At this point in human history, the ink spilled over Monty Python and/or their version of the Holy Grail is approaching the amount spilled over the actual Grail. There have been two oral histories, the IFC documentary, and enough “special edition” DVDs to provide a new suit of fake armor for a silly version of King Arthur and the yada, yada, yada. So when the film’s co-director, Terry Gilliam, wanted to talk to us on the phone from London about the new Grail iPad app, The Holy Book of Days, which gives a behind-the-scenes look at the four weeks he and his troupe spent shooting the film, we said, “I don’t want to talk to you, you empty-headed animal food trough wiper! I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!” Just kidding. We’re American. So we said, “Sure.” Then we talked about the difference between American and British humor, comic-book writers in Mumbai, and the challenges of making movies these days.
Did you see the Hunger Games? Everybody in the Capitol looked like they were wearing shoes on their heads.
I haven’t seen it yet. Do they really have upturned shoes for helmets?
Not really. But the costumes are definitely “Gilliam-esque.”
The thing is [my movie], Brazil is everywhere. Even Wall-E with the song: doot doot doot, doot do-do do doot. Because Brazil is the one thing that I’ve ever been involved with that is continually taught at film school. And so I guess anybody who is learning anything about filmmaking has Brazil stuck in their head somewhere. I don’t think the general public has a thing for it, but all film people seem to think it’s “an important film.” [Laughs.]
The coolest thing on the app is the outtake of John Cleese getting upset at your direction of his French Taunter. Is that amusing to you at this point?
That’s what I liked about doing [the app], that we wanted to be completely transparent all the time. So now the world can see. But I find watching it just kind of strange: I can’t believe the speed with which I talked. My wife couldn’t imagine the voice that I had back then. But it’s nice to have not memories, but facts. We’ve always embroidered the past and now we can see the truth.
What’s the last funny movie you saw?
Oh, Jesus. You’re really testing me here, because my memory is gone and anything beyond a couple weeks is ancient history. I haven’t seen anything funny for quite a while. The last scene in Burn After Reading had me in tears. That’s what I’ve laughed the most at most recently.
Is Burn After Reading the most visually interesting comedy you’ve seen recently?
Well, that’s the problem. Last night, I just happened to turn on the television and Anchorman was on. Which I’d never seen before. And it’s very silly, and other than costumes and hair it doesn’t depend on visuals to work. And both [Holy Grail co-director] Terry Jones and I, our feelings with Holy Grail were, it’s funnier if you’re really going to set the stage. So when a king rides through and you say, “How do you know he’s not a king? Because he has shit all over him” — well, you’ve got to establish shit in such quantities that it becomes funny. And John as the taunter, there was something very interesting about when he held his hands in the right position, his gauntlets kicked up in a very funny way. And it was just funny looking besides being an extraordinary performance. But anything that seemed to slow down the performance, or that John felt was taking too much time to set up, he hated because he’s quite serious about performance. But I think if you get the makeup, the costumes, the sets, the atmosphere right, the jokes are going to be funnier. And I think that’s the case with Holy Grail. It just feels like you’re there, in this primitive world where it’s rough and it’s ugly and you have many characters trying to maintain dignity and rise above the putridness of the place. That feels funny in itself.
You were the visual guy, the cartoonist. And this app does point out your role in the group, and the poignancy of how they treated you at times — as sort of an outsider.
I think most of the maltreatment was fairly earned on my part. The point is, I suddenly realized how inarticulate I could be when it came to describing why something should look like it should look, or why somebody should stand in a certain position. Because it will be funnier that way. And it was a combination of that and a lack of patience. Because we were running on a very tight schedule. And there wasn’t time to sit and have a discussion about this. Like, “Come on, if you do it this way, I think it will be better.” And when people took umbrage with that, then I would go off in a huff. There were certain days, literally, I walked away from it. I said, “This is the scene you guys wrote, I’m trying to make it work, you don’t want to do it? Okay, fine! Get somebody else.” But the pressure and all we had to do in a very short time was never very clear to the others in the group. I mean, Terry and I felt it continually. But they weren’t used to that. The television show didn’t demand the physical kind of discomfort that we were up against [shooting] in Scotland.
So is it painful watching yourself in your filmmaking adolescence?
I love it. The 32-year-old adolescent! And I’ve actually just stepped out of adolescence a couple weeks ago. So, no! I just find it interesting. When I look at it, I feel quite distant from it. I just find that guy playing Terry Gilliam is a very different one than the one playing Terry Gilliam now. This is a way at looking back at who one was. To me, the more warts the better. Because it just shows the reality of making something like this work. Most things that you read or see on filmmaking are puff pieces. “Everybody loves each other. Everybody is working towards the same goal.” And it’s just normally not the case with those films. Especially one where you have a group of six people and two of them are trying to be the boss. That becomes a very different dynamic. Whereas before all six of us could gang up and criticize Ian MacNaughton, who was directing the TV work. And suddenly two of the gang are put in an elevated position, but the joy isn’t great. And there’s always been a division in the group between the normal-sized people and the tall Cambridge people. There’s always a split there. At least Mike, Terry, and I stayed on good terms throughout the whole thing.
In addition to commenting on short people versus tall people, you’re in a unique position to comment on the difference between American and British humor. Did you ever feel at odds with the British sense of humor?
No. That to me was the real extraordinary surprise. I got over here and kind of felt, “Oh! I’ve actually discovered people that share the same worldview, the same sense of comedy.” I thought it was fantastic that somehow what I was doing in a visual, surreal sense worked for what they were doing in a more verbal, performative sense. And that’s always been the miracle of Python for me, the six of us coming together; it really took all of our various skills, attitudes, and upbringings to make it what it was.
So what is the difference between British and American senses of humor?
To me, Brits have always been able to laugh at themselves better than Americans can. And I thought that Americans always have been better at laughing at the other. For me, the Brits are a people that, you know, at the beginning of the last century had the biggest empire the world has ever known, and within a very short time it was gone. So how do you deal with that loss or that failure or whatever? By being self-deprecating. Laugh at yourself because you’ve fucked up, basically. Or you’ve lost the will or the drive to commandeer the world. And so, okay, you step back and just laugh at things. And I thought that was very important. I’ve always thought that America was very weak on irony, which the British have in heaps. That’s the main thing with Python, we were making jokes about anti-authority. That’s the kind of thing that translated immediately. Where you can take a pompous authority figure and you make him look like a fool. Everybody loves that. What always surprised me at the time, because I was so in awe of the others, is that when Python sort of hit America, somehow the thing that seemed to really make it work were the cartoons. Because they worked without depending on the use of language or a specific class structure. And that was really interesting. So I like to think that I was the St. Paul that brought the Christianity of Monty to America.
So what helped you fit into the Python world?
I don’t know. I was an Anglophile long before I got here. What I always liked about England is that there’s a very clearly defined class system. There’s the upper classes, the middle, and a lower. That kind of simplicity is easier to make jokes about, once you’ve got a hierarchy. That’s why I’ve always felt that making films about the Middle Ages is good. You’ve got a King, you’ve got some priests, you’ve got knights, and you’ve got peasants. And I think I was attracted to that as well. And I loved the use of language, which I still haven’t mastered quite clearly. Those were all things that attracted me. The first thing that bothered me was that the English didn’t have a tradition of comic books here. They had things like Beano, which were kids-level comics, but it really wasn’t the tradition that America had.
It seems like today’s best superhero comics are written by Brits.
Yeah, but that didn’t happen until the eighties! When I came here, it was really bad. In the eighties, you started getting Alan Moore and David Gibbons’s artwork and Neil Gaiman. These guys are the next generation, but they weren’t around when I got here. Cartoons seemed to be a great surprise to the general public. People hadn’t seen things like that. But cutout animation had been going in Poland and in America: Stan Vanderbeek, etc. These things had been around. So I guess I arrived in virgin territory when it came to visuals.
You were a great cross-pollinator. You gave them comics and we got the Pythons.
There’s something to that. [Laughs.] I think also I was coming out of the sixties and being involved in political cartooning in the States. And with the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement and all those things, I had a kind of anger that the others didn’t really have. They were much more polite. So I was always encouraging just more outrageous stuff, be more dangerous, push it to the limit, and that was again another part of the recipe that seemed to work.
For years, you schemed to direct The Watchmen. And now Hollywood’s biggest engine seems to be comic-book movies.
It’s so funny, because the kind of movies that are the big ones now, are the kinds of movies that I wanted to make. Again, irony comes to play here: I’m stuck in England while Hollywood is doing what I wanted to do 30 years ago. But those films, I don’t know what to make of them, because they’re becoming very repetitive. They’ve lost the edge of what comics should be about, it seems to me. They’ve all become very formulaic. Even though the costumes are different, I don’t see a great difference in many of them. I think it will be interesting to see Andrew Garfield [who starred in Gilliam’s Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus] as Spider-Man because he’s going to do a good job. But they’re becoming repetitive for me. I’m getting bored with them, frankly. I just want to see something different. What I loved about comic books is that comic books were outsider art, and so they could say and do things that were much more punchy. But that’s not what Marvel is up to at the moment.
And comic-book shops aren’t offering much edge these days either.
What I loved is in late ’65, when I was back in L.A. after being around Europe: The American underground comics had taken off — Shelton, Crumb, everybody out there — but the French were the ones that really amazed me. People like Moebius who just died a month ago, and Metal Hurlant and Fluide Glacial and L’Echo des Savanes. This was extraordinary stuff! Beautiful looking, funny, sharp, sci-fi on a level that you really want to work at. And none of that stuff gets made into film, is what I’ve noticed. And I [had an idea] a couple years ago, which is to take some of the scripts that I’ve got that have never been made and make them into a comic book so Hollywood would then read the comic book and say, “Wow! We’ve gotta do this because comics are cool!” And it was because I got involved in something that was being done in India. And I had a treatment for something — I didn’t want to give them a script because I was testing the waters. So I sent them a treatment of this piece, which was based on the Greek myth of Theseus, the Minotaur. And it came back, written by this young Indian guy, and it had been Hollywoodized. And I thought, Oh, this was really depressing. Some kid in Mumbai wants to make the same Hollywood movie that was being made. Is that happening in comics as well? Are the films beginning to dictate what comics are like at the moment?
Yes. Do you still have all your comics?
Oh, I probably do. Despite my wife’s best efforts to get rid of them.
When’s the last time you did any cartooning?
The only cartoons I really do now are just Valentines, anniversaries, and birthday cards for family. Or if I’m drawing for a film and have a sequence that I need to storyboard, I’ll do that. I really need to get back. I’ve been saving my drawing skills for the time when I can’t get money to make movies. I still doodle all the time. I do have my son’s birthday card coming up next week, so I have to draw something quickly.
I did see a Don Quixote doodle on the web that was attributed to you.
I saw the same thing. “What’s this?” I don’t know where that came from. It has nothing to do with me. That’s the problem with the web: There’s so much gossip and misinformation. I have my own Quixote drawings.
Are you doing anything with Quixote again? Or is that all rumor and innuendo?
No, there’s reality going on as well. But until it’s solid I don’t want to say anything. But yeah, there are things happening. In fact, I should know in the next week, one way or another. We’re going digital now. So it’s gonna either be on or off.
How many irons in the fire do you have at the moment?
There’s a couple. There’s a script based on a book by Paul Auster called Mr. Vertigo, that’s another one. And you can only make a movie for less than $15 million or more than $150 million these days, and I’ve got an expensive one: It’s based on Good Omens, the Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett book, and that’s been languishing for a decade now. And who knows, maybe its time has come. The madness of filmmaking now is there’s nothing in the middle ground — just hugely expensive or madly cheap.
Munchausen’s box-office failure stuck with you for so long. Does your heart go out to a guy like Andrew Stanton, the director of John Carter?
It’s very funny, I saw Andrew after the premiere in London of John Carter. And I had to thank him, because on the BBC website they were going on about “the biggest flops of all time” and there was no mention of Munchausen! I’m off the list! [Laughs maniacally.] Andrew takes some credit for this! No, it’s very sad because Andrew is really quite brilliant. It’s an odd one, John Carter. It’s a bad name if you don’t know the original books. Which most people don’t. And an awful lot of money was spent. And so many of the ideas and the feel of the thing was purloined by George Lucas years ago in Star Wars. So it felt too familiar to too many people. And Disney didn’t know how to sell it. So there was some very good work in it, but it caught between two or three different stools and nobody knew how to deal with it. Good thing about Andrew is he can still do animation. I’m not sure if I can. [Laughs.]