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Thursday, July 6, 2006
Through the looking glass with Gilliam
Special to The Japan Times
At age 64, Terry Gilliam continues to confound. "Tideland," his latest and perhaps most challenging film, was an excursion into low-budget and fast shooting for the director, who is known for tortuous production difficulties. (See the documentary "Lost in La Mancha," about his failed attempt to shoot "Don Quixote.") The Minnesotan -- now holding a U.K. passport -- is still best known by many for his work as the in-house animator for the Monty Python crew. As a director, however, he remains cinema's premier fantasist, one of the few taking creative risks with big-budget films: His "Brazil" is widely regarded as a landmark of science-fiction filmmaking on a par with Stanley Kubrick's "2001." The director, always known for his films' irreverent wit, displays it in person too, and this interview was punctuated by regular waves of laughter.
I had thought "Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas" would be the most bizarre Terry Gilliam film I'd ever see.
[Laughs.] No, no. This one hits more weird nerve ends.
Was your childhood in any way like that of Jeliza Rose (the heroine of "Tideland")?
I grew up in the countryside, and my favorite times were playing in forests and swamps. I guess, as a kid, I was always imagining knights and castles -- heroic stuff. But it was always about playing. What's interesting about doing what I do is that I get paid to play. The more I invent and create these worlds in different ways, [the more] people seem to give me money to do this. On "Tideland," I guess I finally got to play with dolls. [Laughs.] At 64, I discovered the child within -- and it was a little girl!
What were your impressions of the novel?
I thought the book was fantastic, and the image I had in my head was this Andrew Wyetth painting called "Christina's World." There's a little clapboard house and a woman lying in the grass. . . . I contacted [author] Mitch [Collins] about whether the rights were available. I asked, "Were you thinking, by any chance, of 'Christina's World,' the painting?," and he said, "Yes!" I thought it was amazing that we both had spotted it.
But what I liked was that here was a story of a little girl that wasn't romanticized. It was real childhood, with all the strangeness and wonder. It was funny, it was sweet, it was beautiful, it was grotesque, disturbing . . . everything was there.
How hard was it to adapt the novel?
It was very easy. It was just an editing job, really, because it's all there in the book. It's just a matter of taking the bits out that you don't need and focusing. We emphasized "Alice In Wonderland" a bit more in the film, because we just thought it would help the audience understand where we were going: through the looking glass. I didn't invent anything. It's all Mitch Collins' fault. [Laughs.]
Was it nice to do a quick, low-budget film after "Brothers Grimm?"
We had written this before "Grimms," but we couldn't get the money. I was in the final stages of editing "Grimms" when suddenly, there was the money. And we had to actually shoot before the end of September, for weather reasons. I had a little problem with our friends the Weinsteins [the film's producers, Harvey and Bob] on "Grimms" [so] I left the project and did "Tideland."
"Grimms" had been a really long, complicated, expensive project -- to be able to work really fast was a great change of pace. But, I kept saying, it's kind of the flip side of "Grimms" -- it's still the world of fairy tales, in a strange way, in the real world now! We edited both films at the same time, so we'd work on one film till we got stuck, then go work on the other. So the two films were kind of cross-pollinating each other in some weird way.
How did you set the tone of the film?
My wife came up with a great line. She said, "It's shocking because it's innocent." I felt we had to maintain an innocence throughout the film. Like when Jeliza first meets Dell, we shoot it so Dell [looks like] a giant and the sound effects are booming, so this amazing creature has arrived in her life -- because that's what she's looking for on one level. And yet, oh, you're not a ghost at all. So she's kind of disappointed. So constantly things became exceptional, and then they became more ordinary. I didn't intellectualize it, I just did it instinctively if it felt right for me, honest, and truthful and playful.
How did you explain some of the film's darker themes to your young leading lady Jodelle Ferland?
I didn't have to. This kid is brilliant. She was the oldest person on the set. I didn't direct her, I just put her into the situation and she did it. We were constantly amazed by the choices she made. I really didn't want an elderly gentleman's view of what a girl's childhood should be like. I wanted her to make the choices, and she did. It was shocking sometimes, what she chose to do. Like the scene with Dickens and her first kiss; it's a rather unnerving scene, very uncomfortable for the audience, you just feel, "oooh, noo, no!" [Groans.] And it was like that when we were shooting it, and on the second or third take, Brendan just suddenly forgot all his lines. And I asked him what happened? He said, "I dunno, she just seemed to hypnotize me." He got lost just looking at her.
How did Jeff Bridges enjoy his role?
I said to him, "You get to play the Janet Leigh part from 'Psycho.' You get to be the star who sits there dead!" [Laughs.] Jeff's biggest challenge was to not move his eyes or breathe while he's sitting in the chair, dead. He found a way of breathing where he wouldn't use his chest. He kind of enjoyed it, he said he'd go into a kind of Zen-like trance.
I wanted him to play that part the minute I read it, because it's such a sh***y character. He's a junkie, and very self-obsessed, but the audience has to love him, just like Jeliza Rose does. And with Jeff, you do, there's such warmth that comes from him.
The scene down in the basement, at the climax, the tension is incredible -- and when Jeliza breaks that skull, some audiences burst out laughing, while others are deadly silent. What was your intent here? Are you surprised by the reactions?
It's interesting that you just said "down in the basement," because she's not, she's up on the first floor. The basement is "Psycho!" [Laughs.] That's just a nice bedroom she was in! But I was purposely designing it like "Psycho." And her kicking the head in, that isn't actually in the book, but I just thought it needed something. And I was kind of amazed by the reaction -- it is a gasp of laughter or something, but definitely a release. It gets the loudest reaction of anything in the film. But every screening is different that way. It really is about a reflection of the audience, of each individual in it. I love that!
How do you view the film's ending?
The ending is definitely there for everybody to decide what they think. I used to think it was very depressing -- Jeliza Rose is gonna go with this very nice lady, have a nice bourgeois existence, and nothing as exciting would ever [happen] again. What I like about the film is how everybody comes away with a very different attitude about it. People react very differently . . . and some very violently hate it! [Laughs.]
I haven't done a film like that since "Brazil" -- half the audience would walk out of that in the first screenings. And "Tideland" gets very strong reactions again, and I like that. I didn't want to make a safe movie. A lot of people resist the film. I keep saying, you've just got to submit to it a bit, and see what it does to you. Just let go.
If we go back and look at "Brazil" today, it seems strangely prophetic.
It's spooky how much "Brazil" has come true. But it's always been like that, it's just become more obvious. And [U.S. President George W.] Bush has made it so obvious now, with the Department of Homeland Security. Are there really all these terrorists now, or is that what the ministry needs to justify its budget? But it was all happening back then too, with the Bader-Meinhof group in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy. There was a lot of terrorism going on then, but it wasn't institutionalized [like now]. America needs terrorism more than anyone else to justify its defense budget.
So many of your films -- from "Brazil" through "Fisher King" -- involve a retreat into fantasy in an attempt to ward off mortality. What's your thinking on this?
My wife says I keep making the same film, I just change the costumes. It's about trying to make the world a place you want to continue living in, by making the world a more amazing place than the television makes it. The world just closes in on us, all the media sort of says "this is what the world is," and I just find that's not the world I really want to live in. So I invent other versions of the world to make it livable in . . .
Read the film review