Film Scouts Interviews

Terry Gilliam on "Twelve Monkeys"

by Henri Béhar

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- On Chris Marker's "La Jetee" that "Twelve Monkeys" is ''inspired by''.

TERRY GILLIAM: I've never seen "La Jetee". If I do something based on something else I make it a principle not to read or see the original: I'll be intimidated by it, or I'll feel an awesome sense of responsibility. So I avoid that problem. When I made "Brazil" I'd never read [George Orwell's] "1984".

- On the story and its time frame:

TERRY GILLIAM: Well, see, it seems to go from now to maybe thirty-five years in the future to the First World War to six years ago to... or maybe none of those things. Maybe it's all in the mad man's mind. Who knows. One of the things in the script I felt was important was for the audience not to know much about this man who claims to have come back from the future to trace down a virus before it mutates and effectively wipes out the human race on the planet.
*Or* : He may be a mad man who's got a messiah complex. Who knows.
I like the idea of keeping it ambiguous. I think we should try to avoid defining things precisely. Too many films are packaging the world too neatly for us, and I don't think the world should be packaged neatly. But hidden things and unknowns... The more you can encourage that on the screen, the better for the mental state of the world.

- On creating the visuals -- and finding the right balance for them.

TERRY GILLIAM: The tricky thing is when you get a script, there it is, you read it, it's complete. How do you interpret it? That's always been my problem. In past films, it had not been that much of a problem: except for "The Fisher King," they were my own scripts, and "Fisher King" was a contemporary story. "Twelve Monkeys", which David and Janet Peoples wrote, has a lot of fantastic elements in it so I was fighting with myself on it; how far to go; how far not to go.
In the end I always sort of give up and just go for visual spectacle and the things that excite me.
If I'm doing scenes where two people are driving along in a car, talking, they don't get my juices flowing, because there's not much need for me in that. But when we can create a future world with people living underground, then they do start flowing and we get... whatever it is we get.
- At the risk of sacrificing the narrative in the process ?

TERRY GILLIAM: That old battle... I think my films never had a narrative problem. People disagree, but then they're possibly visually illiterate, certainly cinematically illiterate. Yes, I leap around in time and space. Yes, I like to confuse things. But I don't actually go out of my way to do so. Perhaps because the visuals are so... either complex or disturbing or ironic or bizarre, people get distracted by them and can't see that, in fact, the story is fairly -- fairly -- straightforward through the piece.
On the other hand, since I am usually drawn to complex stories, within *that* context, I think I tell the story reasonably clearly.

- On reality and Hollywood films.

TERRY GILLIAM: I think it's very funny to hear "reality" and "Hollywood films" in the same sentence. Talk about an oxymoron! I think Hollywood's perception of reality -- which millions of people seem to buy -- is so distorted and so crazy that I've always had a problem with it. Compared to it, I am a documentary film-maker: I just put on film what I see around me.

- On "The Human Condom"

TERRY GILLIAM: There was something about the idea that people putting layer upon layer to protect themselves from a potential infection, end up in a sense isolating themselves from one another. And I became obsessed with that.
I went to the dentist while shooting in Philadelphia, and I was amazed by how obsessed with layers of latex even dentists are. Even the lamp over one's head had a latex -- had a condom on its handle. So there's all this latex, sealing people from other things, if not themselves. And so when it came to doing a suit for the character Bruce Willis plays to come above ground, I just wanted to do something that was like a human condom.
And Bruce Willis has a very penile-shaped head, which completes the human condom metaphor!

- On Bruce Willis's "nakedness".

TERRY GILLIAM: Bruce has got one of the great architectural craniums in the world! It's just a great, beautiful thing to photograph. It was his idea to shave his head, and it changed him a lot. It makes him much stronger, much more dangerous. He looks like a prisoner from a Soviet Gulag. Those kind of images intrigued me: prisoners of war, prisoners of camps... It made him kind of naked in a way. In fact, he's very naked in this film. There's a lot of nude scenes of Bruce Willis and none of Brad Pitt. Or Madeleine Stowe. Sorry, folks.
And Bruce handles nudity amazingly well. I mean, when you do nude scenes, everybody is always very nervous and trying to make you feel comfortable, which of course has the exact opposite result. But Bruce is just very natural about it. Off with the clothes and on with the work... He's also got a good body. So...

- On Brad Pitt.

TERRY GILLIAM: At some point along the way we were looking for Jeffrey and we met Brad. Brad was very keen to do the part, because it was so unlike anything he'd ever tried to do before: a fast-talking, wild, crazed person. I was intrigued by the idea and I always try to cast against type.
We caught Brad at a perfect time in his career, I think, because, you know, his face has been all over the place. "Sexiest man in America". And he hates it. He was very bold in saying "I don't want to look like Brad Pitt" and we went along with it -- and those blue eyes are gone. They don't even look at us in the same way. We worked very hard at changing his look. He's no longer the sexiest man in America and it's wonderful. I think both Brad and Bruce have taken big leaps and they're dangerous leaps. They could have fallen flat on their face but I think it ended up amazing.

- On the locations.

TERRY GILLIAM: The locations I've used were old disused power stations around Philadelphia and Baltimore. Nuclear plants, factories, power stations: "cathedrals of technological progress." I've always had a problem with the belief that technology was going to solve all of our problems; so I'm drawn to shooting in those places, particularly for this film, which is about decay and about nostalgia. These great spaces were considered to be providing the solution to all of our problems, yet now they're just wasted, lying there, rotting. And that seemed very much what a lot of the film was about. About putting your faith in the wrong things.
On the other hand, these places are phenomenal. These big turbines, these condensers, are extraordinary things! If you were to build a set, you would never do it that way. And yet these were real things, functioning bits of technology that provided power for us, and they're more fantastic than any art director's going to invent.

- On (the city of) Philadelphia

TERRY GILLIAM: Philadelphia really intrigued me because architecturally it's really interesting, and it has this incredible sense of decay, of something that failed. What was once the first city of the nation has now just sunk in some post-industrial malaise. It's a very nice melange of the beautiful and the bizarre: Beaux Arts monumental, 1930s Art Deco architecture, and just rotting decay.

- On Breughel, Hieronimus Bosch, and other influences.

TERRY GILLIAM: If I have a visual style it's incredibly eclectic. I've always been obsessed with viscera, guts of things whether they're physical or mechanical; showing the inside of things, not just the surface of things. When it comes to ironic, or disturbing, or surreal images, I rush back to Breughel, to Bosch, to Magritte, to Max Ernst.
Goya is a favorite because he's always been about the horrors of war. There's terrible anguish in his stuff, but at the same time incredible humanity. I'm not fascinated by just the bizarre for the sake of the bizarre. There has to be a humanistic side, which Breughel, Bosch, Goya all show. They can see the bizarre side. They can see the tragic and horrific side; yet there's a sense of humor, and joy, and love of human beings.

- On the ubiquity of television

TERRY GILLIAM: Television seems to be ubiquitous in "Twelve Monkeys". Every scene has got a television screen in it doing something. It's because I think television is this awful mirror that we all look into every day, but it distorts the reflection and I hate it. It trivializes life. Rather than really enlightening us, it ends up just dragging us down to the lowest, into the boring and the tedious. And however much you try to resist it, you begin to believe the world really is that way.
So we've included it in the film. And it shows commercials that are doing strange things, and cartoons, which works very nicely as a juxtaposition to some of the scenes that are going on.

- On the Video Ball

TERRY GILLIAM: The video ball is in the Engineering Room where Cole is interrogated. I'd seen a drawing of a wall with this hard-edged chair just sitting up there halfway up, and a big round ball just hanging there. I became obsessed with this image. That's why, when Cole (Bruce Willis) is interrogated, he's hoisted up to the middle of this wall, and we turned the ball into a thing with lots of video cameras on it, and it's like a great eyeball that's right in his face.
Again, I liked the idea of separating people from people. They're facing him, but there's this video ball between them with their faces on it. Their eyes, their mouths all talking to him. Again, technology interposes itself between people.

- Is "Twelve Monkeys" darker than "Brazil"?

TERRY GILLIAM: I don't think so. I think it's a tragedy in a strange way but it's also a love story, and it's about death and resurrection. It's probably more hopeful.

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