Page 1 of 2Terry Gilliam is a visionary director without equal. His films, Time Bandits, Twelve Monkeys and Brazil, have earned him the stature of a maverick filmmaker, whose unique sense of cinema has placed his name amongst the great directors of our times. Starting out as a writer, performer and animator in the legendary ‘Monty Python’ team, he broke into the movies by co-directing (along with Terry Jones) their first feature, the medieval mock-epic Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974), after which Gilliam went it alone with quasi-fable Jabberwocky in 1977.
He was immediately seen as a force to be reckoned with, a director who pursued personal, uncompromising visions, at whatever the cost. His battles with the studio system have become legendary, particularly over the release of Brazil (1985). Although now often cried as his masterwork, at the time, the Orwellian paranoia and sweeping mythology that infests the picture was considered too much for Universal Studios, who for a time simply refused to release it. This sparked a David and Goliath-like struggle as Gilliam fought for his vision. Subsequently it became one of the most famous behind-the-scenes stories in cinema history (Read Jack Mathew’s excellent book, The Battle of Brazil, for more on the subject).
It has been said that the making of a Gilliam picture is just as interesting as the film itself. This does indeed ring true as his next picture, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) became something of a byword in Hollywood for disaster. Many critics and studio insiders unfairly labelled Gilliam as an out of control director, who falls behind schedule and runs budgets up into the stratosphere. All of which is grossly untrue, and even though he brought in his next film on time and under budget, the multi-Oscar nominated hit fantasy The Fisher King in 1991, he was still seen as a filmmaker studios admired, yet didn’t dare hire.
It would be 1995 before Gilliam made another film - his biggest hit to date - Twelve Monkeys, yet in the four years between the two pictures he had tried and ultimately failed to get countless projects off the ground. Unmade films are something which has dogged Gilliam his entire career, right up to the present day. The films he hasn’t made far outweigh the ones he has. He is a filmmaker that cannot be defined, categorised or placed in a certain box, and it is this which frightens Hollywood. Whereas Tim Burton has honed his own unique style into a more mainstream, yet arguably, increasingly less interesting product for modern audiences, Gilliam has still retained his wild and eccentric nature; one has only to look at his amazing adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s classic piece of gonzo journalism, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1997), to see that. But it does seem that his meticulous craftsmanship and fantastical idiosyncrasies, which made him such a sought-after filmmaker in the first place, have also been his curse.
Hollywood doesn’t like taking chances, which is why cinema today is filled with sequels, remakes and the occasional adaptation, products with a guaranteed built-in audience. Gilliam doesn’t tick any of those boxes, his stories are strikingly original, filled with startling imagery and fantastical characters and situations; in other words, far too expensive and risky for the studio suits to try and sell.
The first major project to slip through Gilliam’s fingers was the mouth-watering prospect of him directing Alan Moore’s seminal comic book, Watchmen, in the early 90’s. Problems arose though when Gilliam found that the film’s producer, Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon, The Matrix) said he had the $40 million to make the picture, when in actual fact, he only had around $25 million. And since Silver’s last flick, Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990) had gone wildly over budget and with Gilliam’s last film at the time having been Munchausen; no studio would back them making such a dark and expensive project. In Hollywood you really are only as good as your last picture. Throughout the 90’s Watchmen languished in development hell, with almost every director in town picking at its bones, although it now seems that the project will finally see the light of day, it’s rumoured to be helmed by Zack Snyder (300, Dawn of the Dead remake) to the tune of around $200 million.
After the success of The Fisher King, Gilliam embarked on several projects, the first of which was an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s mind-bending novel, A Scanner Darkly. A lifelong fan of Dick’s writing, Gilliam wanted to make the first true adaptation of the Science Fiction writer’s work, after having been disappointed by both Total Recall (1990) and Blade Runner (1982). But even though he had just made a critically acclaimed hit movie, he found it next to impossible convincing studios to take on such an out-there project. Gilliam eventually abandoned it and moved onto other things. The film was finally made in 2006 by Richard Linklater.