Terry Gilliam: This Python bites

In his youth, Terry Gilliam's satire shocked Christians and horrified Jews. His only regret is not having outraged Muslims. There's still time, the Python turned film director tells Sholto Byrnes. And he intends to make the most of it
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The Independent Online

Terry Gilliam could have been a missionary. Instead of a career delving deep into the surreal, the dark and occasionally the beautiful, the film director who first came to the notice of the British public with the animations for Monty Python's Flying Circus originally planned to spend his life exploring the jungles of New Guinea and the Amazon basin. "I was a real zealot," says Gilliam of his time as a student at the Presbyterian Occidental College near Los Angeles. "It wasn't so much about selling Jesus, more about helping the poor and underprivileged. I wanted to save the world." So what went wrong? "I ended up leaving that church because nobody could take my jokes about God. And I said, 'What kind of church is this, that my feeble little jokes are going to threaten its belief?'"

Terry Gilliam could have been a missionary. Instead of a career delving deep into the surreal, the dark and occasionally the beautiful, the film director who first came to the notice of the British public with the animations for Monty Python's Flying Circus originally planned to spend his life exploring the jungles of New Guinea and the Amazon basin. "I was a real zealot," says Gilliam of his time as a student at the Presbyterian Occidental College near Los Angeles. "It wasn't so much about selling Jesus, more about helping the poor and underprivileged. I wanted to save the world." So what went wrong? "I ended up leaving that church because nobody could take my jokes about God. And I said, 'What kind of church is this, that my feeble little jokes are going to threaten its belief?'"

Gilliam chuckles manically, as he does throughout our meeting at his office in Soho. Even when he tells me that he's getting "more and more bored" by everything from contemporary art to Hollywood films, or relating his savagings by film critics over the years, this high-pitched laughter disrupts his rapid-fire conversation. God and jokes are very much on Gilliam's mind.

First, though, we must talk about Python. A show of some of the group's sketches goes on stage at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith next week - the twist being that they will be performed in French. The producer, Rémy Renoux, initially sold the idea to Gilliam, who then introduced Renoux to Terry Jones. When the other surviving Pythons had given their permission, Renoux's troupe became the first to be allowed to stage material from the original television series (the Pythons having hitherto reserved this right). Shows in Paris and Avignon followed, then the Edinburgh Festival in 2003.

"We've always been very protective of Python," says Gilliam, "but it was 35 years ago. So we said, let's give it to this enthusiastic Frenchman and see what he can whip up. It was also to do with the fact that it was in a foreign language. We could pretend to be purists in England and be whores in the rest of the world, like those Hollywood stars who go off to Japan and appear in beer ads." When Gilliam went to see the show in Paris he did find it funny, despite his poor French. "It's more the energy and the rhythms," he explains, "and seeing these guys squeeze new laughs out of this stuff."

One might have thought that Gilliam would be fed up with talking about Monty Python. The last series was, after all, first screened in 1974, although the group reunited for three films - The Holy Grail, Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life. Gilliam has had the most interesting career since the group disbanded. John Cleese may have made Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda, and Michael Palin may have reinvented himself on the box as a cosy kind of world explorer. But Gilliam has directed a series of ambitious and memorable films, including Time Bandits, Twelve Monkeys, The Fisher King and Brazil, the latter, at least, a classic.

But he still sees Python's role in "shocking" and "angering" people as valuable. "I always loved the fact that it did that," he says. "But when you read all about the Jerry Springer thing, what have we come to? It's at 10 o'clock, at a weekend, and suddenly you've got mass complaining. The wheel has come around now, because when Python was starting out Mary Whitehouse was in business, and she really knew how to do that. Clearly the evangelical crowd have got that now. And they have e-mail, which makes it even quicker. So you can create the illusion that there's popular unrest out there and that decent values are being shocked. Well, yes, that's what the job is - to shock decent values!"

Gilliam cites the death threats made against BBC executives after the broadcasting of Jerry Springer: The Opera on BBC2, as well as the protests by Sikhs at Behzti, the play recently put on in Birmingham, as evidence of a growing tide of fundamentalism and intolerance. "When death threats start coming in from religious groups I get really angry. Christians in particular are very good at death threats, and you think - this is terrible, people just want to close it down, close ideas down." Should there be any limits to the artist's right to shock? "To me, it's always been unlimited. Either you allow freedom of expression, or you don't. Unfortunately, we're living in a time when fear is rife."

I put it to Gilliam that some have argued that the BBC is willing to countenance offending Christian sensibilities by showing Jesus as a nappy-wearer who is "a bit gay", but that it wouldn't dare portray the prophet Muhammad in a similar way. "That's true," he says. Should they? "Yes." Would he be brave enough to make such a film? "Well, when we did Life of Brian we got the Christians and we got the Jews. I always said: We didn't do the Muslims!"

Despite this regret, I don't think the Islamic population need fear an imminent satirical onslaught from Gilliam. It's still the Christians who really get his goat. "With Life of Brian we were vilified by Christians," he continues. "Yet Christianity is alive and well. Come on, if your religion is so vulnerable that a little bit of disrespect is going to bring it down, it's not worth believing in, frankly." Does he retain any religious belief? "I'm going to become a pagan," he says, and then turns straight back to the church by contrasting the pagan pantheism of ancient Rome with the Christian monotheism which replaced it. "The Romans, what have they ever done for us?" (He doesn't acknowledge the quote from Life of Brian, evidently judging it too obvious a reference to mention.)"Well, what they didn't do was insist that we all bow down to their gods, they just asked people to nod respectfully. They said, you can still believe in Christ, you can do whatever you want. Just give our gods a nod. But Christians love being martyred. They said, 'No! I will not bow down.' And so - ahh! You get flayed alive, and suddenly you're a martyr. Wow! We're off and running! Nice to see how the old ways are still alive and well in certain quarters of this world."

It's hard to imagine any of the other Pythons bubbling over with such passion and anger ; but then Gilliam was always different. The son of a coffee salesman, he grew up first near Minneapolis and then in the San Fernando Valley, California. In his twenties he hitched around Europe before moving to London in 1967. He met John Cleese, and having already been involved in the Thames TV series Do Not Adjust Your Set with Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones, he brought his distinctive cartoon skills to Monty Python when the group was formed in 1969.

He's been critical of the way the other Pythons have coasted in recent years. I gingerly mention Palin's travel series and Eric Idle's poorly received 1990 film, Nuns on the Run. I say I quite enjoyed it. "Yuh?" he replies. "I didn't. He-he-he!" Sixty-four-year-old Gilliam may have the family house in Highgate, which he shares with his wife Maggie and their three children, but how has he managed to resist the placidity to which his fellow ex-Pythons have succumbed? "To be deemed to be OK, to be part of the culture," he says, "that's the kiss of death. When I'm pushing against something it helps me define what I believe. I've always been led to see what's beyond, what's round the corner. The world tries to say that this is what it is, and don't go any further, because out there are monsters. But I want to see what they are. So when I talk about the others in the group not having done more, that's because I really admire them, and I get angry when I see those with extraordinary talents not using them."

Resisting authority has caused Gilliam trouble over the years. The distributors of Brazil denied the film a release until its director took a full page in Variety pleading with Universal to let it be seen. More recently, his attempt to make a film based on Cervantes' Don Quixote was struck by such catastrophe that what hit the screen instead was a documentary about the project's failure, Lost in La Mancha. Of the two films he is now working on, The Brothers Grimm, starring Matt Damon and Jonathan Pryce, and Tideland, with Jeff Bridges, he says that the latter was "much more fun", because it was independently financed.

"I am getting tired of these fights," he says. "Each time you get into a fight the world closes in a bit. You start losing an innocence, a belief that everything is possible. Terry Jones thinks I'm belligerent and egotistical, and that I've got to get into a fight to keep me going. It does keep me awake. But I limit it to the fights that are worth it nowadays." He still has hopes of making the Quixote film. "We've been stuck in this limboland with a German insurance company and a French production company, and we're trying to buy the script back." Johnny Depp, who was in the ill-fated production, will be available in 2006, he says.

This is a fight that's still obviously "worth it" to Gilliam, whose opinion of Hollywood films is not high. "You go along, you pay your money, you're entertained. You don't have to think about it, it doesn't invade your life." Even Pixar's output, which he praises, he compares to a cuddly toy. "You can rub it up against your face and it feels nice, and then you can go to sleep.

"All I do," he says, "is hunt. I want to be thrilled. And I'm not being thrilled at the moment. So I'm being old and bitter and curmudgeonly, because I want sensory buzz and I'm not getting it!" These last words, spat out at a furious pace, have the same coda as almost every sentence - the stream of giggles. For Gilliam, unlike the other Pythons, it has not yet stopped being time "for something completely different".

'Monty Python's Flying Circus... At Last, In French', 25 Jan-19 Feb, Riverside Studios, London W6 (020-8237 1111)

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