While receiving a lifetime achievement award from the 41st Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF), the American-born British visionary and iconic director, screenwriter, actor and animator, Terry Gilliam (1940) did not hold back while expressing his views on such topics as the state of our world and how he looks at the film industry including his views on the superhero films.
He also reflected on his career of over 40 years, remembering his unique experience with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which he joined as an animator at the beginning of his career in the late 1960s until he became an acknowledged film director, in addition to what he believes filmmaking is about and the filmmaker role.
Gilliam has directed 13 feature films including Brazil (1985) nominated of two Oscars and the winner of two BAFTA Film Awards for Best Production Design and Best Special Visual Effects; and his latest, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018), winner of three international awards. Both films had special screenings in the festival’s programme.
In the late 1960s he was the only Python not born in Britain, then he became a naturalised British subject in 1968 and formally renounced his American citizenship in 2006.
Gilliam receiving the lifetime achievement award from CIFF President Mohamed Hefzy
He became a feature film director in the 1970s. Most of his films explore the theme of imagination opposing bureaucracy and authoritarianism. His own screenplays feature elements of black comedy and tragicomedy combined with surprise endings. He believes that imagination is the best way to tackle the injustices of reality. But after a 40-year career in the film industry how effective does he think his trick really has been?
In his own words, “realistically” he hasn’t made as many films as he would’ve liked to make, and “realistically” the last several films he made have not made any money. “But I was always happy with what I have done. I have nothing to apologise for in my films. I am very selfish to say that I make films for myself.”
Although not pessimistic, he now feels that reality is much stronger that what imagination can do. “For example, we have a homeland security department in America who if they don’t find terrorists up there would be happy to make them. And that is how they are able to keep making a living. It is true there are terrorists but who created the circumstances where they can grow? We need to ask this question.”
He feels it is becoming harder and harder to make jokes: “I keep thinking about how to make a funny film and I find it very hard. World leaders go beyond our imagination and our sense of humour. We are not the clowns any more. And I get more depressed about the state of our world. They are killing everything, good luck to us.”
He still owes Monty Python a large part of his vision of life and art. Gilliam first gained recognition with his animations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which first aired on television in the UK in 1969. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Pythons last October, he believes that, “Without Python I would have been someone else.”
With passion he remembers his experience with the group at the BBC in the late 1960s: “We did what we liked and we got away with it. At that time in England, comedy was very much loved. The BBC gave us the chance, we used it and they loved it. The ability to be in front of a lot of people in the TV was a unique chance. I suppose it was very hard work but it was also a lot of fun. We were making ourselves laugh and just happy, other people laughed as well.”
He also confesses, “I would not have been making films without them. I said I want to direct and they said fine. And luckily my first, Time Bandits , had a lot of success and I was given the space for more.”
The thing loved the most about his peers was their taste. “I left America and ended up in England because of that”. From his point of view Americans are very good at laughing at somebody else, but not at themselves. The British, however, who once had the biggest empire in the world, which they went on to lose in few years, have learnt to laugh at themselves.
“That kind of self-ironic view of life, coming from America I found that was the audience that I liked.” And this sense of self-irony is still part of his filmmaking style. “We were thinking about the big picture and we tried to make jokes that would not just apply to the specific time but were basically about the human condition. You change the costumes, you change the settings, but still it is about us.”
Another aspect of Monty Python that proved essential was how he learned to be more visual. “I learned a lot and that was the great thing about Python, we were very different people but we respected each other and we all changed in the course of the work. Before them my stuff used to have more dialogue, afterwards it became more visual. And that is why it was very interesting working with them.” The visual is perhaps the most unique aspect of Gilliam’s films, which always have a distinctive look contributing to the surreal atmosphere, the sense of psychological unrest and the world being out of joint.
But what about the visual imagination in superhero films, the value of which has been the subject of much recent debate? “I am tired of them,” Gilliam says. Films such as Avengers are beautifully made, “incredible. But what I don’t like about them is that they have to have superheroes with super powers. Why don’t we do something that we might be able to deal with? That’s what bothers me, in addition to their repetition.” Gilliam believes that “when you have such power over a wide audience you have to say something about the world we are living in rather than only Bing! Bang!”
He cannot imagine himself doing a superhero film: “Maybe when I was younger.” Such films, according to him, depend on a big machine. To direct one of those films you need to have a huge number of people doing everything while you, as a director, just sit back and do nothing. “I just like to play. That’s what I do with my films. Every day is fun, and the actors surprise me with new ideas and new ways of doing things. And on a smaller budget compared to the superheroes.”
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
It is undeniable that superhero films are among the very few that continue to draw younger audiences to movie theatres. “I like big screens,” Gilliam says, going on to describe how watching movies on them bring about a sense of commitment: “You pay money, you go in a big black room with a dark screen where the story is huge and we are small, we the audience.” On a mobile phone screen the film is small, the audience gigantic. “If I ever see someone watching my films on the small screen,” he laughs, “I have to kill him.”
At the same time, he cannot deny the effect of films like Avengers and Star Wars on bringing people to the big screen, and that is what worries him. What are the audience being told, what they have they learned from such films? “I have no idea and I don’t think they know either,” he answers. “To me films are always about saying things that hopefully lead people into more interesting way of thinking. If only they look at the world in a different way or think about things in a different way, that is a film”. And he wishes the wider and younger audience would discuss what they liked and what they did not like about the films they watch on the big screen.
He also thinks it’s partly the filmmakers’ responsibility. “Film education is not about how to use a camera.” Filmmakers should go and see the world then they have to have something to say. “I see many people who are technically brilliant but have nothing to say, and our job is to say things.”
Spending a few days in Cairo on his third visit to Egypt, Gilliam says he was able to see more of Cairo than at any other time. “I don’t know how this city functions but it functions. The energy here is extraordinary. People are wonderful although it is not an easy life, people are laughing, smiling, and supporting each other in different ways.” As to the Pyramids, he says, “I am sure they were not made by slaves, but by a community of people who believed in something and worked hard on it and it is still there.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.