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Terrence Vance "Terry" Gilliam ( ) (born 22 November 1940) is an Americanmarker-born Britishmarker writer, film director, animator, actor and member of the Monty Python comedy troupe. Gilliam is also known for directing several well-regarded films including Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), The Fisher King (1991), and 12 Monkeys (1995). He is the only "Python" not born in Britain, but gained British citizenship in 1968.


Early life

Gilliam was born in Medicine Lake, Minnesotamarker, the son of Beatrice (née Vance) and James Hall Gilliam, who was a traveling salesman for Folgers before becoming a carpenter. Gilliam has two siblings: a sister two years younger, and a brother ten years younger.

The family moved to Panorama City, Californiamarker, in 1952 because of his sister's bout of pneumonia. Gilliam attended Birmingham High School where he was class president, senior Prom King, was voted "Most Likely to Succeed", and got straight A's. During high school, he discovered Mad magazine, which was then edited by Harvey Kurtzman; this later influenced his work.

Following high school, he attended Occidental Collegemarker, at first studying physics, then switching to fine arts before finally majoring in political science. Gilliam contributed to the college magazine, Fang, becoming the editor during his junior year and turning it into a tribute to Kurtzman, to whom he later sent copies. While in college, Gilliam was a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. After finishing college, Gilliam worked briefly for an advertising agency before Kurtzman offered him a job at Help! magazine.

Later life

Gilliam has been married to the British make-up and costume designer Maggie Weston since 1973. She worked on Monty Python's Flying Circus, many of the Python movies, and Gilliam's movies up to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. They have three children, Amy (b. 1978), Holly (b. 1980), and Harry (b. 1988), who have also appeared in several of Gilliam's films.

In 1968, Gilliam obtained British citizenship, then held dual American and British citizenship for the next 38 years. In January 2006 he renounced his American citizenship. In an interview with Der Tagesspiegel, he described the action as a protest against then President George W. Bush, and in an earlier interview with The Onion AV Club, he also indicated that it was related to concerns about future tax liability for his wife and children. As a result of renouncing his citizenship, Gilliam is only permitted to spend 30 days per year in the United States, fewer than ordinary British citizens. Gilliam also maintains a residence in Italy near the Umbria-Tuscany border. He has been instrumental in establishing the annual Umbria Film Festival, held in the nearby hill town of Montonemarker.



Terry Gilliam started his career as an animator and strip cartoonist; one of his early photographic strips for Help! featured future Python cast-member John Cleese. When Help! folded, Gilliam went to Europe, jokingly announcing in the very last issue that he was "being transferred to the European branch" of the magazine, which of course didn't exist. Moving to England, he animated features for Do Not Adjust Your Set, which also featured future Pythons Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin.

Monty Python

Gilliam was a part of Monty Python's Flying Circus since its outset, at first credited as an animator (his name was listed separately after the other five in the closing credits), later as a full member. His cartoons linked the show's sketches together, and defined the group's visual language in other media (such as LP and book covers, and the title sequences of their films). Gilliam's surreal animations have a distinctive, memorable style, mixing his own art, characterized by soft gradients and odd, bulbous shapes, with backgrounds and moving cutouts from antique photographs, mostly from the Victorian era.

Besides doing the animations, he also appeared in several sketches, though he rarely had any main roles and did considerably less acting in the sketches. He did however have some notable sketch roles such as Cardinal Fang of the Spanish Inquisition, "I Want More Beans!" and the Screaming Queen in a cape and mask singing "Ding dong merrily on high."

More frequently, he played parts that no one else wanted to play (generally because they required a lot of make-up or uncomfortable costumes, such as a recurring knight in armour who would end sketches by walking on and hitting one of the other characters over the head with a plucked chicken) and took a number of small roles in the films, including Patsy in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which he also co-directed with Terry Jones, where Gilliam was responsible for photography, while Jones would guide the actors' performances) and the jailer in Life of Brian.


With the gradual break-up of the Python troupe between The Life of Brian in 1979 and The Meaning of Life in 1982, Gilliam went on to become a motion picture writer and director, especially building upon his experience in the field he had acquired during the making of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Gilliam says he used to think of his films in terms of trilogies, starting with Time Bandits in 1981. The 1980s saw Gilliam's self-written Trilogy of Imagination about "the ages of man" in Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). All are about the "craziness of our awkwardly ordered society and the desire to escape it through whatever means possible." All three movies focus on these struggles and attempts to escape them through imagination; Time Bandits, through the eyes of a child, Brazil, through the eyes of a thirty-something year old, and Munchausen, through the eyes of an elderly man.

Throughout the 1990s, Gilliam directed his Trilogy of Americana, The Fisher King (1991), 12 Monkeys (1995), and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), which were based on scripts by other people, played on North American soil, and while still being surreal, had less fantastical plots than his previous trilogy.

Themes, philosophy, and style

Terry Gilliam at Cannes, 2001
"Well, I really want to encourage a kind of fantasy, a kind of magic. I love the term magic realism, whoever invented it - I do actually like it because it says certain things. It's about expanding how you see the world. I think we live in an age where we're just hammered, hammered to think this is what the world is. Television's saying, everything's saying 'That's the world.' And it's not the world. The world is a million possible things." - Terry Gilliam: Salman Rushdie talks with Terry Gilliam

As for his background and philosophy in writing and directing, Gilliam said on the TV show First Hand on RoundhouseTV: "There's so many film schools, so many media courses which I actually am opposed to. Because I think it's more important to be educated, to read, to learn things, because if you're gonna be in the media and if you'll have to say things, you have to know things. If you only know about cameras and 'the media', what're you gonna be talking about except cameras and the media? So it's better learning about philosophy and art and architecture [and] literature, these are the things to be concentrating on it seems to me. Then, you can fly...!"

His films are usually highly imaginative fantasies. His long-time co-writer Charles McKeown comments about Gilliam's recurring interests, "the theme of imagination, and the importance of imagination, to how you live and how you think and so on [...] that's very much a Terry theme." Most of Gilliam's movies include plot-lines that seem to occur partly or completely in the characters' imaginations, raising questions about the definition of identity and sanity. He often shows his opposition to bureaucracy and authoritarian regimes. He also distinguishes "higher" and "lower" layers of society, with a disturbing and ironic style. His movies usually feature a fight or struggle against a great power which may be an emotional situation, a human-made idol, or even the person himself, and the situations do not always end happily. There is often a dark, paranoid atmosphere and unusual characters who formerly were normal members of society. His scripts feature black comedy and often end with a dark tragicomic twist.

As Gilliam is fascinated with the Baroque due to the historical age's pronounced struggle between spirituality and logical rationality, there is often a rich baroqueness and dichotomous eclecticity about the movies, with, for instance, high-tech computer monitors equipped with low-tech magnifying lenses in Brazil, and in The Fisher King a red knight covered with flapping bits of cloth. He also is given to incongruous juxtapositions of beauty and ugliness, or antique and modern. Regarding Gilliam's theme of modernity's struggle between spirituality and rationality whereas the individual may become dominated by a tyrannical, soulless machinery of disenchanted society, film critic James Keith Hamel observed a specific affinity of Gilliam's movies with the writings of economic historian Arnold Toynbee and sociologist Max Weber, specifically the latter's concept of the Iron cage of modern rationality.

His films have a distinctive look not only in mise-en-scene but even moreso in photography, often recognizable from just a short clip; Roger Ebert has said "his world is always hallucinatory in its richness of detail." Most of his movies are shot almost entirely with extremely wide lenses of 28 mm focal length or less, and extremely deep focus. In fact, over the years, the 14mm lens has become informally known as "The Gilliam" among film-makers due to the director's frequent use of it since at least Brazil.

Production problems

Terry Gilliam at IFC Center.
4 October 2006.
has made a few extremely expensive movies beset with production problems. After the lengthy quarreling with Universal Studios over Brazil, Gilliam's next picture, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen cost around US$46 million, and then earned only about US$8 million in US ticket sales, as it saw no wide domestic release due to financial issues at Columbia Pictures, which was in the process of being sold at the time.

In the mid-1990s, Gilliam and Charles McKeown developed a script for Time Bandits 2; the project never came to be, as several of the original actors had died. He also attempted to direct a version of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, which collapsed due to disagreements over its budget and choice of lead actor.

In 1999, Gilliam attempted to film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, budgeted at US$32.1 million, among the highest-budgeted films to use only European financing; but in the first week of shooting, the actor playing Don Quixote (Jean Rochefort) suffered a herniated disc, and a flood severely damaged the set. The film was canceled, resulting in an insurance claim worth US$15 million. Despite the cancellation, the story behind the whole production was filmed by a second crew hired by Gilliam to document the process. This production story was made into the documentary Lost in La Mancha. In recent years, both Gilliam and the film's co-lead, Johnny Depp, have expressed interest in reviving the project. However, the insurance company involved in the failed first attempt withheld the rights to the screenplay for several years. The production was finally restarted in 2008.

Gilliam has attempted twice to adapt Alan Moore's Watchmen comics into a film. Both attempts (in 1989 and 1996, respectively) were unsuccessful. Most recently, unforeseeable problems again befell a Gilliam project when actor Heath Ledger died in New York City during the filming of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

Gilliam has encountered some successes though. His first successful feature, Time Bandits (1981), earned more than eight times its original budget in the United States alone, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) was nominated for four Academy Awards (and won, among other European prizes, three BAFTA Awards), The Fisher King (1991) (his first film not to feature a member from Python) was nominated for five (and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress), and 12 Monkeys went on to take over US$168 million worldwide whilst The Brothers Grimm, despite a mixed critical reception, grossed over US$105 million worldwide. However, according to Box Office Mojo, his films have grossed an average of $26,009,723.

Recurring collaborators in Gilliam's films

Ever since his first Python-independent feature Jabberwocky, Gilliam has shown a propensity to work with particular actors in numerous productions. Up until the 1990s, each of Gilliam's non-Python films was to feature at least one of his fellow Monty Python alumni (particularly Michael Palin, John Cleese, and Eric Idle), and for his finished projects Gilliam has worked with the following actors more than once (in order of first film appearance):

  • Derrick O'Connor (Jabberwocky, Time Bandits, Brazil)
  • Ian Holm (Time Bandits, Brazil)
  • Peter Vaughan (Time Bandits, Brazil)
  • Jack Purvis (Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen)
  • Jim Broadbent (Time Bandits, Brazil)
  • Charles McKeown (Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus)
  • Katherine Helmond (Time Bandits, Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)
  • Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Brothers Grimm)
  • Simon Jones (Brazil, Twelve Monkeys)
  • Robin Williams (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King; also was to play Cavaldi in The Brothers Grimm until objections by producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein)
  • Jeff Bridges (The Fisher King, Tideland)
  • Michael Jeter (The Fisher King, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)
  • Christopher Plummer (Twelve Monkeys, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus)
  • Christopher Meloni (Twelve Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)
  • Johnny Depp (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus; held the title role in Gilliam's first attempt at directing The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in 2000)
  • Verne Troyer (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus)
  • Heath Ledger (The Brothers Grimm, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus)
  • Peter Stormare (The Brothers Grimm, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus)

Other notable recurring collaborators include Gilliam's cinematographers Roger Pratt (Brazil, The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys) and Nicola Pecorini (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Brothers Grimm, Tideland, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus), and his co-writer McKeown.

Gilliam and Harry Potter

J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, is a fan of Gilliam's work. Consequently, he was Rowling's first choice to direct Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in 2000. Warner Bros. refused to consider Gilliam as director, instead selecting Chris Columbus for the job. Recently, Gilliam stated in relation to this episode, "I was the perfect guy to do Harry Potter. I remember leaving the meeting, getting in my car, and driving for about two hours along Mulholland Drive just so angry. I mean, Chris Columbus' versions are terrible. Just dull. Pedestrian."

Despite rumors to the contrary, Gilliam has stated that he will never direct any Potter film. In a 2005 interview with Total Film Magazine, he stated that he wouldn't enjoy working on such an expensive project due to interference from studio executives.

Secret Tournament

In 2002, Gilliam directed a series of television advertisements called Secret Tournament. The advertisements were part of Nikemarker's Football World Cup campaign and featured a secret three-on-three tournament between the world's best football players inside a huge tanker ship, with the Elvis Presley song "A Little Less Conversation" playing during the advertisements. The advertisements were hugely popular and critically acclaimed.

Slava's Diabolo

Gilliam at the 41st Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, April 2006
In 2006, Gilliam directed the stage show Slava's Diabolo created and staged by Russian clown artist Slava Polunin. The show combines Polunin's clown style, characterized by deep non-verbal expression and interaction with the audience, with Gilliam's rich visuals and surrealistic imagery. The show premiered at the Noga hall of the Gesher theater in Jaffamarker, Israelmarker.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a film directed and co-written by Gilliam released in 2009. In January 2007, Gilliam announced that he had been working on a new project with writing partner Charles McKeown. One day later, the fansite Dreams reported that the new project was entitled "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus". In October 2007, Dreams confirmed that this would be Gilliam's next project and was slated to star Christopher Plummer and Tom Waits. Production began in December 2007 in London.

On 22 January 2008, production of the film was disrupted following the death of Heath Ledger in New York City. Variety reports that Ledger's involvement had been a "key factor" in the film's financing. Production was suspended indefinitely by 24 January, but in February actors Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell reportedly signed on to continue Ledger's role, transforming into multiple incarnations of his character in the "magical" world of the film. Thanks to this arrangement principal photography was completed April 15, 2008 on schedule. Editing was completed November 2008. According to the official ParnassusFilm Twitter channel launched on March 30th, 2009, the film's post-production FX work finished on March 31st.

The UK release for the film was scheduled for June 6, 2009 but was pushed back to October 16, 2009. The USA release posted at IMDB is December 25, 2009. The film has had successful screenings including a premiere at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival.The director has stated his intention to dedicate the film to Ledger. Depp, Farrell, and Law are donating their proceeds from the film to Ledger's daughter.

Projects in development or shelved

Gilliam has several projects in various states of development, including an adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's comic fantasy novel Good Omens. Other projects Gilliam has been trying to get off the ground since the 1990s are an adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (starring Mel Gibson), an adaptation of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain (which has been adapted into movies several times before), and a script entitled The Defective Detective that Gilliam has co-authored with Richard LaGravenese (who wrote Gilliam's The Fisher King before).

It was rumoured that Gilliam may direct - or be involved in the production of - the animated band Gorillaz' movie. In a September 2006 interview with Uncut magazine, Damon Albarn was reported saying "... we're making a film. We've got Terry Gilliam involved.". However, in a more recent interview with Gorillaz-Unofficial, Jamie Hewlett, the co-creator of the band, stated that since the time of the previous interview, Damon's and his own fixation on the film had lessened. In an August 2008 Observer interview, Gorillaz band members Albarn and Hewlett revealed the nature and title of the project, Journey to the West, a movie adaptation of the opera of the same name based on a 16th-century Chinese adventure story also known as Monkey. In January 2008, while on set of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Gilliam stated that he was looking forward to the project, "But I'm still waiting to see a script!"

Future projects

After regaining the rights to the screenplay of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam restarted pre-production in 2008, with Johnny Depp still attached to the project. The film will be reshot completely, and Rochefort's role will be recast. Michael Palin reportedly entered talks with Gilliam to step in for Rochefort and play Don Quixote. Main production start is planned for 2009.

On January 24, 2009, it was announced that Gilliam would direct a project entitled Zero Theorem, produced by Richard D. Zanuck, and set to star Billy Bob Thornton. With a screenplay by Pat Rushin, the film is about a reclusive computer genius who is working on a project which deals with the absurdity of the meaning of life. Filming was set to start on May 1, 2009. However, Gilliam revealed to Dreams in late June that he has since shelved Zero Theorem in favor of reviving The Man Who Killed Don Quixote to be shot in 2010.


Awards, nominations and honours

Further reading

  • Gilliam, Terry and Christie, Ian (Ed.) (1999). Gilliam On Gilliam. Faber & Faber. ISBN 0-571-19190-8
  • McCabe, Bob (1999). Dark Knights And Holy Fools: The Art And Films of Terry Gilliam. Diane Pub Co. ISBN 078930290X
  • From Fringe To Flying Circus: Celebrating A Unique Generation Of Comedy, 1960-1980 - Roger Wilmut, Eyre Methuen Ltd, 1980.


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