The Squirrels Made it Seem Less Lonely: Terry Gilliam on the State of Things

By Robert Chilcott

tideland-terry-gilliam.jpgTideland, 2005

Following his much publicised spat with Miramax after they sanitised his Brothers Grimm fantasy by prohibiting pretty boys Matt Damon & Heath Ledger from wearing prosthetic noses, Terry Gilliam went indie and (comparatively) low budget with producer Jeremy Thomas and screenwriter Tony Grisoni on an adaptation of Mitch Cullins’ novel Tideland. Offering a skewered and surreal trip seen through the eyes of a nine year old girl, perhaps Lewis Carroll’s Alice contemporised to the American Mid-West, complete with talking squirrels, junkie parents and severed dolls’ heads for companions, Gilliam has subsequently remarked that he has finally discovered his own identity through the eyes of this pre-pubescent heroine, although at the front of the DVD release he confesses that “many of you are not going to like this film…”.

On the eve of the 1st Ibiza Film Festival, for which he is patron, he laments the state of distribution, executives, the British Film Industry, and just about everything else…

Terry Gilliam: A critic from the Evening Standard, Neil Norman, rang me up and said that there were these people who had created this incredible new film festival in Ibiza, and would I like to go down and give it some support. And I thought, that’s rather nice, any excuse to go to Ibiza, a place I’ve never been, even a film festival is worth coming down here for, hahaha… It involves a lot of energy and passion and maybe naiveté to create a film festival, but they’re rather important because most of the films made these days never get seen by the public in cinemas, they get seen in festivals, and festivals seem to be the only way we can understand what’s going on in the world. If you go to the multiplex you’ll just see what’s going on in the mind of a few people in Hollywood. You come to a festival and, whoa, there’s a fantastic world available for you, different ideas, different cultures, and I think these are necessary for us to survive these days.

Robert Chilcott: Why do you think there is this crisis in distribution?

TG: Because a monopoly has been allowed to develop. The Germans are to blame, because there was all this tax money in the nineties that they were sending off to Hollywood to support the Hollywood system, rather than putting that money into trying to build some kind of European infrastructure - I’m not sure what that would be, but one at least has to attempt, or have the thought of what possibility… All that money went out to Hollywood, and once again Hollywood spreads its tentacles, and in various countries the studios have been allowed to buy up the cinemas, so they own everything – distribution, exhibition, the works, and on we go, so people get used to a diet of Hollywood films, just like they get used to eating McDonalds’ hamburgers, they’re safe, they’re not wonderful and they’re not terrible, they’re somewhere in the middle, they’re cheap and not very nourishing, that’s the real problem, and I think that’s what’s happened to cinema – people have gotten used to eating baby food, you don’t have to chew too much, intellectually chew, or imaginatively chew, it just goes in there.

What’s interesting about Hollywood is, because it dominates so much, every so often a film with subtitles, like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon comes along, and it’s a big success, and you realise people are willing to read subtitles, but Hollywood never follows up, they say it was just a blip and let’s go back to the other. People can do anything if they’re encouraged to do so, but they’re not. Crouching Tiger was Ang Lee – at least he used his muscle to make a quasi-Chinese film, and that a good thing, but the doors close up immediately afterwards. And what’s going on in the rest of the world is something else

tideland-terry-gilliam-2.jpgTideland, 2005

I’m always surprised when I go to a festival to realise how much is being done out there, the quantity, not to mention the quality. But you don’t have access to it. My experience on the last film, which was truly independent, was how difficult it was even to hold on to cinemas, even with names like Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Tilly and me. There are so few arthouse venues, and there are so many films – you’re in for a week and you’re gone, almost to the point that in order to get cinema distribution, even for a week, people are gonna start having to pay, as exhibitors feel that it is just publicity for the upcoming DVD.

RC: How do you see the situation improving?

TG: I don’t. I don’t know how it’s going to improve. I would like the whole thing to collapse, but it’s going to take a while. I think Hollywood is in a very strange state, they don’t know what works and they’re spending so much money on the big pictures – 150 million to make it and another 60-70 to promote it, and the profit is not much. The only one that’s really taken off is Pirates of the Caribbean. The other films, like Superman Returns, are considered failures because they cost so much to make – it may have cost 300 million to make, and it didn’t get its money back, so they can’t even rely on those. Relying on the big comic book repeat movies for the dumbed down audience – that’s not a guarantee anymore. It’s an interesting state of flux, so I’m just waiting for the Hollywood apocalypse to occur. It probably won’t…

RC: If it did implode after a series of high profile flops, what are the possibilities then?

TG: Well, when the executives get confused, things slip through the cracks. That’s my theory. The more panicky they become, then things can happen, and they make ‘mistakes’ and good films get made.

RC: Can good films only get made through ‘mistakes’?

TG: Not necessarily, but it does help. When a confused executive is a vulnerable executive, a vulnerable executive might make the ‘mistake’ of saying yes to a project and it might be a good one. I keep thinking Hollywood could run very happily on a monthly lottery – each studio pulls out of a hat the films that are going to be made, and there would probably be just as many successes and just as many failures. The problem would be that a lot of the good restaurants would close down, because there wouldn’t be a need for executives, so there’d be no diners in the restaurants. That would be a disaster!

tideland-terry-gilliam-3.jpgTideland, 2005

RC: Do you think that if every film had the same amount of marketing and P&A spend then that would be the only true democratic way to find out what the public actually wanted?

TG: I don’t want democracy to rear its ugly head in the world of filmmaking! It’s about storytelling. I don’t know. I couldn’t be an executive, I couldn’t do any of these things, because all I’m really interested in is getting my films made and shown – I’m very selfish. But, what’s interesting now with DVD, with so many films being made, is that you do have access to them. If you can be led somehow through the maze of all these possibilities, and go back to festivals again… somebody stumbles on a film, tells his friend, then down the line he buys the DVD. Actually I do think one of the problems is there are too many films being made. Film schools should be abandoned, there should be less films being made, and only the ones who are willing to sacrifice everything to get their movies made – that’s fair enough.

All I know is, at the moment, if you’re making smaller films, you don’t have the studios, or even the cadet versions of the studios, the so called art arm – they’ve got the money to promote the films, that’s the thing, and if you’re doing a small film you don’t have the money, small distributors don’t have the money, so the likelihood of people being aware of even the existence of the film is that much smaller. That’s what one’s up against – the tens of millions used to promote the film – you’re going to be aware of it, and the likelihood is you’re going to go to it out of curiosity, because it’s like a historic event, it’s so big. I think the studios are definitely panicking because the cost of marketing a film is so high, and they’re not getting the returns that they’d like.

RC: So what would you say was the main difference between making films back then, compared to now?

TG: We were just more successful. We were young, had good ideas, were not old men bumbling around in the dark. The fact is, in the ’60s and ’70s there were intelligent films being made. They were adventurous films, about things, they were daring. It was because of the baby boomers – a big market of people who were young and wanted different films, they were still thinking. They hadn’t reached the stage where they had stopped thinking.

RC: So people now, on the whole, have stopped thinking?

TG: I think so. That’s my theory. I do think you have to keep making things which challenge people. There’s always new people coming up, pushing the envelope. There always will be a mainstream, but you have to push, spark somebody. People’s brains, their imaginations, are ready for a lot of things, and if they’re not fuelled, they just languish.

RC: Do you think producers were more adventurous back then?

tideland-terry-gilliam-4.jpgTideland, 2005

TG: Everyone was. We were all flying on top of the world. We just made movies. I was actually very late coming on board – I look at people like Altman and Hal Ashby… I’ve never sat down to do the numbers, but the balance was different. I remember the last proper job I had was at an advertising agency, doing ad campaigns for Universal Pictures, and they were just making crap films then. There was one with Richard Widmark called Madigan. My campaign was, “once he was happy, now he’s mad again”. I got fired. I was helping crap films become successful. The great irony was that Brazil was made at Universal, I finally had my big ‘face to face’ with the studio that had wasted my time with crap films.

RC: What can be done to increase the British Film Industry’s production rate?

TG: There are too many crap films already, we want to lower the production rate. Get rid of the Film Council, though. That’s the first thing. It’s the fastest growing bureaucracy on the planet. Out of nowhere, suddenly there are 100+ people working there. At the time people thought it was a good idea because it centralised things, consolidated them, where in Britain before that, only a few glorious years ago, you had four or five different pots of money, you go there or you go there, and so on. And with the Film Council it’s now one pot of money and I don’t know where all these people have come from who are actually working there, but they went on some instantaneous course to become studio executives, and their attitudes are as bad as Hollywood executives, and I think its been a disaster.

RC: Do you have any personal experience of them?

TG: No, I won’t speak to them. It’s all hearsay! Actually a few years ago when it was in its infancy and there were only ninety something people working there, I was at the Evening Standard awards and I had to give Stephen Frears an award and I said that I was impressed with anybody who can get the money to make a film, because after the wage bill of the Film Council I’m amazed there’s any money left at all for the filmmakers. And afterwards this little rat-faced man came up and started haranguing me, how dare I, it’s because of them that I’m allowed to do what I do, and I thought, what are you talking about, you haven’t given me any money.

And there was all this blah blah blah, and I said, well, I think I speak for most people in this room. It turned out to be Robert Jones – I didn’t recognise him, but he was a nasty little piece of work. It’s interesting, this is a government organisation, and he was putting his name on the films as a producer, which is extraordinary, like Sherry Lansing at Paramount putting her name on a film. Apparently there are so many films sitting on the shelf, that they’ve made, which are unreleasable. Actually I do have a first hand experience - with Tideland, there’s a fund for aiding P&A for difficult films. So here’s Jeremy Thomas, who should be the leading producer for British films, here’s Gilliam, who’s a Brit whether they like it or not, and it’s a new distribution company called Revolver. They went there to try and get some money to help this difficult film. They couldn’t, but at the same time the Film Council allotted I think £200,000 to Warner Bros to help promote March of the Penguins. Something’s wrong here. It’s not about Tideland specifically. It’s about how a challenging British film can’t get the money but a studio can. They’re very skewed. How long have you been working for them? (laughs).

The 1st Ibiza Film Festival runs from 29th May – 7th June 2007. For more information go to

Terry Gilliam is a film-maker, and so is Robert Chilcott.