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Interview: Terry Gilliam Explains How "Hard-Bender" Gets Films Financed, Why He Doesn't Like TV & Much More

by Kevin Jagernauth
August 28, 2013 12:05 PM
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Terry Gilliam

There are few cinematic raconteurs as lively and interesting as Terry Gilliam, so you can imagine that when we chatted with him earlier this month, our conversation wound up being fairly wide-ranging. Yesterday, we ran the first part of our talk with Gilliam, focused solely on his forthcoming sci-fi effort "The Zero Theorem." And today, we bring the rest of our discussion with the filmmaker, which fans, and those just interested in the industry in general, will want to take a look at.

As Gilliam noted about "The Zero Theorem," he was working with the lowest budget he's had in three decades, so naturally we had to ask him about the state of movie-making and the difficulties in raising financing. From there we inquired about whether or not he'd dip his toes into television, crowdfunding, how he feels about the perception he's been given in the wake of the documentary "Lost In La Mancha," why the recent restoration of "Time Bandits" ultimately wasn't in 3D (though, he's not a fan of the format anyway), and much more.

"The Zero Theorem" plays later this week at the Venice Film Festival. We'll have our verdict soon, but until the, read on below.

Terry Gilliam (skip crop)

You’ve done studio pictures, you’ve done independent stuff; what's it like getting money from Hollywood these days?
Hollywood is getting its money from China, India and other places; they don’t spend their own money. They’re raping those countries, so that’s why when you see, "Pacific Rim," where is it set? Hong Kong. I keep bumping into people who have deals in China, but it will mean you’ll have that Chinese [story] element in it, which isn’t a bad thing; it just is what it is. Hollywood has for years been looking for the new fool — whether it’s Saudi Arabia in the '70s, Japan in the '80s, the Germans in the '90s, and in the teens it was hedge funds. Hollywood for me is very rapacious in that sense.

The problem to me is, yes, it’s hard to get the money because even though I’m making films with no money, they still want Johnny [Depp] or Brad [Pitt] in it. It’s stupid, it’s ridiculous. The new phrase that’s floating around is you need a “hard-bender” if you're doing a film of a certain size. A "hard-bender" is one with either Tom Hardy or Michael Fassbender and it never stops, it always astonishes me. The nice thing about ["The Zero Theorem"] is Christoph [Waltz], thanks to Quentin [Tarantino]’s films, has become bankable to a certain level and that was fantastic and that’s how we made it; not because of the ideas but because Christoph and I were able to work together. And then I sweetened the load even more with friends like Tilda [Swinton], Matt Damon, and David Thewlis all coming into play. 

The more worrisome thing to me is how do they get sold? How do they reach the public when you’re trying to get the attention of the public and you’re fighting the studios that have $100 million dollars to promote their films? That’s the hard part, that's what's really difficult. You're up against these huge budgets and anybody who’s got a cinema is trying to make money and even the art cinemas seem to be showing Hollywood films to bolster their finances. Festivals have become the alternative distribution system, but the problem with festivals is they don’t make any money for the filmmakers to repay their investors.It’s not a great time.

"The new phrase that’s floating around is you need a “hard-bender” if you're doing a film of a certain size. A "hard-bender" is one with either Tom Hardy or Michael Fassbender."

Have you ever considered crowdfunding?
I’ve been pestered to do it for years, and there’s something that bothers me about it. Just because you raise $5 million for a film...I actually need more than that, that's my problem. I keep thinking about the scale of it and whether it actually works, whether you can raise enough to get something going. I saw Spike Lee is now begging on Kickstarter for his next [film]. I don't know. I think the fact that a couple have managed to pull off something does not mean everybody is going to. And I also wonder whether you start draining the same source. Probably not, Spike has his fans, I have mine, so they’re probably very different people. But so far, I haven't done it. 

Steven Soderbergh, who’s been very public about how the Hollywood model’s broken, is now making a television series.  Have you kicked around any notions of doing television work?
I’ve always dismissed it, but in the last year it’s become more and more part of the conversation. There’s no way out of it.

Why have you dismissed it?
I don’t like the little screen. I want to make things for the big screen, I still foolishly believe there’s a great experience sitting in a dark room with a massive screen in front of you. Even though when I go to the local cinemas I say, “This is crap” because the environment is so shabby. On the other hand, I’m not foolish enough to not realize that most people will see my film on their television set at home or on their iPhone even, but that’s not the experience I would prefer them to see the film in. To survive you do have to move with the times, whatever they are. I thought the model of something like "Behind the Candelabra" was very smart. where Americans get to watch on television and the rest of the world get to watch it in a cinema.

But you're working on a TV project Neil Gaiman, right?
I can’t quite see the viability as far as budget. The book, "Good Omens" that Neil and Terry Pratchett wrote many years ago, was a huge best-seller. Some years ago, I wrote a script for it, and tried to get it off the ground around Hollywood and we didn’t despite the fact we had Johnny Depp and Robin Williams involved. Timing is everything and Johnny hadn’t done 'Pirates' yet and Robin had done too many bad films by then. [Laughs]  We talked about it; Neil got excited, I got excited. I don’t still believe in the economics of it. It does involve the apocalypse and it’s a very big movie.

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  • helen | August 30, 2013 1:17 PMReply

    I find the whole hard-bender issue odd. Tom Hardy's films have not done well commercially when he's been the lead actor. If they are counting his box office via a Batman film or Inception I don't think that can be regarded as his success. The majority of Fassbender's films have been small scale and not set the world alight box office wise. Again he's one of many in the x-men franchise so it seems to me some film makers are going to come a cropper eventually if they sink a lot of money into hard-bender films.

  • Betsy | August 30, 2013 1:01 PMReply

    I'm sick to death of the same actors in films. Tom Hardy, Bale, Bradley Cooper, Fassbender, Helmsworth. Its such lazy casting.

  • Layla | November 26, 2013 4:42 AM

    "Tom Hardy, Bale, Bradley Cooper, Fassbender, Helmsworth. Its such lazy casting."
    Can't you say that about every actor and actress in the industry?You don't think casting Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp , Robert Downey Jr. , George Clooney, Russell Crowe, Tom Hanks aren't lazy casting either?

  • Ella | August 31, 2013 2:34 PM

    Comments like these make me laugh. Tell me, how many mainstream films have Hardy and Fassbender been in, specifically as leads? Bale has been consistent in his filmography over the last decade, but he is hardly overexposed. Cooper might be hovering on overexposure, I will grant you that. And Hemsworth? That guy has played Thor, was in a Snow White film and Rush will be his first serious is that being overexposured? He hasn't had a film in cinemas in almost a year. The Internet creates the illusion of certain actors being overexposed and in "every film" but it is far from reality. You probably have a cubicle mate that fancies one of these actors, but =/= the same actors nor lazy casting.

  • Billy | August 28, 2013 4:24 PMReply

    Great article -- always nice to have a catch up with Gilliam. He's like the favourite uncle who comes back from his travels now and again with gifts.

  • Ella | August 31, 2013 2:35 PM

    Haha! Good analogy about Gilliam.

  • Curtis | August 28, 2013 12:54 PMReply

    The cinema is filled with people on their f*@king cellphones and talking at full volume and acting like douches mostly. I avoid it now unless it's an early morning Sunday matinee after the film has been out for 2 weeks and then...maybe.

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