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As a cult director who fought studios, blew budgets, and mystified mainstream audiences, Terry Gilliam kept making movies. Then he directed a commercially successful Hollywood flick, The Fisher King, and disappeared.

“What happened is the thing I’ve avoided all my life: I got distracted by all the offers,” explains Gilliam, in town to promote his first effort in five years, 12 Monkeys, which was just dubbed the “year’s best Hollywood film” on the cover of the Village Voice.

“Fisher King was the first film I’ve made that wasn’t mine,” meaning that he had no hand in the script, says the former Monty Python member in a voice that reveals his Minnesota and California background more than his longtime tenure in London. “And it was surprisingly easy. Then the floodgates opened.”

“I was really going to start knocking the films out,” Gilliam remembers, but instead he found himself “developing” rather than directing. “Three or four years vanish, and you’re busy all the time.”

Ultimately, however, the director found the elusive right combination of script, stars, and studio. The latter, ironically, is Universal, which battled bitterly with Gilliam a decade ago over his futuristic dystopian fantasy, Brazil. The studio supported him, however, in the making of Monkeys, which just happens to be a futuristic dystopian fantasy.

“Studios all have different obsessions,” explains Gilliam. “They all have different problems at different times.”

One reason that Universal was more relaxed was that it wasn’t spending much of its own money; Monkeys producer Charles Roven and executive producer Robert Cavallo specialize in finding European and Asian cash to underwrite American movies. “They’ve done what people have been talking about for a long time,” says Gilliam. “Chuck Roven gets studio pictures with big stars and delivers them to foreign funders.”

“The studio is really a much more relaxed place to be” when its bank account is not at stake, the director laughs. It also helped that Monkeys cost less than $30 million, “well below the cost of a typical Hollywood movie today.”

Monkeys doesn’t exactly have a happy ending, and Gilliam (with the help of an obliging test audience) managed to deflect Universal’s recommendation that he pump up the romance between lead actors Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe. Still, the film has something Universal understands: stars. “Bruce was the first key” to getting the film made, says Gilliam, but the star power doesn’t stop with Willis’ turn as a time-traveler, Cole, sent back to 1996 to discover the origin of a catastrophic virus.

“I wanted to make the project with lesser stars, because it would cost less and we’d have more control,” says Gilliam. “The one person I was keen to have in there was Madeleine,” who plays a psychiatrist who first diagnoses and then allies with Cole. With some initial reluctance, however, the director consented to adding a guy named Brad Pitt to the cast—even though at first the actor couldn’t speak fast enough for his role as a demented animal-rights crusader.

“Brad came knocking on the door before he was the Brad Pitt we know and love,” the director notes. “When we were doing the film, [Pitt’s fame] just shot up out of nowhere.”

“I think everybody involved in this can’t believe their luck,” the director grins.

“I didn’t want to become dependent on stars,” he adds. “But now I’ve become the kind of director that stars want to work with.”

At a question-and-answer session after a recent Monkeys screening, Gilliam commented that he now wants only to direct, realizing other people’s projects. That was just a joke, however. “I don’t want really to be just a director. That’s just something that seems to have happened,” he says, although he admits that “it takes some of the onus off you.”

Still, Gilliam was happy to attempt to realize the Monkeys script, a “really smart” screenplay written by David Peoples and his wife Janet. The former scripted Unforgiven, Gilliam’s favorite film of recent years, and co-wrote yet another futuristic dystopian fantasy, Blade Runner.

“I was trying desperately not to make it a Terry Gilliam film,” says the director about Monkeys, which definitely qualifies as a Terry Gilliam film. “So I don’t get it. I don’t know what makes a film distinctively mine.”

Gilliam admits, though, that his crew was sometimes altogether ready to retrace the steps of Brazil and Time Bandits. “On this film, I was trying to slow people down. Sometimes they were trying to do what I did on my other films.”

In making Monkeys, the filmmaker also tried to avoid another influence: Chris Marker, whose 1962 short, La Jetée, is credited as the inspiration for the Peoples’ script. Gilliam says he’s never watched it.

“I didn’t want to see it,” he explains. “I just wanted to keep clean. I didn’t want to have to explain what we’d done.” He got a note from Marker, he says, offering that ” ‘the best thing to do is to forget about La Jetée.’ So Chris Marker understands.”

“This is clearly not a remake of La Jetée,” he adds.

Marker’s short, Gilliam admits, is not the only notable film he hasn’t seen. “I don’t go to many films these days. I think that films today are so much less surprising. I’m constantly being let down.”

Hollywood, he says, “is not a good field to grow films in.” The movies are so formulaic that they’re “like some kind of modern Mass. We all know the ritual.”

As an example, Gilliam cites the screenplays that came his way after Fisher King. “All these scripts were coming in with the same ending,” he says. “I think screenwriters are just generally really abused people. They become

self-censoring.”

Despite his criticism of the Hollywood system, the easygoing Gilliam is no detached, petulant auteur. Perhaps because of his years with the Pythons, he values collaboration and even compromise. “Without restrictions, it might be really tedious” to make films, he argues.

“I’m doing all the talking, but there’s another 50 people who made the movie. I’m just the leader of the pack,” he says. “I direct by keeping my mouth shut now.”

“It’s great, because I don’t have to do everything. Yet the end result is that I did everything.”

“I don’t particularly want to know” what makes a Terry Gilliam film, the director says, yet perhaps the answer is obvious: not the childlike enthusiasm for fantasy, the distinctive mix of Victorian and space-age imagery, or the obsession with death, but Gilliam’s insistence on staying true to the original vision.

“No matter how silly and jokey my films are,” he vows, “I’ll fight to the death for them.”

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