“Welcome to my velvet prison,” Terry Gilliam said as he walked into the restaurant at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills. Casual in what appeared to be a robe of some sort, the filmmaker, animator and Monty Python member was in Los Angeles for a few days, ostensibly to whip up some awards attention for “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” the freewheeling riff on Cervantes that had been almost three decades in the making before he finally made it with Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce.
But at the age of 79, Gilliam isn’t the kind of guy to stick to one subject – not when it’s the 50th anniversary of Python, not when he has a history of misadventures on screen and off with the likes of “Brazil,” “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” “The Fisher King,” “The Imaginariuym of Doctor Parnassus” and others, and not when there’s Brexit, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Netflix, Harvey Weinstein and the rise of the comedy police to talk about.
So what brings you to Los Angeles?
I don’t know. It’s a strange moment. My daughter, Amy, was one of the producers of “Quixote,” and she said, “This is crazy. It’s awards season, and we don’t exist.” Everybody’s talking about the 10 million Adam Driver films that have come out, and “Quixote” doesn’t exist because we had probably the worst distribution I’ve ever experienced in my life.
So Amy talked to our fairy godmother, the lady who made the film possible — she’d come in at the last moment and given us the money we couldn’t get for years. And she said, “Let’s get Terry out here and do some things and get some press.”
I don’t know what it means, because we’re not going to be nominated for anything. But we do actually have the Academy streaming the film, which is good. It’s slightly odd, but I just didn’t want the film to just disappear because it’s a really good film. And I think it’s Adam’s best performance this year, personally.
In a way, I suppose it’s only fitting that even after you finished the damn thing, it’s still a struggle.
It’s a perfect “Quixote” story. “Quixote” is always about the nightmare of thinking you’ve achieved something, and then bang, you’re down on the floor again.
When you got to the end of it, was there a feeling of, “Oh s—, I finished this. What now?”
Not really. (Pause) Well, there is the “What now?” question. Because I don’t have a f—ing clue what now. When you finish a film there’s always this postnatal depression that goes on for me [for] six months, but always there was “Quixote” waiting in the wings, saying, “Come on, come back and see if we can make this thing.” And now I don’t have anything.
I’m playing with a few things, but I just don’t know. It’s the first time in my life I felt this. Maybe I have burned myself out. I’m reading like mad trying to get something that kicks me into belief again. Maybe the problem is getting old. You get weary. My life and my filmmaking has been about fights, and now there’s nobody attacking me. (Laughs)
We’ll see what’s going. I’m working with Richard LaGravenese on an old script that we had years ago, trying to see if we can update it and make it work. We thought, well, maybe we can extend this and make a six-part TV series. Because the money is sitting there at Netflix and all the other streamers. But when you see Marty (Scorsese) doing what he does, the Coen brothers doing it, I’m not sure if Netflix is going to have any money left by the time I get there.
So that’s the likely course rather than theatrical?
Independent distribution is really f—ed. They don’t have any money anymore. And how do you compete with “Avengers” and things like that? It’s only at this time of year when you get a sense that there are independent films out there, because they’re spending all their money for the awards.
There must have been a point in your career when Hollywood would have given you “Avengers”-style movies.
When I was younger, I would’ve loved to have done that kind of work. But not now. There’s so many good technical directors out there. I don’t know their names – nobody knows their names – but boy, they can do the job. And even fairly recently, somebody was talking to me about one of the big things. But I just don’t want to work on that kind of movie, because they’re basically factory systems. And why?
The one person I admire at the moment is Taika Waititi. A couple of years ago at Christmas, my son put on “Thor: Ragnarok.” I said, “I don’t want to see this stuff,” but it was really funny. And I think “Jojo Rabbit” is wonderful, just fantastic.
He’s facing questions like, “Should you really joke about Nazis today?”
Exactly. You can’t joke about anything these days. You might cause offense, and offense is a crime against humanity and must be stopped. You might make somebody think, and that’s really dangerous.
That’s why “Jojo Rabbit” is such a brilliant film, because he deals with Nazis and his touch is perfect. I never laughed as hard as I did in “Jojo Rabbit,” with the German version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” But his balance was so beautiful and the story is wonderful.
I don’t know where we are these days. The problem is that our politicians in America and now Britain are so beyond satire. They’re the joke, but it’s not laughable. Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are the clowns, but they’re not funny. They’re the other side of clowning, the dark side.
You left the United States, where you were born and raised, to go to Britain in the 1960s?
’67. I was fed up with America. I was angry because there was a war going on and the civil rights movement was in full flow and friends were getting seriously hurt. When you’re raised here, you begin to believe that America stands for truth, justice and all of those things. And it was a moment of looking around saying, “This is not the place I thought it was. I want out because I am angry, and when I’m angry I’m not much fun to be around.”
Did it make you less angry to be over there?
Yeah. I suppose that I realized for all the faults in the country, they weren’t my fault, because I wasn’t born there. Getting to England just took the weight off my shoulders, and I loved the culture there.
I went there because I believed in what I thought the country stood for — a liberal attitude, an intelligent, liberal, embrace of everybody. And it’s now become bitter, racist, hating immigrants. It’s horrible. They’ve become as ideologically confused as Americans, and the big lie seems to work. We’re out of Europe. It is a f—ing little island that doesn’t make anything anymore, and I don’t know how it’s going to survive.
When you’re thinking about what to do next, are you thinking about projects that would reflect what you see in the world?
Yeah. But the problem is that it’s so hard to work out how you satirize this stuff, because it is already satirical in the worst possible way. I mean, everything I’ve done to me is relating to the world we live in in some way. And I’m finding it so hard at the moment to find a way of doing it that’s still funny. I’m just not laughing anymore.
When they did the 40th anniversary re-release of “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” early this year, it could not have been much timelier.
It’s totally prescient, that film. It’s prescient and it’s funny and it’s honest. But a year or so ago, the new head of comedy at the BBC made this big public statement that Monty Python would never be commissioned now, because it was six white guys. ‘Cause they’re into diversity now, not comedy. Well, I was diverse. I was an American, I wasn’t British. Graham Chapman was gay. So we were pretty diverse. Some studied English history, others weren’t into law. What more do you want? (Laughs)
When I was promoting “Quixote,” I was asked my feelings about that in a press conference in Germany. And I said, “Well, as a white male, I’m really tired of being blamed for all the wrongs on the planet. From now on, I want you to call me Loretta. I’m a black lesbian in transition.”
I got a laugh, of course. But the British liberal press has tried to be so much like the Hollywood press, and Hollywood is just crazed now. It’s like a little village where at any moment there’s only one way to think about things. And so I was pilloried for causing harm to people by what I said. Harm. They don’t even know what the word harm means anymore. I ruffled somebody’s feathers? That’s harm?
And “I want you to call me Loretta” is, after all, a quote that Eric Idle’s character says in a scene from “Life of Brian” that’s all about the rise of extreme political correctness.
The common good is not important anymore. It’s “me” and “I feel” and “you must never say anything critical of me or my behavior,” because that’s offending.
I sound like some old right winger, I know. After I made that statement in Germany, I did an interview with a really good journalist who said, “Many of the things you say sound very similar to what the neo-Nazis say.” I’m 180 degrees the opposite of them. And I said, “Whatever you write, please write this: When we can’t distinguish between humor and hatred, we are f—ed.”
Python must have gotten plenty of people saying, “Oh, you shouldn’t joke about that.”
No, we didn’t. I did an interview for the 50th anniversary, and Python used to always refer to “fat, ignorant bastards.” And they were worried about the offense we were causing by saying that. I said, “They were fat, ignorant bastards – that wasn’t offensive, it was just a statement of fact.” (Laughs)
You can’t be critical. You can’t say anything that’s humorous, critical, questioning, because somebody will be offended. I got an award once for an opera, and I talked about the fact that I didn’t want the lead singer to be just some 50-year-old fat woman. And there was so much shock over me saying fat woman that I had to backtrack and explain what I really meant: There are fat women who sing, and if they’re supposed to be playing a 16-year-old Juliet, give me a break.
So basically, you’ve been saying things that get you into trouble for years.
Right. I think the problem of being of an advanced age is just you get dismissed as an old fart who doesn’t know the world. I know what’s going on and, but I do a lot of complaining because I can get away with it. I don’t give a s— what you think, which is not particularly helpful.
So when you started the TV show in ’69 did you guys have any sense that what you were doing was significant?
We were just doing what we want to do and getting away with it. Nothing more. We were just delighted that we had the opportunity to do what we wanted to do, and we had the BBC as an outlet. There were only three channels then, right? So everybody saw what you did. We went on on Sunday night, and on Monday morning everybody at work was around the water cooler talking about it. That doesn’t exist anymore because there’s so many choices.
We just thought about each show as the end, to make it as funny as we could. We argued amongst ourselves, but the good thing about the group was there was a mutual respect in the work. Individually, we’d get in huge fights about each other, but we all felt that the work was the key thing. And when I look back, it’s incredibly rare to have your own television show where there’s no producer, no executives saying, “This is what you need to do. This is the audience we want you to go for it.”
That’s why I do find it funny that we are 50 years on and we’re legendary now. (Laughs) We’re national treasures, whatever that means. Because I certainly don’t feel like that. I take the tube, Mike Palin takes the tube. And occasionally, maybe a couple of times a week, someone says, “Nice, Terry.”
Coming to Hollywood, the pressure is to be a real star. It’s a killer. I’ve got friends, two who committed suicide here, and on every level they were successful here. But there was always more success they hadn’t attained, and that’s the pressure of it. Which I think is terrible.
Did you ever feel yourself falling into that?
Yeah, yeah. That’s why I don’t like LA. I stay away from it. I know it’s contagious. (Laughs) Coming here for a couple of days, that’s it.
It was one of those weird things, having grown up out here, in the Valley, and wanting to be in film somehow. It seemed so distant. Physically it wasn’t distant, but then to go to England and finally come back to Hollywood and make movies in Hollywood was always odd and interesting and quite wonderful.
I think that separation is really important. I talk to friends out here, and their limited view bothers me. It’s all about how you get something through this particular system. And now I think it’s really hard if you’re a talented to survive out here and to still continue to do really good work other than just producing products.
I also think it’s hard now because you make a film and you want feedback. And feedback is also the number of people that are watching it and how it plays in a cinema. You don’t get that on Netflix. You don’t know who, what, anything.
And yet they gave Martin Scorsese the money to make “The Irishman” when no studio would.
Exactly. Exactly. But the question is, what is the ultimate effect of the movie now? We don’t know. At least with films, you know how many people went, you can see them so you’re getting feedback so you know if you’re communicating. And maybe at a certain point and a certain age, like me and Marty, we don’t care if we’re communicating any more – we just want to do the things we’ve wanted to do for years. We want to say we’re getting away with it.
Do you find it appealing to think about the longer form you could use if you did go with Netflix?
Well, that’s one of the things that Richard LeGravenese and I have been doing. We did a breakdown for a six-part series which looked like it could work, but I’m not convinced. What I tend to do with my repetitive nature is dance between reality and imagination. In a two-hour, two-hour-plus film, you’ve got the audience trapped, so you play that game in route. If you’re doing it on TV, I’m not sure it works the same way. When you get to the end of an episode, do you leave it in reality or do you leave it in the imaginative stage? And then you come back and pick it up from there? But it may be the only way that it will ever get done is if we do it for Netflix.
But you don’t have a timeline for when you’re liable to do your next thing?
No. I don’t know. I’m reading like mad waiting for the muse to come back. I think the problem is that I know how long it takes to get a film set up, and I’m kind of worn out. What I really would like if somebody who’s got a good script and they’ve got the funding and they’re looking for a director. Hi!
I mean, in a sense that that’s what happened after “Munchhausen.” That was just a nightmare, and along came the script for “The Fisher King.” I didn’t write it, I didn’t care, it’s a great script. All we need to do is get Robin Williams, and I can get Robin. And we were off. It was the same thing with “The Brothers Grimm,” which was my experience with the Weinstein bothers. That was like, you just wanted to give up. But we did “Tideland,” which was low budget and fast.
So I think that’s what I’m feeling. I will work on various things. I’m doing a musical for the theater. I had a period when I did two operas. These are the things that come along — they’re ready to go and I jump in because I’ve got to work. I know all the film ideas I’ve got are not going to be easy to finance, and I’m impatient. My theory is I’m going to die very soon, and I’d like to knock off one or two more.
Your problems with the Weinsteins were over their tendency to interfere in the filmmaking?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Wanting to be directors. And they’re not. If you want to be a director, direct a movie. But they can’t. They’ve got to get their fingerprints all over the thing, so they can claim they did. They fired my DP and forced another DP on me. At a certain point the fun and the joy of filmmaking was destroyed.
In their earlier stages, they were very good at picking up really good films and then saying to the filmmakers, “Your film is very good. It could be great, if … ” They would then get the filmmakers to compromise and do what they thought would make the film more popular and more successful. And then the films would fail, so they destroyed these young filmmakers. Really destroyed them. Once you’ve been through that experience, you’ve lost all confidence in yourself. And I know several who just gave up.
The problem is, they’re smart, Harvey in particular. But in “Brothers Grimm,” Robin Williams was originally going to play the part that Peter Stormare played. They wouldn’t do a deal with Robin because they thought Robin had betrayed them on “Good Will Hunting.” Robin was the reason the film got made, and when the film looked like it might be worked for some awards, they wanted Robin to give up his back end to give them the money to campaign. And Robin said, “Why?” and he didn’t. So they refused to let me have Robin.
I wanted Samantha Morton for the part that Lena Headey played. Samantha was perfect for the part, but Harvey would not do it. He said, “She’s brilliant, she’s going to win the Academy Award one day, but she’s not going to be in your film.” I talked to her and said, “What was your crime that they are behaving like this?” And the only thing she could think of was that when they were in Cannes promoting something, there was a lunch, and Harvey said, “Come to lunch. important people. I want you to wear a very short skirt.” And she came down in slacks. That was her crime. I think that was the only thing she could think of. He wanted her to look sexy and she said no.
And eventually his karma caught up with him, and he’s in a real karma crash.
Well, I think I’ve got plenty to work with…
Enough to destroy my career? (Laughs) Thank you.
Actually, you asked why I was here. I’m actually here to say things that get me into trouble when you print them.