How not to become a Unabomber: an interview with Terry Gilliam
Edited version. The full article appears in Graphis 316.
All Gilliam’s films are about liberty. The recurrent themes of make-believe kingdoms and time travel are merely devices for exploring this concept. The incursions upon our liberty may be technological, bureaucratic, parental, governmental—or technological, because another Gilliam motif is the way technology diminishes human contact and the power the imagination
Terry Gilliam grew up in Los Angeles but made his first creative mark as the only American member of the British comedy team, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. When Monty Python began making full-length feature films—Monty Python and the Holy Grail in 1974 and Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life in the US) in 1983—Gilliam naturally assumed his role as one of the directors. From there, he has developed his own ever more fantastical—and expensive—movies. He lives in London, and his new movie, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is his first to be explicitly based in the United States, the country he left more than 30 years ago.
All his films are about liberty. The recurrent themes of make-believe kingdoms and time travel are merely devices for exploring this concept. The incursions upon our liberty may be technological, bureaucratic, parental or governmental.
Graphis found Gilliam completing the sound work on Fear and Loathing at Shepperton Studios outside London. Here, he talked about reality and realism, technology, architecture, and the truth and fiction of movie-making.
GRAPHIS: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is subtitled “A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream”. How American is that dream in your film? Is this a personal voyage of exploration for you having not lived in America for so long?
GILLIAM: I escaped America and its dreaming in ’67, four years before Hunter wrote his book. There’s the same feeling of disillusionment based on the fact that you believed in the American dream. I really became very disillusioned. I could just see I was going to have to become like the Unabomber, a full-time activist, or get out.
GRAPHIS: There are vivid and bizarre scenes, but not much of a story in Hunter Thompson’s book.
GILLIAM: I don’t know if we’ve put a story to it, but we’ve tried to put more of a shape to it. To me, it’s a character piece and what we’ve tried to do is concentrate on these two characters [Thompson himself in the persona of Raoul Duke and his lawyer who goes by the name of Doctor Gonzo], how they relate to each other and other people, and these events going on are all there, so you’ve got a basic shape. You go to Vegas, you then try to escape from Vegas, and you’re forced back to Vegas. Duke has got a Christian morality floating around in his little heart. And you’ve got Gonzo, who is truly a pagan force of nature. In some ways, it’s Dante’s Inferno, but this time Virgil is not this nice calm poet, but this crazed lunatic madman.
GRAPHIS: How are the drug parts communicated visually?
GILLIAM: In a strange way, not that weirdly. Some of the drugs have been shot very normally. The whole film is twisted with the camera off horizontal most of the time. Only occasionally does the camera suddenly hit the horizon and become flat, and you realize that and grasp it and then you’re off again. So the whole thing is shifting. The drug stuff tends to work in waves, not just visually, but aurally and musically; it comes, and suddenly you realize it’s all getting really strange. But a lot of it’s presented in a very normal way. And I’m using very wide-angle lenses for the whole film, wider than anybody else would be foolish enough to use. A standard lens is a 50 mm lens; we’re using like a 16 mm lens as a standard lens, and then we go wider than that when we need to. We pushed things, basically starting with the sets on a realistic basis, and then twisting them. For example, the patterns on the floors are bigger than they ought to be. So things are just twisted a bit and yet it looks real.
GRAPHIS: Nevertheless, it’s sounds like a fairly faithful adaptation.
GILLIAM: Almost all the words are Hunter’s. We’ve done that very consciously. We’ve not tried to ‘write’ but cannibalize his stuff. There is a lot of stuff that goes into ad libs, but Johnny [Depp] was so steeped in Thompsonisms. He spent a lot of time with him and they’re totally believable. He just spent an inordinate amount of time with Hunter, gathering everything. It became fetishistic.
GRAPHIS: With the wide angles, the angled horizon, the pace, it sounds like a theme park ride. Literally a trip.
GILLIAM: Exactly. What you’ve got to do is sit back and let it go and just hold on, and don’t analyse it, say where’s the narrative structure, all those things that people talk about, because they’re there but it’s not immediately apparent. After the high-speed beginning you start slowing down, it starts getting serious. And slow bits are often necessary. I mean, people don’t understand. It’s like when we did Python films. There’s always a point somewhere around 60 minutes in where no matter what scene you put there it didn’t get the laughs it should. If people are laughing all the time it’s really tiring, and at a certain point you just need a breather. The comments I’ve got from several people is it’s both funnier and darker than the book.
GRAPHIS: It’s darker than the book because of the character development rather than anything you’re saying about the state of America.
GILLIAM: Yeah, it’s also about seeing this stuff. It’s one thing to read about it, it’s another thing to see somebody on drugs doing awful things. And it’s, maybe because it’s more focused than the book—I think it’s true to what the book is, but it may be more focused.
GRAPHIS: It seems more grounded in a real world than a lot of your other films.
GILLIAM: Yeah, I suppose so. It’s ’71. Whatever I do, I tend to ground it in a kind of twisted reality. It’s got to be real. That’s why there’s so much detail in its because I think that’s what makes things real. And it’s messy detail, it’s not movie detail which is very precise. There’s a lot of things that don’t fit in neatly. That’s what life is like.
GRAPHIS: The messy details of reality are parodied grossly in Brazil, whereas here it’s just emphasized slightly.
GILLIAM: In Brazil, we were inventing a world. The whole point of Brazil was that it took place everywhere in the 20th century all at the same time. That was an excuse for being an eclectic magpie, and just taking all the things I liked and sticking them together in the way I wanted to, whereas this time, yeah, we got Vegas. But it’s like the book. In the book you start with a banal reality, but then you twist it with drugs into something that’s terrifying, like a war-zone. That’s what Thompson’s doing; he’s turning Las Vegas into Vietnam in a strange kind of way. And we’re doing the same thing.
GRAPHIS: You said somewhere that you were thinking of doing The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, until you saw the Disney film and realized they’d taken all your shots. It made me think of the cartoonishness that you have in your blood that lives on in the way you treat live action.
GILLIAM: That I’ll never escape. What was odd about The Hunchback of Notre-Dame was that the version I was working on was also for Disney. They had somehow got the idea they could do both a cartoon version and a live-action version, and one wouldn’t hurt the other. If you’ve not read the Hugo, it’s not a bad film; it’s just not Le Notre-Dame de Paris. But it’s quite beautiful, and technically it’s some of the best work they’ve done. I admire the kind of sweeping shots they used. I’m always torn with these things. I can admire something for its technique, and hate it for its narrative or its characterization or whatever.
GRAPHIS: There are many other books which you’ve thought filming – Don Quixote, A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, the Gormenghast books – which seem more like pure fantasy than Fear and Loathing.
GILLIAM: But even Quixote is not about fantasy, it’s about a guy dealing with reality via fantasy. They’re all similar in the sense that they’re all these battles between reality and fantasy, or imagination and technology. They’re all about that. If I was doing Quixote, I would be trying to do the 16th or whichever century it was as realistic as possible, so that there’s a base you can spring from to do the nightmare or the fantasy twisted version of it.
GRAPHIS: Would you ever go back to animation?
GILLIAM: Unh-uh. It’s boring, a terrible job. Slow!
GRAPHIS: What about digital technology?
GILLIAM: That’s why in a sense I’m doing animation in films now. You’ll see in this film things are done on a computer that are effectively a kind of animation.
GRAPHIS: For a while it was important to make it obvious that you were using high technology, with films such as Toy Story or Jurassic Park. Now it’s so good you don’t know.
GILLIAM: To me, it should have always been like that. If you’re going to be a magician you don’t want people to know how you do the trick or even that a trick is being done until it’s happened. I keep thinking now I want to do things much cruder because everybody’s expectations are so dulled by the perfectibility of everything. Maybe the thing to do is to get crude again.
GRAPHIS: Isn’t that what your cartoons did?
GILLIAM: That’s why my stuff took off. Cut-out animation has been around a long time, but nobody had access to it, and suddenly it goes out on television. I look at it now and am surprised how crude it is. But that way of thinking is getting harder and harder to find. People don’t seem to be able to distinguish the idea that something doesn’t have to be naturalistic to be truthful.
GRAPHIS: In the news recently, we’ve had an anthrax alert like Twelve Monkeys. And we have the error-prone privatized utilities, the theme restaurants and reconstructive surgery of Brazil. It’s all come true.
GILLIAM: Am I to blame? Are you trying to point a finger?