Subverting audience expectations ever since his directorial debut of Monty Python and the Holy Grail back in 1975, director Terry Gilliam has long operated on the fringes of the commercial film industry, preferring smaller, more peculiar stories of human existence. Having worked closely alongside the iconic comedy troupe Monty Python throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, in contemporary cinema, he often crops up with experimental works from 2013’s The Zero Theorem to the more recent The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in 2018.
Beginning his career as an animator and strip cartoonist, Gilliam started his career in the US before moving to England to work on sequences for the TV series Do Not Adjust Your Set, featuring the likes of future ‘Python’ members, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. Breaking off to work closely with the comedy troupe, Gilliam became a member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus from the group’s inception, working on the animated sequences that broke up their sketches.
Marked by an iconic animation style that would later be copied, parodied and adored, Gilliam worked with the troupe until they broke up, making his last Monty Python film in 1983 with The Meaning of Life. At this moment, Gilliam turned to other opportunities, telling stories that focused on the “craziness of our awkwardly ordered society and the desire to escape it through whatever means possible,” as he reported in an interview with Criterion.
Leading him to such films as Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Twelve Monkeys, Gilliam became something of a cult director, working with the likes of Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis and Johnny Depp on multiple subversive projects. All whilst Gilliam operated in the back alleys of the industry, the likes of Steven Spielberg continued to dominate the mainstream, releasing E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Raiders of the Lost Ark in the 1980s along with Schindler’s List in 1993.
A great admirer of the influential filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, Gilliam once discussed the success of the Clockwork Orange director in comparison to Spielberg, stating, “The great difference between Kubrick and Spielberg is…Spielberg is more successful”. Marking a specific difference between the two directors, Gilliam added: “His [Spielberg’s] films make much more money but they’re comforting, they give you answers, always the films are answers and I don’t think they’re very clever answers”.
In comparison, Gilliam raises the case of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a science fiction epic from Kubrick that “opens up all sorts of possibilities” as to its meaning, exclaiming his joy of the ideas that come out of discussing such a film. “The Kubrick’s of this world and the great filmmakers make you go home and think about it,” Gilliam states, making reference to the complex themes of 2001 and the director’s subsequent films.
Having a particular problem with Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Gilliam recognises that the film “had to ‘save those few people, happy ending, a man can do what a man can do’ and stop death for a few people”. Continuing, Gilliam recognises the crucial flaw with the film, stating, “But that’s not what the holocaust was about, it was about the complete failure of civilisation to allow six million people to die”.
As to which side of filmmaking history Gilliam would prefer to be associated with, the Monty Python director adds, “I’d like to have a nice house like Spielberg, but I know which side I’d rather be on”.