Terry Gilliam, the surreal genius responsible for Monty Python’s iconic animation, is a mass of brilliant, iconoclastic contradictions. A film director releasing a cutting edge film, The Zero Theorem, which concerns itself with how technology affects our lives, the 73-year-old Minnesota-born innovator reveals how, actually, he hates how technology affects our lives. And that’s quite a revelation...
…as is the notion that a man who has been the creative force behind some of the most innovative films of recent years - 12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - doesn’t like going to the cinema too much. This all needs exploring…
An American by birth, Terry Gilliam could not be more immersed in London life if he tried. Born in Minneapolis, he has lived in the capital for over 40 years and denounced his American citizenship for good in 2006.
It has been some journey from the first time he was in London – he sharply admits he was here “to avoid getting a proper job”. His first memory of the capital was based around the fogginess of a hitchhiking trip around Europe, when he bumped into an old American acquaintance in a café on Wardour Street. “My first thought was ‘I come all the way to London and I see somebody I know? I wanted to get away from this guy’.”
Gillian was 24 then, yet at 73 now he could hardly be busier. We will get onto the forthcoming Monty Pythonreunion - the comedic equivalent of The Beatles reuniting – in due course, but examining how London has changed over the past four decades is a moot point, given that the director believes the ‘world’s favourite city’ has possibly not improved.
“It may be me looking back with rose tinted glasses and with youthful nostalgia, but I think it is actually worse than it was. I feel there isn’t quite the community spirit that there used to be when I first moved here. Remember, I got here in the 1960s, so it was a big party - peace and love and all that. Then came austerity and strikes and now it has a strange atmosphere; I’m not sure what it is anymore, everything seems fractured. I think a sense of society has been lost, and I think that is a bad thing.”
Would he extend such criticism to an arts and culture perspective?
“Well, no, I actually wouldn’t. I think in that respect we have so much right here – there is such creativity, such expression. I don’t really know where else you would need to go in the world for such a broad reflection of the artistic talents of the world, and it really is the world here. Why leave?!”
In truth, Gilliam isn’t quite as cantankerous as his sweeping criticisms may imply. Indeed, his admiration for the capital clearly tempers frustrations in other areas. He says he adores the house in Highgate where he lives with his wife Maggie. “We’ve been there for three decades. It’s an old place, built in the 17th century and no, I could not even think about living anywhere else. I feel like I am the latest in a long tradition of custodians looking after the place.
“And the locality is just so wonderful. I’m a reader and a walker – not necessarily at the same time – but going off without a plan is so good for the soul. I may find myself in local pub The Flask, or at Vasco & Piero's Pavilion, which is a great Italian place. And then there are the museums and art galleries. You can get inspiration from anywhere; you’ve just got to open yourself up to it all.”
Just don’t ask him what his favourite cinema is. “I don’t really go to the cinema.” Really? That is quite surprising for such a successful film director. “It might be, but I don’t like it. I prefer to watch stuff on DVD. Who likes going to the cinema in the summer when it is hot? Nobody in London!”
Reluctant or not, Gilliam’s new film The Zero Theorem hit the cinemas this month (presumably he expects people to make it along) and couldn’t be more perfectly timed. With the 25th anniversary of the internet this month, Gilliam’s depiction of corporate existential angst will resonate with many.