An interview with Terry Gilliam at the Cairo International Film Festival

After receiving a lifetime achievement award at the opening gala of the 41st Cairo International Film Festival, legendary director and Python member Terry Gilliam sat down with Cédric Succivalli and others for a panel interview. Never one to shy away from controversy, the director of such films as Time Bandits and Brazil did not hold back on saying his piece about such topics as Donald Trump, the #MeToo movement, and the way Hollywood does business. His main problem: we keep focusing on ‘silly things’ while our planet is dying.

But besides giving his view on the state of the world, he also reflected on his career of over 40 years, with all the successes and pitfalls that came along the way. An inspiring man on what inspires him.

Q: You did Brazil 30 years ago, and now we are living in exactly this kind of dystopian reality. Did you see all of it coming?

A: Well, I certainly saw Homeland Security and the general sense of “We need terrorists to keep certain government ministries working” coming. And Homeland Security came along and said, “Well, I told you.” At one point I saw the film in the States a couple of years ago, and I was thinking of suing George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for the unauthorized and illegal remake of Brazil (laughs). We are in clown country now, the circus has arrived. But it isn’t a particularly pleasant circus. Last night I was not feeling well, and so I watched the impeachment hearings. Fiona Hill, what a woman! She was incredible. The Republicans were hammering away, but she was so good. If anyone takes down Donald Trump, it’s going to be Fiona Hill.

Q: In this perspective, given Brazil and other movies, do you see yourself as a pessimistic director or just a realistic one?

A: I think it’s about realism. I used to be too optimistic, and now… I’m not. That’s really the problem. I keep looking at the world, and I think the world is in big trouble, and I try to somehow talk about it in my films in one way or another. My theory has always been that if I want to say something of any importance I have to be like Mary Poppins: a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. That’s why there’s always humor in anything I do, I somehow have to keep it funny.

Q: You released Life of Brian exactly 40 years ago. How do you think such a film, should you release it today, would be received in our PC times?

A: That film is necessary, because it’s about now. It’s incredible, I think it’s our best film. It dealt with serious things: “It’s a shoe!” / “No, it’s a sandal!” (laughs) But we were also really good on LGBT issues: “Call me Loretta.” / “Why do you want to be called Loretta, Stan?” / Because I want to have babies.” / “You can’t have babies, where would you keep the foetus?” / “In a cardboard box.” We were already dealing with so many things that now seem to be headline news. All of us were pretty smart and always looking at the world trying to find ways to show how ridiculous and absurd so much of it really is. The world manages to continue its ridiculous absurdities. The now is my real problem, because I don’t know what the solution is, so now I just see a bad future. But everybody seems to be distracted by lots of little things, while our planet without question is in deep trouble. This is probably the only point where I agree with Trump, even if it’s for completely different reasons: the Paris climate agreement. He thinks it’s a bad deal, and it is indeed a bad deal, because we have already passed all the danger marks. I don’t see how to fix it. I don’t know what Cairo is going to do about its traffic problem. London is going electric, but Cairo seems to be going “Waaah!

Q: When you started in the ’60s there were obviously problems, but it was the veneer of respectability that gave you the opportunity to satirize. That veneer is gone now, you have Trump and all that comes with it. How does one find satire, how does one take a disjointed view of the world when the world itself is beyond satire?

A: That’s the problem, we have been put out of business (laughs). There’s one thing that is interesting: my daughter introduced me to some theater people, and they started talking about if I could do a version of Doctor Strangelove on stage, and I thought, “That is interesting, if there was a way of doing a Strangelove about our current times.” And strangely enough I found out after Kubrick died that he wanted me to do a remake. Not that he told me that before he died, mind you, but apparently it’s true. So I kept thinking about it. The biggest problem the world has is that there are too many of us and we all want the same things. So my problem is then, how do you make a film about reducing the population. And I think some kind of Strangelovian approach could work for that.

Q: How do you mean that, Strangelovian?

A: In America we’ve got all these pro-life people. Life is everything for them. I would give them the responsibility of deciding who dies. And the numbers have to be big, we have to take millions out if we are going to deal with some of the problems. So I thought that would be interesting, give pro-lifers the job of deciding… who dies.

Q: Tacking onto the gender notion: last year you caught a bit of backlash, and you had to rejig your remarks about Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement. Two years on, has it influenced your filmmaking in terms of casting decisions or your practices in general?

A: Nope, not at all. I just hire the people that I think are best for the job. Here’s again an example of focusing on silly things: in Hollywood there is a lot of pressure where if you have a transgender character, you have to have a transgender actor. It’s ridiculous. If you are going to have a serial killer character, do you have to hire an actor who has killed a lot of people? There’s no logic, the actor’s job is to be a chameleon. It’s such a narrow way of thinking. You probably have to do something really absurd with some of that. It’s actually been going on longer than the press has been aware of it, from before the #MeToo movement. I don’t know if you know the story about Will Smith. They wanted him to play the father of Venus and Serena Williams. There was a lot of backlash, and now he can’t. He’s black, but he’s not black enough, he is too light-skinned. This is getting crazy. It also happened with Zoe Saldana, who played Nina Simone. She is lighter-skinned than the person she played, so she put darker makeup on, and she was pilloried for doing that. This is ridiculous, such superficial nonsense, yet that is the headline news when real problems are around.

Q: Doesn’t the movement raise endemic issues, about parity in payment, for instance?

A: When Julia Roberts was the biggest star on the planet, were the male actors paid as much as her? It’s not about that, Hollywood is a marketplace. When you act, your value is in whether you can bring in the crowds. Not your talent. The situation with Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg, for instance: Mark Wahlberg can open movies, Michelle Williams can’t. That’s why we have agents who look after us. If money is the key, get a better agent. The good thing that has come out of it is the predators, the Harveys. Hollywood has always been and will continue to be about power. And power will always be abused. What I got in trouble for with the #MeToo movement, besides saying it was a witch hunt, was the fact that I said Harvey was a complete monster, no question about it, but some girls benefited. Some were victims, absolutely, but other girls spent their time and got the bump they were looking for. These are the facts, yet I was not allowed to say that. I don’t care, the facts interest me, not somebody going crazy about the wrong thing. It’s simple stuff, and the world always has worked like this. The more the world can be made to reveal the predators more quickly, that’s a good thing, that’s fantastic. The reason I think Harvey deserved real punishment was what he had done to so many young filmmakers. You made your first film, Harvey would pick it up, and then he would say, “This is a good film, but it would be a great film if you do this, this, and this.” The pressure on you at that point, especially when you’re starting, is to make those changes. I’ve met so many people who made those changes, and they were not satisfied with it anymore because so many key elements they thought were important were gone. Then it flopped at the box office, Harvey didn’t take the punches, but some of those young filmmakers were damaged and never came back. That is what he should be punished for.

Q: How can irony face up to the cultural drift that we’re going through now?

A: That’s the biggest problem, humor seems to be verboten. If you laugh at something, you’re humiliating someone or something. Humor is vital, and everything should be able to be made fun of in one way or another. It’s one of the great things we have as human beings, there are not many animals that have a sense of irony or humor. It gets us through the difficult times. No matter how bad life is, people survive because they maintain a sense of humor. There was something I was impressed with the other day, a painting of Osiris in the underworld, and his heart was lighter than a feather. Being lighthearted is the way to live, it seems to me. No matter how angry I get about the way things are, I still try to find humor in it. Sometimes humor is the best way to deal with your own impotence, when you have no real power. You can laugh at something, make a joke of it, and that’s a little bit of power.

Q: Is it difficult to find funding for a film that is out of the box and distinctly not a blockbuster?

A: I have been trying to stay out of the box, which is why I have made only, what, twelve films? Because I spend four years between films trying to get money. When I got to Hollywood trying to raise money for something, I got into these meetings with studio executives, and they said, “Oh Terry, I love your films. Time Bandits, Brazil.” Blah, blah, blah. Then it gets to the point where they go, “This script, I don’t know what to make of it.” They all said the same thing on every film I’ve made, yet some of them were really succesfull. In fact with Don Quixote in all those years I was only able to raise 12.5 million dollars. I always knew the film would cost 60 million, and when we started with Johnny Depp the budget was 32 million. Good times. But we pulled everything down to hopefully get the money. In the end it was my daughter, one of the producers, who met a lady who had come into a lot of money late in life. And she had seen The Man from La Mancha and knew the story of me trying to make it, and she gave us 3.5 million dollars. Our fairy godmother. The market would only go that far, but one woman liked the idea more of putting money into a film than buying a new Damian Hearst.

Q: Can you tell me something about making a film based on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?

A: That was a very long time ago. Douglas Adams was a good friend. It wasn’t made into a film, which was fine. When I think about doing a science fiction film, I keep thinking, we’re spending so much money trying to get to Mars, or even to find out if there’s oxygen on Mars, why not go out to Arizona or something? Or out here, among the pyramids (laughs). We keep spending billions to try to get to Mars, and by the time we have made it there, this planet will look like Mars! That’s my problem, I don’t know how to make a film that deals with the problems we have with the planet itself. Everything else I don’t care about. Because that’s vital. I try to do it with humor, but so far I failed.

Q: Most if not all of your films have fantastical and fairy tale elements. What draws you to that particular kind of story?

A: Because I grew up on fairy tales! What I like about fairy tales is that we know the rules, so you can play with that. With something like Jabberwocky I liked the idea of a happy ending, but it’s the wrong happy ending for the main character (laughs). Fairy tales in collision is what intrigues me. You have a simple structure: you have a king on top, then a knight, a princess, and so on. You can play with that, when you start dealing with more complex structures or societal structures, and then it’s a different kind of film. For me it’s not so much about fairy tales, but about the tension between imagination and reality. I’m trying to encourage people to imagine a better world, it might come true. If you don’t imagine it, it will never happen.

Q: The nature of being a filmmaker is projects falling through. But more than any other living filmmaker you have kind of a shadow career of all of these projects legendarily not coming together. Now that you get an achievement award, how do you reflect on all those films that you made and didn’t make?

A: Maybe the award should be for all the films that I didn’t make, because people were so delighted that I didn’t fuck them up (laughs). I’ve still got scripts, in fact Richard LaGravenese, who wrote The Fisher King, and I have been trying to resuscitate an old script that we wrote after that film, and I don’t know if we’ll pull it off. It’s such an unbalanced world in films now, with Netflix and Amazon and the power that they’re wielding. Martin Scorsese, the Coen brothers, everybody is rushing off to Netflix because ultimately all of us just want the money to make our films, and Netflix has been throwing a lot of money at people. My problem with it is the fact that more and more people are not going to the cinema. They just sit at home and watch stuff. There’s nothing wrong with that, but cinema was always a communal thing. That was fun, we could argue afterwards about what we just saw. I used to always love people walking out of my films and getting into big fights. It also happened with Python when we were on television. There were only three channels then, and we went on on Sunday night, and on Monday everybody was talking about it, both good and bad. It gave you a focus to argue about and express your ideas on how you saw the world, as opposed to how we saw it. And that’s healthy.

Q: How do you cope with the life of a film director being made of big successes and failures, to have such a rollercoaster career?

A: You just deal with it. On the one hand as a director you are supposed to be sensitive, on the other hand you get hammered when you get bad reviews and the film makes no money. Every time I make a film I think I’m discussing the world we live in, or at least my version of it. And I like to think I’m right sometimes. The problem is that box-office success only in part has to do with the quality of the film. I have so many films that are considered classics now, but they were disasters back then! Like Fear and Loathing, of which a clean dubbed version is coming out in England in a couple of weeks, that film went out and it made only 10 million dollars. It was a complete disaster. And it was because of the distribution and the way they were selling it. The trailer was bad, and they were pushing it as a wacky film about two wild guys in Vegas. That’s not what it’s about!