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Artist Highlight: The Genius Insanity of Terry Gilliam

Johnathan Paul

Explore the singular vision and bold work of director Terry Gilliam, from Monty Python’s Flying Circus to The Zero Theorem.

Top Image Courtesy of the Telegraph

As any filmmaker will tell you, we all have a list of our favorite directors. They are the very people who inspired us to take up the craft. I have a fairly small number of filmmakers that reside on my inspirational list. And right there next to Kubrick and Spielberg sits Terry Gilliam. If you are unfamiliar with Terry Gilliam, here’s a bit of history.

Gilliam was born in Minnesota and moved to California with his family in 1952. After high school and college, he became a cartoonist with Help! magazine. When the magazine folded, Gilliam moved to England and worked on the children’s series called Do Not Adjust Your Set. This is where he met Terry JonesEric Idle and Michael Palin.

And Now for Something Completely Different

Jones, Idle, Palin, and Gilliam joined forces with John Cleese and Graham Chapman to form Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which was optioned by legendary English broadcaster David Attenborough for the BBC. In the early going, Gilliam’s role was to animate short cartoons to link the comedy sketches together. He would soon join in as a full-time cast member.

Without a doubt, Gilliam’s largest contribution to Monty Python were the animations he produced. These animations have become iconic in the art world and have inspired a long list of cut-out animators such as South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who idolized Gilliam’s work and Monty Python.

Gilliam’s cut-out animation was unique and creative. He showed his animation process in this video taken from 1970s British television. This comes to us courtesy of the The Monty Python Museum.

Here is a clip from Monty Python’s Flying Circus in which Gilliam played Cardinal Fang in the iconic Spanish Inquisition sketch, courtesy of Chadner.

The Animator and the Holy Grail

Between the third and fourth series of Flying Circus, the Monty Python troupe made their first feature film completely from all new material. Gilliam co-directed the legendary Monty Python and the Holy Grail along with Terry Jones. This is where Gilliam’s career as a director started.

Here’s a classic clip from The Holy Grail where we meet The Knights Who Say Ni. If you watch, you’ll see Terry Gilliam in the background as King Arthur’s squire. Video courtesy of Sony Pictures at Home UK.

Following the wide success of the The Holy Grail, Gilliam would call upon a few of his Monty Python brethren as he wrote and directed the 1977 fantasy film Jabberwocky, which starred Michael Palin. He then wrote and directed the first installment of his “Trilogy of Imagination” with the fantasy film Time Bandits, starring Michael Palin and featuring John Cleese as Robin Hood.

Gilliam and the rest of the Monty Python troupe would end their run with Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. For this film, Gilliam directed a short called The Crimson Permanent Assurance that critiqued the idea of corporate greed and oppression.

So Long Flying Circus, Hello Brazil

With the Flying Circus now disbanded, and seeking to complete his “Trilogy of Imagination,” Gilliam began work on 1985’s Brazil, a warped and interestingly artistic critique on totalitarian governments. It’s one of my personal favorite films.

In 1988, Gilliam would complete his trilogy with the release of the The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, another personal favorite. What we see in both films is Gilliam’s skill as an artist and designer in full force. The sets for each film become live-action manifestations of his cut-out animations. We also begin to really see Gilliam use the wide-angle lens which would become his trademark.

Fear and Loathing in Hogwarts

After Baron Munchausen, Gilliam moved away from his Monty Python roots and began developing films that were very different than what audiences were used to from the famed director. This all began in 1991 with The Fisher King starring Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges. The film went on to be nominated for five Golden Globes and five Oscars.

Gilliam would move back to his signature distorted hallucinatory style with the fantasy film 12 Monkeys starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt. The film would go on to become one of Gilliam’s most acclaimed films and it continued a trend of thematic critiques on the world around us and where society was going.

Wrapping up the 1990s, Gilliam would direct the the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, based on the Hunter S. Thompson book of the same name. Gilliam captured the very essence of what Thompson’s book was all about… the “money obsession and visual vulgarity of America,” as film critic Gene Siskel would say.

Interestingly enough, when Warner Bros. began developing the Harry Potter film franchise, author J.K. Rowling expressed her desire to have Terry Gilliam direct at least the first film. Gilliam did meet with WB on the prospect of taking the job, though the studio ultimately selected Chris Columbus to direct.

“I was the perfect guy to do Harry Potter. I remember leaving the meeting, getting in my car, and driving for about two hours along Mulholland Drive just so angry. I mean, Chris Columbus’ versions are terrible. Just dull. Pedestrian.” — Terry Gilliam

Back to the Imaginarium

For many years, Gilliam would try to get various other projects off the ground such as his infamous Don Quixote project with Johnny Depp. When that film fell apart, Gilliam turned his attention to the 2005 fantasy The Brothers Grimm, starring Matt Damon and Heath Ledger, as well as the now heralded art film Tideland.

Gilliam had numerous production funding problems over the next several years and would famously show up to film an episode of the Daily Show with a cardboard banner that read, “Studio-Less Filmmaker, Family to Support, Will Direct for Food.” He would finally get the funding he needed to get back to his roots with the 2009’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which was delayed due to the tragic death of star Heath Ledger.

Gilliam’s last film is quite possibly his best film in many years… 2013’s The Zero Theorem with Christoph Waltz and Matt Damon. In this film, Gilliam is clearly getting back to his beloved surreal environments and blending them extremely well with CGI animated sequences.

A Unique Style All His Own

Whether you are a fan of Terry Gilliam or not, his influence on Monty Python and surrealist filmmaking is extremely unique. Not many filmmakers can tow the line like Gilliam can, and he’s definitely an acquired taste. Of course, not every director has a lens nicknamed for them because of their signature usage like Gilliam and the 14mm lens, known by many filmmakers as “The Gilliam” lens. His use of expanded wide-angle lenses and surreal, disorienting environments have put him into a class all his own. Many will argue (even Gilliam himself) that he just ends up making the same film over and over again — but that film and its style and detail could only come from Terry Gilliam.

The Career of Terry Gilliam in 40 mins courtesy of Total Film.

I’ll leave you with this great quote from Mr. Gilliam, which is spoken like a true artist.

My films, I think, are better the second and third time, frankly, because you can now relax and go with the flow that may not have been as apparent as the first time you saw it and wallow in the details of the worlds we’re creating. I try to clutter my visuals up, they’re worthy of many viewings.

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What are your thoughts on Terry Gilliam? Does any of his work resonate with you? Let us know in the comments below!