Terry Gilliam isn't just one of the weirdest directors ever to reach mainstream attention. Or one of the most prolific Monty Python alumni. He's also an incredibly influential director, who doesn't get the props he deserves. We talked to a bunch of people, including Looper director Rian Johnson, about Gilliam's influence.
Brazil and 12 Monkeys screenshots via CinemaSquid.
With Gilliam's new film Zero Theorem hitting theaters tomorrow, we thought this was an ideal time to talk about his importance as a film-maker in general — and we found lots of people who were willing to sing his praises.
"Gilliam is incredibly underrated as a film-maker," says Drew Pearce, writer of Iron Man 3 and creator of the TV show No Heroics. "It's probably because his work has straddled the mainstream and avant garde with a sense that it could give two shits about either classification."
Pearce considers Gilliam's Brazil a masterpiece, but also calls his movie The Fisher King "a classical beauty," adding: "the 'moral traffic light' concept is one I invoke frequently." Pearce loved Twelve Monkeys so much, he never returned the VHS tape to his local video store in West Kensington. "I'm hoping they've closed down now, so I don't get arrested."
Gilliam's insane contrast between huge and small
Rian Johnson, director of Looper and the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VIII, tells io9:
I discovered Brazil my freshman year of college, around the same time I discovered 8 1/2, and they're obviously very different movies but they both cracked my mind open in a specific way. I'll probably fumble it when I try to explain it here, but they both opened up the potential for intimacy through bigness. All the visual opulence of Brazil was not just spectacle, it was all one very small and relatable human emotion, writ large.
That feeling of being a tiny vulnerable man in the gears of a big machine he has no control over, that's something that struck home, and seeing it blown up to such obscene proportions it didn't become diffused, it became concentrated, like looking at a dense stamp-sized micro miniature drawing through a loupe.
Like Fellini, Gilliam isn't just a visual stylist, he's an artist, and his ability to concentrate all this bigness on one small point of human vulnerability is an incredibly powerful thing. To make another belabored metaphor, it's like resting a hundred pound weight on the top of a needle whose point is set on your forehead.
You can hear Johnson's conversation with Gilliam, which just went up today, here.
His cluttered frame is a thing of beauty
The first thing people talk about when it comes to Gilliam as a director is his incredibly cluttered, overstuffed frame — which is also very wide, because of his use of ultra wide-angle lenses, which broaden the frame but also distort the perspective. Long before today's film-makers were shooting in IMAX, Gilliam was experimenting with ways to expand the size of his frame. And he crams everything he can into every one of those wide, wide frames.
"Gilliam embraces chaos," says Jordan Hoffman, film critic with the New York Daily News and the Guardian. "He's a loud, rambunctious, messy filmmaker. Some people can't handle this. I don't know that I can handle it all the time. He's a perfectionist in his imperfections."
Hoffman says he thinks about Gilliam a lot, "in terms of my work space.":
I strive for a clutter-free, symmetrical Kubrickian quality. I rarely achieve it. Most times it is an avalanche of stray discs and mail and wires and shirts and old magazines and crusty coffee cups. When I finally can't take it any more I think 'I'm living in a Terry Gilliam movie' and that's when I clean up. But the truth is that I secretly like the mess. I always wish someone would come and see me tapping away amidst the visual cacophony and think "wow, Hoffman really is some sort of mad scientist."
"The Adventures of Baron Munchausen has probably stuck with me as the most visually packed and creative mess ever," says Pia Guerra, the artist of Y: The Last Man. "It's gorgeous, sweeping and uses every optical stage trick in the book, but it also falls short. The city scenes on the moon left me wanting more than just painted flats whizzing by, wondering if maybe they ran out of money after all that went into the sumptuous, frenetic flashbacks, the sea monster and Vulcan's forge scenes."
Adds Guerra, "Gilliam has this beautiful mind that clearly holds more than can ever possibly be expressed physically and there's a sadness in that; no amount of bank or studio acreage will ever be enough to get it all. We'll only ever have glimpses."
But it's not just the ultra-wide, super-cluttered frame, says Anna Froula, a film studies professor at East Carolina University who co-edited the book The Cinema of Terry Gilliam: It's a Mad World. Gilliam also uses weird angles, especially the "Dutch" or canted angle, to make his imagery look more jarring.
And added to his overstuffed mise-en-scene, Gilliam deliberately uses odd lighting, says Froula. She cites "the dim glow of Twelve Monkeys' underground lab" and "the searing fluorescent lights in its mental hospital" as examples. The intersection between this odd lighting and the over-the-top performances that Gilliam elicits from his actors is something really unique.
As an aside, Froula adds: "I'd argue that he's gotten the best career performances out of both Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt."
He uses Monty Python-style humor to tell weird stories
Hoffman was shocked to realize that Gilliam is an American, given that his humor feels so British and so much of a piece with Monty Python. Pearce says that Time Bandits and Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy both had a huge influence on him as a youth, because of the "Britishness" of the strange humor. Pearce saw Time Bandits on VHS when he was "probably too young," because his father wanted to watch it due to the Python connection.
Pearce remembers being blown away by the way Time Bandits "started as a story about a little boy but then went insane (Where The Wild Things Are was my favorite book, and there's shades of that in the invasion of a child's bedroom by dreams and monsters); the way it was funny but also deeply scary in places; and overall, the mind-bending concept of jumping through time."
In other words, much like Adams in Hitchhiker's, Gilliam uses surreal Pythonesque humor to tell a story about flights of fancy, which winds up having some real weight to it.
The seven-year-old Pearce wrote a time-travel story called "Phenomenon" that was heavily influenced by Bandits. (The movie rights, he notes, are still available.)
Pearce says he found Monty Python through Gilliam, rather than the other way around.
"One of the biggest Monty Python laughs I've ever had was in Holy Grail when the monster was chasing everyone — and quick cut to the animator dropping dead and everyone is saved," says Guerra. "Still makes me giggle."
Did Terry Gilliam help invent steampunk?
When Froula was working on her book about Gilliam, he told her co-editor that he'd looked up the term "steampunk," and found that people were attributing it to him. This came as a surprise to Gilliam, but Froula argues it makes total sense:
His anarchic ability to make absurdist art on the cheap and expose the guts of any system—-often literally through the guts of a cartoon human or plumbing system—informs the playful DIY at the heart of steampunk. You can see it in his adaptation of Berlioz's Dr. Faustus into an opera in 2011.
Gilliam's work is "organically steampunk," adds Froula. Just look at the weird cut-outs in his Monty Python animations: "the way he would trace classical and Renaissance art in the British library and then combine the illustrations with ducts, images from Edison's early films, and Victorian and World War I imagery to create absurdist humor has developed one way or another in all of his films."
And the point of Gilliam's "bricolage," his use of found objects (like the computer consoles in Brazil) and old imagery isn't just escapism or nostalgia, says Froula. Rather, these items are turned into "grotesque or strange props that confront the viewer with visible labor." This is how Gilliam conveys his belief that "the people are the cogs" in the system.
Combine this with Gilliam's intentional ananchronism, and you get a sense that the past, present and future coexist at any given moment, says Froula. And this "reminds us that we can't escape the more barbaric acts of history if we continue to replicate them in our industrial, warring world."
I'm thinking here of Jabberwocky, his under-appreciated first solo-directed film. He combines the artistic mise-en-scene inspired by Carravaggio, Pieter Bruegel, and Hieronymos Bosch with a realistic setting of life without sanitary plumbing to create a satire of economic exploitation. And he does this on the cheap!
There's this great scene in Lost in La Mancha (Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, 2002), which is a documentary about his earlier failed attempt to make Don Quixote, where Giliam's building Quixote's armor. I can't render it properly in words, but his exuberance in trying all these different pieces to make the armor looked slapped together, his gestures and energy in getting this one detail right, his arms waving all around, is something to see.
An inspiration to struggling artists everywhere
He's still an inspiration. Earlier this year I was writing a spec and having a shitty day of it, and so I bunked off to watch his "Career In 40 Minutes" interview. It was a revelation - he's relaxed and relaxing yet still full of energy and a little piss and vinegar too. But overall he had the sanguine air of a gentlemen filmmaker whose life has been dedicated to a singular, unique vision, and it reminded me exactly why I was struggling to spec this original movie rather than taking a paycheck, why it was worth sticking to my guns, because in the words of The Fisher King's Jack Lucas: "it's important to think - it's what separates us from lentils".
When Brazil came out, it was being treated as a "David and Goliath" story because of the war between Gilliam and the studio, which wanted a happy "Love Conquers All" ending, says Hoffman, who's an occasional contributor to io9. This meta-narrative fed into Brazil's angry rebellious nature — making it the perfect movie for the pre-teen Hoffman, who was just discovering rebellion and weird British humor.
"Brazil is made for adolescents - it is so angry but also funny and obnoxious and sexy," says Hoffman. He adds:
What Gilliam (and Python) taught me was not only to distrust authority, but to do it in a clever way. I never learned much about ancient or modern philosophers in school, but between the Australian drinking song ("Immanuel Kant was a real pissant..." and the Greeks v. German soccer match from "Live at the Hollywood Bowl" I ended up fairly adroit. No better way to piss off teachers by singing obscene songs that prove you are smarter than they are. This attitude is felt in most of Gilliam's top notch work as well. I think it all comes to a head during the moment in "Brazil" when Lowery is on his blind date with the dopey woman who keeps offering him salt. It makes you hate society and the imbecilic roles the Man wants us to play, but the next moment we see a terrorist bombing and Lowery immediately wants to help. This see-saw of misanthropy and humanism is key to Gilliam's work.
According to Froula, the 1991 movie Delicatessen is a direct homage to Gilliam. And you see his Monty Python animation being copied everywhere — including a scene on the TV show Fringe recently. "'Gilliamesque' is already a thing, and will continue to be," she says.