Fun Fridays – Director’s Favourite Films – Terry Gilliam

Hello Film Doctor friends.

Wow, where did another week go? Hope you’ve all had a good one?

This Fun Friday brings Terry Gilliam‘s (“Monty Python & the Holly Grail”“Brazil”“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”) new creation,  “The Zero Theorem”  to the UK screens. What are some of Gilliam’s own film influences & guilty pleasures?


 These titles were originally published in “Film Comment” , “Time Out” ’95, “Sight & Sound” ’94 and as part of BBC 2 “Close Up” interview:

  • Anything with Jerry Lewis or Dean Martin“There’s a side of me that always fell for manic things, frenzied, cartoony performances. I always liked sideshows, freakshows – words we don’t use these days. Jerry Lewis was a freakshow. It was pushing things right back to music hall or burlesque. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis used to make me howl. Howl. Absolutely grotesque, awful stuff. Tasteless. But I like things to be tasteless. And I think that’s useful, because you reach a certain point where you start “appreciating” films and then are allowed a certain precious form of tastelessness: if it’s camp enough, it’s all right. But that’s simply inverted sophistication, intellectual snobbery. The real tasteless stuff… Jerry Lewis is funny because he’s funny, because he’s grotesque, leaping around the place, making funny voices, doing funny things.” (T. Gilliam for “Film Comment”)
  • “Son Of Flubber” (dir. Robert Stevenson, 1963) – Fred MacMurray always made me laugh – the Flubber series. I love Fred MacMurray. He’s wonderfully funny, a great performer.” (T. Gilliam for “Film Comment”)

… and Fred MacMurray in general:  “I remember MacMurray most in The Apartment; he was the slime. He was so smooth, so charming, so distasteful.” (T. Gilliam for “Film Comment”)

  • Anything Disney – I was a great fan of Walt Disney. Everything Disney did, I fell for: the live-action stuff – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Treasure Island; all the cartoons” (T. Gilliam for “Film Comment”)
  • “The Americanization of Emily”  (dir. Arthur Hiller, 1964) –  Julie Andrews I think is very good. The film of hers I like most is The Americanization of Emily, with James Garner. It’s a wonderful film, and she’s great! Because she’s really sexy in the thing, she’s this English rose, but like most Englishwomen, underneath that cool, prim, ordered exterior is something sexy. I think that may have sent me off to England in ’67. I actually met Julie Andrews once. And I thought she was one of the sexiest women I’d ever met. Interesting sexy. Not like Raquel Welch – it’s more subtle, because it’s not displayed. But it’s there. For the perceptive, it’s there.” (T. Gilliam for “Film Comment”)
  • “The Red Shoes”  (dir. Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1948) – There’s a whole string of romantic films I was crazy about. I was always falling for Wuthering Heights kind of films […] They tend to be lush period pieces with lots of old stylized passion running around the place. I think my films are always very romantic. Nobody else does, but I mean, with Munchausen waltzing like that in the air, there’s no justification for it other than just gushing old-fashioned romanticism. So I slip that one through while they think I’m doing some very hard-biting comedies.” (T. Gilliam for “Film Comment”)
  • “One-eyed Jacks” (dir. Marlon Brando, 1961) – “[…] one of my favorite films of all time. Number one: spectacular performances. And a great script: the idea of the thing was great. It was really a character piece, and every character was breathtakingly wonderful. The casting was amazing, the costumes were great, the dialogue was fucking wonderful. Particularly “You great gob of spit! […] I think I watched it three times in a row. When the film came out, I didn’t have any money and so I had to go to one of those shitty little 42nd Street theaters. And I just sat there all day. It was on a double bill, and I had to sit through the other film each time. […] Brando was raked over the coals critically about One-Eyed Jacks, because he was doing things only David Lean should get away with. He was waiting for the surf to crash, waiting for the waves to get from 7-foot high to 20-foot high. In those scenes where they ride along the edge of the cliff and we see those great waves – David Lean can do it, but Marlon Brando, this actor, taking over and trying to direct the film, he’s not allowed to do that. ” (T. Gilliam)
  • “Freaks” (dir. Tod Browning, 1932) – “[…] one of those films you know about for a long time and finally stumble on. It wasn’t quite as good as I had imagined it would be, but the element that’s so wonderful is to take the abnormal and make it, basically, normal.” (T. Gilliam for “Film Comment”)
  • “8 1/2” (dir. Federico Fellini, 1963) –  Because I have to choose, I chose Fellini’s 8 1/2. I don’t like having to choose because I hate reducing all of my filming experience to one film. But 8 1/2 somehow coalesces for me in many ways the essence of cinema and in particular the sequence that I have chosen is Marcello Mastroianno passing down the hallways of the hotel where they’re trying to make this movie, and he has this phenomenal ability to tap dance his way out of trouble and when I saw that, it was long before I ever made a movie, but I suspected there was truth to that and subsequently now having made a few movies, I know it’s the ultimate truth of movie making, and the job of the director is to tap dance past all the problems.” (T. Gilliam for “Close Up”, BBC 2)

Terry Gilliam


And, recently, Gilliam has shared his cinematic influences in “My Life in 8 Movies” for

  • “Paths Of Glory” (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1957) –  Not quite an epiphany, but there was “Paths of Glory.” It was a Saturday matinee show in the San Fernando Valley and parents would dump their kids at the cinema and I was probably 14, something like that, and there it was, this film that was about injustice. It was two things: first here was technology that I’d never been aware of, the tracking shots through the trenches which of course I copied in “Brazil,” but I’d never been aware of the camera before that film and the second thing was that you talk about injustice in the film, you could talk about big themes, ideas.” (T. Gilliam for Jessica Kiang, Indiewire, 4 Feb 2014)

  • “The one that inspired him to direct” – “Seven Samurai” (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1954) – “[…] because that was just thrilling stuff. You suddenly saw the way he used the camera, slow motion, the fights suddenly going into slow motion. He was playing with so many of the techniques that afterwards everyone copied. But you know, growing up in the San Fernando valley out there in the hills, with friends whose parents worked in the film business, I wanted to get in there and make movies. It wasn’t about directing. See I don’t think of myself as a director, in my mind I’m a filmmaker—there’s a difference. A director makes a script that’s given to him, I just want to make this thing that is in my head, and whatever job is required to do that, I will do that job. My problem with it was that being around the edge of Hollywood and seeing how most people started out as a teaboy and worked their way up, I thought, “I’m not gonna do that, it’s ridiculous.” Because I always wanted to control what I was doing. And so as a cartoonist, it’s paper, pen, my hand, control. I backed into it strangely enough. I must have wanted to make movies, because I saved enough money when I was working in New York to buy my first Bolex camera and we’d go out and shoot things on the weekend. But it’s not like there was a clear idea: “This is what I wanna do more than anything.” It was only ultimately when Python came along that we did it … I mean when I look at people like Scorsese, all these people, I know just all they wanted to do was be film directors … I wasn’t like that.” (T. Gilliam for Indiewire, 4 Feb 2014)

As a former animator & strip cartoonist himself, Gilliam’s extensive list of references also includes some animation picks:

  • “The Mascot” (dir. Wladyslaw Starewicz, 1934) – His work is absolutely breathtaking, surreal,inventive and extraordinary, encompassing everything that Jan Svankmajer, Walerian Borowczyk and the Quay Brothers would do subsequently. This is his last film, after The Tale of the Fox from 1930; it is all right there in this cosmic animation soup. It is important, before you journey through all these mind-bending worlds, to remember that it was all done years ago, by someone most of us have forgotten about now. This is where it all began.” (T. Gilliam for “The Guardian”)
  • “Pinocchio” (dir. Hamilton Luske, Ben Sharpsteen, 1940) – “For me, as an American growing up in Minnesota, Walt Disney was animation. But the joy of Disney’s films always came from watching the baddies. Pinocchio is visually the richest of his features and it is also the darkest. The Bad Boys’ World is a truly immortal nightmare, full of eerie images of kids turning into donkeys and all manner of strangeness. Then there is that stuff with cages, and I notice now that every film I have made features a scene with somebody in a cage – a trait I attribute to watching Pinocchio. Great songs in that film too; Disney was essentially a musical film-maker.” (T. Gilliam for “The Guardian”)
  • “Red Hot Riding Hood” (dir. Tex Avery, 1943) – The magic of Tex Avery’s animation is the sheer extremity of it all. The classic Avery image is of someone’s mouth falling open down to their feet, wham, their eyes whooping out and their tongue unrolling for about half a mile: that is the most wonderfully liberating spectacle. […] here is no hesitation in his work, no sense that you can go too far. I think that nowadays they should put on Tex Avery festivals as an antidote to political correctness. There is also a childlike sense of immortality and indestructibility in his work; people get squashed, mashed, bashed, bent out of shape, whatever, and they bounce back. In essence, it is like the myth of eternal life.” (T. Gilliam for “The Guardian)
  • “Out of the Inkwell” (dir. Dave Fleischer, 1938) –  “I first saw this when I was a teenager and, in retrospect, it was a career leap for me. This was when I first discovered surrealism. You have a scenario in which you see an animator creating something which suddenly develops a life outside of the cartoon. The character starts communicating with the animator, and then it is Frankenstein all over again, the creation of a monster over which you have no control. Until I saw Out of the Inkwell, I had always thought of animation as existing on one plane, but here were the Fleischer brothers taking you right through the looking glass and into the picture.” (T. Gilliam for “The Guardian”)
  • “Breath Death” (dir. Stan Vanderbeek, 1964) –  Stan Vanderbeek’s technique of using magazine/newspaper clippings to make whimsical but pointed commentary is what you can find in some of Gilliam’s own work.
  • “Les Jeux des Anges” (dir. Walerian Borowczyk, 1964) – Les Jeux des Anges was my first experience of animation that was utterly impressionistic. It didn’t show me anything specific, just sound and movement from which you create a world of your own.” (T. Gilliam for “The Guardian”)
  • “Dimensions Of Dialogue” (dir. Jan Svankmajer, 1982) – Jan Svankmajer’s stop-motion work uses familiar, unremarkable objects in a way which is deeply disturbing. […] His films always leave me with mixed feelings, but they all have moments that really get to me; moments that evoke the nightmarish spectre of seeing commonplace things coming unexpectedly to life.” (T. Gilliam for “The Guardian)
  • “Street of Crocodiles” (dir. Stephen Quay, Timothy Quay, 1986) – There is something peculiar about falling for Jan Svankmajer and then discovering the Quay brothers – Americans who came to Europe and somehow wound up working in a style that felt like Polish animation. As an American, I always wanted to be seduced into this strange decadent, rotting idea of Europe, and the Quays have created that world in a manner which hypnotises me, but which I don’t fully understand. Maybe I like them because they ended up going further east than I did.” (T. Gilliam for “The Guardian”)
  • “Knick Knack” (dir. John Lasseter, 1989) – John Lasseter’s work was the first digital animation that had genuine life in the characters. To be able to mix that level of characterisation with the smooth, crisp, clean quality of computer animation, to give it a real sense of three-dimensional existence, of touchiness and tactility, was like discovering a whole new texture of animation.” (T. Gilliam for “The Guardian”)
  • “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” (dir. Trey Parker, Matt Stone, 1999) – “Parker and Stone are the only guys who were ever inspired by me, who took the crudeness of my animation to even lower depths. Their stuff is so shoddy that it is miraculous that it works at all. I assured them that while it may be great for TV, there was no way to sustain it for 90 minutes. And, of course, their movie worked just brilliantly.” (T. Gilliam for “The Guardian”)

“The Zero Theorem” is out in UK cinemas nationwide from today, 14th March 2014.

Film Doctor The Zero Theorem film poster 
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