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INT: Terry Gilliam

After a lengthy hiatus, legendary filmmaker Terry Gilliam returns this week with THE BROTHERS GRIMM. It’s been seven long years since his last film, the adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS , graced the silver screen. Following that Gilliam chose to tackle his dream project, THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE, an experience that quickly turned nightmarish when it was beset by a bewildering array of problems. The film’s demise was chronicled in the 2002 documentary LOST IN LA MANCHA .

The manic director stopped by the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills last week to talk about his decidedly more tranquil experience (though it wasn’t exactly a picnic) making THE BROTHERS GRIMM. It opens this Friday.

Terry Gilliam

You seem to have a boundless energy. Do you ever get tired?

This is a complete act. This is not me at all. I don’t know. I can summon up enough adrenaline to do a few days of this sort of public activity. Then I go back home and I become the curmudgeon that my wife and children know me as.

How did you feel about the original Brothers Grimm script and what changes were made?

The original script…the shape was right. The premise was right. These are good things. I actually thought it was about two sort of contemporary wise guys going into “Ye olde Germany,” and I thought, “Oh, that’s very much like The Mummy, that one.” The form is the kind of script that gets made in Hollywood, but to me it just needed a lot more fairy tale enchantment, magic. You had to bring that in. The characters were all a bit stock, and we had to work on that to make the brothers…split them more so you’ve got the realist and the dreamer. People like Cavaldi and Delatombe were just straight bad guys. And I need humor in my stuff. I really felt that it was missing the heart of fairy. So it was a lot of work. There was a lot of brilliant, clever stuff in it, but I thought I’d seen a lot of it before. So we degraded the whole project and brought it down to the kind of movie that normally doesn’t get made. (Laughs)

What did Matt Damon and Heath Ledger bring to the film?

They brought intelligence, believability. They’re the core of the thing. If they’re brotherhood didn’t work, there wouldn’t be a movie there. And they just clicked very quickly. And they’re very different people. It was just nice…what I loved most of all was basically, cast you against type and watch what happens. And I’m always pushing for things. “Why not do this?” And I rely on actors to say, “No, the character wouldn’t do that.” I really do, because I don’t push them to the limit. And sometimes I’ll say, “Oh, that’s kind of interesting. I’ll go that way.” But you want actors who are really solidly grounded. It works better that way. I love pushing things as far as possible, but I want enough intelligence people around me to say, “Bastard! Stop there!”

What was it like having Heath and Matt go against type?

I just thought it would be great for Matt to be Ben Affleck for a while. (Laughs) Heath was interesting. It was the first time I’d met him. Because I’d seen his work…actually, in Monster’s Ball was particularly good. He was fantastic. But some of his other stuff, he was playing these really straight, stalwart, stand-up, heroic guys. And I met him and he’s not like that. He’s got all these jerks and twitches. And I said, “I love that,” and he says, “Great. That’s the guy.” And so I just encouraged him to do more and more. And he’s like a man made out of rubber. He’s everywhere, he’s always…and there’s that buzz. He’s got an extraordinary amount of energy. And it’s nice because Matt is much more contained. Matt holds it in. And I pushed him in certain areas where he’d burst out. And he’s solid. Heath can do this dance all over the place. I mean, Heath loved it because he doesn’t get to play those kinds of things.

You worked with a new production designer this time?

Yeah. Guy had only done one film before, which was X-Men 2. He’s just a phenomenal artist – he draws brilliantly. And he’d been doing a lot of conceptual work for films before and then Brian Singer gave him his break on X-Men. Then I met him and I said, “This guy is fantastic.” He’s just…he’d work non-stop. And it’s always good to get people early in their career, because you can really take advantage of them, work them 24 hours a day. (Laughs) No. He was extraordinary.

Why did you decide to shoot on a soundstage?

Some of that was actually just pragmatic decision-making, because we found some incredible forests outside of Prague that were just amazing. We never found the village we really liked; it was good enough. Because we couldn’t shoot in this particular forest, we said, “Well, we’d better build it.” At the time, we thought, “Oh God. We don’t even have a budget sorted out for this one.” But in the end it was the right decision because we had the village on the backlot with its own exterior forest and then we had the forest and everything in the soundstages.

So we could control it. If it was raining, we could shoot it. If it was day, we could shoot for night. We could do everything. So it worked out. And in effect, it did allow me to do it more the way I wanted to do it. So it was more like a real fairy tale. I was trying to hard to re-create the sense of the illustrations that I’d grown up with. Our research always is you dive first into 19th century German romantic paintings. You just feed off the stuff and all these elements start forming the look of it. And by building the forest, we could really control and make it…what I like is that there are an awful lot of people that think it’s a real forest. So in that sense, great, we’ve achieved that part of it. Because I wanted it to feel that way, but I also wanted it to be magic. And so we got the best of both, really.

How difficult is it to make an original film in today’s Hollywood?

The only tough part is getting somebody to say yes. Once they say yes, I’ve got control. (Laughs) And that’s the hardest word to squeeze out of the mouths of Hollywood executives, because it’s the moment they lose control. And that’s why no is the word you normally hear. Because once they’ve said yes, the director is off and running. It’s easy to do what I do. I mean, it’s not easy – it’s hard. But it’s easy to assemble enough people that can create what I’m after. Maybe what’s been interesting about this film is because this script was a much more conventional script, the ball started rolling. (Laughs)

Once you get it going…I keep trying…it was very interesting because I set out to make a quote “a commercial movie,” whatever that is. And very quickly I realized I could only do what I do. What I do is just the way I see the world. In this instance, I wanted to really capture what I felt is the (essence) of fairy tales and bring back the darkness. (Laughs) The stuff that has made them last for centuries. They’re about something. Modern children’s material is so lightweight. It’s like we don’t want to frighten children; they’re delicate little creatures. That’s a big lie.

Grimm’s fairy tales are even deeper, because they’re ancient tales that they…they didn’t write them. That’s the thing I didn’t realize until I started working on the film, that they were concerned about the oral tradition in Germany, that these tales were all gonna disappear. The grandmothers and grandfathers were dying; it was all going to be lost. This great German heritage was vanishing. And they started writing down the stories; they transcribed them and got their friends to do it. That’s why they’re there. But they’re ancient tales that resonate on many, many, many levels.

Was there a conflict between making a Terry Gilliam film and a commercial film?

I think the word is yes. (Laughs) Yeah. There were many rough moments. Normally my battles take place when I finish the film. This was a new occasion for me. Some of those battle were at the beginning. I mean, it is the problem when you’re spending 80 million dollars. That’s always been the problem – that won’t go away. Yeah, that was a rough part.

What about your past films, like Time Bandits?

After Life of Brian, we set up a company with George Harrison and Monty Python and so I came up with this idea. Actually, it was interesting. I came up with the idea of Brazil first and I couldn’t get it past my own manager who was running the company. Then I said, “Ugghh, ok, now I’ve gotta make a film for everybody.” And I sat down one weekend and said, “Listen, this is for everybody: old, young, everybody.” I came up with, basically, Time Bandits. And then I got hold of Mike Palin and said, “Come on, you want to work? Let’s go.”

And we wrote. It was…I feel very privileged, lucky. Because from the beginning, whether it was Holy Grail, Life of Brian, all these films were made very easily. We’d come up with the ideas, they were made quite cheaply, the funding was always there. It wasn’t until I got to Brazil that I first got Hollywood money. We sort of built up a lot of momentum and confidence. I knew what I was doing. And then Brazil came along and we made it and that (was) my first big fight with the studios. Being as naïve as I was, we won and got the film out the way I intended it. And I’ve been suffering ever since. (Laughs)

Was it harder getting the quirkiness to work in this film?

I don’t know if it was much harder. It just wasn’t there at the beginning. And so you keep pushing, adding and adding and adding. It’s an odd one, because the idea of taking a script that already existed and adapting it is something I haven’t done before. And I think we got there in the end. I can only do what I know how to do and what makes me laugh, what makes me excited.

Were you disappointed when the animatronic trees didn’t work?

Well, pissed off. (Laughs)

You begrudgingly agreed to use CGI?

No, it wasn’t begrudging, it was just…whatever the solution that’s necessary to get through it, I go for. I’ve got no prejudices against once technique over another. I did set out to try to do as much stuff with models, because the interaction between a real thing and a real universe is surprising, always. And it didn’t work. So ok, the backup is CG. And at the end of it, now I’m a total convert to CG, because we actually solved everything with that.

Was it in your contract that you had the final cut for Brothers Grimm?

This one I didn’t have final cut when we began the film. I ended up with final cut. (Laughs)

What’s your next project, Tideland about?

Tideland is the story about a little girl. It’s from a book. A guy named Mitch Cullen wrote it. I picked up this book and the first couple of pages were fantastic. It took us a while to get the money because it’s a bit disturbing. It’s a little girl who’s basically put into a very strange situation and how (she) survives. It’s really about the resilience of children. Jeff Bridges plays a junkie rock and roll guitarist father and Jennifer Tilly plays her mother. And she ends up in a place…Saskatchewan is where we ended up. And it’s my first western. It’s a western, but the figure standing against the horizon is a little nine and a half year-old girl. It’s Alice and Wonderland meets psycho.

Questions? Comments? Manifestos? Send them to me at [email protected].

Source: JoBlo.com

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