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

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
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.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine