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Terry Gilliam is working the audience at the Hirshhorn Museum, where the people who managed to get inside—more than 100 were turned away—will experience the Washington premiere of his latest film, Tideland. The director is 65 and sports close-cropped gray hair but with a few strands that dangle down the back of his neck, making him look a bit like a 12-year-old skate rat. Adding to the childlike vibe is a distinctive high-pitched laugh that ranges from a giggle to a cackle, as well as a glee that’s evident when he delivers this warning: “Many of you are not going to like it.”

Gilliam speaks both before and after the screening and uses some familiar material. He tells how Monty Python mate Michael Palin slipped away from an early Tideland screening in London without commenting but later admitted that “I can’t get it out of my head. I’m still not sure whether it’s the best or the worst thing you’ve ever done.” (That’s a story Gilliam also shared at the Rotterdam Film Festival in January.) He commends Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven as the best recent Hollywood film. (He told me the same thing in 1995, when he was in town to publicize 12 Monkeys, a movie that shares a screenwriter with Unforgiven.) And he announces that “I’m going to sue George Bush and his cronies for doing an illegal and unauthorized remake of Brazil—the reality version.” (He had already delivered that crack to photographer Charles Steck and me as we exited the Mandarin Oriental Hotel about nine hours earlier.)

It’s not unreasonable for Gilliam to recycle some of his patter. After all, he’s been touring to promote Tideland for more than a year, beginning with the film’s world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2005. “It’s a pain in the ass, frankly,” he says, between morsels of a bento-box lunch. He sounds convincingly glum for a few beats, then breaks into laughter. “Without a studio behind me, it’s the only way I can do it. I’m just going around selling the thing.”

The director has introduced Tideland at so many festivals, and been told so often that his remarks help viewers get into the right mood, that he’s filmed a first-person prologue that will be shown before the movie in the United States. “They don’t show that to the press,” he notes. “I think they’re making a mistake. They somehow think, Nobody tells the press how to think. There’s the odd one who says, ‘I don’t like people telling me how to watch the film.’ Fuck off!” He giggles, and then adds with mock earnestness, “We’re here to help.”

Tideland is a nervy, pitch-black comedy about a 10-year-old girl, the daughter of junkies, who’s left alone in a remote, rotting farmhouse after her father ODs. Gilliam has come to see the film as “Time Bandits, 25 years on.” He also likens it to Brazil “in terms of like and dislike. With Brazil, half the audience would walk out.”

Yet when the movie was released in August in Britain—the Minnesota-born director’s home for the last 40 years—reaction was muted. “Here’s what’s irritating about the world,” he says. “I know a great number of people are not going to like it. I really wanted to create a debate, and it doesn’t happen. People who don’t like it just dismiss it. They don’t even write a good bad review. It’s just: ‘Doesn’t work, too long, Gilliam can’t tell a story, end of conversation.’ Wait a minute! There’s a lot of stuff going on here, folks.”

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It’s a week before the New York release, and Gilliam is hoping that the reviews there will be friendlier. By and large, they aren’t. While the Village Voice calls Tideland “courageously repellent,” the New York Times huffs that the film straddles the boundary “between the merely bad and the completely indefensible.” Recalling that the movie was “rubbished” a year ago in the movie-biz trade papers, the filmmaker shrugs. “At least I’m trying to provide interesting after-film dinner conversations.”

Tideland was adapted by Gilliam and co-writer Tony Grisoni from Mitch Cullin’s novel, which for the director evoked Christina’s World, the Andrew Wyeth painting. “Reading the book, that’s the image that popped up,” he says. “And I called Mitch Cullin and asked if he had an image in mind when he was writing. He said, ‘Christina’s World.’ So we knew we were on the same page visually. It’s a very haunting painting. That house, all that grass, the woman, girl, whatever. It just seemed right. There’s a sense of longing in that painting. The story’s untold. It just seemed to be what it was about.”

The image, the filmmaker explains, didn’t directly influence the script. “Visual images are working at another level. The only sort of visual theory I had was that the interior of the house was rotting, decaying, dark, claustrophobic—the smoker’s lungs. And outside was glorious and free. That’s it. People keep asking, ‘How did you get those beautiful exteriors?’ Well, they’re no different than any other beautiful exteriors. It was the juxtaposition. It’s very pleasing when people think you’ve done something special, but all you’ve done is put this next to that.”

Gilliam calls the contrast between interior and exterior “the autobiographical part of the movie. I’ve got a house in Italy, and I go there and I have no need to create. It’s there. It’s fantastic. Nature. And then I get inside the house and I start doing things. And it’s like what’s inside me: It’s cluttered and a mess in there. And actually rotting a bit, I think.”

Shot in Saskatchewan for a mere $12 million, Tideland was made during a break from a much more expensive, much more troubled Gilliam film, The Brothers Grimm, which was released last year. The latter project was difficult from the beginning. Producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein vetoed many of Gilliam’s choices, refusing to hire Samantha Morton as the female lead, firing cinematographer Nicola Pecorini—who shot Tideland—and at the last minute demanding that Matt Damon not wear the prosthetic nose that had been designed for him.

“Can you imagine?” Gilliam asks. “You’re doing this big film. An actor loves the way he’s looking, and the night before the first day of filming, they say, ‘Put the nose in and the film is finished.’ That’s just a great way to get people excited and enthusiastic about the work the next day.”

After a few test screenings of Grimm’s rough cut, Gilliam knew that the Weinsteins were going to ask for major alterations. “Well, I didn’t know how to change it. And we had finally managed to get the money to make Tideland, and we had to make it that year. The winter was approaching, so we had to go then or never. So I said, ‘I’m going to go do Tideland, and you guys can do whatever you want with Grimm.’ It was a terrible gamble.”

“I didn’t hear anything, and we made Tideland. I came back and started editing it, and I got a call: Would I finish my version of Grimm? That film had basically been cut, but I did change a few things. It was actually great to have two films. With the same editor, Lesley Walker. She and I would run from editing room to editing room. When we got bored with one, or frustrated and stuck, then we’d run to other one—Oh, a new world!—and fiddle there. I would do this forever if I could, do two films at the same time.”

The lesson of making The Brothers Grimm back-to-back with Tideland might be that a low-budget independent film is the more logical choice for Gilliam, but he rejects that suggestion. “To me, there is no model. The irony of the whole thing—the story about Gilliam and his battles with the studios—is that the films I’ve actually done in Hollywood were the easiest films I ever made. There were no major battles. The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys, and Fear and Loathing, no problem. So that’s not really it. It’s just become ‘the story’—the Hollywood battle. It’s almost reached the point where I wish somebody would invent another story. I’m bored with that.”

In 1995, the director remarked that “I don’t particularly want to know” what defines a Terry Gilliam film. He still doesn’t. “It’s just a film that I make. Obviously, the border of fantasy and reality, that battleground, is in all of them, in one way or another. They’re all different, but they all have to share my obsession with death and love and imagination.”

Then something occurs to him. “Ah! The one thing they all share: They all have cages in them.” He giggles. “That’s a Terry Gilliam film—a film with a cage!”—Mark Jenkins