Ask Terry Gilliam if he hasn't ever wanted to try his hand at a realistic little slice-of-life movie, and he flashes you a big grin. "Ah, but that's where you're wrong. My films are realistic slices of life," replies the 64-year-old director of such other-dimensional outings as Brazil (1985), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and Twelve Monkeys (1995).
"I don't know if I could make a naturalistic film in the sense that you mean it. Besides, other people do those kinds of movies really well, so I'd much rather stay in an area where I'm reasonably comfortable," Gilliam elaborates, shrugging his shoulders during a recent interview in Los Angeles. "Some of it may be purely selfish on my part, because I'm still trying to work out for myself what the world is or isn't. But it seems to me that if you don't have elements of fantasy or dreams or imagination as part of your so-called reality, then you might as well check out of life right now. To me, I suppose all of my films are like that, playing in the borderland between reality and fantasy, trying to find a certain middle ground."
Gilliam's latest, uh, "slice-of-life" is The Brothers Grimm (opening this Friday after more than a year in Miramax limbo; see Film Clips for a review), which presents a typically flamboyant and phantasmagorical hodgepodge of all their famous fairy tales. Matt Damon and Heath Ledger play decidedly fictitious versions of the titular authors, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm. In reality, the brothers were academics who traveled across 19th-century Europe collecting stories as a way of preserving the fading tradition of oral storytelling. For the purposes of the film, however, they're bumbling flim-flam artists who claim to rid villages of their various spells and curses -- and who are ultimately put to the test when they run afoul of the alluring and sinister Mirror Queen (Monica Bellucci).
"In a sense, this was my attempt to put some balls back into the original fairy tales," Gilliam offers with a laugh. "Whether it's because of Disney's movie versions of Snow White or Cinderella or whatever, or whether it's just the politically correct times we live in, it seems like a lot of the darker and more disturbing elements of the stories have gotten softer and more sanitized over the years. In the last Little Red Riding Hood book I saw, the grandmother wasn't eaten by the wolf. She was simply hiding in the closet. The Woodsman who rescues the girl turns out to be her long-lost father. I mean, come on. There was no resonance to the story anymore, no meaning to it."
Nor was Gilliam very enamored of the original Brothers Grimm script by Ehren Kruger. "There's an opening credit that reads 'screenplay by,' but this isn't a movie that was made from a screenplay. That's the idea of an ancient bureaucracy like the Writers Guild, that one person has written this film. Talk about living in a fantasy world. His script might've been the backbone, the starting point, but what it didn't have was any magic or humor or characters that really buzzed," the director submits.
"We couldn't just throw out the script altogether, because it's what got the project rolling in the first place, so it was interesting in the sense that it constrained us but also challenged us to come up with better ideas," he continues. "There were lots of large-scale battle sequences, spectacular events like we've all seen before, but part of my interest in doing this was as a reaction against the Van Helsings and The Mummys of the movie world, you know? For me, this was a chance to bring the story back down to a smaller level you could really touch and feel and smell." (An immaculately designed "smaller level" budgeted at around $80 million, that is.)
Given some of his choice words about the Writers Guild, it's easy to see how he has acquired a reputation -- among the studio "suits," at least -- for being "difficult," or to imagine why Gilliam's Grimm might be his first film since 1998's Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. Over the course of those seven years, various different projects materialized and "bit the dust," as he puts it; most notably, the falling apart of his Don Quixote movie with Johnny Depp became the subject of an acclaimed 2002 documentary, Lost in La Mancha.
Gilliam doesn't quite burst into the chorus from "The Impossible Dream," but he does maintain, "If we can untangle and find a way around the legal mess we're in with the script, that's the film I'd like to be doing next." He pauses and laughs again. "I just e-mailed Johnny the other day to tell him I'm lying to the world by saying he's still going to be in it. When everything collapsed, we made a deal that we'd both go off and do more commercial movies, so that we'd be in a position to help get Quixote back on track. Well, he's obviously done his part, with Pirates (of the Caribbean) and (Finding) Neverland and Charlie (and the Chocolate Factory). Maybe Brothers Grimm can hold up my end of the deal."
In the meantime, since putting the finishing touches on Grimm more than a year ago, Gilliam has completed another movie, Tideland, which will premiere at this fall's Toronto Film Festival in hopes of finding an American distributor. "In some ways, it's the antithesis of Brothers Grimm," he notes. "It's still very much a fantasy about the imagination, but it's a different side of the coin, more to do with childhood, and told from a young girl's point-of-view." The adult co-stars of the film include Oscar nominees Jeff Bridges, Janet McTeer and Jennifer Tilly.
Although American born (in Minneapolis) and raised (in LA), Gilliam came to prominence in the early 1970s as a member of the British comedy troupe Monty Python -- and with the phenomenal success of the current Python-inspired Broadway musical Spam-a-Lot, he admits he's "amazed" by all the renewed interest in his humble professional beginnings. "It's a very funny show, just not quite as muddy as I remember from the film (Monty Python and the Holy Grail). We were all there on opening night, and it was great, probably the first time we'd been together in years," Gilliam recalls with a smile.
"It's fantastic. All this time, we'd pretty much felt there was a limited number of Monty Python fans out there, even if all of them had been cross-breeding, you know? The success of this show has totally transcended that. We heard that Steve Wynn's building a theater out in Las Vegas just to make Spam-a-Lot a permanent fixture by 2007. Can you imagine? None of us can believe it."
Welcome to Terry Gilliam's reality.