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Q&A: Terry Gilliam

Highlights from Issue 23: The Auteur Issue

Terry Gilliam on the set of Tideland, 2005

Photograph by Francois Duhamel

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Sunday, November 06, 2005

THE OUTSIDER
(EXCERPT)

The Stop Smiling Interview with Terry Gilliam

Interview by JC Gabel

Terry Gilliam, the director of such films as Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) and Tideland (2006), spoke to STOP SMILING about growing up in the Midwest, retreating to England and escaping into his imagination.

Stop Smiling: When you were a kid were you a big fan of radio dramas?

Terry Gilliam: I loved radio, but I loved it because we didn't have television. It's a great exercise for the visual parts of your imagination. I had to invent everything: costumes, sets, makeup, everything. I still love radio. There's more room for the listener to invent. With each more-elaborate medium, there's less room for the audience. The work is being done for them.

SS: For someone with such a far-reaching imagination, you had a pretty normal high school and college experience?

TG: I guess I sublimated my more perverse imagination and concentrated on school and work. My memory isn't particularly clear about that time. I seemed to be having a good time. I was enjoying school. I liked the company of other people and I was doing good work. I always drew. I didn't even start doing things like performing until I got into college. I tell a lie. In my senior year of high school I was head cheerleader, so that was a performance.

SS: Do you consider yourself a Midwesterner, or do you relate more to the West Coast, where you moved when you were 12 years old?

TG: I don't know. It probably was growing up in the countryside - a community of nice people. That was the thing that deteriorated as I moved through life. It was interesting going back to Saskatchewan, where we shot Tideland. It felt like Minnesota again because there were nice people and there was lots of country, lots of space. I don't remember unpleasant people. I don't remember bad people. I just remember really good, decent folk. That stayed with me. Maybe it's what I've been fighting a lot of my life, too, to get away from all those nice, decent people and see how far I can push their niceness and decency.

SS: You've lived in London for decades. But it seems like you adopted a “don't look back” attitude with the U.S. during the '60s. Is it harder now to explain what the U.S. is doing across the world? Is that why you have been happy living the life of an expatriate in the U.K.?

TG: The U.S. has always been doing it. Since World War II, the people reverted to isolationism, but the government just kept marching onward. Eisenhower - the general who gave us the phrase “military industrial complex” - warned America against what is still happening. Ever since World War II, the U.S. has meddled around the world. Whether it's putting Marcos into the Philippines – and you've got The Ugly American to tell that story – or our dealings in Southeast Asia. It's meddling. I suppose in the '60s we became more aware of it. Up until then, people were still recovering from the War and trying to get back to normal existence. But in the '60s the harvest of the baby boomers occurred, and we started asking questions. Suddenly America seemed not to be the simple good, truth and justice country we thought it was. We seemed to be backing dictators more often than not – providing stability for America in whatever country we put the dictators. As people got older, they got mortgages and kids, so they started ignoring it again. Now it's even more transparent and apparent than it was earlier. I have a feeling people went into political hibernation in many ways. With the war in Iraq, people are waking up again. Obviously 9/11 was a real wake-up call. But the reaction is against all these people who are angry at America who seem to dislike it rather than to think seriously about why they might be angry with America. It just doesn't happen out of the blue. Many people in the world are still pissed off.

SS: Is England, then, still your ideal setting for making films?

TG: I don't know if it's the ideal place for making films. It's a difficult place to make films at the moment because the pound is strong. The dollar is weak and the tax relief is in question now. British filmmaking for the moment is a bit wobbly and uncertain. It's a nice place to live. You're on an island that speaks English and it's close to places I really like: France, Italy and Spain. There are other cultures – that is what I like about it. My problem with America is you don't have that range of culture. You've got a beautiful country with basically good people in it, but I feel I have to stay away, because I don't want the responsibility. I don't want to share too much in the responsibility for what America is busy doing elsewhere. It's a coward's approach, I'm afraid. It's about being in a place where you get more information about the world, so you have a better perspective on the world.

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