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Gilliam, Terry

Entry updated 19 February 2024. Tagged: Film, People.

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(1940-    ) US-born filmmaker, based in the UK from 1967; he became a British citizen in 1988. After editing a college humour magazine he became an editorial assistant and cartoonist on Harvey Kurtzmann's Help! from 1962 to 1965; after Help! folded he worked as an illustrator and copywriter for an agency in Los Angeles before moving to London to work on a short-lived magazine, The Londoner. On its demise he contributed sketches and art to television comedy, and produced his first cutout animations for We Have Ways of Making You Laugh (1968). These became increasingly elaborate and surreal on the second season of the children's series Do Not Adjust Your Set (1969) and its successor Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-1974); he also occasionally performed in sketches on these shows. His animation techniques are unseriously explained in Animations of Mortality (graph 1978) with Lucinda Cowell. His first work as a live-action filmmaker was as co-director, with Terry Jones, of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974); Gilliam was primarily responsible for the film's visual texture, and explored a similar medieval setting in his first solo venture, the Lewis Carroll-based Jabberwocky (1977), which he co-wrote with fellow Help! alumnus Charles Alverson. After designing the sf sequence in Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979), he had a US hit with the anarchic Time Travel fantasy Time Bandits (1981). He directed a segment for Monty Python's Meaning of Life (1983) which was spun off into a supporting short feature, The Crimson Permanent Assurance, after which he turned down a Hollywood offer to direct Enemy Mine (1985) to make the film that would define his reputation, the surreal Dystopian comedy Brazil (1984); its long-delayed US release was to prove the first in a series of gruelling production battles, several of which have been the subject of book-length studies.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) – for Baron Munchausen, see Rudolf Raspe – was an especially troubled production, its budget in disarray almost from the start, and his next film was as a Hollywood director for hire on the contemporary Grail fantasy The Fisher King (1991). Its success led to his attachment to several unrealized Hollywood sf projects over the next few years, including early versions of Watchmen and A Scanner Darkly, as well as an unmade adaptation of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) and a biopic of Nikola Tesla (see The Prestige). His next film to get made was the dark Time Travel film Twelve Monkeys (1995), a free remake of La JetÉE (1963); with Brazil, it stands as his most completely accomplished film, though its making was a largely joyless experience. He replaced Alex Cox on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998); there was a bitter credits dispute over the screenplay. Other adaptations came to nothing: after briefly attaching himself to an unmade adaptation of Terry Pratchett's and Neil Gaiman's Good Omens (1990), he was J K Rowling's choice to direct Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001), but was rejected by Warner Brothers in favour of the more studio-friendly Chris Columbus. Following the collapse of his cherished Timeslip fable The Man Who Killed Don Quixote a few days into shooting, another troubled production followed, and another credits dispute, with the period fantasy The Brothers Grimm (2005), which appeared back-to-back with the contemporary-set southern gothic Tideland (2005). He returned to original material with his most purely Gilliamesque film to date, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), a pact-with-the-devil fantasy centred on an immortal showman in a beguilingly Gilliamized London; this was completed despite the death of its star, Heath Ledger, in mid-production, though one effect was to scupper production on his sf film The Zero Theorem (2013), which had to be recast. He has recently directed two epic stagings of Berlioz for English National Opera, The Damnation of Faust (2011) and Benvenuto Cellini (2014), as well as a Naples-set short film, The Wholly Family (2011).

For forty years a filmmaker of major influence in the genres of the fantastic and far beyond, Gilliam has embodied a widely inspirational long-term persistence of fierce creative independence even while working with underrated professionalism within the Hollywood studio machine. His famed visual style (its impact most evident in the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Tim Burton, but also in virtually every film with a medieval setting since Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Jabberwocky) is only one aspect of his continuing legacy. The free-associating narrative of his early animation, which inspired the form of Monty Python itself, magnified into a disdain for the straitjacket of Hollywood act structures which has been cited as an influence by the likes of Richard Kelly; his major films from Time Bandits onwards explore more ambitious, less pigeonholed forms of episodic structure, often to bewildering and exhilarating effect. Satirically engaged with American modernity as an insider turned outsider turned inside-outsider, he has managed to retain a strong continuity of imagery and themes from his early animations to his most recent work, often centred on a creative individual's struggle against the forces of anti-imagination. Although he has found himself in conflict with elements of the studio system, and many of his films reflect on the directorial condition in a way that appeals not only to his fellow filmmakers but to a countercultural spirit of creative anarchy in general, he is a highly disciplined craftsman, a resourceful technician, and a versatile collaborator with a close team of writing partners (Michael Palin on Jabberwocky and Time Bandits, Charles McKeown on Brazil, Munchausen, and Imaginarium, and Tony Grisoni on Fear and Loathing, The Brothers Grimm, and Tideland). Though only three of his completed films qualify strictly as sf, Brazil is an enduring landmark and Twelve Monkeys among the major sf films of its decade, and numerous notable other works seen and unseen have passed through his hands at one point or another. [NL]

Terence Vance Gilliam

born Minneapolis, 22 November 1940

works (selected)

For works by the Python collective as a whole, see Monty Python's Flying Circus.

about the filmmaker


previous versions of this entry

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