Terry Gilliam Talks The "Simplistic" Films Of Steven Spielberg, Dumbing Down Of Audiences, 'Don Quixote' Start Date & More

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by Kevin Jagernauth
January 7, 2014 9:40 AM
14 Comments
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Having spoken to Terry Gilliam twice over the past year (read our Venice Film Festival interview is in two parts here and here as well as our Marrakech Film Festival chat here) and following the filmmaker for much longer, we've learned that when he speaks it pays to listen. Unguarded and honest, there are few questions he won't answer with candor, and it has gotten him into some hot water from time to time. But at 73 years old, and having done everything from big Hollywood films to low budget indies, Gilliam has seen it all and it's no surprise that when he recently stopped by the Romanian TV show "Garantat 100%" he didn't hold back.

One of the filmmaker's longtime targets has been Steven Spielberg (he recently explained why "2001: A Space Odyssey" was better than "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind") and in particular his holocaust drama "Schindler's List." This time around, the interviewer on the show pretends to be Spielberg and allows Gilliam a chance to further explain his criticism and as always, he's candid.

"I'm just very jealous of you, your success, your talent, your skills, you're brilliant. I just think your ideas are a bit simplistic, that's all. I think you're the best storyteller out there, I just think your stories are not completely grown up and honest," Gilliam said to "Garantat 100%" host playing Spielberg.

"What Stanley Kubrick said—and it wasn't my quote about 'Schindler's List'—Stanley Kubrick was the one that said the problem with 'Schindler's List' is that Steven made a film about success, [but] the holocaust is about failure," Gilliam continued. "And that is so perfect, Kubrick said it better than anybody."  

Over the course of the conversation, what emerges isn't that Gilliam is being petty about his colleagues, but rather that he wants everyone (including himself) to raise the bar. "Film and media is such a powerful tool. If we're not educating people, making them think, making them look at the world with fresh eyes, what are we doing?" But from his perspective, things are grim, with Hollywood already having trained audiences to expect pre-fabricated films. 

"I think [Hollywood] has achieved everything they've always dreamed of. The audience now seems to be very dumb, I mean they're watching the same film again and again," he said. "They pay money to watch the same film. Now, you could argue, that's because it makes them feel comfortable. When they go to a movie now, it's almost like hearing a pop song. You know the rhythms, you know when the downbeat is going to come, you know when the explosion is going to come… And so as life becomes more complex, as the economy is in trouble, people cling to what makes them comfortable, so they go again and again to see the same movie. "

And for Gilliam, he believes it's come to a point where audiences don't question the moviemakers but themselves if they don't engage with the latest big thing. "There was a time when I saw 'Batman [Returns],' the second one. I just happened to be in Los Angeles at the time, and I went an 11 o'clock evening screening, it was the opening of the film.  Everyone was so excited because Tim Burton's first one had done so well. The second one, it really didn't work quite honestly. You could feel it in the audience…," he shared. "[But] This is the thing that really disturbed me. I heard somebody say,'Maybe it was me, maybe I was the problem.' I wanted to say, 'No, you were fine, the film didn't work.' "

And again, it boils down to Gilliam hoping and wanting more from the movies and audiences. "I'm glad people talk about films, but how many people talk about the ideas in the films? Or what did the film mean as opposed to, 'Oh the lighting was brilliant' or 'Did you see that camera move in that one shot.' That shouldn't be what the audience is talking about, you should be arguing about, 'What does it mean?' " 

So we'll see what ideas Gilliam puts forth in his upcoming "The Zero Theorem," and his long-developing "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" which he now says has a start date. In a recent interview with La Stampa, he said that filming will begin on October 3rd in the Canary Islands, and while he has an actor lined up, he's keeping the name under wraps for now. He also adds that funding is in place from a Spanish production company, and that everything is ready to roll.

Will Gilliam finally get "Don Quixote" mounted? He seems confident. Until then, check out the rest of his 40-minute interview right here including his thoughts on the hair in "American Hustle," what his favorite "Harry Potter" film is and much more.



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14 Comments

  • Alex | January 14, 2014 3:40 AMReply

    Why is Terry Gilliam so focused on what Spielberg is doing? Sounds like sour grapes to me. It's funny because it doesn't seem as though Spielberg gives Gilliam a second thought and would rather focus on making his own movies rather than criticize a peer.

  • JLR | January 14, 2014 10:31 AM

    Spielberg's got better things to do than worry about some washed-up crybaby loser like Gilliam. Gilliam is upset because he burned bridges with every single studio in America and is now in position where he can barely find work. Gilliam does nothing on his spare time than bitch and complain about American cinema and filmmakers, even though these are the same filmmakers that cited him as an influence. In my opinion, Gilliam was never a good filmmaker in the first place, so he can languish in obscurity in Europe for all I care.

  • Fred | January 8, 2014 3:34 PMReply

    I love Gilliam and Spielberg. They're both brilliant. I don't see why people have to get so riled up about an honest and fairly accurate opinion. Some of Spielberg's ideas are "a bit simplistic." On the other hand, some of Gilliam's films are a bit convoluted and hard to follow. I'd love to see a film they collaborated on.

  • PLD | January 8, 2014 1:29 PMReply

    Dumbing down? Simplicity? Saying that 'Steven made a film about success, the Holocaust was about failure' is as dumb and simple an argument against Schindler's List as I've ever heard.

  • JLR | January 8, 2014 11:41 AMReply

    One of the biggest crybabies in cinema history. My God, this made the Clint Eastwood talking to the chair debacle look amusing.

  • daniel | January 7, 2014 8:03 PMReply

    I don't see what is wrong with audiences liking to see 'the same movie again and again.' There are movies for me where this is literally true, and I simply enjoy the experience. Filmmakers have no obligation to challenge anyone, or change the world -- they have an obligation to themselves and their audience to make what they want to make -- and whether that's Legally Blonde or The Act of Killing. I think Gilliam is simply frustrated, because his own films have been hard to get made; an understandable POV, but it's useless to put the responsibility for that off on other filmmakers or the audience itself.

  • Harry | January 8, 2014 3:42 AM

    You're missing the point, I think, which is that Gilliam is bemoaning audiences who do NOTHING BUT see the same movie again and again. Fine that they see SOME of them, but not just every time. I mean, I like spaghetti and meatballs, but I don't want to eat it every night.

  • Arye Michael Bender | January 7, 2014 5:50 PMReply

    The best films wake us up and make us think. In an era of dumbing-down and denial. that's when we need them the most.

  • John | January 7, 2014 8:51 PM

    Well he had no problem dumbing-down a masterpiece like La Jetee, so he's equally as guilty.

  • hank | January 7, 2014 5:08 PMReply

    I'd always read the Kubrick quote as "the success of Schindler's List, in relation to other holocaust films, is that it dealt with a group of people who lived, rather than a group of people who died."
    Anyone care to fact check?

  • David | January 8, 2014 4:55 AM

    Frederic Raphael said that Kubrick was really talking about how impossible it was for one movie to deal with and confront the subject of the Holocaust head-on. Kubrick was trying to get his ARYAN PAPERS film made, but realized that it was too difficult to say what he wanted to say about the Holocaust through cinema. The SCHINDLER'S LIST quote was not intended to be a dig at Spielberg or the film, but merely Kubrick's illustration of this point, that even a film so harrowing as that was, in fact, not about the Holocaust, but about Oskar Schindler's successful rescue of approx. 1000 Jews, and relative to the atrocity as a whole, could only offer glimpses of the true horror in order to place that specific story into a broader context. This was one realization among many that ultimately convinced Kubrick to abandon ARYAN PAPERS.

    In reality, Kubrick reportedly admired SCHINDLER'S LIST and deeply respected Spielberg. Why else would he have been so determined to get Spielberg for A.I.? As a cynical financial move, like some have suggested? I think Kubrick took the art form much too seriously to go after someone he considered a simplistic studio hack to direct a project he felt so passionately about.

  • j | January 7, 2014 11:05 AMReply

    Thanks for publishing that.

    Refreshing to hear an outspoken point of view, even though it might ruffle some feathers.

    Here's an idea. A smart filmmaker should take up film criticism on an anonymous basis. He/she could share positive and negative insights with the audience without risking retribution.

  • G.N. | January 8, 2014 12:38 PM

    Film Crit Hulk (screenwriter) is doing just that - brilliantly, I might add.

  • catt | January 7, 2014 10:00 AMReply

    Interesting Kubrick-quote. When you think about it, all of his films dealt more or less with the failure of man.

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