Terry Gilliam on 40 Years of Monty Python, 'The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus'

Comedian and director on the legendary comedy troupe, Heath Ledger's last movie.

Oct. 24, 2009 — -- Forty years ago, as the Beatles were ending their dominance of a musical era, another British troupe was emerging and would ultimately change the history of comedy. This band of merry men – five Brits and one American – formed Monty Python and slapstick comedy was never the same again.

These six men were American animator (and later director) Terry Gilliam and British comedians John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Graham Chapman, who died in 1989 from throat cancer. The survivors recently joined forces in an epic documentary, "Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyers Cut)," which was co-directed by Terry Jones' son Bill and Ben Timlett. "Thirteen years after 1969 we called it a day and have been living off it ever since. It's been quite nice getting together at odd events to celebrate ancient people," said Gilliam in an interview with ABC News Now's "Popcorn with Peter Travers."

"'Almost the Truth' is an in-depth look at the six men and their complicated relationship with one another. The comedy came out of tension between people who loved and hated each other," explained Gilliam who animated, wrote and acted in the Monty Python skits. He co-directed with Terry Jones the troupe's first film, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975) and the third and final film, "Monty Python's the Meaning of Life" (1983).

Gilliam's reaction to Cleese describing him as "unbalanced" in the Python documentary highlights the cheerful contrariness of their relationship. "He's a mutant," Gilliam told Travers. "He's spent a fortune in wives and alimony, on psycho therapy and it hasn't done any good." He then proceeded to analyze the rest of his former castmates: "Mike, on the surface, would be (most balanced), Eric is very together and Terry is Welsh, so it's all over!"

Gilliam, who chafes at Hollywood executives, calling them "corporate thinkers" who "are not brave," believes the secret to Python's success was partly because "it was so unfettered by managers and agents and execs. It was just six men who were trying to make us laugh." The other part was because they were not bound by political correctness or fear of offending their audience. "When offense becomes the most important thing to people, you stop thinking," he claimed.

Gilliam's favorite Python sketch is "The Undertaker," which aired in "Monty Python's Flying Circus Show" episode 26. In it, Cleese takes his dead mother in a bag to the undertaker, who suggests that they eat her: "We cook her. She'd be delicious with a few French fries, a bit of stuffing. Delicious!" Cleese is momentarily tempted, saying he feels "a bit peckish" and then protests he can't do it. The undertaker seals the deal by offering to dig a grave where Cleese can throw up afterwards if he feels guilty. That skit was, according to Gilliam "utterly and completely offensive and thank God we did it!"

Gilliam believes that, because of the obsession with being politically correct, major stars are going to TV where there is more leeway. He cites as an example Al Pacino and Barry Levinson who are making a telepic about right-to-die champion Dr. Jack Kevorkian for HBO because "studios won't touch it. They live in fear. Decisions in Hollywood are made in fear of losing jobs. There is no courage." The show Gilliam watches the most is, not surprisingly, the animated comedy series "Family Guy" because it's "outrageous and wonderful."

Post-Python, Gilliam is best known for his surrealistic masterpiece "Brazil" (1985) which he directed, as well as his biggest box office hit "12 Monkeys" (1995) starring Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis.

His latest movie is "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus," which premiered in London last week. Halfway through filming, its star, Heath Ledger, died of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. The tragedy of Ledger's death is handled in typical Monty Python fashion.

In a recent interview with New York magazine, Idle, in response to whether he has been working with Gilliam on his new movies, said, "Oh, no, he's never let anybody near his projects. I've been in a Gilliam film ("The Adventures of Baron Munchausen"), that's enough for me. Look what happened to Heath Ledger. I felt like that on a Gilliam film, too." Non-PC jokes aside, Ledger's death was a big blow to the director who had also worked with him on "The Brothers Grimm" (2005). "Heath was so close and losing Heath was devastating on so many levels," recalled Gilliam.

He was going to give up on the film were it not for his director of photography, Nicola Pecorini, and his daughter Amy, who were relentless. Pecorini suggested that Gilliam replace Ledger with another actor, since his character goes through magic mirrors and, as such, can be transformed into different men.

Three days after Ledger's death, Gilliam called Johnny Depp to commiserate. Depp starred in Gilliam's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (1998) and was also close friends with Ledger. Depp assured Gilliam that he would be there for him in whatever he needed, which helped save the funding for the movie. Other friends of Ledger, like Jude Law and Colin Farrell, also came to the rescue and Gilliam believes that when the audience sees the movie, it will seem as if all the changes were part of the original design. "Gods are making their own movie and I'm the hand that writes it," he mused.

"Imaginarium" revolves around a 1,000-year-old former monk, Dr. Parnassus (played by Christopher Plummer) who made a deal with the devil (Tom Waits) to become immortal. In exchange, he promised the devil his future child at the age of 16. Parnassus has a traveling Imaginarium theater, which allows its audience to enter a magical world depending on the strength of one's imagination. "If you go in with someone else with a stronger imagination, it may affect yours," explained Gilliam cryptically. Ledger played the mysterious amnesiac named Tony who ultimately tried to save Parnassus' daughter from the devil. His character (due to his untimely death) changes as he goes through magical mirrors and is played by Depp, Law and Farrell. "All those guys are real pros ... There was no time for rehearsal. With Johnny, we had one day and that was it. What I love about Johnny Depp is the speed of preparation and he took whatever we threw at him," said Gilliam.

Gilliam believes Ledger should be given co-director credit because his impact on the film was immense: "He was creating the situations we couldn't get around. Everything he forced me to do was better for the film." Gilliam was also blessed with a great cast. He had previously worked with Plummer on "12 Monkeys"; "He was Brad Pitt's father – great, great actor… I needed someone who was a tent pole – holds up the entire story and gives it gravitas," said the director. Waits, whom Gilliam describes as "the man who writes songs for angels and sings them in the voice of Beelzebub," took the part of the devil without reading the script.

Surmounting huge obstacles in movies is part of Gilliam's directing DNA. When he tried to film his dream project, "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote," it was so jinxed that a documentary called "Lost in La Mancha" was made about his trials and tribulations. "If you take on Don Quixote, you become Don Quixote," admitted Gilliam, "It's been seven years in the French legal system wilderness. And the years have been really good. Scales fell from my eyes. I could see what was wrong with the script. It was clear what was wrong with it. I rewrote it. It's 100 percent better ….I've got one [actor to play Quixote] -- I can't tell you his name, but he's 'the guy'. Nobody is putting money in any films. The plan is next April to start shooting -- we're lacking a few cast members and money but that's it!"

Gilliam is no stranger to controversy. In 1968, he obtained British citizenship and became a dual American-British citizen. Three years ago, in protest over President George W. Bush's policies, he renounced his American citizenship. "Bush was making me crazy," he recalled, "Why am I still paying taxes in this country? If I died, my wife would have to sell the house to pay the taxes." So, as a result of Bush and taxes, Gilliam is allowed back in the country for only 30 days a year. "My wife and I keep very close tabs," he admitted, joking that they fear he would be incarcerated if he stayed a day longer in his homeland.

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