by Elaine Ash, 2001 Photo (left): David Beeler
TERRY GILLIAM (TG): I just finished, hopefully, the final draft of Good Omens, based on a book by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaimen. Way back when the book was first out, they approached me about directing, but unfortunately they took a lot of money from an American production company and it never got made. So the book floated around for years and finally caught up with me again when I was out of a job. I wrote the screenplay with Tony Grisoni, who wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with me.
ELAINE ASH (EA): Tell me about your writing process.
TG: The trick is pulling the structure together—what’s it going to look like? We changed the end because I never liked it. Books are books and films are films, they’re two different things.The question used to be, “Why even waste time adapting a book? Why not write something original? Change the names and nobody will know I’m stealing.” But this one’s too obvious. I can’t do that with this one.
EA: What is your relationship with Hollywood?
TG: I still seem to be an A-list director, despite my best efforts. I burn bridges as often as I can, and they still come and talk to me. I actually made more money than a lot of film directors without my reputation. So it’s never the end as long as you make money.
After The Fisher King, which was an enormous success made by studio rules, Richard La Gravanese and I wanted to option a Philip K. Dick book, A Scanner Darkly, and the studio wouldn’t do it. We just wanted to option the book and write the script, and they said no. So I don’t try to figure it out anymore. Anytime I want to make a film, I just come over [from England] with a couple of big carpet bags and say, “Give me some money,” and see what happens.
EA: Do you call yourself a satirist?
TG:No, I’m a satyrist. I want to have cloven hooves and leap around amongst the greenery, pop out and grab young virgins.
EA: Let’s not go there, Terry. Let’s keep the “a” vowel short. As in s-a-t-i-r-e.
TG: I’m trying to make people laugh at reality. If not laugh, then at least see the straw reality is made of.
EA: Who do you consider your brothers in satire?
TG: The Coen Brothers sometimes get there. Danny DeVito. It’s pretty lonely out here. Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park, are supreme and way ahead of anything I’m doing. They’re serious satirists.
EA: Even though you were born in California, you choose to live in England. What are your observations of America?
TG: Language is becoming more and more euphemistic. Politicians won’t say one word when they can use twenty. It’s a symptom of trying to pretend things are under control. Don’t believe it, not for a minute. My film, Brazil dealt with that…these smiling masks that people wear in America, pretending to be helpful, but it’s an illusion.
EA: What about your spiritual life?
TG: I am not a Scientologist. They’re all about how to succeed in business, win friends and influence people. I’m a pagan. I have no idea if there’s an afterlife, but I think we get recycled.
EA: Kind of like a pagan-Buddhist?
TG: Exactly. I went to college on a Presbyterian scholarship. I wanted to be a missionary, but I found it too limiting. I believe that when we die, we re-form. What people need is a belief in things larger than the individual. In terms of worship, I worship the God of Irony. That’s the only God I know exists.
*Originally published in MovieMaker Magazine, 2001