Gilliam on Gilliam

by Terry Gilliam and Ian Christie

Published by Faber & Faber

294 pages, 1999

Buy it online



Gilliam on Top

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière


Ideally, the film director should be a multitalented crafter and artist. Filmmaking is, at its best, an alchemical transmogrification of writing, storytelling, cartooning, photography, painting, carpentry, architecture, lighting, music, sound, costuming, fashion design and performance into a kaleidoscopic Grail. Some directors, like Woody Allen for example, are principally writers who have chosen cinema as their mode of expression. Others, like Peter Greenaway, use cinema as a way to further extend their exploration of the visual arts. Although neither of these two talented directors could be accused of neglecting the other aspects of their films, their aesthetic emphases are unmistakable. The films of directors such as David Lynch, Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam, however, have revealed that their creators are filmmakers in the fullest sense of the word: they embrace and acknowledge the various arts and crafts that comprise their vocation and, beyond simply having a knack for surrounding themselves with skillful specialized collaborators, they themselves take a personal interest in the parts that make up the whole. They understand that every nuance of sight, sound, story and performance contributes fundamentally to the vision of a film.

Gilliam on Gilliam, a series of interviews, entertainingly maps out Terry Gilliam's professional path, vividly unveiling how a precocious but well-behaved Minnesota boy eventually became a maverick filmmaker. In the dense and fascinating second chapter, Gilliam talks about his early professional career in 1960s New York, including a crucial apprenticeship with Harvey Kurtzman (the founder of Mad and Help! magazines and the creator of the Little Annie Fannie comic strip), meetings and collaborations with the likes of Gloria Steinem and Woody Allen and early efforts to break into the film industry. The next few chapters deal with his celebrated stint as a founder of Monty Python, a gig that still has many people thinking Gilliam is British. It's with the Monty Python film Monty Python and the Holy Grail that Gilliam first flexed his filmmaking muscles. His co-director credit on this successful venture suddenly put him in the position of receiving offers to make films, a situation he quickly used to his advantage.

By that time, Gilliam had already worked as a cartoonist, illustrator, animator, creator of fumetti (comics that use photos instead of drawings), performer, film technician and writer. This varied background, well documented in Gilliam on Gilliam, helped shape the director's approach to filmmaking.

The later chapters, the meatiest part of the book in both substance and length, chronicle Gilliam's often frustrating and intermittently rewarding experiences in the world of big-budget filmmaking. A big part of this section's charm is that, despite the two and a half decades that Gilliam has now spent in that world where art, fame and finance tensely coexist, he balances an outsider's perspective with an insider's view.

The makings of Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen have since entered the annals of filmic folklore and many contradicting rumors continue to circulate about their various financial, technical, creative and censorship troubles. Both films have had books written about their problem-laden journeys from concept to screen, which interviewer and editor Ian Christie has drawn upon to inform his conversations with the director.

Christie is a skillful interviewer. He is most self-effacing and his questions invariably guide Gilliam towards recounting intriguing anecdotes that illuminate the filmmaker's life and career, his films, the world of cinema, or to surprisingly reveal heretofore obscure but noteworthy trivia. His introduction, however, is given to broad statements of questionable accuracy (for example, declaring that Gilliam "has more fans obsessed, by both the iconoclastic sweep and the esoteric minutiae of his career, than any contemporary director" ignores, among others, David Lynch, about whom there is a regularly published magazine, Wrapped in Plastic). Further, his notes, which on the whole contain quite a bit of contextual information on film, television, comics, books and pop culture, include several mistakes. Christie asserts that Superman and Batman were originally comic-strip characters from the late 1930s who were only later featured in comic books, when in fact they debuted in comic books in the late 30s and started appearing in syndicated comics strips in 1939 and 1943, respectively, after their comic-book success. Also, he claims that Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was a novella, when it has always been a full-length novel. Thus an aura of doubt is cast on the reliability of his information. Most unfortunate is Christie's failure to pick up on the multiple references to characters, themes and plot elements of The Wizard of Oz found in Gilliam's Time Bandits and consequently question the director on this crucial aspect of the film (which I consider Gilliam's chef d'oeuvre). This lacuna made the discussion of Time Bandits somewhat less insightful than it might have been.

Nevertheless, Gilliam on Gilliam is a delightful treasure trove. The director reminisces at length and with intelligence and eloquence. He brings to life, with great immediacy, the day-to-day toil of creating and shooting feature films and his own passion for the diverse aspects of filmmaking. Anyone fascinated with Gilliam, the world of cinema, the art of filmmaking or the behind-the-scenes connections of the various facets of late-20th-century pop culture should find this book pleasurably engaging. | February 2000


Claude Lalumière -- a freelance writer, editor and translator -- is the founder and former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop. His book reviews, essays and articles can be found on his Web site.