Terry Vance Gilliam in Minneapolis, Minnesota, 22 November 1940.
Studied political science at Occidental College, Los Angeles.
Married make-up artist Margaret Weston; three children: Amy Rainbow,
Holly du Bois, Harry Thunder.
magazine, and freelance illustrator, New York, from 1962; moved to
London, 1967; illustrator and animator for
Marty, We Have Ways of Making You Laugh
Do Not Adjust Your Set
, for TV, 1968; member of
Monty Python's Flying Circus
, from 1969; directed first solo project,
British Academy of Film and Television Arts Special Award for Graphics,
Monty Python's Flying Circus
, 1969; Montreux Festival Silver Award, for
Monty Python's Flying Circus
, 1971; Best Director and Best Screenplay, Los Angeles Film Critics
, 1985; Michael Balcon Award, Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema,
1987; Venice Film Festival Silver Lion, for
The Fisher King
The Old Hall, South Grove, Highgate, London N6 6BP England.
Films as Director:
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (co-d, + co-sc, anim, ro)
Jabberwocky (+ co-sc, ro)
Time Bandits (+ co-sc, pr, ro—uncredited)
Brazil (+ co-sc)
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (+ co-sc)
The Fisher King
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (+ co-sc)
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (+ co-sc)
Good Omens (+ co-sc)
And Now for Something Completely Different (co-sc, anim, ro)
Monty Python's Life of Brian (Jones) (co-sc, design, anim, ro)
Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (co-sc, ro)
Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (Jones) (co-sc, anim, d some sequences, ro)
The Secret Policeman's Private Parts (Graef, Temple) (ro)
Spies like Us (Landis) (ro)
By GILLIAM: books—
Harvey Kurtzman's Fun and Games , with Harvey Kurtzman, New York, 1965.
Monty Python's Big Red Book , London, 1972.
The Brand New Monty Python Book , London, 1973.
Sporting Relations , with Roger McGough, London, 1974.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail , London, 1977.
Jabberwocky , London, 1977.
Animations of Mortality , London, 1978.
Monty Python's Life of Brian (of Nazareth) , London, 1979.
The Complete Works of Shakespeare and Monty Python , London, 1981.
Time Bandits , with Michael Palin, London, 1981.
Monty Python's The Meaning of Life , London, 1983.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen , with Charles McKeown, New York and London, 1989.
By GILLIAM: articles—
Interview in Inter/View (New York), vol. 7, no. 6, 1975.
Interview in Film Comment (New York), November/December 1981.
Interview with D. Rabourdin, in Cinéma (Paris), February 1985.
Interview with Nick Roddick, in Stills (London), February 1985.
Interview with B. Howell, in Films and Filming (London), March 1985.
Interview with M. Girard and A. Caron, in Séquences (Montreal), April 1986.
Interview with D. Morgan, in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1988.
Interview in Starburst (London), April 1989.
Interview with P. Kremski, in Filmbulletin (Winterthur, Switzerland), no. 5/6, 1991.
"Terry Gilliam's Guilty Pleasures," in Film Comment (New York), September/October 1991.
"Empire OneOnOne," interview with Bob McCabe, in Empire (London), December 1998.
On GILLIAM: books—
Perry, George, Life of Python , London, 1983.
Yule, Andrew, Losing the Light: Terry Gilliam and the Munchausen Saga , New York, 1991.
On GILLIAM: articles—
" Brazil Section" of Revue du Cinéma (Paris), March 1985.
"Gilliam Section" of Positif (Paris), March 1985.
Mathews, J., "Earth to Gilliam," in American Film (Los Angeles), March 1989.
Turan, Kenneth, "The Awful Adventures of Terry Gilliam," in Gentleman's Quarterly , March 1989.
"Gilliam Issue" of Cinefex (Riverside, California), May 1989.
Ellison, Harlan, "Harlan Ellison's Watching," in Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction , May 1989.
Van Gelder, L., "At the Movies," in New York Times , 1 June 1990.
Ciment, Michel, article in Positif (Paris), November 1990.
Osborn, B., " The Fisher King ," in American Premiere (Beverly Hills), no. 5, 1991.
Stefancic, M., Jr., "Kraljevi ribic," in Ekran (Ljubljana, Yugoslavia), no. 8, 1991.
Panek, Richard, "A Writer's Dream," in Premiere , May 1991.
Drucker, E., " The Fisher King ," in American Film (Los Angeles), September/October 1991.
Zagari, P., "Gil intoccabili," in Cinema Nuovo (Rome), November/December 1991.
Mandolini, C., "Terry Gilliam ou le triomphe de l'imaginaire postmoderne," in Sequences (Montreal), January 1992.
"Filmografie," in Segnocinema (Vicenza, Italy), January/February 1992.
Smith, G., "War Games," in The New Yorker , 25 May 1998.
Frankel, Martha, "Terry Does Vegas," in Movieline (Los Angeles), June 1998.
* * *
"A trilogy about the ages of Man and the subordination of magic to realism." So Terry Gilliam described the trio of films which stretched from Time Bandits through Brazil to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Gilliam has worked resolutely in the space between the two elements of magic and reality in all his work, hardly surprising in a man who first became widely known as the provider of brilliant, surreal animation sequences for the Monty Python comedy team in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Gilliam is very much a champion of imagination in his films in both visual and narrative terms. Despite his often surreal vision, however, the products of the imagination do not necessarily have to be fantastic. Love, for example—often a triumph of emotional imagination over reality—has been an important arena in Gilliam's battle between magic and realism—comical and childlike in Jabberwocky , bittersweet and adult in Brazil. For Gilliam, magic counterbalances what he perceives as the sterility of the rational, a view that is manifested in extreme form in the Orwellian nightmare world of Brazil. If love is perhaps the emotional expression of Gilliam's magic, then visual and narrative fantasy is the conceptual. Elements of the fantastic have been ever-present in Gilliam's work from his Monty Python days to the spectacles of Baron Munchausen (an island transformed into a giant fish, a ship gliding through a desert strewn with statues). His feature films often seem, in fact, semi-conscious attempts to recreate the world of his early animations in live-action.
Fellow director Alex Cox has described Gilliam as a "highly skilled visualist," a judgement which cannot really be disputed. (It is worth noting that Gilliam's cinematographer for the dazzling Brazil was Roger Pratt, later to give a similar gloss to the mega-buck Batman. ) Gilliam is often criticized, however, for opting for visual pyrotechnics at the expense of narrative solidity. The issue is clouded by Gilliam's constant return to the fairy tale/fantasy format, where the requirement of narrative sense or continuity is arguably less strict anyway. Arthurian legend in Monty Python and The Holy Grail (co-directed with Terry Jones), Lewis Carroll's nonsense world in Jabberwocky , time travel in Time Bandits , an insane world in Brazil , eighteenth-century tall tales in Baron Munchausen , and a psychedelically garish Las Vegas in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas all exemplify Gilliam's fascination with fantasy. Is Gilliam merely an escapist with a remarkably fertile imagination? In opting to undermine the bedrock of dull rationality does he fail to offer anything in return? It is, after all, perfectly possible to make films which are funny and surreal and which have bite—satire as opposed to escapism.
Gilliam's defense against such charges is Brazil. Without Brazil , Gilliam's output smacks a little too much of clownish entertainment. But with Brazil it is clear that the clown can also wear a sadder, darker face. For here, Gilliam opts to take on board the challenging burdens of rationality rather than trying merely to escape them. His vision has weight. If he escapes here it is through facing the deadening products of rationality and triumphing over them through a combination of acid ridicule and emotional willpower. The sights which influenced his perception of the story included a Los Angeles riot, and he has half-cryptically, half-menacingly described the setting of the film as "somewhere on the Los Angeles/Belfast border."
Brazil revealed depths to Gilliam's talent which had only been glimpsed in his blackly comic Monty Python animations rather than his earlier features. Baron Munchausen , disappointingly, proved a regression back to escapism rather than a development of the inspired mood of Brazil (though the pressures of an ever-escalating budget cannot have helped). Perhaps the battle he had to fight with Warner Bros. over Brazil —first over a re-edit (read massacre), then over even releasing the film—had warned him against attempting anything with real edge.
The Fisher King , Gilliam's follow-up to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen , ranks with Brazil as among his most thoughtful works. The film, a dazzlingly visual allegory that offers a profound commentary on ethics in contemporary society, ponders a tarnished soul's chance to reclaim a moral lifestyle. Its scenario (authored by Richard LaGravenese, rather than Gilliam) spotlights the plight of Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), a cold-hearted, self-centered radio talk show host who undergoes a personality crisis when one of his listeners, whom he has just crudely dismissed, promptly commits mass murder. Lucas is delivered from the brink of despair by a character who might have been concocted during Gilliam's early Monty Python days, an odd-ball street person (Robin Williams) who is consumed with finding the Holy Grail and hooking up with an evasive young woman (Amanda Plummer).
In 1995 Gilliam released Twelve Monkeys , a film set in post-apocalyptic America. Reminiscent of Brazil in its dark vision of the future, Twelve Monkeys concerns a criminal of the future (played by Bruce Willis) who is sent back in time to late twentieth-century America to gather information about a devastating plague that pushed survivors into a bleak underground existence. The film was more accessible to mainstream audiences than some of Gilliam's earlier films (in part because of its big-name cast, which also included Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt), but still featured Gilliam's signature cynicism about society's dark underbelly.
The filmmaker's follow-up, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas , was a complete misfire, and easily is his least-successful feature. It is an ill-advised visualization of Hunter S. Thompson's 1971 book, in which the writer's alter ego, Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp), and his lawyer, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro), do Las Vegas while zonked to the gills. Thompson's book may accurately capture a time and place; the film, though crammed with Gilliam's patented visual wizardry, seems sorely dated and totally unnecessary.
Gilliam's films are brilliantly imaginative, though sometimes maddeningly uneven. He remains an outstanding talent who, unfortunately, works too infrequently on screen—and one wonders if he ever will approach the depth of vision he so successfully mined in Brazil.
—Norman Miller, updated by Rob Edelman