6 Filmmaking Tips from Terry Gilliam

By  · Published on July 17th, 2014

IFC Films

The release of any Terry Gilliam film is a big deal. More so than any living filmmaker of lauded repute, Gilliam’s work has been unusually burdened by outsized circumstances that render it astonishing that he’s even accomplished the work he has, from Universal’s re-cutting of Brazil to his lead actor dying during the production of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus to his doomed “Don Quixote” project, documented in the film Lost in La Mancha. Not since Orson Welles (who famously pursued his own uncompleted Quixote film) has a respected filmmaker had such an endlessly difficult time bringing his ideas to screen.

That makes the announcement of a late summer release date for Gilliam’s newest feature, The Zero Theorem, all the more remarkable. The film looks like prime Gilliam territory, with its dystopic representation of a certain future burdened by blinding consumerism and Kafka-esque bureaucracy reminiscent of the director’s most notorious battle for artistic autonomy, 1985’s Brazil. As notable as Gilliam’s work is for its visual inventiveness, its wry humor and its trenchant political themes, Gilliam’s career is just as famous for the unceasing uphill battle through which his inimitable filmmaking is achieved.

So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the only American member of Monty Python who is actually no longer American.

Make Art, Not Bombs

“And it was like an epiphany. I suddenly felt what it was like to be a black or Mexican kid living in L.A. Before that, I thought I knew what the world was like, I thought I knew what poor people were, and then suddenly it all changed because of that simple thing of being brutalized by cops. And I got more and more angry and I just felt, I’ve got to get out of here – I’m a better cartoonist than I am a bomb maker. That’s why so much of the U.S. is still standing.”

In an interview with Salman Rushdie, Gilliam speaks of his political activism early in his youth during the 1960s and the price he paid physically for it. He describes the anger that he felt towards figures of authority who maintain a status quo by any means necessary and how this anger propelled him not toward more direct activism, but toward creative work. As a result, Gilliam has always seen his art as a productive means of speaking truth to power, a practice that not only redirected his anger at authority in a more productive direction, but also an art that speaks to and about regimes of authority in ways that direct activism cannot always do.

Use Stuff That Exists and “Chop Out What You Want”

In this delightful clip of Gilliam demonstrating his animation skills in the 1970s, what’s most surprising is the ease and practicality of what became a rather iconic part of Monty Python. With Gilliam’s Hollywood reputation as a perfectionist, it’s easy to lose sight of how tactile and physical his approach to filmmaking is. The materiality of his efforts are available right on screen, from the industrial time machine in 12 Monkeys to the nightmarish lizard party in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Also, like many great filmmakers, Gilliam isn’t afraid to lift other materials deliberately, from his retrofitting of Orwell for Brazil to his Gilliam-izing of Chris Marker for 12 Monkeys to his abundant love for Fellini…

Watch Before You Direct

One movie contains an abundance of filmmaking tips on its own.

Avoid Comfort

You may disagree with Gilliam’s assessment of all of Spielberg’s endings (a friend of mine recently published a book about how Spielberg doesn’t use the kid gloves he is so often accused of donning), but Gilliam’s reason for aligning with Kubrick over Spielberg (and his many resulting commercial constraints) are clear: he isn’t interested in Hollywood endings or audience comfort. He’s interested in producing films that challenge, discomfit, generate a conversation and, as has often proven to be the case with Gilliam’s work, inspired another visit to the film in question. No film makes this as clear as Brazil, whose storied production history famously involved Universal imposing a Hollywood ending over Gilliam’s considerably less comforting final minutes.

The World is a Million Possible Things

“Well, I really want to encourage a kind of fantasy, a kind of magic. I love the term magic realism, whoever invented it – I do actually like it because it says certain things. It’s about expanding how you see the world. I think we live in an age where we’re just hammered, hammered to think this is what the world is. Television’s saying, everything’s saying ‘That’s the world.’ And it’s not the world. The world is a million possible things.”

Gilliam’s embrace of many possibilities isn’t simply a philosophical or literary choice – it has direct bearing on his filmmaking practice, which is particularly evident in his regular choice of wide-angle lenses:

The wide-angle lenses, I think I choose them because it makes me feel like I’m in the space of the film, I’m surrounded. My prevalent vision is full of detail, and that’s what I like about it. It’s actually harder to do, it’s harder to light. The other thing I like about wide-angle lenses is that I’m not forcing the audience to look at just the one thing that is important. It’s there, but there’s other things to occupy, and some people don’t like that because I’m not pointing things out as precisely as I could if I was to use a long lens where I’d focus just on the one thing and everything else would be out of focus.”

Challenge Authority by Making Films and Having People See Them

“The movie is about people acceding blindly to authority.”

In 1985, Gilliam was scheduled to show his cut of Brazil in advance of its release for a film class at the University of Southern California. At the last minute, Universal halted the screening, declaring that they would not allow an “unauthorized” version of the film to be shown. What seemed at first to be the final damning of a notoriously difficult production actually transformed into a cause célèbre that day on the Los Angeles campus. Perhaps nothing mobilizes the desire to see a film more than a studio’s mandate not to show it – Brazil became no longer about the regular differences expressed between a studio and a filmmaker, but about the importance of maintaining artistic integrity at all costs. It became about the responsibility of the filmmaker to make the best film he could, no matter what stood in his way, even if that meant standing up to a multinational corporation.

The question of who “authorizes” a film came to be at the forefront over the fight of Brazil. Making films and having people see them became a radical act in the face of institutional power. And in this case the filmmaker won, and we as a result have a classic that continually speaks to the dystopias we endure, to the point that a certain former president can be accused of plagiarizing its premise.

Final Thoughts

Much – as in, an entire book – has been written about the way that Brazil’s difficult production echoes and even demonstrates the very themes of the film. But Gilliam’s experience of having a vision compromised by a studio is not unique. What is unique is Gilliam’s unapologetic, unqualified, outspoken vehemence against the studio’s censorship of the film. What is unique is that Gilliam turned filmmaking not only into a playful craft where one can “chop out what you want” and make something new, but he exercised filmmaking as a revolutionary action in and of itself. Gilliam may have initially avoided activism for the sake of his own livelihood, but he let his irascible spirit lead him through conflict after conflict between the transcendent forces of art and the compromising demands of commerce. Thus, for Gilliam, the completion of any film on his own terms is a resounding victory for art.