THE look is mid-Sixties, in the early flush of flower power, as the once tidy and earnest demeanour of political dissent gives way to beards, headbands and hair like a fat charlady's mop. The location is a Los Angeles familiar from old film footage and newsreel: boxy buildings and flat, open spaces. Inside the Century Plaza Hotel, we find President Lyndon Johnson and entourage. Outside, a multicoloured rag processional of a protest march. Separating the two, a line of Los Angeles police officers, tooled-up and twitchy. The ominous beating of helicopter blades swells overhead, almost low enough to graze the blue caps of the snipers ranged across the roof, rifles trained upon the human jumble sale below.
For the protestors, it's a merry day out. They've chanted slogans. They've stuck daisies in the LAPD's gun barrels. If they weren't hapless hippies, they'd probably have brought sandwiches. Now they're sitting on the pavement, arms linked, singing the chorus to We Shall Not Be Moved. They're wrong. The security line suddenly parts and a phalanx of cops on Harley Davidson motorcycles roars through, piling straight into the cross legged freaks like Cossack cavalry scything down defenceless Russian peasants. The next few seconds stretch into a hideous clutter of blood, dust, screams, truncheons and tyre prints. A senseless, ugly spectacle that leaves at least one observer furious, horrified and all but sick to his stomach.
“Basically,” says Terry Gilliam, “it was the first police riot in Los Angeles. Something kind of snapped with me at that point. This meant, okay, time to go.”
In 1967 Gilliam moved to Britain, where he has lived ever since. He became Monty Python's resident animator, and then a film director. He has not, until now, made a film about the Sixties. And with typical contrariness, his film about the Sixties is set in the Seventies. It brims with all the rosy nostalgia you would expect from Gilliam; in other words, it is a portrait of a cruel, demented and repugnant time and place which makes you unfailingly glad that you weren't there. It's called Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas , and it's based on one of the most celebrated pieces of literature in recent memory; a disguised novel, published in 1971, which records the sordid death throes of the previous decade.
The book's author, Hunter S Thompson, has described Gilliam's film, in which he is portrayed by a mugging and muttering Johnny Depp, as “An eerie trumpet call over a lost battlefield.” Others have been less kind, and certainly less poetic. “Fear And Loathing doesn't shock or fascinate,” wrote one American critic, “it simply disgusts and repels.” Few of her fellow reviewers have been any more enthusiastic.
“I'm amazed by the film,” Gilliam himself says. “I can't describe it, I can only talk around it. And the reactions are as they should be. They should be as extreme as that. It's not a film about consensus and coming together. It's a divisive piece of work. It's about what's on the edges, and fuck the centre. If we didn't get those strong reactions, I'd get the feeling we'd failed. I'm lucky, at least. I live in England. Johnny lives in America. And I'm going to give those people his address.”
TERRY Gilliam came to live in England because he believed it was civilised. Many years later he would remark that England consisted of a bunch of warring tribes; that the civilisation was merely a veneer, and one that was wearing increasingly thin.
“I still feel that,” Gilliam confirms. In his black cowboy hat and a jacket seemingly tailored from an old Red Indian blanket, he looks like a man who is ready for the veneer to rip apart completely at any minute. “I arrive, and all I know is what a Jolly Good Place it is, with very polite people who can queue and all that. Then little by little you begin to realise that, no, they're all at each other's throats. But they've developed this ability to appear civilised. The thing that drew me to England,” he explains, “is that England knew where to pull the punch - just before it hit your nose. America had to go right through your nose and out the back of your head. And that's civilisation, to stop the punch there.
“I don't mind hatred,” he continues. “I just hate racial hatred. It's too simple and too easy. You want to hate people for real, solid reasons that they deserve. When I was involved in the civil rights movement, I used to say that I wanted people to be equal so I could call them all bastards.”
He stops to ponder this for a moment.
“By the way,” he adds, conspiratorially, “I don't like the French either.”
A long-haired trouble-maker he may have been - still is, for that matter - but Terry Gilliam was neither a drop-out nor a flower child. His view of the world was too jaundiced, and his creative ambition too fierce, to allow for either possibility. He was born in 1940 and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which some years later would also call itself home to the Coen brothers - a fact that he finds “the most odd coincidence, that the two guys in America making films that are the closest visually to my style come from the same place.”
Working on a Chevrolet assembly line had a profound impact on the teenage Gilliam. “I was on the night shift and uohhh! I finally just cracked and I said, that's it, I made my rules: I'm never working for money again in my life, and I'm never doing anything I don't have control of. So I joined a group of people doing children's theatre. Made castles, painted myself green and played the ogre. And I was,” he says, with a broad, sardonic grin, “free at last.”
After completing a degree in Political Science in 1961, he went to New York to take a job as a cartoonist on Help! magazine, run by Mad founder Harvey Kurtzman. By 1965 Help! had folded, its call unanswered. Gilliam found work as an advertising copywriter. He was put in charge of the Universal pictures account. This would be the first of his many encounters with Universal, against whom he would one day wage a bitter campaign over his film Brazil , which involved him threatening to torch the master negatives, and taking out pages in the trade press demanding that it be released uncut.
“Universal keep cropping up,” Gilliam says. “That's why they're Universal. Ubiquitous Studios. First their ads, then Brazil , then 12 Monkeys, now Fear And Loathing. I keep thinking I've had enough of Universal, but they'll be back some way, somehow. With Brazil , they hated the film, so they fucked it up. This time they loved the film, and maybe they screwed up the campaign just as badly. I'm not sure which is worse, being loved or hated by them.”
Gilliam was soon fired by the ad agency for roundly taking the piss. “I'd come in about eleven, stay for an hour and a half, go home, come back about three for another hour and a half, kept my door locked the whole time. Brazil came very much out of my experience in the advertising business, and it's always poisoned me against ads and commercials. That's why I only do one every ten years. They usually get me at a very low point, after I've done a film and it's all collapsed and I think I'm never going to work again. I did one for Nike, and before that it was Orangina. I can't complain, I just feel kind of dirty afterwards.”
AFTER arriving in Britain, Gilliam found work at the BBC, and before long joined the Python team. Aside from his peculiar and original animations, which have endured far more successfully than anything else in the show, he would make occasional cameo appearances, usually as some kind yokel or halfwit. Were his fellow Pythons trying to tell him something?
“I always took the parts that no-one else would touch,” claims Gilliam. “The most grotesque ones. I always liked disguising myself; the further I could get from this incredibly intelligent, handsome human being that I am, the better. And it made them feel better too. Everything I did was to make them feel better. I spoke the language badly so they'd feel comfortable, because they're such
insecure BASTARDS! And have they ever shown me any gratitude? No, they just maintain their contempt.”
It was through Python that Gilliam directed his first feature, Monty Python and the Holy Grail . He followed it up with Jabberwocky, and in those two films he tore down once and for all the Olde Englande tapestry of brave knights, bright colours, courtly love and Camelot. Gilliam's Dark Ages were exactly that - filthy, murky, chaotic and savage. In later films like Twelve Monkeys and now Fear And Loathing, he would show the near past, the present and the future in the same grubby light. You might suspect that he believes we're still trapped in the Dark Ages today.
“We are!” he affirms. “We're living now in darker ages than we've ever lived in. I don't think people can see the truth around them any more. People are living in a world that's clouded by information, imagery, everything. Reality is not there. We're deluding ourselves. We go to the movies, we want to escape from reality? Well, no. I want to remind people of reality - or at least offer them different views of reality. Ultimately all I'm trying to do is get people to think.
“I don't know if my films are pessimistic. What they are is visceral . I want to make them so you can smell them and feel them.”
Although he's widely - and tritely - labelled a visionary and a fantasist, Gilliam sees his renowned visual style as something to be harnessed in the service of content. The only tag he willingly accepts is the most abused of them all: surrealist. “I like the idea of maintaining surrealism as something that's alive in the world,” he enthuses. “Surrealism is about the juxtaposition of things that don't make sense, and your brain has to try and make sense of them. That's what brains do, try and make sense of things.”
Gilliam thinks of himself as a surrealist in the strict, original sense of the word. “Words are used so badly now. Journalism is all about buzzwords, and all it tells you is that society has agreed to use these words. CHILD PORNOGRAPHY! SHUT DOWN THE WEB! KILL! KILL! KILL! DRUGS! WOOAH! Nobody thinks about what the words mean. Drugs. . .” He veers off at a new tangent. “We are a totally drug based society. The drugs I take are good Italian coffee, single malt whiskey, tequila - great drugs. I never did do acid, although I promised myself at the end of Fear And Loathing that I was going to. In the Sixties people were experimenting with drugs, experiencing new things. Now people take drugs to close themselves down. Prozac. Ritalin. Fuck!” he bellows, fuming at the thought. “Hyperactive bright kids. Tone 'em down so they sit in school nice and quietly. I mean. . . fuck!”
IT'S THIS attitude which has seen Gilliam face down the major film studios, and he savours his reputation among them. “I don't consciously work at appearing crazy,” he emphasises. “I find the press loves it, but then the press invents a whole life for me that is far more interesting than my own. But being a beserker, that I definitely do work at, for the studios, and not only do I work at it, I will do it. They've got to know I'm not bluffing. It's very useful, because they think, oh shit, he's a really dangerous, demented character. Then I don't have to raise my voice.”
Terry Gilliam's standing in Hollywood has varied wildly. After the financial debacle of The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, despite the fact that no other Gilliam film had ever gone over budget, he was seen as an unwieldy lunatic who couldn't be trusted with so much as a camcorder. Then The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys proved that he could make successful and acclaimed films for relatively little money. Now, as he says, “I'm on the A-list of directors. And so I get six scripts a week. And I turn them down. I am the guy that turned down Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, The Truman Show. They think that if they can get me to do the right project it'll be a huge success. The right project,” he continues, in a voice like a Tannoy, “is NOT FEAR AND LOATHING! HE SHOULDN'T BE DOING THAT! IT'S BAD FOR HIS CAREER.
“Luckily,” he says, smiling, “I've never had a career. Nor wanted one.”
Good-humoured as he is, Gilliam takes an approach to life that usually only the very young or the very old can get away with. Ranting, demanding, digging in, never giving an inch. He must look forward to the day when he's a certified Old Bastard and he can go around hitting people with a stick and complaining about everything.
“I don't think I have to look forward to it,” he says. “I think I am. I was up till two-thirty last night drinking this great malt whiskey I'd just been introduced to. And this terrible old man was staring at me out of the mirror. I remember one day looking down and thinking, those are my father's hands, tying my shoes. But,” he allows, “I know what you mean about the licence it gives you. That's the use of it.” He stares briefly at those treacherous hands.
“I'm just,” he concludes, “trying to encourage young people not to wait.”
ON. . .
“I'm actually very optimistic, that's my problem,and maybe I make films to balance that. But once I decide to go for a certain subject matter, I just try to be truthful within that. That's why Brazil had to end that way. Brazil was very much a reaction against Blade Runner, because I thought Blade Runner was an astonishing film until the end, when suddenly - oh, come on. You can't do that to an audience.”
“I don't feel guilty about helping unleash them on the world. As long as they don't come round my house. It's embarrassing. The people who know all the sketches, they throw out a line and expect a line in return. I don't know what they're talking about. George Harrison was always doing that.”
HUNTER S THOMPSON
“Watching Fear And Loathingat the premiere, he was whooping and hollering the whole time, and people kept turning round to see who this jerk was. He was reliving the whole thing - ‘Woah! Yeah! WOAH! OH!’ The thing he said about it being an eerie trumpet call over a lost battlefield, it's an extraordinary image, but it worries me. There's only bones out there, and the bugler, he's the only one who's found it. I hope I'm not that alone.”
“It's all accountancy now, there's no room for the serendipitous approach to creativity. The training was fantastic. The BBC complain that they spend all this money training people who eventually leave and do other things with their talent. Well, that's part of the international organisation - the nation would benefit. We were lucky enough to be at the BBC before it all started falling apart. Because Python wouldn't be around today. And maybe the world would be a better place, but I don't think so.”
“They all complain because they're not taken seriously as artists. They want fame and fortune. Fuck it, no, keep ‘em on the outside, because that way they'll stay angry and good.”
JOHN CLEESE ON TERRY GILLIAM
“Some friends call Gilliam a Renaissance Man; others place him earlier. The sloping forehead, the forward slant of his body as he lopes and the prognathous jaw all point to the Upper Palaeolithic period. And his energy is Cromagnon to match. Left alone with some crates of crayons, some bales of paper and a box or two of fresh fruit, his output is nothing short of phenomenal. But Terry Gilliam is not just an illustrator. ‘Yuuurrrrrhhhhhh,’ he admits, wryly. ‘Yuuurrrrrhhhhhh.’”
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