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Director Terry Gilliam: “We’re living in a time where irony is not recognized anymore”

Terry Gilliam speaks to Euronews Culture at the Fesitval Lumière
Terry Gilliam speaks to Euronews Culture at the Fesitval Lumière Copyright Euronews
Copyright Euronews
By David MouriquandFred Ponsard
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"When we can’t distinguish between hate and humour, we are fucked! And that’s my feeling about life." Warning: This article contains strong language. (Right from the start)

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Backstage at the opening ceremony of the Lumière Festival, I take a quick break.

The red-carpet arrival of the celebrities at the Halle Tony Garnier has been and gone. We’ve interviewed J.A. Bayona, Daniel Bruhl, and a handful of other stars. I even had a quick natter with Wes Anderson – who was nursing a gin and tonic before the ceremony started, and who seemed thrilled with the fact I’d seen his Roald Dahl adaptations on Netflix. I omitted to share with him my thoughts on Asteroid City. Probably for the best. And after the obligatory speeches of boss Thierry Frémaux, the festival is screening one of my all-time faves: Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic, Sunset Boulevard.

Not a bad way to spend the evening, all in all.

Things were about to get better though.

I step outside for a cigarette – I mean, breath of fresh air – and there he is. Terry Gilliam, only accompanied by his publicist, also getting some fresh air. No nicotine involved for the former Monty Python.

When you’ve interviewed as many celebs as I have, you learn to keep composed and not get too starstruck. But this is one-sixth of the comedy troupe that became the bedrock of my sense of humour, the director of films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Time Bandits, Brazil, 12 Monkeys and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – all of which I treasure and love coming back to.

He’s at the festival to present a restored version of his dystopian sci-fi film 12 Monkeys, and, at the tender age of 82, looks as giddy and spritely as ever.

We start chatting, discussing the pins we’re wearing on our respective jackets, and share a few pleasantries about the festival and the opening ceremony.

“I do love celebrating cinema, but let’s not make more of a deal of it than it is!” he tells me. “Yes, movies are great, but there’s no use overdoing it – we’re not that great! Just show the fucking film already!”

His laugh is infectious, like a cheeky schoolboy who’s just gotten away with it.

“By the way, I'm interviewing you tomorrow,” I share.

“Oh, fantastic! What do you say we make it the most boring interview ever? We can just sit there looking at each other and completely fuck it up for your readers!”

There’s that laugh again.

“I’m game if you are!”

We head back inside, have a glass of white wine together, and then compose ourselves before going to our seats for the film.

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He gives me a pat on the back, followed by a cheeky smile.

A demain then, David. Remember – the most boring interview EVER!”

Without further ado, here it is.

Terry Gilliam - with Euronews Culture's David Mouriquand (right)
Terry Gilliam - with Euronews Culture's David Mouriquand (right)Euronews

Terry Gilliam:Bonjour! On y vas? Honi soit qui mal y pense!

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Euronews Culture: C’est parti! So, how does it feel to be here in Lyon, in the cradle of cinema, so to speak?

Well, I was at the beautiful museum of Les Frères Lumières, and what I discovered is that it’s easier to make films when you’re rich! (Laughs) Because they were! They were a very rich family, and they got to play before the rest of us got to play. And their work is incredible – it's absolutely extraordinary to watch and see what they did and how immediately they understood drama.

Essentially, I’m sitting on the beginning of cinema – that's what’s so exciting about being here! And we haven’t improved it much better than they did! They were, right from the start, brilliant. And the rest of us are... semi-brilliant! (Laughs)

Broad question, I know, but considering the history of where we are, it seems appropriate: What the big films that have stuck with you over the years - your all-time favourites?

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That is a big one! And my memory is very bad! However, I can tell you that the first film that really affected me, the one that made me think that films were better than just entertainment was Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. It was a matinée screening on a Saturday in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, where the parents took all their children and left them there for a couple of hours. The kids were running all over the place. I was a bit older – I was probably about 13 years old. And that film stuck. Suddenly, a film about injustice, about important things! I thought: ‘That’s what cinema should be about!’

Last night, you shared with me that while it is wonderful to celebrate cinema and make a big deal out of it, you thought there’s often a bit too much hoopla...

You sometimes feel like with the films and the images they show that it elevates films and actors to some sort of God-like state. And I don’t really like that! (Laughs) It’s too much. Films are brilliant, they’re incredibly important, they’ve made my life worth living. But I don’t like when it’s elevated to this huge thing – it's too big. I don’t want them to be as small as the films people watch on their iPhones, but there’s a middle size! The screen and the story have to be big enough for me to feel small, but not too distant in size.

Terry Gilliam
Terry GilliamEuronews

You’re here this year with the restored version of your 1995 film 12 Monkeys. Why this film for a restored version?

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Well, I’d love all my films to be restored, and this new version of 12 Monkeys is coming out in France. So, I thought it would be very nice to be involved in drawing attention to it! Because it’s a film I’m very proud of.

What struck me about seeing 12 Monkeys again is that when it came out at the time, it felt incredibly prescient – and if it came out today, it would still be eerily topical. The virus, with the pandemic we’ve all been through... Climate change, with the dystopian future that sees the human race responsible for its downfall... The activism it portrays... I suppose my question is: What crystal ball have you been looking into?

(Laughs) You’re right. The environment, the virus... But it wasn’t me – it was a script written by David and Janet Peoples, and the studio had it. They spent a million dollars on the script, and they wanted to get their money back somehow! And I was the only director who seemed to understand the script. I thought that it was incredible, because it was in a form unlike anything I’d ever read before. I had to do it!

I don’t like a lot of (technology), but it’s there, so we’ve got to accept it and see if we can make it work for US, and not for itself!
Terry Gilliam

There’s a song in the film by Tom Waits, ‘The Earth Died Screaming’, which complements the themes of the film. You’ve worked with him on various projects over the years, the last one being on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, in which he plays the devil. What is it about this artist that you’ve cast him (and his songs) in your films?

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Tom Waits is a genius. He’s extraordinary. The first time we worked together was on The Fisher King. Jeff Bridges introduced me to him. At that point, I had never listened to his music! But once I started hearing his music, I thought: This man is a great poet, he really understands the world, he can say the most beautiful things in the most simple way. I wish I could give you examples, but my memory is falling apart right now. But to work with him was an utter joy, because he is a great magician on every level.

Speaking of magic... I don’t know if it’s good magic, but one of the main talking points at the moment is the role of artificial intelligence in the arts and the potential threat that it poses. Are you worried about the future of filmmaking with regards to AI?

I don’t worry about technology. It’s going to happen, whether we like it or not! So, you’ve got to learn to control it. You’ve got to learn to use it intelligently. Because technology marches on faster than most of our ideas. It’s so rapid these days. I don’t like a lot of it, but it’s there, so we’ve got to accept it and see if we can make it work for US, and not for itself! (Laughs)

Terry Gilliam
Terry GilliamEuronews
People are losing their sense of humour, and that, to me, is probably the most important sense. (…) I’m making fun of humanity, and we are an absurd species of creatures. We are funny because we got such pretentions, and we fall on our face so constantly. Make jokes about it! It keeps life interesting.

I grew up on Monty Python, and as more generations are discovering Python, do you think that that kind of humour, that sort of irreverence, can still be done today?

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(Laughs) Yeah, well... I got in trouble some things I’ve said about that!

I was promoting The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in Germany, and the day before I went to Germany, the head of BBC Comedy announced that they would not be commissioning a show like Monty Python. The idea of six white males? Out! Finished! Because they’re into diversity. Now, I love diversity – the more diverse the world is, the better I am! I love surprises, people who think differently, who look differently, who behave differently! However, when the BBC Head of Comedy makes a statement like that, and I’m asked to respond, I said that as a white male, I’m really, really tired of being blamed for everything that is wrong in the world! So I said, 'From now on, please call me Loretta. I’m a black lesbian in transition.' I got a very big laugh in Germany when I said that, but by that time that reached England, I was a dead man!

People are losing their sense of humour, and that, to me, is probably the most important sense. Sense of touch is very important, sense of taste also – but sense of humour is more important. You get to the point where people are frightened to laugh. ‘Oh, no, you’re making fun of somebody!’ No, I’m making fun of humanity, and we are an absurd species of creatures. We are funny because we got such pretentions, and we fall on our face so constantly. Make jokes about it! It keeps life interesting. And it also keeps you young! I’m 193 years old, David, and look how healthy and young I am because I laugh and smile all the time! (Laughs)

Terry Gilliam with Euronews Culture's David Mouriquand (left) and Fred Ponsard (right)
Terry Gilliam with Euronews Culture's David Mouriquand (left) and Fred Ponsard (right)Euronews
(Activists) are very self-righteous, and if you don’t agree with them, you’re then a transphobe, a homophobe... No! I’m a phobe-phobe! I hate hate! That’s what I hate!
Terry Gilliam

Your last film was The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, and that was in 2018. Please tell me that you’ve got another in you...

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Oh, I’ve got a script that’s out there at the moment. I just don’t know if anybody will give me the money. I’m trying to get hold of Elon Musk! If you know him, tell him that I want his money!

Tell us more...

Well, it’s a film about God deciding to destroy humanity for fucking up his beautiful garden, this Earth that we have. It’s called Carnival at the End of Days. It’s a satire about the world we’re living in, and it does make fun of a lot of the narrow mentality that’s out there.

Activists, I’m not a great fan of, because they’re all fighting crusades that probably don’t need fighting, because the people they’re fighting for are getting on with their lives. I refer to most of them as neo-Calvinists – a very narrow point of view, and they’re very self-righteous, and if you don’t agree with them, you’re then a transphobe, a homophobe... No! I’m a phobe-phobe! I hate hate! That’s what I hate! (Laughs)

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You know, that’s why I talk like this. Because I know that somebody is going to take offense! I’m always trying to find humour in things. And when we can’t distinguish between hate and humour, we are fucked! And that’s my feeling about life.

We’re living in a time where irony is not recognized anymore, and words are taken out of context. So the word is the crime, not the thought. The thought is more nuanced. But you’ve got to have an intelligent way of listening, and people are not listening now – they're just frightened. And I don’t like that, when people get frightened.

Terry Gilliam with the Euronews Culture team
Terry Gilliam with the Euronews Culture teamEuronews

Terry Gilliam's remastered version of 12 Monkeys is out in cinemas on 8 November and available to buy in 4K restored on latelierdimages.

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