“I want audiences to come out with shards stuck in them,” Terry Gilliam once said of his work as a filmmaker. “I don’t care if people love my films or walk out, as long as they have a strong response.”
If there’s one thing that every single film of Terry Gilliam’s has done, it’s to get a response. This highly driven auteur’s works are always shot through with startling imagery, subversive themes, unusual characters and formal experimentation. As an artist, it’s stood him in great stead, but in the money-fixated environment of modern filmmaking, these same qualities have seen Gilliam consistently pushed to the edge, as his grand visions come crashing into prosaic obstacles like budgetary constraints and marketing incentives. Terry Gilliam has the soul of a surrealist and looks at cinema as an art form as opposed to a business – it’s nearly brought him undone, but it’s also provided the director with a fierce band of cultists and reams of critical praise.
Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on November 22, 1940, Gilliam was briefly employed by Mad Magazine as a writer/illustrator before he shifted to England in 1967, where he began working on the comedy series Do Not Adjust Your Set, a seminal move that would bring him into the orbit of Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones. It was here that Gilliam first developed his pioneering “cut up” animation style, mixing together photographs, magazine clippings and famous works of art.
In 1969, American export Gilliam was asked to join the very British absurdist comedy troupe Monty Python, which included the aforementioned Idle, Palin and Jones, along with comic firebombs John Cleese and Graham Chapman. As well as writing for the groundbreaking TV series Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Gilliam also contributed animated interludes, which gave the group its unforgettable visual signature. When the Pythons took their bent brand of comedy to the big screen in 1975 with the cult classic Monty Python And The Holy Grail, Gilliam joined Terry Jones in the director’s chair before striking out on his own with the decidedly Pythonesque Jabberwocky.
The film was Gilliam’s first real taste of failure (it neither clicked with critics or audiences), and the director then regrouped with the Python crew for their next two classics: the hilariously blasphemous The Life Of Brian (where he served solely as a writer and animator) and the scattershot The Meaning Of Life (where he again shared directing duties with Terry Jones). Wedged in between was the delightful Time Bandits (1981), the best of the director’s non-Python early work. Terry Gilliam’s next two films – the savagely cynical Brazil (1985) and the whimsical surrealist adventure The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1988) – provided the blueprint for the rest of his career. Both were bold, visionary works that went wildly over budget, bringing down the wrath of the studios that produced them. The films were cut to ribbons and taken out of Gilliam’s hands, leading to a creative heartbreak that he would sadly become all too familiar with.
After these difficult, highly personal works, Gilliam went to Hollywood for the far more accessible The Fisher King (1991), though he retained his anarchic spirit and florid visual style, as he did on his next Hollywood film, Twelve Monkeys (1995). The films were both hits, and Gilliam responded in kind by then delivering the largely inexplicable Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (1998), his much maligned adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal book. For most viewers, the film was a nightmare, but it was nothing compared to what Gilliam would experience next. As documented by filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louise Pepe in Lost In La Mancha (2002), Gilliam’s attempts to make his dream film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote nearly buried him. Though barely surviving the collapse of the film, Gilliam has subsequently thrown himself into work, delivering both the fantastical The Brothers Grimm and the more low key Tideland in 2005. He delivered a surprise swansong for the late Heath Ledger in 2009’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and pushed sci-fi boundaries with 2013’s The Zero Theorem, before finally realising a much publicised dream. In 2018, Gilliam managed to land the white whale that was The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, putting together a relatively acclaimed production starring Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce. “We did something everybody said ‘Don’t do,’” Gilliam has said of finally finishing the film. “I didn’t take advice. I feel good when I don’t take advice.”
Despite his well documented battles with the industry, Terry Gilliam still stands tall as a true artist in a business run by accountants. “It’s hard for me to worry about the studios losing money,” the director once said. “I’m not very sympathetic to their money problems, because they certainly haven’t been sympathetic to mine.”
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