Dreams: Gilliam's Childhood - Interview

Edited by Phil Stubbs

This page contains an interview with Terry Gilliam abut his early life in the United States. It was compiled by Jordi Costa and Sergi Sánchez, taken from their book Terry Gilliam: el Sońador Rebelde, and is reprinted here with permission.
In your cinematographic work, the figure of the child and the childish glance have a great importance. Did the small Terry Gilliam resemble any of the child characters that would later appear in your work?

No, I don't think so. I grew up in the countryside. We lived a few blocks away from the lake, so I was like Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer. I almost always played outside. As a child, the most important thing for me was listening to the radio, because my family didn't have a television. We only had a radio. I think that, somehow, the radio developed my visual sense, because I had to imagine everything. There, there were neither faces nor suits. So you had to create all of that. I believe that it is really excellent training for a visual artist. It does not seem to be, but it is. It makes your imagination work.

My father was a carpenter. We both used to build houses in the trees. We used to make igloos in the snow. It was so physical, I was so close to Nature... In fact, I lived in the nature, I lived surrounded by it. And that was how that little game of inventing and creating things with all you had around you came about. The ingredient had always been there.

It's funny. We lived in the countryside and later we moved to the city, but I continue obsessed by the countryside. I have always believed that it is more real. And however in the countryside I have no creative impulse. Only very basic creative impulses, such as build a stone wall or things like that. It is only when I am in the city that I need to express myself. The society is a disaster, a permanent disaster. It always makes me feel angry and critical. And my films come about from that anger. I think that if I had always lived in the countryside I would never have been able to do any creative work.

I also used to do magic. It was because of my father. He had a little theatre to do tricks, but it wasn't for me. That was the great moral of my experiences with magic: the tricks did not work, like what happens in my films (laughs). Or, at least, they never completely worked.

It's strange, as a child I did not have the type of political anxiety as I have had as an adult, although all the children of my films always show political and social attitudes. I think the only thing I share with them is that I also spent all my childhood asking things, asking why, why, why... why this has to be like that or why it doesn't. In my films, the children are always angry with the adults. The adults put limits and the children don't know their limits. I was like that as a child, and, in fact, I am still like that. I don't know my limits. It is a way of staying young because you don't know up to what point you can reach. You don't know what your abilities are. It's like a permanent state of childhood, of innocence... or of stupidity. I'm not sure (laughs).

Your childhood was spent in a rural community in western Minneapolis, Medicine Lake. Do you think that that environment had any influence on your later creative work?

I think that, probably, I'm stuck to the idea that having lived in the countryside as a child was like a utopia, something magical and because of that my films are always trying to go back to that idealized place from an adult place, from the frustration and the anger. It's as easy as that. If I had been born in the city, it's possible that I would try to do that journey in the opposite direction.

Why is the idea of the city so important in the work of someone who, like you, comes from a rural environment?

After Los Angeles, which is not really a city, I went to New York. When you move from the countryside to New York, you have the sensation of having been dragged there. New York was the great American city. If you have dreams and ambitions, these end up carrying you to the great metropolis. It was a nightmare. For me New York turned out to be completely claustrophobic. But it wasn't only a nightmare; it was also a fascinating place. I remember when I didn't have money; it's a difficult city to live in without money. I think that the only thing that I really liked about New York was that it used to break its own rhythm: "Pum!, pum!, pum!", like a musician playing the drums. But that also made it difficult for me; I had to find my own rhythm within another that made me go on: "Come on!, come on!". You can go crazy. It was because of that that I had to go. New York left such a mark on me that I think all my films deal with the three years I spent there.

Something that really catches my attention is that in New York nobody looks upwards. In that way nobody sees how extraordinary it is. For example, they don't see the castles... All of that is magical and, nobody sees it!. In The Fisher King I tried to draw a line that went up towards the skyscrapers to show that nobody looks upwards in New York. London , however, is a marvellous city. Los Angeles is too slow. New York is too intense. London has a lot of energy, but you can avoid it. London distinguishes between the place that the individual occupies and the place of society, between the intimate and the collective.

In 1951, the Gilliam family moved to California. How did that affect your learning years?

I think the fact that we were next to Hollywood was very disturbing. I was there! I went to school with boys whose parents worked in the cinema world. If I had stayed in Minnesota I would not have taken the same path. It's obvious. In California I spent my school years. I suppose I used up the biggest part of my energy at school. Back then I did not plan on being a film director. Progress and technology were really thriving after the war. All of us wanted to be engineers or scientists, because we had gone to the moon. So I was busy with that. I didn't start to break the rules until I went to university.

You have spoken of those little magic shows that you organized with your father. Sometimes you have declared that this experience was related to your admiration for Georges Melies. Can you talk about that? When did you see Melies work for the first time?

I used to do the type of magic trick that you can buy in a magic shop. The Chinese rings and all of that... I wasn't very good at the tricks but I knew all of them. In a certain way, my films try to be like magic tricks. I want to surprise the people, leave them astounded. Magic leaves you dumbfounded, it makes the impossible possible. That is what I try to do with my films.

Ah, Melies! I probably saw some of his films before knowing they were his. They always had something so marvellous. They were so funny and silly, a mixture of everything I liked. There was something very special about his sincerity, about the intensity of his cinema, about that capacity to convert everything into a game. I loved the idea of a guy able to dare to use references to the legend of Mephistopheles for his films. He used cinema as a means that has many more resources to take the spectator in than theatre. In theatre you had to use mirrors, and in films you don't need those kind of tricks. What l want to say is that what he used to do is more or less what I have been doing since I was at high school. I used to design castles for the dances on some panels that my father used to make, some panels of eight by eight. It was what Melies did in his studio many years before. I was already doing it at 16. At least, that's what I felt when I saw his films: that we did the same. He always tried to trick the eye or the brain, and that forms part of what I do: try to trick the brain, do a trick to make you see the things in another way. He did it literally and I do -more or less- metaphorically. All comes down to doing tricks so as to make something that you wouldn't have believed five minutes earlier, happen... but, it's possible! And I think that magic achieves that. I hope not to end up selling toys in some train station. Well, it wouldn't be a bad job.

How did your passion for the cinema arise? What films left a mark on your childhood?

The first I remember are things like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938), Pinocchio (1940), ... The Thief of Bagdad (1939) was important for me. I saw it when I was very small. I had nightmares for years. I was always trapped in the cave that appears in the film and when I woke up in the morning, I was as if I was tied up, the sheets were all messed up. And the spiders used to come down... That nightmare repeated itself for many years. In that period the films were always magical. Now they are not as much. That is the sad thing about growing old and making films. You go into that dark room, that temple, that magic space... It's the same sensation that you could have when, at midnight, you used to sit around the bonfire, with the glow of light from the fire, and used to listen to a story-teller.

I have always loved adventure films. As you can see, I'm very unsophisticated (laughs). I think that until my adolescence I didn't begin to get to know other things, international cinema... I was a great fan of Jerry Lewis, as now my son is of Jim Carrey. I liked the epic films: Ben Hur (1959), The Silver Chalice (1954)... Those films were extraordinary because they talked of other civilizations and other times. It was a way of travelling in time and being able to live, dress and eat in another way. Each time there was a Roman or a Viking I was there, stuck to the television. For an American boy, that lived in a country where everything was very similar, very monotonous, all of that proved to be very emotional. And I think that because of that I ended up in Europe, as a result of those films. I think that the first film in which I was conscious of a real social background -the first film in which I realized that cinema could do something else rather than entertain- was Paths of Glory (1957), by Stanley Kubrick. I was about 14 years old. It was Saturday , but I stayed at home watching the film, astonished. Later I went running to tell all my friends about it. Nobody had seen it. But, dear God, that film was something different. It made me realize two things: that you could deal with a social theme and that you could move the camera in such a way nobody had done before. Suddenly I was conscious of what is called cinematographic technique: those travellings were marvellous.

Later, when I started university, I discovered great films by Bergman, Kurosawa, Fellini... I became obsessed by all those foreign directors to such an extent that American films seemed rubbish. Actually, I didn't want to see any more American films. Those films drove me crazy.

You know?, I began to learn cinema in a very casual way, not like other directors that already know they want to be one from when they are little. They are like encyclopaedias, and I am not an encyclopaedia of cinema.

Often your films have a note of myth or of perverse fairy tale. Does this have anything to do with your childhood reading?

I used to read loads of fairy tales. I loved the tales of Aesop. I also used to read adventure books such as Treasure Island, by Stevenson. Stories about dogs delighted me. I don't know why I was obsessed by stories about dogs. I liked a Scottish author a lot, who nobody knows now, who used to write books about Scottish dogs. They were part of my basic reading. In some way it was logical that, later, many of my films had a literary base. Sometimes I think that I make films so that, afterwards, the people will go to buy and read books about the same themes.

I grew up with the Bible. We were a very religious family. As you know in the Bible there are great stories, fantastic tales. I felt very sensitive about those type of stories. They always seem to have a moral, especially in the Bible, and because of that they are like fairy tales or myths. They don't only tell you something to entertain you, but they try to describe a way of life, a way of seeing the world. That is what I look for in my films. Because of that, when I read a script, I leave myself go with my searching spirit, and I love that from that search questions and answers arise.

The influence of cartoons, especially of directors such as Tex Avery, is also apparent in your work. Were they also a childhood influence or was it a later discovery?

Me and cartoons. I'm always ready to make a cartoon. My interest in drawing was an early discovery. I didn't know who Tex Avery or Chuck Jones were until I was thirty, but I loved cartoons, they were marvellous. I never cared who made them. My son is great: he knows exactly who Tex Avery is, he knows his style. I only knew that it was something entertaining. They make me laugh and that's it. I have always worked in a very instinctive way. I never approach the things I like in an academic way. There are people who have studied and say: "Oh, that's by Chuck Jones!". I haven't and, however I know the voices of the cartoons... (pauses. Terry hesitates. He can hardly remember the name of the dubber of the Warner cartoons)... it was Mel Blanc!!!!

It is strange, but I knew Mel Blanc's name before Tex Avery's. It's as if the actor who put the voice was more important than the guy who made the cartoon. I thought cartoons simply existed. Even though I was always making cartoons, since I was very small. If I had been asked the name of the cartoonist, I would have said Walt Disney. That's all. I didn't know any cartoonist. And what I liked about Disney was his visual power, his taste for detail... I think that a film like Pinocchio is terrific. The Disney universe is complete, complex. Compared to Disney, Chuck Jones was a joke. Disney is far superior. The real art is superior.

Why did you use the cartoons of Tex Avery in Twelve Monkeys?

Because it was cheaper to use them than any others. It's true! (laughs). What Universal asked us for were cheap cartoons. We saw many others that we liked, but we found ourselves with Tex Avery's work. When I saw it... Oh!, it was perfect: brilliant and cheap. The aim was not to get Tex Avery's cartoons, but to get the cheapest cartoons.

In 1969, Ward Kimball won an Oscar for the animation short It's Tough to Be a Bird, a short that used the technique of cut-out animation and had certain Gilliamesque touches. Do you think that it was you who influenced the Disney cartoonists in that period?

Maybe it was. Before Monty Python began using it, very few worked with the cut-out animation technique. I think that using this technique was important, because the people could see a new form of animation that had nothing to do with the perfection of the Disney design. It was all very elemental but it was also entertaining. And that was the interesting thing. I'm thinking that in my next film, the special effects might be very rough. I think the public would love it and that they would find it completely new. It would be a form of recuperating the period in which I had the opportunity to use that technique and I was lucky that millions of people could see it. Now the MTV designers use that technique a lot. The American series "South Park Central" also uses it. The only thing that annoys me is seeing advertisements done with the cut-out animation technique, sound effects and images in the "Python" style, in such a way that it looks as if it's Monty Python who is promoting the product.

Where does that interest for the medieval mythology, present in many of your works, come from?

I suppose from the films that I saw when I was small, and from Disney. The medieval mythology is a very archetypal imagery, very simple, fundamentally made up of castles and knights. I remember that one of the first things I did as a child was make a shield for myself. The idea of a medieval world made up of a king, a castle and its knights always fascinated me. A very simple world (laughs). All fairy tales are essentially based on that. So I must have come from a Disney fairy tale.

I still find it moving. I see it in my son. The power a sword has for a child is extraordinary. It's like an extension of his own power... And dragons. I have always been fascinated by the imagery of the Middle Ages. The demons are marvellous, much better than what Freud invented. Freud's theories can reduce the world to a series of nightmares, simplify the psychosis explaining how the mind works. My visual sense tends to be more literal. For me pain is not an abstract idea, it is something that we really see: a monster with its jaws chewing my head. Recently, medicine has been trying to visualize illness. God, that's what they used to do in the Middle Ages!. They simply saw it and now we are trying to repeat it. Freud put it all into an abstract world, and I prefer the literal worlds more than the abstract ones: the real demons, the real angels and the authentic monsters. There is a book I love about the Holy Grail: Illustrations and the Margins of Medieval Manuscripts... Oooh, so many things happen in that book! What I want to say is, that there were less limits during that period. The odd thing about the abstract thought is that it doesn't expand but it limits. Or at least that's what I think.

In California, you went to the Birmingham High School and you became one of the best students of your class. Doesn't that fame of the model student contradict your later reputation of a free spirit, irreverent and uncontrollable?

Yeah, okay, maybe! (laughs). I think I was very diligent and I did what I was supposed to do. I was simply doing my job well and my job then was to be a good student. Maybe it was a fools school, but the truth is I passed everything with distinction.

On the other hand, high school is very good because there are many people, many activities you can join. I like people a lot, although I also like to be independent. Sometimes I can't find a moment to be alone, there is a point in which I hate people.

Later I liked university. We formed a small community of prepared people. In New York, although I was working with the magazine Help!, I felt very alone; we weren't a team. I think that, because of that I like to make films: because a community is created. When you are making a film, everything is about a common aim. It's marvellous to see how that complicity arises every time I begin a new film.

As for the model student... when I went to university I realized that there were more interesting things to do. It was more amusing to be a joker, to play. Playing was very interesting, because the results of any game are often satisfactory. I decided that academic studies were not what I wanted. I felt that I needed the most varied education possible, that would include learning theatre, learning how to do silly things... All of that seemed to form part of my education and I think I was right.

The influence of the magazine MAD and the role of Harvey Kurtzman in your creative formation has often been talked about, but were there other comedians who left a mark on you in those years? When did you start drawing? What influences helped you to define a personal style?

I used to read comics at the same time as I read books. I loved the classic illustrations, but I also enjoyed the comics about superheroes, such as Superman or Captain Marvel... At the beginning I only read the books and later I began to copy the drawings. By the time I was ten I used to draw quite well, and I improved my technique thanks to the comics. I took almost everything from them. I remember when I was at university, my art teacher used to go mad. He never stopped giving out to me over doing caricatures. "Look at life!, Look at the reality! And draw things as they are", he used to say. But I had been drawing comics for so long that it was difficult for me to stop. And, in fact, it was a question of laziness on my part, because I could have done what I was asked to, but I enjoyed doing my drawings. That way, I didn't concentrate on drawing real life as something "serious". I probably should have done so.

Suddenly, I began to pay attention to the comic strips that are printed in newspapers. Things like "Pogo" by Walt Kelly. Then I came across MAD. That magazine took the world I knew and made it really enjoyable. When I was at university I began to get to know great cartoonists, such as Jack Davis, Willy Elder... I really liked the drawings of Willy Elder. There was one gag after the other. The drawings were so complex, so full of amusing things... like what my films have become. He made you adopt various points of view to be able to grasp all the richness of the drawing.

I was at university when Harvey Kurtzman and other cartoonists founded the magazine Help! It was a great magazine, very amusing. It was the only national humour magazine. All the cartoonists of "underground comix" came together in Help! because it was the only way they could express themselves with complete freedom. When I finished university, as I had nothing better to do, I went to New York. I had been sending copies of my magazine (Fang) to Harvey. Luckily, a guy who worked as an assistant in the magazine Help! had left and they were looking for someone; so they gave me the job. It was really extraordinary. After graduating from university, I had got many diplomas in a summer camp. I was reading the autobiography of Moss Hart, who wrote very successful comedies with George Kaufman. It told how much he had admired George Kaufman when he was a boy, and that one fine day he went to New York in search of his maestro and he ended up becoming his partner. It's exactly what happened to me with Harvey. I don't know if it was a coincidence, but that was how it happened.

Working on the illustrated novels that we used to publish in Help! was, basically like making a film: There were actors, costumes, locations... The only difference between both artistic expressions was that, in this case, nothing moved. In some way, it was my first opportunity to do something similar to a film. It was like drawing a story-board.

How do you remember the hectic sociopolitical panorama of the United States during the sixties? When, in your youth, was that political standing born?

When I was in New York it was a surprising period. The fight for civil rights was at one of its most explosive moments. The first cartoon I published was about that subject. I used to make many cartoons about the fight for civil rights in the magazine Help! America was changing very quickly. My father was from the south, from a very charming, and very civilized and polite place as long as everyone was where he was supposed to be. America started to change and it became a really ugly, horrible place. That was when the Vietnam war began. I used to do loads of political caricatures. The good thing was that all these changes took place within a frame of complete freedom of expression. In the sixties, it seemed as if we could fix America, but then Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas appeared, to show us that it was a country far from improvement (laughs). Many people I loved had a bad time. I remember I was in The National Guard, in a regular training session, when I started to read the New York Times articles about David Halverston: it was the first time I read something credible about the war.

In 1964 I came to Europe. I was very critical about America but I found that the English, the French, the Spanish... used to say horrible things about my country and I used to answer: "Hey!, what are you saying?". Suddenly I surprised myself defending a nation that did things that I didn't agree with at all (laughs). I thought that I could criticize it, but that those strangers did not have any right to do so. It was strange to discover that feeling in me. I am still American, although I don't agree with many things that happen there.

In Europe you get the feeling of belonging to a very, very long history. In America you are taught to believe that the world began when you were born. That creates a very energetic society but, at the same time, it is a society that behaves like a big child. I think Europe is much more balanced. I'm happy here. I can keep going back to the past. This house, for example was built in 1691. In Italy I have another one from the XI or XII century.

In all of your films there is an important influence from great artists such as Goya, Bosch or Brueghel. Where does your interest in painting come from? What are your main influences?

I only started off with the paintings of famous artists because everybody knew them and understood them; and then I turned them into something stupid. That always proves to be surprisingly amusing. It's very youthful, very childish. But later I began to draw using works of art that I really admired, such as Brueghel's and Bosch's. I find those artists incredible because of the worlds they are capable of creating in their paintings. I think they could have been film directors if they lived nowadays, because they tell great stories and they love people, the personages from their paintings and what "happens" in their paintings. The strange thing is that I have never thought of any Goya for my drawings. The credit titles of the Cry of the Banshee (1970), by Gordon Hessler were inspired from Gustavo Dore's illustrations. All of these artists share a powerful imagination and a great sense of reality. They love humanity, although they show it through tortured and painful scenes. They are talking about human experience.

And then there is the surrealism. I love... Dali, De Chirico... All that world of great painters! They are there, I simply listen to them and... wow! The fact that I find some more interesting than others depends on their temperament. Realistic painting has always attracted my attention more. I don't like abstract art a lot. Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko... they are not bad, but I don't connect with them. I thought Matisse was a decorative painter and later I liked his paintings at an exhibition I saw in New York. I don't know, I can say that some painters are more useful to me than others in my work: I admire some, I laugh at others (laughs). Any type of religious paintings, great classic paintings, academic paintings... I have enjoyed myself with all of them. I love Daumier: ingenious, satirical. I saw one of his exhibitions in New York. It took my breath away. Paintings really leave a mark on me. Is that what they call the "syndrome of Stendhal"? Well, It happened to me in Brussels. I was looking at a great triptych by Bosch and I got shocked. With art, I can become like Pavlov's dog (he imitates a dog). I would have liked to have been a painter and I'm not. I can't. When I am very old and no longer able to make films I would like to become a great painter. We will see what happens (laughs).

Max Ernst influenced your animations for Monty Python...

It's strange, because I didn't even know Max Ernst until I read a criticism about Monty Python. There are always gaps that you fill in as time goes by. It's entertaining.

Before you mentioned your favourite directors. Could you tell us what most interests you about each one of them?

I liked the worlds that Bergman created a lot. The first one that I noticed was for sure Det sjunde inseglet (1956). It begins with a medieval story but, suddenly, it takes a very different path. It takes you to a place where there are knights fighting on horseback, but the battle is very different, it seems terribly believable and real. The characters are so fascinating that your interest goes from the action to the character. Visually it was incredible. The great image creators have always impressed me, and in that Bergman and Sven Nykvist (his director of photography) were phenomenal. The images, the faces... I felt I was there, with them. And his dream world... I love it as well. Moreover, when I started to watch Bergman's films I realized that his actors resembled real people, their faces were believable. On the contrary, in American films the actors look like actors.

When I discovered Fellini I felt I was watching ballet. It was so beautiful: how the camera moved, the people singing, leaving their voices flow. For me it was a case of changing from cinema as a form of entertainment to cinema as an art. I adored the sense of grotesqueness of Fellini.

And Kurosawa... I was beginning to get so fed up with American cinema that everything that was not American seemed good. He was the king of action. I had never seen action performances like the ones in his films, especially Shichinin no Samurai (1954). I remember an action scene through the woods... wow!. I felt the same as the first time I saw Paths of Glory. Spectacular! I was fascinated by his capacity to combine different visual elements. They were sensual films. Despite being intellectual, or whatever, they were sensual, while the sensuality in American films was banal, superficial.

I loved Pasolini. Again, he made me feel I was there; in those places. I could hear them, feel them. They were alive.

I prefer Truffaut to Godard. In the beginning Godard interested me, but he has always seemed too intellectual, too academic. I liked Truffaut, because he was very human; the actors used to nearly jump out of the screen.

The only American material that surprised me was the rediscovery of Buster Keaton. He was absolutely great. In a film such as Sherlock Jr. (1924) he uses the camera in a surprisingly original way.

On the other hand, I find it magical to watch and listen to something in another language. The sensation was very special, because I had to read and watch the film at the same time. Sometimes it was like reading a book and watching a film at the same time. It had the good side of both things. And the sounds and voices were marvellous.

However in the period of Monty Python, many of these creators were the subject matter of your jokes, weren't they?

Yes, the "Pythons" taught me that you could amuse yourself with everything you take seriously, with everything you really love. It's like a way of testing it. The things that interested us, what we had read and seen, was what we later played with in our films... and in that way they were funny. I suppose that because of that it annoys me so much to see a film surrounded by pretentious specialists. They are pretentious in a very boring way.

In my opinion a good artist makes you enjoy yourself, as with Pasolini or certain medieval stories. They are so good that they are invulnerable to criticism. If a determined public don't like them, much better!. I hate those long faces saying: "0h... mm... yeah, yeah". I remember once when I went to a cinema in the east of New York where there were loads of very serious film fans and neighbourhood kids who had gone to see the film. I think it was shit and the kids were shouting, talking, and the formal people reproached them: "Sssh, silence!". It was marvellous to see that film with the conflict that broke out among the public (he shouts). I like to take things seriously, but only with myself. We could say that I don't like to share my seriousness.

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