Terry Gilliam: 'I used to think I could will things into existence. Not any more'

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The Monday Interview: Rob Sharp has an audience with the creative genius and former Python

He is the Monty Python animator turned film director famed for his manic creativity who reinvented himself again earlier this year with his operatic debut, Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust, partly set in Nazi Germany.

But now Terry Gilliam, 70, is slowing down. Not only does he reveal that he is struggling with his second operatic work at English National Opera (which up until now has been shrouded in secrecy). He also thinks his film career is over.

"I've actually reached the point of not believing I'll ever make a film again," he says. "I am reminded by my wife that I always feel like that. But the great thing about getting older is that your memory goes."

Gilliam and the Monty Python gang, however, remain inescapable 42 years after they first silly-walked on to British television. Later this month a BBC comedy-drama, Holy Flying Circus, will explore the controversy surrounding the Pythons' 1979 religious satire The Life of Brian. A play running at London's Hampstead Theatre, No Naughty Bits, examines the group's 1975 legal battle against censorship by the US television network ABC. Gilliam is interviewed in Martin Scorsese's documenatary about the Beatle George Harrison, which is out on DVD today. And Faust, which garnered some of the best reviews of Gilliam's career, will be broadcast for the first time on television on BBC Four on Friday.

Gilliam still has creative doubts. He says his next opera will also be by Berlioz – Benvenuto Cellini, a 19th-century two-act opera loosely based on the memoirs of a Florentine sculptor, which is so technically difficult it is rarely performed. "There is a discussion going on," he says. "The problem with me is that opera is so far in advance, it would be a year and a bit away. And I can't do that, that's what I've told [ENO artistic director] John Berry. He wants to do something in 2013, but I can't definitely say yes until I know whether I'm shooting a film next year." He says the prospect of directing another opera is "frightening". "I've got all excited about a particular opera, I love the music, but I've been stuck," he says. "I haven't had the epiphany which I had with Faust".

Gilliam has a history of diving into the unknown. Born in Minnesota in 1940, in previous interviews he has described moving to England after becoming disenfranchised from the 1960s US political landscape. Meeting three future Pythons through children's TV series Do Not Adjust Your Set, he became the group's animator whose visuals were a key element in the show's success.

Post-Python he reinvented himself as a film director, taking on unconventional projects like 1981's Time Bandits. The movie was produced by HandMade Films, which Harrison co-founded. Gilliam attended the Scorsese film's gala premiere last week. "I think it did George justice," he says. "I spoke to one person afterwards who said there should have been more comedy in there. That was fair comment because he was so funny."

Gilliam is notably enthusiastic when talking about the former Beatle. His conversational style is scattergun; one minute he seems bored, the next more focused. He is modest about his achievements with Faust, in which he transferred the legend to Germany in the 1930s, taking in Kristallnacht and the concentration camps. The production ends with Faust and Mephistopheles riding off to hell in a motorbike and sidecar.

Gilliam says that when he first started listening to the opera he "hated it, because I didn't know what to do". "I was losing sleep and finally got there once I decided let's go for it. My reaction to much of it was negative. I didn't like the character of Faust, I didn't like that there were all these musical interludes interrupting the narrative. I thought, let's take what everyone knows, Germany in the first half of the 20th century."

He says he still has reservations about the art form. "When it works, opera is extraordinary. It's like bullfighting. But most of them are just crap. Extraordinary sets, amazing singing, but crap. Jonathan Miller's The Elixir of Love just depressed me because it was so good. Then I saw other things and thought, this is horrible. People are spending 90-odd quid to sit in those seats and they're getting a rotten deal. My approach was always, we are doing a show here".

With Benvenuto Cellini he says "it doesn't get done very often so it will stand on its own two feet. "I don't have a clear idea and that's why I'm worried," he continues. "I have detail, but how do you do it? It's stunning, even better than Faust. The plot is silly, it's a comic opera. But it doesn't leave me all the room I need to shape it. The characters say what they say and they do what they do."

Gilliam sounds frustrated by being torn between directing operas for small, appreciative audiences, and winning financing for his filmmaking first love. Movie projects in development include an adaptation of Paul Auster's 1994 novel Mr Vertigo, about an orphan from St Louis (a Hollywood actor is currently reading for the lead). His short film, The Wholly Family, is touring the festival circuit. "I just know I need to get shooting because it's been three years," he says. "Nothing is back on track. Film is difficult to get funding for unless you're doing a huge movie in 3D."

Gilliam's troubled, longstanding attempt to adapt Don Quixote "just needs one more person to come in," he says with a wry smile. "I just want to concentrate on those films," he adds. "I get easily distracted and greedy to do lots of films. Whenever I do that, things fall apart. I used to believe I could will things into existence but now I am older I know it doesn't work that way."

He has been married to Maggie Weston, a costume designer and make-up artist with whom he has three children, for 38 years. Gilliam says she makes him laugh, and keeps him sane, pointing out that his troughs are always inevitably followed by peaks.

So what does he think about the current revival of interest in the Pythons? "I've had no involvement," he says of Holy Flying Circus. "I just met people yesterday who's seen it and they said it's really funny. Some in the group thought it was a bad idea because it's not us. The thought of Python stopping anyone...One of our members was making phone calls. Just stop it. Just stop it."

He still defines himself as a Python, 40 years on. And he remains just as much of a risk-taker. Talking about his foray into opera, he says, slapping the furniture in front of him: "Let's go for it. Jumping off cliffs is much more interesting than jumping off a table."



Terry Gilliam's production of Berlioz's 'The Damnation of Faust' will screen on BBC Four on Friday at 7.30pm

A life in brief

* Terrence Vance Gilliam was born in Minneapolis, on 22 November 1940.



* He graduated with a degree in political science in 1962, moved to New York and became assistant editor of Help! magazine. It was there that he first met John Cleese, while producing the 'fumetti' cartoons (where speech bubbles were laid atop photographs rather than illustrations) that inspired his later animation work in Monty Python.



* He emigrated to the UK in 1967 and soon began working on the children's TV show Do Not Adjust Your Set. There he met Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, and within a year they joined Gilliam, Cleese and Graham Chapman in launching the surrealist comedy programme Monty Python's Flying Circus. The series spawned four movies – including Gilliam's first as a director, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (above).



* Later turning his hand to more serious films, he found great success with two science-fiction thrillers: 1985's Brazil – which he co-wrote with playwright Tom Stoppard – and 1995's Twelve Monkeys, both of which were nominated for two Oscars. His cult reputation was furthered in 1998 with a wild adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, starring Johnny Depp.



* Gilliam was less fortunate with The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Filming began in 2000 but was never completed because of continued setbacks including floods, injuries and funding problems, while in 2008 his lead actor in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Heath Ledger, died during filming.



* He made his operatic directing debut this year with Hector Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust. ROB HASTINGS

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?