all, the delays that routinely plague Gilliam’s films have only increased public interest in them, and though opinions on his recent pictures may vary, I’d argue that they are always worth the wait. That is certainly the case with “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” which opens today in the Czech Republic after premiering last night to a rapturous response at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. Though the film was trashed by many critics at Cannes, the audience at KVIFF loved Gilliam’s slapstick-laden riff on the classic Miguel de Cervantes tale. I found plenty to enjoy in the film, and though not all of it works, there is enough genius on display to make me yearn for an eventual U.S. release. 

As soon as Gilliam entered the room for our scheduled interview, his childlike exuberance proved to be infectious. With a high-pitched cackle, he opened the conversation by recalling an appearance he made on a Texas radio station during the “Brazil” publicity tour. A gentlemen phoned in and said, “Aw, Mr. Gilliam, I saw your film, ‘Brazil.’ Wonderful film, Mr. Brazil. I giggled in awe.” That’s what Gilliam wants on his tombstone: “He Giggled In Awe.” When asked whether he still considers himself a member of Monty Python, Gilliam replied, “I dunno, I’m a black lesbian first.” Yet his answers were not comprised entirely of quips, such as when he reflected on the parallels between himself and Don Quixote.

“I think I’ve lost a lot of battles with windmills,” mused Gilliam. “My problem is that I don’t distinguish between reality and fantasy. That’s why I keep being knocked down. When I was younger, I thought everybody saw the world the same way I did. It was only as I got older that I realized my version of the world is very different from other people’s versions. All my films are about the battle between reality and fantasy. You want to be able to do anything in life. You want to be able to fly. The image I like the most is in ‘Brazil,’ where Jonathan Pryce is taking off with his big wings, and the pavement comes up and grabs him. For me, that’s the image of how I see life—those two things in battle. When I was 31, I had to prove to myself that I couldn’t fly. I was telling a friend, ‘I don’t fly very high. I fly about a meter off the ground.’ Somewhere there was a part of my body that was convinced it had flown, and I had to get down on the ground and prove that I couldn’t levitate. It took a while to convince myself. I don’t know if these are muscle memories from when you are a baby. If you play piano, you learn that your fingers have a memory of their own. If I’m playing a piece that I know, I have to go back to the beginning. I could never pick it up in the middle. If your dad is throwing you around in the air when you’re a kid, that must stick somehow in your mind, and it convinced me that I could fly. I hate being disappointed.”

“When I see a building with scaffolding up and tarpaulins flapping, and suddenly the wind catches them, it looks like the sails of a schooner,” Gilliam continued. “I’ll think, ‘Why doesn’t the building move?’ You may recall that there’s a little old building with a sail in ‘The Meaning of Life.’ I just play in my head a lot, and I’m aware that it’s just playing, it’s not real. But as an animator and filmmaker, at least now I can make it real in cinematic terms. When we were making ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,’ there’s a scene early on where Benicio and Johnny are checking into the hotel. They look over and see a guy on the phone, and suddenly the carpet starts crawling up his leg. That’s not in the book, that was me just walking around the casino we were going to be working in and looking around at the carpets, which were very big with vegetal patterns—flowers and leaves—and I thought, ‘It could come alive really easily.’ I personally do not take drugs. When I finished ‘Fear and Loathing,’ I promised that I was going to take acid. I had never taken acid before in my life, and I just got bored with it. Marijuana makes me implode. Every time I’d come from London to Hollywood working on movies, I’d arrive in the late afternoon and there’s always a party. There was so much cocaine around, but I couldn’t stand the hangover the next day. After three nights of cocaine use, I said, ‘Never again.’”

“Years ago, a filmmaker asked me how I shoot my fantasy sequences, and I said that I shoot them exactly like any other sequence,” Gilliam laughed. “There is no difference for me. Things may change a little bit, but you don’t go, ‘Oooo, now we’re going into fantasy.’ I hate all that s—t. I love the fact that if we do it well, the audience is just swept along and suddenly they are now in this fantastic situation before they realize it. I think that came from living in LA in the 60s. I lived up in Laurel Canyon and it was a wonderful time. I had this little convertible car and there was always someone to pick up, because everyone hitchhiked all the time. I picked up a girl and took her back to my place, and we became close for a while. She was an acid head and always took LSD. You’d be talking with her and suddenly she’d look at something in shock. I’d ask, ‘What was that?’, and she’d say, ‘Well, there was that tree over there, and it flew away.’ And you live with it. I didn’t have to take any drugs. Being around a lot of drug taking, you start very quickly identifying with them.” 

Gilliam’s filmmaking career began with creating the animated sequences for “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” and though he has been approached by Laika, the studio behind “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” to make an animated feature, he no longer has the patience for that sort of undertaking. Though his first interest had always been visuals, he was struck by how the reviews for “Brazil” barely mentioned its lead actor, Jonathan Pryce, at all, opting to focus solely on the look of the film. It took a while for critics to notice the filmmaker’s skill with actors, and Gilliam admits that he will now “sacrifice a visual thing for a good moment of acting,” something he wasn’t as willing to do early in his career. One of the most impressive instances of Gilliam casting against type was when he chose Brad Pitt to play the deranged Jeffrey in “12 Monkeys,” a role that went on to earn the actor his first Oscar nomination.

“Brad wanted to play the Bruce Willis part,” said Gilliam. “He wasn’t a big star yet because ‘Legends of the Fall’ came out only after I had hired him, and his career changed overnight. It was a perverse decision for me to cast him as Jeffrey because the role was a motormouth character and Brad had never done that before. I put him with a friend of mine who is a dialogue coach, and after a week or so, my friend said, ‘What have you done to me? This guy’s got a lazy tongue, he smokes too much, it’s just never gonna work!’ Brad worked so hard. The first scene with him in the film was his first day of work and he arrived on the set with all these twitches and speech patterns. It was unbelievable. But he put so much in that first day that the next day, he was completely exhausted. He was absolutely brilliant in that part, and he also happens to be a guy from Missouri. I like hiring people from the midwest, where I’m from as well, because that part of the country has a certain protestant work ethic.”

In many ways, “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” carries echoes of Gilliam’s best film, 1991’s “The Fisher King,” starring Jeff Bridges as a disgraced DJ who befriends a homeless man (Robin Williams) whose life he unknowingly ruined. Both pictures are about a cynical jerk who undergoes a spiritual transformation after becoming engulfed in the fantastical world of a delusional outcast. Only gradually do we realize that the outcast’s delusions were indirectly fueled by the jerk’s carelessness. In the case of “Quixote,” the jerk is Toby, an ad executive played by Adam Driver, who encounters a man (Jonathan Pryce) he once cast as Don Quixote for a student film. Not only does the man now believe he is Don Quixote, he’s also convinced that Toby is his long lost Sancho Panza. Gilliam considers the film to be as emotional as “The Fisher King,” a picture he holds close to his heart.

“I enjoyed that film so much because it was the first one where I didn’t have to think about all the big technical things,” said Gilliam. “It was just about these actors working together, and we had a ball. Every one of them was brilliant. I remember how Robin felt that his fans wanted his kind of madness, and I always had to pull it. His insecurity was thinking he had to do what all his fans were wanting, and I told him, ‘You don’t, Robin. The part’s there, you just be the part.’ And it worked. But every few days, I said to Robin, ‘Okay, go for it. Whatever it is, do it.’ There were always elements in his improv that would be really nice surprises. We’d keep those and throw the other s—t out.”

My favorite scene in “The Fisher King” is an indelible example of the “recreated reality” that reverberates throughout Gilliam’s filmography. When delivering a telegram to Robin’s crush (Amanda Plummer), a homeless cabaret singer (Michael Jeter) transforms a drab office into a Vegas stage, belting out the words with all the bravado of Ethel Merman. It is hilarious, exhilarating and utterly joyous. Plummer’s double take upon first seeing Jeter is also one for the ages.

“That scene was all in the script,” said Gilliam. “It was the first that Richard LaGravenese wrote, and it was brilliant. When Michael came in and did the scene, it was pitch-perfect every take. We could cut all these takes together and he was always absolutely perfect in each of them. The one scene in the finished film that Robin was really pissed off at me about is the scene where he takes Amanda back to her apartment. He takes her outside and says how much he loves her. As he’s pouring out his heart, most of the scene is on Amanda’s face. Robin was like, ‘But it was my big scene!’ And I replied, ‘But Robin, we know what you look like. We can hear your voice. It’s the reaction to what you’re saying that is important.’ This tear built up in her eye and then dropped. I thought it was beautiful.”

The most depressing thing about the movie business, according to Gilliam, is the need for bankability that necessitates the involvement of marquee names, some of whom may simply be a flavor of the month. Driver has made quite a few films since his career exploded courtesy of HBO’s “Girls,” yet there are notes he hits in “Quixote” that I never would’ve expected from him, particularly when he delivers an impromptu performance of Eddie Cantor’s hit tune, “If You Knew Susie.” The actor’s work has surprised everyone, including the director. 

“This film was made because of Adam Driver,” noted Gilliam. “I had never seen him do anything, aside from ‘Star Wars,’ where he’s doing this [opens mouth in screaming pose] a lot, and I was like, ‘Okay, fine. I don’t care.’ But my daughter, who is one of the producers, said, ‘You gotta meet him,’ and I did initially because he was hot. You meet the people who are hot because that’s how you’ll get the money you need. We had lunch in Hampstead, and the minute I met him, I thought that there was a quality about this guy that was unlike any other actor I had met. There was a stillness and a genuineness, there was nothing actor-y about him, and he proved to be so much better than I ever imagined. I think he convinced me about his integrity or his stupidness, whichever way it goes, when I learned that after the Twin Towers went down in 9/11, he joined the Marines to go fight for his country. That is such an old-fashioned thing to do, and that’s when I realized that Adam is a very different actor from the ones I normally bump into. He’s such a strange actor because if you just stand him there, he’s kind of goofy looking—he’s tall and gangly, with a big nose and ears that stick out. He doesn’t look like a movie star, but by the end of this film, he looks like one of the most romantic leading men I’ve seen in a while. He just transforms himself, and it’s not coming from anything external, it’s all coming from inside. It’s fantastic to watch.”

Prior to heading to yesterday’s interview, I heard about the passing of Derrick O’Connor, the Irish character actor who appeared in three Gilliam pictures: “Jabberwocky,” “Time Bandits” and “Brazil.” O’Connor reportedly died of pneumonia on June 29th.

“I just found that out last night,” Gilliam told me. “In ‘Time Bandits,’ he was a part of Robin Hood’s band, and he had all of these lines. He told me, ‘Nah, I don’t want to do the lines, I’ll just grunt,’ and he was brilliant. We got on so well, so then I put him in ‘Brazil,’ and he did the same thing. He gave Bob Hoskins all the lines and just repeated them. That’s really what good acting is about. You don’t need the words. If you can portray the character and what his intent is, what he’s thinking without words, it’s even better and that was Derrick. And now he doesn’t do words at all. He doesn’t even do the actions. This is not acting, Derrick! It’s very sad.”

As is often the case with roundtable conversations, the topics varied widely and in a random order, though Gilliam tackled each of them with his trademark candor. When asked if he still stands by his past statement that “our system needs terrorists,” the filmmaker did not beat around the bush. 

“Of course I do!” exclaimed Gilliam. “The Chinese were the ones that really did it first, with ‘a tiger at the gate.’ This is the way that you control the population. Make sure that there’s a threat so that you can unite and be held together tightly, protected. Whether the threats are real or not, you need them. Homeland security in America has become the Ministry of Information from ‘Brazil,’ and America keeps creating terrorists. ISIS had been so good for a while, but now they look like they’re finished, so there will be another one. We’ve killed enough kids overseas that the ones who survived will grow up and want to bomb something. How do you justify the world’s biggest defense budget when there’s nobody out there who is even really close? Poor little North Korea. I think Kim Jong-un has played it all very cleverly.”

Accompanying Gilliam at yesterday’s premiere was Joana Ribeiro, the actress cast as Toby’s love interest, who serves as the Dulciniea of the piece. The filmmaker applauded Ribeiro for making comments that would likely be frowned upon in the era of #MeToo. 

“We are living in the age of women being victims of Harvey Weinstein,” said Gilliam. “He didn’t touch every woman on the planet. When discussing her character during interviews, Joana says, ‘This is a girl who had dreams. She went off, she made choices—some were bad, some were better—and she ends up where she is. She took responsibility for her life.’ That’s a really important thing to be saying now, and I’m glad she’s here with me because I can’t say things like that.”

Upon being asked what he’s admired onscreen in recent years, Gilliam’s first response was “Breaking Bad,” though he came up with a couple movie titles as well. 

“When I’m making a film, and I’ve been on this one for a while, I don’t go to movies,” said Gilliam. “I really don’t because they are all better than what I’m doing, and I get very depressed. As far as movies of late that I’ve enjoyed, ‘Get Out’ impressed me, and a couple years before that, ‘Whiplash’ did too. I like the simpler movies that are about real people and good ideas. What I liked so much about ‘Get Out’ is that you had to have been a black guy to have written and directed it. A white guy could’ve never done it, and I thought that was important. It was so specific to the black experience.”

Though Gilliam has famously criticized Steven Spielberg in the past, he did give one of the blockbuster helmer’s titles a favorable shout-out (hint: it involves a shark) when prodded on his thoughts regarding the “Alien” franchise, which had previously sought him out.

“‘Alien’ is just a ghost train where something jumps out and you don’t know who’s going to die next,” laughed Gilliam. “When I watched the first ‘Alien,’ all I kept saying was, ‘Just kill them all and be done with it,’ because you just know that they’re all going to die along the way. In the end, Sigourney Weaver, who we’ve established is a really tough military officer, is running around in her underwear trying to find a cat. Give me a f—king break. There are some great moments in it, but the shot that should’ve never been in the film is the one at the end showing the alien getting blown out of the airlock. You see the alien, and it’s just a guy in a rubber suit. Up until then, you only saw bits of the alien, and it seemed to be huge and vast and terrifying. That was so clever. It was like the shark in ‘Jaws.’ I told Ridley, ‘You don’t want that shot of the alien at the end. Cut it!’ I got offered an ‘Alien’ sequel because I was hot at that time, as a result of ‘Time Bandits” and ‘Fisher King,’ and I just don’t want to do films like that. They are factory jobs, working for a studio. My last factory job was on the Chevrolet assembly plant in Los Angeles, during my junior year of college, night shift on the line. Never again.”

No matter how much Gilliam adores the realm of fantasy, he insists that narratives bereft of reality do not hold his interest. 

“There’s always got to be reality in my films,” said Gilliam. “Maybe it’s the only way I can stop myself from going completely mad. It’s the tension between reality and fantasy that is interesting, and that’s why I don’t like all the big Marvel movies. There are too many of them, they are dominating the industry, and everybody just wants to see the next one and go, ‘Well, there’s the Hulk again.’ It’s horrible, but more importantly, there is no real physical reality to the films. There is no gravity, and gravity is everything. Things fall, and no matter how high you want to jump, you are always brought back down. On a technical level, these films are brilliant, and I find myself watching them from a distance because there is no real tension. There is no real threat. You just know they’ll win somehow, or they’ll win if the whole civilization doesn’t collapse around them first. It’s kind of like us in real life. The heroes in my films don’t win, they survive.”

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is the former Literary Editor at and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Back to Black
The Strangers: Chapter 1
The Big Cigar
You Can't Run Forever
In Our Day


comments powered by Disqus