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The Very Honest Terry Gilliam on Green Lantern’s Budget, Woody Allen’s European Tour, and Don Quixote

Photo: KCSPresse / Splash News
Photo: KCSPresse / Splash News

Terry Gilliam is obsessed — but then, he has to be. His great films (Brazil, Time Bandits, and 12 Monkeys) have taken years — or decades, in the case of Don Quixote — to develop and finance, but he hangs in there with dogged determination, battling it out with studio after studio. One such battle, over his determination to release Brazil without a happy ending, is documented in the new Persol “Magnificent Obsessions” exhibit, which was on display this weekend at Center 548 (the show will next travel to Paris and Milan). Another legendary struggle, Gilliam’s doomed 1999 attempt to make a Don Quixote movie with Johnny Depp, is chronicled in the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha. Vulture talked to Gilliam about his more recent attempt to salvage The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus after Heath Ledger’s death, his views on the current glut of comic-book movies, and the alarming spectacle of Woody Allen raping Europe!

What’s going on with your Don Quixote movie? Robert Duvall, your latest Quixote, has said that you are ready to go, as soon as you got the money.
Exactly, but it’s trying to get this money! We had almost all of it together last year and then it fizzed out. What’s happening with money is there’s a number that’s the wrong number, and we’re at that number — $25 million, that’s just the wrong number. But it’ll work out. We just keep looking at different places to shoot, checking out Argentina, see if that’s less money. I don’t think in the States. I think most of the money is going to come from elsewhere. They want to give people $200 million to make the same film. Or they give them $5 million to do something interesting. [Laughs.]

Can you get on the Woody Allen payment plan? He seems to get a different country to subsidize each film.
No, Woody Allen’s going around raping Europe! He started in England, he’s taken all the money out of Spain, now he’s in Paris, so there’s not much left for the rest of us. He got there first. No, there’s money out there, it’s just trying to find out who at that particular moment happens to be flush. So we’ll see.

It seems like most of your best films were a struggle to get made.
It’s surprising. It’s not so much a comedy of errors, how things come together, but coincidences, combinations of things. Like somebody’s doing well, their trajectory is there, yours is here, and sometimes you meet. Sometimes you crash. [Laughs.] I think one of the things that bothers me about [The Imaginarium of Doctor] Parnassus is how it was handled so badly in the States. That has left me with a kind of very depressed attitude about what’s possible, because that should have been successful. In places like Italy, it was a success, but not America. I learned one company not to work with!

You could say it was a success on one level because it helped launch Andrew Garfield’s career.
Andy’s doing great! He’s doing Spider-Man. So I’m hoping now Spider-Man will make him a huge star, and then when I put him in my next film, I’ll get the money! [Laughs.] You wait long enough, it works out that way. Everything now, with the kind of money I’m talking about, is about who’s the star. That’s the problem. And Duvall is a great actor, but he’s not there for that kind of money, so you’re looking for other combinations. Strange enough, I’m actually quite tired of the whole thing. It’s been going on for so long, there’s a side of me that’s like, “Fuck this.” Except it’s still the best script that I’ve got.

Well, what about The Defective Detective? That’s another script you’ve got.
That’s great, if you’ve got $100 million. [Laughs.] And we’ve been running around trying to resuscitate that little baby. And if I can’t get the money for the $25 million thing, I can try for this, and people in Hollywood will say, “Can you do it for $50 [million]?” “Can you do it for $20 [million]?” And you realize, there are idiots out there. How many people in Hollywood just have no idea how films are made? What’s involved in making a film? That’s the one thing that always assuages me: No matter how dumb my thing, there’s always one that’s dumber.

Green Lantern cost, what, $150 million to make?
It’s almost, if you go beyond 20 [million], as soon as you get way up into the bigger numbers, they’re gambling now on either red or black. And wouldn’t it be nice if Green Lantern is a big flop? Will it be the new Cleopatra? Are the reviews good? Are they spending a fortune promoting it? Admittedly you can spend a fortune, I won’t name names, and still the film will do huge business even if it’s a bad movie. But you can’t do that too often. I guess the other green, The Green Hornet, didn’t work either. So it’s not the time for the greens! Green is not working. And there’s probably somebody in Hollywood who’s going, “Green: wrong color.” [Laughs.]

So what’s a good comic-book film these days? The Avengers, maybe, because Joss Whedon is directing?
What’s so funny is because of growing up with comics, and always wanting to do that kind of movie, I have no interest in them at all now. That’s what I wanted to do, and now everyone else is doing them, so I don’t do them. I don’t even go now. I see the trailers, and I think, I’ve seen that trailer for about 20 years now! The same shots, the same dilemma — what are we doing here? Who’s going to make the leap that makes it different? And strangely, the ones that do are animated films. I saw Rango on the way over here, and it was wonderful. It was really funny! I think what’s happened is, they all kind of do the same thing. And aren’t they running out of good comic-book characters? When they run out of Marvel characters, will they be hitting up Neil Gaiman’s characters? Or will comic books be burned out by then, as films? I think Chris Nolan gets comic books. His Batman stuff is really good. And I think Andrew is going to make a good Spidey. It’s really good, because he’s approaching it physically. I was just talking to him, and he talked about this movement, imagining that you have these other legs — eight legs, so four more legs. There’s this delay. I don’t know if he’s still going to do it, but it’s fantastic.

Well, no matter what they do with the film version of Spider-Man, it can’t be any worse than the Spider-Man musical on Broadway.
There you go! [Laughs.] I’m going to go see The Book of Mormon instead. That’s what I want to see.

Can you relate to the Spider-Man musical, though, in terms of the sheer number of things that went wrong for them on a technical level, since you’ve had your share of struggles getting certain films made?
They were obviously very ambitious, trying to do wire work, but that’s not their problem, it seems to me. It’s the basic material — the story, the songs. I mean, when I watch all of my stuff, whatever difficulties we faced, at least the central stuff has been pretty solid! [Laughs.] I think it has to do with whatever you’re working on — and on Parnassus we faced this — you need to be surrounded by really good people who are dedicated and committed to the thing. So Heath [Ledger] goes and fails to turn up for work, and I’m ready to go home, and everybody around me said, “No.” If you’ve got a support system, it’s not like ego’s involved. And so if you can get your mind around it, we had a structure that could actually deal with this, and you find Johnny [Depp], Colin [Farrell], and Jude [Law] come to the rescue. There’s something going on there, there’s some goodwill, and it doesn’t strike me that there’s a lot of goodwill floating around Spider-Man. [Laughs.]

What’s the most ludicrous obstacle you faced?
In [The Adventures of Baron] Munchausen, the moon. When Sony closed the whole thing down, the money changed, and you end up with cutouts of the moon. It’s like if I wanted to do a Ben-Hur, and ended up making Sylvester and Tweety. As long as my imagination’s working and my depression isn’t ruling, I find solutions. But it’s a team of people. I think that’s the key to all this. With bigger productions, it’s hierarchical. There are people up at the top who don’t technically know how to do what they’re trying to do. That’s stupid.

You took matters into your own hands with that ad in Variety, “When are you going to release Brazil?”
A sensible question to ask. And better to ask it publicly than in the dark back rooms of Hollywood. It’s as simple as that. It was a pragmatic choice. We didn’t have the lawyers, the time, the money to play the corporate thing. And whilst I did it, it sort of hit me, what a stupid thing to have done! There’s a side of me that says I’m lucky — “Okay, go jump off a cliff.” And that’s what that was.

So what’s definitely next for you?
I don’t know. The most enjoyable thing I did recently was this short film, The Wholly Family. Twenty minutes; shot it, bingo. Maybe now that the world has become miniaturized, this is the thing to do.

The Very Honest Terry Gilliam on Green Lantern’s Budget, Woody Allen’s European Tour, and Don Quixote