By Aaron Hillis
[Photo: ThinkFilm, 2006]
From his salad days as an animator and performer with “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” to his impressive career as a bona fide Hollywood iconoclast responsible for such irreverent and visually inventive films as “Brazil,” “12 Monkeys,” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” American-born director Terry Gilliam has been making films his way, regardless of how tough the fights were with those who controlled the checkbooks. Though it certainly fits within the tragicomic fantasies that have come to define his work, “Tideland” might just be Gilliam’s most uncompromised film yet, concerning a young girl named Jeliza-Rose (played by Jodelle Ferland) who retreats into her own imaginary world of talking squirrels and doll-head puppet friends after the death of her heroin-junkie mother (Jennifer Tilly). Based on Mitch Cullin’s dark wonderland of a novel, the film also stars Jeff Bridges who led the cast of Gilliam’s “The Fisher King” as Jeliza-Rose’s equally drug-addled rock star dad, who pretty much leaves his daughter alone to shoulder most of the story herself after they move to a rural farmhouse reminiscent of serial killer Ed Gein’s. I sat down with Gilliam for coffee just before the film’s opening in New York.
Earlier this year, you renounced your dual citizenship and became, in your own words, “100% British.” Even so, is there anything about you or your sensibilities that you’d say is specifically American?
Oh yeah, the scarification goes deep. No, I’m American. This is the problem, and so the British side of me is just calming down my American side, giving me perspective from another part of the world. I’m somewhere in between the two things, but I mean, I come here and I know these people, I know this world. It’s all around. I’m just pleased to be able to get newspapers and television that show me what the world really is. I was watching Fox News last night, a joy. (laughs) How do they get away with this? That’s what is extraordinary about this country, the Big Lie. You say it again and again, nobody does anything about it, and people eventually are suckered. Since I’ve been in America, suddenly it hit me. I think I’m going to have to sue George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for the illegal, unauthorized remake of “Brazil,” the reality version. Isn’t it crazy? If anything, I’m more angry at the Democrats than I am George Bush. Every week, they’re handed his head on a plate and every week they fluff it. I don’t know what to make, I mean, this country deserves better than it’s getting.
“Tideland” was screened at Toronto way back in late 2005. I’m happy for you that it’s finally getting a theatrical release.
Yeah, I don’t actually know why ThinkFilm waited this long, it was their choice. Are we getting into Oscar season? Is this the end of the year when you start taking notice of these things? I don’t know. If there is, I would love Jodelle to get nominated for something; that kid is extraordinary, she’s fearless. Without her, there’s no movie. That was the scary thing about deciding to do this film because I said if I don’t have the kid, we can’t make the movie. We were in pre-production before I found her. It reached the point where I was about to tell Jeremy Thomas, the producer, “I know you’re spending money, but we’re going to have pull the plug because this girl doesn’t exist.” And then, magically, there is a God! Bing!
Where was she hiding?
Vancouver. Because it was Canadian funded, we needed to work with Canadian actors. So Dakota Fanning was out of the mix, thank God. (laughs) It was very late in the day and the casting lady in Vancouver had sent this tape. This kid was so tiny, had great eyes and was really strong. They brought her to Toronto and put her in a scene with an actor and she just blew me away. What was interesting about her is there’s the script, the lines, and the situation, but she made these extraordinary choices every time that were like, hello! And that for me is what I want, an actor to come along and constantly surprise me. Like, in the screen test, there’s a specific scene on a bus where Jeff is farting. We’re doing that scene with a Canadian actor, and she’s getting more and more pissed off at him. There’s a point where he doubles over in pain and she says, “Serves you right.” Now, the other little girls were too nice about it: “Oh, Daddy’s hurting!” No, in her version, she didn’t say the words, but it was as if she said, “Fuck you! Serves you right!” Where’s this coming out of this little girl? I said that’s it, she’s got the part.
What’s troublesome about a lot of child actors is that what’s considered quality acting is often too unbelievably precocious.
Dakota Fanning is incredibly talented, but it’s like a clockwork mechanism at times. All these scripts are written with these super-smart kids with lines that adults should be doing, except let’s put them in the kids’ mouths, isn’t that cute? I hate that. In Mitch’s book, I didn’t think I was reading the story of one of those precocious kids, it’s about a real kid. We started shooting, and I didn’t direct her. I don’t want a 64-year-old man deciding what a nine-and-a-half year old girl thinks that she’s doing in a scene. She just learned the way and constantly amazed us. Like the scene with [her man-child neighbor] Dickens when they first kiss, we’re sitting in back with the monitors like, fuck! Jodelle! What are you doing? She’s a very smart kid, and those scenes are about a little girl who watches television, reads books, and fantasizes what romance is. She’s not aware of her power in a situation like that. In the book, she’s really physically on the edge of puberty. But 12-year-old girls, even 11- or 10-year-old girls were too knowledgeable. They’ve grown up too quickly in this climate, and it took a nine-and-a-half year old to have this innocence.
The film may be your most melancholic to date. Does this have anything to do with what was on your mind at the time, or where you want to go next in your career?
Not really, no. I just connected with it, that’s the way I work. It’s very instinctive. Maybe it was the mood I was in, I don’t know. It’s funny because “Time Bandits” is the same story. A kid in a world with his fantasy life, terrible parents in both films. It’s actually funny because I was thinking about this only as I started doing these interviews… at the end of “Time Bandits,” the parents blow up. At the beginning of “Tideland,” the parents blow up. Well, they don’t blow up, but they’re dead. You have kids on their own, and there’s a connection here, so I suppose I made “Time Bandits” 25 years on, or as the world changed, I’m not sure which.
Your career has been plagued with uphill battles against artistic compromise, but in hindsight, have you made any concessions that were for the better?
Ah, that’s a good one. I can’t think of a specific, but I do know that the battles focus my attention on things. If I had total freedom, I think I would be making much more mediocre films. I scream and rail against restrictions and they’re usual financial ones, budgetary restrictions but they do force me to make better films. It doesn’t feel like that on a day when I’m making a cut, but they are tighter, more focused, more clear about what’s important to me, and what’s less important.
In an instance like “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” whose unmaking-of was chronicled in the documentary “Lost in La Mancha,” does it make you more neurotic or superstitious?
They don’t make me neurotic, they wear me out. At times I feel the strings winding down, and I’m just getting weary. That’s the thing I’m fighting more now, because all films are difficult. At the moment, I find the atmosphere out there is particularly dire. The studios are even more conservative than they’ve ever been, and the guys running them aren’t even personalities there. Before, I could hate the person, but at least they were human beings. Now they’re all drones in there.
There’s something “Brazil”-ian about that, too.
Exactly. And then in independent filmmaking, whatever that is anymore, that’s just a way of selling films. Most of my funding by the studios is behind a mask. (laughs) Those films at least can get muscle behind them, because the studios are behind the scenes. If you’re making truly independent films, and I would say “Tideland” is, there’s no studio involved, not even an element of that. It was made completely outside the system and to try to get these films to studios is hard. In the end, it was only ThinkFilm who came to our rescue. Everybody else ran away from this script. And then how do you hold onto the cinemas? There are so many independent films made, and the [theaters] now are working exactly like the studios. The first weekend decides what happens with the film. We’re going to be at the IFC Center, and depending on this weekend, they’ll decide whether we stay in or just leave it one week.
If the Brothers Lumière rose from the dead to grant you godlike powers for fixing what’s wrong with Hollywood, what would be first on your agenda?
Oh, Jesus. See, that’s really weird, I’ve given up trying to be in Hollywood. I think that’s the truth of the matter. I suppose I’m waiting like an old lefty, waiting for the old system to collapse under its own inertia. The cost of making films and advertising is so crazy now, but it’s not just Hollywood, the world has become that. How do you get the attention of people anymore when there are so many things out there? We have choice now, I hate that idea. It’s like, I hate Starbucks. I don’t want to know about the many varieties of flavor I can have in my coffee, I just want a cappuccino. It’s a classic thing, it’s about that big, it’s not formal. You make it well, and it’s perfect. I have a house in Italy, and I can get my cappuccinos there, and I’m not asked what I really want. I hate walking down the street with so many possibilities, it makes me crazy. I want to know, can I go left or can I go right? End of conversation. (laughs)
But great art movements often come from conflict against a failing system. Are we on the verge of a new wave in independent cinema and distribution?
I don’t know, because it’s gotten so strange now. There’s the studio films, then there are the halfway houses, the independents. Then there are truly independent ones. Then there’s DVD and the web. All of this is going on, and I think there’s a sense of turmoil in everybody’s minds and nobody knows quite what is going to happen. I make films for the big screen, but I know most people see them on their televisions, that’s the irony of what goes on. I love YouTube, but we’re talking about little glimpses of things, little sketches, you know. Anybody can make a film now, and maybe it gets on the web, and maybe some people see it. Great, but maybe that’s what’s worrying me is that I can’t see the solution. I think about it all the time, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. Maybe it’s a good thing, I can’t predict the future. (laughs) It has taken me a long time to get here, and I still like the [film medium]. I can always sit at my computer, if I was really inspired, make any number of animations I wanted, and get them distributed on the web. And I could probably get paid to do so. That’s my fallback position, but I haven’t given up yet.
“Tideland” opened in New York October 13th (official site).