Before Brazil, 12 Monkeys, or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Terry Gilliam was best known as the only American-born member of Monty Python, and his iconic artwork for the sketch group remains some of his most recognizable work. In this exclusive excerpt from his memoir Gilliamesque, the filmmaker discusses his animation style, The Meaning of Life, and Python’s decision to split.
Before I and my new producer Arnon Milchan could finally get Brazil off the ground (just a couple of feet off the ground, obviously, we didn’t want to fly as high as the scale model of Jonathan Pryce would have to), there were two last big pieces to be fitted into the Monty Python jigsaw.
There’d been a time somewhere around The Life of Brian when I’d started to become uncertain as to what my exact function in the group was, and the whole thing began to feel a bit frustrating. Obviously I knew I did the animations, but I wasn’t sure how many more of those I had in me, and I’d enjoyed being a solo helmsman so much that I didn’t really want to do timeshare at the wheel with Terry J. again.
I think all six of us were pulling in different directions by that point, and even though there were inevitably mixed feelings when the group finally disbanded, I’m glad we had the sense to quit while we were still good. It’s always best to leave people wanting more – otherwise how can you justify getting back together for lucrative reunion shows in aid of Terry Jones’ mortgage thirty years later? And Live at the Hollywood Bowl in 1980 and then The Meaning of Life in 1983 made for a pretty good send-off.
My wife Maggie made one of the great unheralded contributions to Hollywood Bowl. She’d been due to pop out our second child two weeks before, but somehow managed to keep her knees together till the shows were finished so I could get home to London in time for the birth. How best to commemorate this achievement? It seemed unfair to saddle the newborn with the name ‘Hollywood’ outright, in honour of the circumstances of her birth, so we went with Holly Dubois instead, which ensured that even as an infant she would be unknowingly playing to a gallery of multilingual sophisticates – a precocious foundation which she would build on by making an acclaimed big-screen debut in Brazil at the tender age of four.
The creative dilemma I was wrestling with in the run-up to The Meaning of Life was defined not by the sophistication but the child-like crudity of the cutout methodology I’d defined as my own over the past decade and a half. While the artwork I’d done for the various Monty Python books and album sleeves had got progressively more elaborate, it was a mark of the elemental simplicity of my animation technique that I took it to the top right from the beginning. Beware of the Elephants, which was only the second or third of those animations that I ever did, was as good as anything that came later. It was a bit like working on Photoshop – I never got past page three or four of that particular manual, either.
The truth was that even if some way of adding extra layers of nuance had presented itself, I wouldn’t have wanted to develop it. Partly because I lacked the patience, but largely because it felt like the brutal directness of what I’d done had been integral to its efficacy. It’s the same with certain kinds of music that resist additional ornamentation – why would you want to get more complicated than Chuck Berry or the Sex Pistols? So once I’d got bored of working within the restrictions that stopped my mind wandering, there was no option but for me to do something else.
This was how The Crimson Permanent Assurance – my segment of The Meaning of Life – started out as an idea for an animation, but then became a live-action short. Perhaps partly as a result of this formative shape-shifting, it also ended up being my first experience of going over-budget. I don’t really know what the numbers were, but shortly after selflessly renouncing my directorial ambitions with regard to the film as a whole, I was deemed by the others to be totally out of control – drunk with power in charge of a limitless budget that no one had ever actually specified to me.
The basic story concerned a group of accountants who get angry with their new corporate masters of the universe and decide to become pirates on the high seas of international finance. If any amateur psychoanalysts out there wish to discern a subliminal echo of my own need to break out of my restricted role within Monty Python, I suppose it would be churlish of me to deny them this pleasure, but I don’t remember that line of thought surfacing consciously at the time. And rather than being a product of anxieties about my own advancing years (I had by this point reached the grand old age of forty-two) the decision to use eighty-year-old actors reflected my determination to do for the elderly what Time Bandits had done for dwarves, i.e. dramatically expand their employment opportunities. I’m that guy who’s all about helping the minorities…so long as they stay minorities of course – once they start becoming powerful, then it’s a different matter.
The tone and feel of The Crimson Permanent Assurance were so different to the rest of the film that we had to remove it from its original slot in the middle of The Meaning of Life and run it as a separate mini-feature at the beginning, where it functioned like a sumptuous illustrated letter at the start of one of those medieval manuscripts I’m always banging on about, at the same time bearing witness to my increasingly marginal status within the group and growing willingness to fly the coop. Up on the big screens at the Cannes Film Festival, it looked fucking great – a real spectacle with genuine scale to it. Then when the actual film came on, it felt like you were watching TV, which given that this was how most people would ultimately end up seeing it, was probably for the best.
Gilliamesque is available in bookstores starting today.