Terry Gilliam on directing Berlioz operas and the truth about the Monty Python reunion

Gilliam is preparing for for the release of his latest movie, The Zero Theorem

It's already turning out to be some year for Terry Gilliam. His soon-to-be-released new film, The Zero Theorem, sees Christoph Waltz try to uncover the meaning of life; in June he takes his second stab at directing a Berlioz work for the English National Opera; there's the small matter of The Monty Python reunion; and then, to round off the year, his long-gestating The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, after the novel by Miguel de Cervantes, is due to go into production.

It's arguably been two decades since the bearded 73-year-old has been so culturally relevant – and Gilliam is reveling in the limelight.

It seems that the cultural landscape is currently attune with how the Python always looks at himself: "I usually try not to describe myself," he protests. "I don't want to know too much about myself, I just have to live with me, and that is enough. OK, if I'm honest, I think of myself as a 27-year-old guy and really cool. I walk down the street feeling young and nice and then I catch a reflection of this old fart walking down the street and I think 'Who the fuck is that?' – so there you go."

This acerbic wit runs through everything the animator-turned-director says. Gilliam has always cast himself as a bit of a rebel. Born in Minnesota, he spent his teenage years in Los Angeles, becoming fascinated with drawing and the counter-culture of the 1960s. He started a magazine called Fang and then worked in advertising. "The problem with being born an optimist is seeing all these negative things around you," he recalls. "Being born in America and growing up in the 60s, we genuinely believed that we would change the world and make it a better place; you do a certain amount, and we changed a lot, but then there are all these other things that go wrong. To me, it's always the things that need fixing that concern me, not the things that go wrong."

And it was this sentiment that led to the Monty Python reunion. Gilliam got involved with the troupe after growing disillusioned with America. He moved to England, and began animating sequences for the children's series Do Not Adjust Your Set. The show also featured Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. With the addition of John Cleese and Graham Chapman, they formed Monty Python, whose first television sketch show aired in 1969.

Originally, Gilliam was positioned as an outsider, listed as an animator on the end credits; but soon after, given the key role his animation played in lending the stream-of-consciousness comedy a visual identity(used on all subsequent LPs and films), he was officially endorsed as a fully-fledged member of the group – and even began acting in some sketches. The show ran for three series with the full line-up, and then for one half-season after the departure of Cleese, ending in 1974. Strangely enough, the end of the BBC series marked the rise of the troupe. They took off in America and three original Python movies followed – the first of which saw Gilliam make his move into feature-film directing. In 1975, he co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail alongside Jones.

Gilliam, second right, in 1979 with Monty Python during filming of ‘Life of Brian’ (Rex Features) Gilliam, second right, in 1979 with Monty Python during filming of ‘Life of Brian’ (Rex Features)
The movies and occasional charity stage appearances did little to mask the fact that the troupe struggled to get along. Chapman died in 1989 – and that seemed to put an end to the idea of formal reunions. On the DVD of The Meaning of Life, released in 1999 to commemorate 30 years of the collective, Cleese stated, "It's impossible to get even a majority of us together in a room, and I'm not joking."

The problem, he said, was down to business. And it was business that brought them back together. "We had to get together because we were involved in a court case in London and we lost," says Gilliam about the High Court decision which deemed that the Holy Grail producer Mark Forstater was entitled to greater proceeds of the Spamalot musical than he had been receiving. "We had to get together to decide what to do. We decided to change our management. We suddenly realised that we had a big debt – and the idea came up that we could make some quick money by going back on stage; and that's what happened."

Gilliam's wife of 40 years and mother of their three children, Maggie Weston, questioned the decision. She's also probably as sick as a parrot of hearing about all the infighting. "She thought it was a bad idea. Who wants to see a bunch of 70-year-old men being funny?" The first show sold out in 43 seconds and nine more were soon added.

But it seems that the Pythons will quit while they are ahead, and there will be no more tours or a movie. "The reason we haven't done a movie is that it takes months and months of being together; the show will only be three weeks together."

Python royalties have meant that Gilliam can be selective about what he elects to make as a film-maker – and he only takes jobs where he has the final cut. But he understands money problems: "I don't have money problems myself because I've always lived with whatever I've had. I've never been in debt in my life, ever, even when I was a student. That's the thing – once I'm in debt, someone controls me. The Python thing is other people's money problems, not mine. The problem I have with the money thing is film budgets: films cost millions of dollars. My stuff, because of the visuals and the ideas, is more expensive than a simple film of two people in love in a flat. They cost money and that is my problem."

Having said that, The Zero Theorem is the lowest budget that Gilliam has worked with since Time Bandits in 1981. It came together quickly, after several other projects Gilliam had been working on collapsed. That's nothing new to the director, who is the star of Lost in La Mancha, a video diary of how his plans to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote with Johnny Depp collapsed during the shoot. Gilliam also had to cope with the death of Heath Ledger, who was on a hiatus from filming The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus when he died.

Behind the scenes on the set of 'The Zero Theorem' Behind the scenes on the set of 'The Zero Theorem'
"The script for The Zero Theorem first came to me five years ago and I was intrigued because it was full of loads of interesting ideas that seemed to come from every film that I've made. Then I ended up not doing it and it floated away," says the director. "Then in June last year, when everything collapsed on Quixote again, my director said, 'Why not The Zero Theorem?' At first I didn't do much. I said I'm not directing this film; I'm decorating it. The world that was written was dark and oppressive; I wanted to make it colourful and bright with people zipping around on skateboards." Within four months, Gilliam was in Bucharest filming.

The key was the casting of Christoph Waltz in the lead role. "I met him briefly a couple of years before at the Baftas, and we said we had to work together. I said, 'Listen Christoph – you are never off-screen, you're the movie. We'll make the film work around you.' And that's what we did. It was great."

It all sounds remarkably smooth – but Gilliam scoffs at the idea: "It was a nightmare. We had 36 days – after that, Christoph was gone. That was the end of it. We had a short preparation time, and didn't have the money I needed. Towards the end we shot for eight days straight and people were falling asleep on set. It was horrible."

Gilliam is looking forward to tackling Berlioz again. Having made an auspicious debut at the ENO with The Damnation of Faust in 2011 he is now tackling Benvenuto Cellini. "I love Berlioz's music. He is crazy. I really identify with him, because I understand the music; it is telling me how he sees the world. He is very good, he is very political, he has a lot of good ideas – maybe he has too many ideas. Now I sound like I'm a critic writing about my work..."

Opera also seems to enrage him as much as it fascinates him: "It makes me screaming mad. The problems with opera are very complex and big and you can't make a living doing opera. You spend a year working on it and then it has just 10 performances. Financially, it makes no sense."

As for getting Quixote off the ground later this year, the only thing he will reveal is that "Johnny Depp is not in it any more, he's too old. I have some people in mind, but I'm not going to tell you."

'The Zero Theorem' is released tomorrow; 'Benvenuto Cellini', London Coliseum (020 7845 9300) 5 to 27 June; Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five to Go, O2 Arena, London SE10 (0844 856 0202) 1 to 5 & 15 to 20 July

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor