Dreams: Gilliam intervieweed by LegitCrit in May 1998

Edited by Phil Stubbs

Here is an interview with Terry Gilliam from May 1998, written and supplied to Dreams pseudonymously by LegitCrit...

What do Terry Gilliam and Ellen DeGeneres have in common? Undoubtedly, a deep fear and loathing of Disney. While the latter's sit-com recently died an ignoble death at the hands of Mickey execs fretting over dipping ratings and controversial storylines, the former is trapped in another of his signature authority-bucking confrontations as (Disney-owned) ABC refuses to air commercials for the director's latest film, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, during prime-time television.

The charge from the alphabet network? The film is pro-drugs.

"This is not a pro-drug film", Gilliam rails. "No one who sees this film is going to rush out and start shooting up. Yes, drugs are dangerous. Everything is dangerous in excess. We're so concerned about danger weıre avoiding living."

The tirade is punctuated with Gilliam's trademark jackal-on-his-way-to-a-piefight laugh. It is a laugh stuffed with subversion, wit, fire, and the songs of a thousand dreamers flapping their wings at the moon.

While the film (which opened May 22) may not be a recruiting film for depravity and addiction, despite its inclusion of more drugs than Terrence McKenna could shake a bong at, it's difficult to believe Gilliam, the iconoclast, rabblerouser, provocateur, visionary (to name just a few of his credits), is surprised by the corporate ballyhoo.

In early press reports, the former Monty Pythonite described Fear and Loathing, a long-in-the-works adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's seminal book of a Don Quixote-esque journalist hunting down the American Dream in Las Vegas, circa 1971, aided by a Samoan lawyer and a convertible stuffed to the fins with virtually every natural and synthetic drug known to mankind, as "a cinematic enema for the 90s."

"Some movies want to entertain you. Some to put you to sleep. Others are there to goad you. You put these things out there and see what happens," Gilliam said in a recent interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.

Minutes after meeting a journalist, the director craftily subjects the writer to a number of friendly litmus tests. Will the journalist accept an oh-so-trendy Frappacino? Is the writer wearing any clothing bearing a designer label? With Gilliam's stamp of approval, the journalist proceeds, asking Gilliam about the recent frenzy over Fear and Loathing.

"I expected the film to make a lot of noise," Gilliam admits. "I like the idea of leaving explosive shards in peoples' brains. Things that they can't forget that will stay with them for years."

If a drug-addled, antisocial, surreal trip down gonzo lane doesnıt seem like Gilliam's typical fare, which have included time-traveling dwarves (Time Bandits), romantics caught in a stagnant system (Brazil), world-hopping delusionaries (Adventures of Baron Munchausen), and oppressed individuals questing after an elusive romantic dream (The Fisher King), you may be right. Sort of. "Certainly, it's different from my other work," Gilliam says. "That was a good reason to do it. I really felt the 1990s needed a shot in the arm, a kick in the ass, an enema."

The film also offered Gilliam the opportunity to work fast and cheap, turning the film around in a record (for him) one year's time. Gilliam and frequent screenwriting collaborator Tony Grisoni hammered out a script in eight days, just weeks before production began. Depp, as Thompson, and Benicio Del Toro, as Dr. Gonzo, had been previously hired by exiting director Alex (Repo Man) Cox. The film was shot in a whirlwind 45 days for a bargain budget of 21 million. (For an extended history of the film's genesis and making, link to www.screenmancer.com/screentalk/fear.htm.

"I loved the idea of working fast and cheap again," the 57-year-old Gilliam totes. "This whole thing is really about a middle-aged man trying to prove he's a young filmmaker again. We just went. No script notes. Incomplete financing. Everything was being done at once. There was nothing sensible about it."

If critics, who have generally treated the film with more loathing than fear, tend to agree with Gilliam, they might be forgiven. The movie tends to bloated ramblings, peppered with stunning, if non-sequiterish visuals, and an episodic narrative that is ultimately unfulfilling. Daily Variety called the film 'a disastrous journey' and 'an overelaborate gross-out.' Reports from Cannes indicate a number of confounded critics and fans emerged from recent screenings of the film.

It is a difficult film, punctuated with flamboyant, if cartoony performances by Depp and DelToro. At its best, the film is deft, wicked, and irreverent as a Road Runner short. At its worst, the film is an offputting pile of pudge, much like DelToro's gelatinous belly (grown specifically for the film), second in size only to the equally frightful green lizard currently busting box office records. Gilliam doses a viewer good and hard going into the spry first section, but it's not long before the buzz wears off, and a viewer is stranded, the only sober one in a room full of light-trippers.

The film is not without its supporters, however. Village Voice recently wrote that 'Gilliam is an inspired conductor of manic behavior.' Perhaps most important to Gilliam is the response of Hunter S. Thompson himself, whose faxed review the director received shortly before his scheduled battle of interviews: 'A masterpiece,' Thompson wrote. 'An eerie trumpet call over a lost battlefield.'

The lost battlefield is, metaphorically, one Gilliam idealistically presides over again and again in his work, tilting the proverbial windmills, jousting the nightmarish Red Knight, bucking the corrupt system. "Terry loves the world and is enthused by it," fellow Pythonite and frequent collaborator Michael Palin recently told New Yorker, "but he does always need to feel that thereıs some battle he's engaging in. He likes a permanent state of conflict. It's in all his films and it's in his life."

It is a fight Gilliam has put again to the page with his Fisher King co-scripter Richard LaGravenese in the form of The Defective Detective, perhaps the penultimate Terry Gilliam Film. A heartbreaking, phantasmagoric tale of faith, magic, redemption, and lost worlds involving a burned-out New York cop, a younger version of himself caught in a parallel world, a beautiful maiden, a slutty corporate executive, and the missing little girl they're all searching for, Detective is the film Gilliam most wants to make after sobering up from Fear and Loathing. To anyone that knows Gilliamıs history with big studios, it's no surprise Detective's start date, even with Nicolas Cage and Cameron Diaz expressing interest in co-starring, is nowhere on the horizon.

"It's being blocked or held hostage by a very silly man at the studios," Gilliam laments. "A producer who was involved at the beginning who is too chickenshit to make it himself, but won't let anybody else take a crack at it because it might be the most successful thing I've ever done. It's getting very ugly and it's making me crazy because it is the one thing I want to do next if I can get it out of the evil monster's hands."

Gilliam's persevering ghostly flight over the lost battlefield is, one might surmise, born of a skeptical optimism that logic, love, or magic might exist in a world gone mad. "There's a reality that people just seem to ignore in America," Gilliam rants. "Whatever that reality is. I just feel itıs not being dealt with. People have become so materialistic. In the 60s, things were about ideas and changing, improving things.

"It may have been too intense," Gilliam concedes.

Gilliam, raised in the suburbs of Southern California, drawing acerbic, witty cartoons and sketches "as a passport through early life," began to wilt in the black heartedness that became the United States, circa 1967. "I was going crazy, very angry, very frustrated as the hopes and expectations of the era faded away," Gilliam says. "I felt very strongly about (political and social) things and knew I should become a full-time activist. But I was a better cartoonist, so I went to Europe to draw," Gilliam quips the expatriate, who has not returned to live in the U.S. since.

It is not so much of a stretch to equate Gilliam's self-exile with the dream-questing of a Hunter S. Thompson. "You dream of a better time, better place," Gilliam says. "You have a sense that things could be better, greater, more wonderful. Of course, theyıre not. So you get caught in a nightmare of reality."

For Gilliam, the journey ultimately led to a creatively fruitful engagement with Britain's wildly successful, if subversive, Monty Python. "The underground press was convinced that I was a junkie, an acid head," Gilliam proudly boasts. "But I don't do drugs. I don't like being fucked up. I've got enough bizarre chemicals floating around in my head. Iım just naturally like this."

And then again, there's that banshee laughter, comforting perhaps if you're a son or daughter in on a prank with a mischievous father, terrifying certainly if youıre face down in a bad blotter or drunk and alone in a dark alley.

Around the same time, Thompson was cruising America for a Dream that he found to be "a nightclub that had burned down five years earlier."

"Hunter's was a journey of self-discovery," Gilliam interprets. "He bombarded his psyche with drugs and ended up being a bit like a war correspondent in the middle of a battlefield. He went to the limits, to the extremes to see what happens. He pushed the parameters of himself, the system."

If Thompsonıs journey yielded little more than a best-selling book and a few coined terms, Gilliam blames it on Americaıs systematic banishment of history.

"America has become some kind of brave new world. History has been gotten rid of. Everything is just now. Immediate. Everytime you pick up the news, turn on the tv, see a movie, itıs the first time it's ever happened. It's new, exciting, and WOW!

"It's perfect for marketing and producing things because each 'new' thing is going to solve all our problems. But it's crazy because everything has always happened. Everything has happened before. The same stupidity, the same intelligence, whatever. We're all part of a long continuum. To lose a sense of history, you've got no ground under your feet. Everything is a fad. There's no yesterday in America. It's now, then it's gone. American life is just about dealing with the brush fire of the day, the panic of now."

Gilliam whips his eyes back and forth across the room, surveying a breaking thunderstorm just outside the 14th floor of his Beverly Hills suite. Then, as the rain starts falling, a slight warning crackles in his demoniac eyes. It's coming.

"Now onto the vomit!" Gilliam proclaims, with a regal flourish of his hand, nearly knocking over his Frappacino.

It is here. That laugh again. Long live the laugh.

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