Salman Rushdie


talks with

Terry Gilliam


Answers to these questions:
Where is Brazil?
Why be an American?
Why make the alien adorable?
What would be the very worst time and place to go about
making a film about Don Quixote?

At the 2002 Telluride Film Festival I was asked if I’d take part in a public conversation with Terry Gilliam. I have known Terry a little bit for a long time and admired his work much more than a little bit for an even longer time; so I agreed delightedly to the festival organizers’ request. This was in the aftermath of the catastrophic collapse of Gilliam’s long-cherished The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, scuppered by bad weather and the ill health of the leading actor, Jean Rochefort. Lost in La Mancha, a remarkable fly-on-the-wall documentary detailing the calamity, was screened at the Telluride Festival. What struck me when I saw the documentary was the extraordinary openness and honesty with which Gilliam had allowed the filmmakers free access, enabling them to chronicle what must have been a dreadful time for him.

I loved movies as a kid. I grew up in a movie town: Bombay, which makes more movies each year than Hollywood. It makes cheap Terry Gilliam movies. Very cheap. You grow up with a kind of fantasy of cinema all around you if you grow up in a town like Bombay. The movies are on every street corner. And people in my family were in the movies, and so on. Also, our generation was a movie generation. When I was growing up in India, there was no television. There simply was not a TV service. So we read books and went to the pictures. And then I came to England and boarding school and went to university, and it was totally impossible to watch television. Movies educated me, and so I feel I’m a creature of the cinema and grateful to the great filmmakers of our time who taught me as much as any novelist did. And so we get to Terry who certainly is, I think, one of the few really spectacular, original talents in the cinema nowadays.


SALMAN RUSHDIE: Years ago I wrote an essay about Brazil. It was called “The Location of Brazil”—and what it suggested was that clearly Brazil was not in South America. The Brazil in the movie is more obviously located in a song, you know, than in a place. It’s in song-Brazil rather than anywhere else. And so this got me thinking. What is the relationship of the imagined world to the real world? How do you get there from here? What is the road to Wonderland? Where is the Yellow Brick Road? How do you get to Brazil—and back again? So I thought I might just start, Terry, by asking you that. When you were making a film like Brazil, which is clearly another version of the world, where did you feel the connection with the world that we actually are stuck in?

TERRY GILLIAM: I actually preceded Brazil doing the Python things, Life of Brian, etc. Comedy seemed to play better—especially political comedy, or things that we were trying to say that would bother a lot of people—if we could place them in a slightly different world. It would be funny if we put on funny costumes and said the lines rather than just looking like this. [Gestures toward himself and audience.]

I never wanted to make naturalistic films. I’ve always liked the idea that film is an artifice, and that this is admitted right from the start. So we create a world that isn’t true to a realistic naturalistic world, but is truthful…that is the main thing. I think it also comes from being a cartoonist. I’ve always abstracted. Cartoons always push toward the grotesque. You twist, you bend, you shape. Brazil is that way. Brazil came specifically from the time, from the approaching of 1984. It was looming. In fact, the original title of Brazil was 1984 1/2. Fellini was one of my great gods and it was 1984, so let’s put them together. Unfortunately, that bastard Michael Radford did a version of 1984 and he called it 1984, so I was blown. And so Brazil became the title—because of the song. Brazil started when I was sitting out on a beach in Wales—Port Talbot, which is a steel town. They bring the coal in from the ships on these great conveyor belts. So the beach is pitch black. It’s covered with coal dust. It was a miserable, awful day, and I just had this image of some lonely guy sitting on that beach and tuning in a radio and suddenly [Hums the tune to “Brazil”] this music he’s never heard before—there was no music like that in his world—was there. And that would trigger him to believe there is another world out there, a better world. And that was America in the Forties. We were always going south to Rio, and I grew up in that dream time. And it seems like the dream world was somewhere in South America, where everything would be perfect.

At the time Brazil was gestating, governments were getting really interesting, especially in Germany where the left-wing urban terrorists like the Baader Meinhof were in action. The academics had to sign loyalty oaths and it was a very repressive time there. It was happening everywhere. In South America I was reading of cases where people would have to pay for their incarceration in jail. They paid. You know, why should the state pay for putting these people up in these nice places?

I saw an article that Terry Jones had in a book about witchcraft. Private practices with loved ones. And there was a seventeenth century sheet—a cost sheet. If you were arrested and thought to be a witch, and if you were indeed convicted, you had to pay for everything along the way. You had to pay for your food, for the incarceration. You had to pay for the piles of fagots that were used to burn you. Everything. You had to pay for a party for the court that found you guilty. This is extraordinary. The economics of a repressive regime.

SR: One of the great things about the witch hunts in England, particularly Oliver Cromwell’s witch hunt in the seventeenth century, was the test they had for a witch. The test was to weigh suspected witches down with stones and throw them into a river. And if they drowned, they were innocent.

TG: Good for everybody else. They can sleep.

SR: One of the early examples of the double bind.

TG: Yeah. [Pause] At the heart of Brazil is a man who has a privileged background, who is educated, who isn’t taking responsibility for the world he is a part of. He is a cog in it, thinks he can do nothing better. To me, the heart of Brazil is responsibility, is involvement—you can’t just let the world go on doing what it’s doing without getting involved. And of course what he does is he falls in love so he falls vulnerable, and his whole world starts falling apart. Never fall in love.

SR: That’s good advice. There were also some issues with the final version of that film. There was quite a battle about the cut. Do you want to say something about how that went?

TG: Well the advantage of being in Monty Python was that we got away with murder and there was nobody telling us what we could or couldn’t do. We just did it. And time after time it was successful So you build a certain amount of confidence, and a little bit of arrogance. So when it comes along to making a film and you’ve spent a couple or several years on it, it seems to me I have the right to make my mistakes, and not somebody else’s mistakes. At the end of the day, the film was released in Europe with no problem with Twentieth Century Fox, but with Universal in America it was different. The great wonderful thing about Universal is it’s housed in a black tower that looks like the monoliths in Brazil; it’s not intentional, it just happens to be one of the little coincidences that keep occurring around Brazil.

But anyway, [the people at Universal] were appalled by the film. They thought it didn’t work. They wanted me to change the ending, give it a happy ending, because more people would see the film and like the film and it would be better for everybody. I said no, and then they embargoed the film and they started cutting it. I decided to wage a campaign and I said to the producer, “Lawyers are no good—[Universal’s] got all the lawyers in the world, they’ve got all the time in the world, and they don’t have to release the film, so let’s go public and personal.” And that’s what I did. I took out an ad in Variety, a full-page ad, with little black strips around the edges like Italian death notices. The very middle of this big blank page—you know Variety’s covered with just zeroes, really is all it seems to be: “Ten million dollars in the first two seconds” And then there’s the second page with the neat border and in the middle in neat typing, “Dear Mr. Sid Steinberg [the head of Universal], When are you going to release my film, Brazil? Signed Terry Gilliam.”

It seemed pretty straightforward, but you don’t do that in Hollywood, and the whole place went bloing! It was extraordinary. And there was a man named Jack Matthews who was a journalist for the LA Times, and he ran with this thing. He basically kept a dialogue between me and Sid Steinberg going, even though Sid and I weren’t speaking. He would come to me and ask me to say something and then he’d go to Sid and say, “Terry said this,” and then Sid would react in a stupid way. Because Sid really believed that if this were allowed to sneak through—this kind of expression, artistic expression and directors getting away with murder—that the whole thing would be over. Hollywood would collapse. I think he actually believed it. And this dialogue went on and on. We offered any legitimate journalist interested to be flown to London, or wherever it was showing in Europe, or we could bus them down to Tijuana, where we would show it. And what finally happened was we started a series of clandestine screenings hosted by L.A. critics and their friends because there was this embargo saying we could not show that film anywhere in America—ever. And at the same time Universal is beavering away doing their version of the film.

And the L.A. critics—eventually I think about seventy five percent of them saw it—when it came time to vote for films of the year they discovered in their bylaws that the film didn’t actually have to be released—it could still qualify. And so on the night of Universal’s biggest film of the year, Out of Africa, premiering in New York—Redford, everybody’s there in their tuxes—the L.A. critics announced their winners. Best film: Brazil. Best screenplay: Brazil. Best director: Brazil. They [Universal] were in such a flap—they immediately released it in New York and Los Angeles, and they had no posters. They had nothing—they had a Xeroxed copy of the artwork they were going to eventually make a poster of. That’s all they had. And it did proceed to do the most business per theater of any film at that time.

SR: Well it’s a great story about the power of advertising.

TG: Well the great thing, the irony, was before I left America, in ’67, the last job I had was in an advertising agency doing ads for Universal Pictures.

SR: There is an untold story, both about writers and filmmakers, which is that so many of us started in advertising. I started in advertising. So did Don DeLillo. Joseph Heller. When I was working in advertising in the 1970s, the commercials’ filmmakers were Nicolas Roeg, Alan Parker, Hugh Hudson, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Adrian Lyne. I mean, I made a haircare commercial with Nic Roeg.

TG: Did you ever buy the product?

SR: It was Clairol’s Loving Care. It was for keeping the gray out. I didn’t have any gray hair back then. Anyway, whenever anyone asks me what the influence of advertising was on my work I say, “Nothing.” Wouldn’t you say that?

TG: Oh God, I wish I could. I wish I was that pure.

SR: Apart from being good for the bank balance. When I was writing Midnight’s Children, I used to work two days a week at an ad agency and five days a week writing my book, and I thought of it, kind of, as industrial sponsorship.

TG: It was that. That’s what actually happens. Every few years when it’s been another five years that have passed and I haven’t made a film and the depression starts taking over totally, I allow myself to do a commercial. And then I feel really dirty and get to work promptly.

SR: I used to work Thursdays to Fridays, and then I’d come home Friday night and have a really long bath. Kind of wash it off. And then wake up Saturday morning and be a writer.

But it leads me to another question, which is, you said you came to England in the mid-Sixties. What did you do in England? Someone said to me yesterday, after they met you, that it was the first time they realized that you weren’t English, that you were in fact American. I guess because of Python and all that. What do you think took you to England and why do you think you got stuck there?

TG: Well I know why. I mean, I became terrified that I was going to be a full-time, bomb-throwing terrorist if I stayed [in the U.S.] because it was the beginning of really bad times in America. It was ’66-’67, it was the first police riot in Los Angeles. I happened to be with my girlfriend who was a reporter for the London Evening Standard. We went by on the way to a party to check out the police riot, and it was ugly beyond belief. In college my major was political science, so my brain worked that way. And also in L.A. at that time I had long hair.

SR: Oh yes.

TG: Ugh, a foolish, foolish thing. And I drove around this little English Hillman Minx—top down—and every night I’d be hauled over by the cops. Up against the wall, and all this stuff. They had this monologue with me; it was never a dialogue. It was that I was a long-haired drug addict living off some rich guy’s foolish daughter. And I said, “No, I work in advertising. I make twice as much as you do.” Which is a stupid thing to say to a cop.

SR: [Laughs.]

TG: And it was like an epiphany. I suddenly felt what it was like to be a black or Mexican kid living in L.A. Before that, I thought I knew what the world was like, I thought I knew what poor people were, and then suddenly it all changed because of that simple thing of being brutalized by cops. And I got more and more angry and I just felt, I’ve got to get out of here—I’m a better cartoonist than I am a bomb maker. That’s why so much of the U.S. is still standing.

SR: Were you of draftable age?

TG: I served my country, Salman, in the armed forces. I was honorably discharged.

SR: Oh.

TG: By doing one of the most dishonorable things imaginable. I was in the National Guard, and when I went to England I was working on a magazine called Help with Harvey Kurtzman, who was the great icon of all cartoonists in the late Fifties and Sixties; he created MAD comics. Bob Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, all these guys were working on the magazine. And the magazine folded and I was fed up with New York and I wanted to go to Europe to hitchhike around—which I did. But to help me ease my way out of the National Guard, on the last bits of note-headed paper of Help, I wrote that I was being transferred to the European branch of Help Magazine. The magazine had now finished, but we had paper, so I went off to the non-existent branch.

The National Guard then posted me to a control group in Germany, where I’d have to report every so often. I ended up in Greece on the Isle of Rhodes, where a former roommate was living. And we then wrote saying they’d transferred me to the Rhodes office of Help Magazine. A long way away from Germany and everything else. And then I came back to the States. And we had this long correspondence where the army would send—from St. Louis, Missouri—they would send to Germany whatever they wanted to tell me, which would then be sent to Rhodes, which would then be sent to the States, where I was. And I would reply, and put it in an envelope, and send it to my friend who would then post it with a Greek stamp.

And this went around for several years. And then the war was heating up and they closed down all the control groups in Europe, and everyone had to come back to the States. And I was not going to do it. I was seriously going to give up my U.S. citizenship. But I luckily got a lawyer. We then went around to all the magazines and television stations I was working for in London, and they all wrote letters saying that were I to leave their employ, their organization would collapse. And I think out of all the guys who were coming back to the states out of the control groups, I was one of six who got an honorable discharge. By lying, cheating, and behaving in the best American traditions—certainly of corporate leadership. I could have been the man at Enron.

SR: So that’s two things America escaped: the bombs and Enron. And now, are you more comfortable based in England? Or do you spend more time here now?

TG: I live in London full time. I can’t say I love England, but I’m less unhappy there than other places. It’s partly being a reasonably well-educated, reasonably intelligent American. I think there’s such a responsibility in being part of the richest, most powerful country on earth. I wanted to have a different perspective, the perspective you’re allowed to see from where you are.

SR: Yeah.

TG: It’s very important. And so all my films are really about America in many ways. I used to say my films were messages in bottles for America, because I just think I need that different perspective. [To audience] I think all of you do, frankly.

SR: There was a time when I had hair, too. And about the time you came to Europe, I made my first visit to America. Actually, on an advertising gig. I was being asked to write travel advertising, encouraging people to take their vacations in the United States. But I had never been in the United States. So the American government, I guess under Nixon, kindly sent me on a free trip around America to have a vacation so I could go home and write about having one. I arrived in San Francisco with long hair, no beard, but a Zapata mustache—remember those? I mean, that’s how long ago it was. And there was a sign in the immigration office saying [mimics flat American accent] “A few extra minutes in customs is a small price to pay to save your children from the menace of drugs.”

We’re standing in line, and in front of me there’s this kind of classic, American redneck guy with a very red neck about this wide. [Holds out hands almost a foot apart.] He turned around to me, and with a complete change of heart, he said, “Buddy, I sure feel sorry for you.” And he was right. I mean, I got taken to pieces. I got strip searched, I got everything. And I arrived in America, you know, for the first time, trembling. There was this tiny lady standing at the bus stop waiting for the bus, and she saw that I was trembling. She said, “What’s the matter, dear?” and it kind of all poured out. And—this was the other side of America—she did this amazing thing, she apologized on behalf of the United States. She put her hands in the elocution position. [Holds out hands in front of chest, fingers interlocking, pinkie to thumb.] She looked like Grandma Clampett, this tiny old lady. And she made a formal apology on behalf of the American people. And it fixed it, you know. Then it was all right. Then I could go and enjoy America.

TG: Well you’re right. That’s the great thing about America: American people.

SR: Yeah, they’ll do that. First they’ll search your rectum, and then they’ll apologize for it.

[Both laugh for almost a full minute.]

SR: Back to the cinema. All right, another question. I wanted to ask you something about science fiction. Until Star Wars, science fiction/fantasy films, there were always two views about them. One was that they were always very, very cheap.

TG: Yeah.

SR: And you could see the furniture move. When the rocket door slammed, the rocket shook. And secondly, the truism was that they were never commercially successful. They were these little shoddy C or D movies. Then along comes George Lucas and Terminator and Spielberg and all that, and now really probably the biggest commercial sector of the cinema is fantasy/science fiction movies. Now, first of all I wonder if you have any view on that huge shift of weight, and then if you could lead into 12 Monkeys, which is your take on that sort of science fiction film.

TG: I always grew up liking science fiction films. I never liked the wobbly ones. But I loved the ones like War of the Worlds that were technically well done. And I liked all the bug films as well … the ant and spider ones. So there were quality ones and then there were crap ones like Ed Wood’s films. You know, he was inspired but incredibly untalented. That was a problem. When 2001 came around, that was the moment I felt sci-fi was at its finest, because it was intelligent, and it seemed to be grounded. It wasn’t fantasy, but it was so wild and extreme, it was like fantasy, and that intrigued me. And then George came along and took all the stuff before 2001 and put it together in one film and made it really glossy, and off we went. The world changed. We reverted. But, unlike Star Wars, a lot of the earlier films raised questions.

SR: Well, science fiction is always a vehicle for ideas. It’s the form which allows either movies or books to be an exploration of how we should live.

TG: Exactly. Again, it’s like going back to the question of Where is Brazil? In sci-fi movies, you move beyond the real world so you can abstract it and then comment upon it. Philip K. Dick was always my favorite sci-fi writer because it wasn’t so much about sci-fi as about the human condition.

SR: Yes, do you remember the original title of Blade Runner—which asks an intellectual question?

TG: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I mean, it’s the difference between 2001 and Close Encounters. 2001 ends with a question. You’re not sure what is going on. There’s been this strange room experience, and then the baby. You kind of feel there’s a rebirth, a new beginning, but you don’t know what it is.

Close Encounters ends with an answer. And it’s… little kids in latex suits that come out and go like that. [Flaps hands.] There’s a moment in Close Encounters before the kids in latex suits come out with the wrinkles on their wrists. When the door first opens, this blinding light comes out and this strange preying mantis figure rises. I would just cut to black at that point and [Gasps.] leave the audience with a gasp. [Gasps again.] And then your brain has to start working and fill in the gaps.

But that’s the problem with films we’re seeing now: they give you all the answers, they plug in all the holes, they don’t make you…

SR: Well, I thought that when…did you see the Kubrick-Spielberg Artificial Intelligence, AI?

TG: Oh God. [Whispers.] What was that?

SR: [Laughs.]

TG: Mr. Articulate speaks.

SR: Well, you answered the question. There’s a moment in that film about thirty-five minutes before the end when the little robot kid decides the world is not worth living in and dives off the building. Now, if the film had ended there, it would have been a lot better—a lot better. And you can’t help feeling that if Kubrick rather than Spielberg had directed the film, that would have been the Kubrick ending. But then there’s half an hour of Spielberg feel-good crap. Blue fairies.

TG: The truth is the successful films aren’t asking questions, they’re not making you think, they’re not asking you to consider. I think what the people in Hollywood think when they look out at the great American public, they think a sign should say, “Do not disturb.” Entertain them. Fill them up with pablum. Hollywood realizes that baby food is easier to chew than big filet mignons and they make a lot more money. It seems to be working. That’s what depresses me.

SR: So much of this fantasy film material now is about war. It’s about unleashing large machinery against other pieces of large machinery. It’s not about people, it’s not about peace. And one of the things I thought about E.T. for example—which is interesting, and which relates to a wonderful science fiction film, The Man Who Fell to Earth—is that the alien is vulnerable. Instead of the alien being something to be scared of, the alien’s scared of us, and is easily damaged. I think that makes E.T. kind of different.

TG: No, you’re right.

SR: And made The Man Who Fell to Earth very different.

TG: My problem with E.T., and I think it would be a better film, are those big Walter Keane moonstone eyes, because you immediately love that little creature. There’s a moment in the film when they’re dissecting the frogs and they do a close-up of the frogs with those alien slit eyes. Now if E.T. had those eyes, then he’s a really grotesque ugly thing and the kid has to learn to love a grotesque ugly thing. It’s easy to love E.T. It should have been difficult to love E.T.

SR: As a cartoonist, and animator, what does it feel like to watch animation secretly taking over the cinema, but not being admitted as being animated? You go and see a film like The Perfect Storm, for instance.

TG: Yes.

SR: And seventy-five percent of it is animated. All that ocean. All of that, that’s a cartoon.

TG: It’s very impressive, but it doesn’t resonate. I think somehow, subconsciously we can see it even if we can’t see it. I remember with Jurassic Park when the first tyrannosaurus rampaged around. It was incredible. How quickly we got to realize it was fake when we saw II and III. By III, I think it’s even more fabulous the things that are going on, but you kind of don’t believe them anymore. It’s totally subconscious.

I think Lord of the Rings was interesting because they use a lot more models. So you have physical things that react to the physical world. And it’s always surprising what happens when you do that.

The behavior of real physical interactions is much more unpredictable than computer-generated action , and we seem to empathize with it subconciously. When we were doing Brazil—for the flying sequences in Brazil we used a model of Sam in this flying gear. That tall wing span, about like that. [With hands he shows a figure about one foot by one foot large.] He had a little motor in his chest and he was on wires that went up to a battery pack, which was then on a track that ran across. We built these layers of first painted background, and then we had kapok—this stuff you use in furniture, this kind of cottony stuff—with which we covered chicken wire frames, making big cumulus clouds. In front of that, we had tanks with steam pumping up through dry ice. So you have real elements there. And then we would run the model through this. We had to shoot this at four or five times normal speed. So we’d get the lights going, get everything going, and we’d wind up the model and it’d go [Mimics model going berserk and crashing]. Boom. Shit. And it was like, Did you get it? Did you get it? Let’s do another one.

And it wasn’t till the next day that we’d know if we’d gotten a shot. What was wonderful the next day was the wings did now slow down [demonstrates wings flapping slowly]. When they came into contact with the steam/dry ice clouds, they would move the clouds in swirls that were just magic, which you could never animate. You would never have that many odd things happen.

SR: You know, hearing you talk, it’s exactly how when I started out wanting to write, it seemed to me that one of the things that everybody knows about stories is that they’re not true. That’s why it’s called a novel. It’s in the fiction part of the shop. So it seems to me that, Okay, let’s not behave as if it necessarily is true. I mean, horses don’t fly.

TG: Your Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Fantastic.

SR: Well, you know, there was a time when I wanted you to direct it.

TG: I know. I was in my own little world.

SR: I thought, you know, I don’t blame him.

TG: But with storytelling, we do suspend our disbelief, and we go with it. As long as it’s truthful, as long as it’s based on truthful things, we can go anywhere.

SR: Well, it’s exactly that. It’s the difference between what is naturalistic and what is truth. And in a way fiction—movies, books, whatever—allows you to get to certain truths which you can’t get to so easily by naturalistic fiction. I mean, the world is not a naturalistic place. Buildings may fall down. The world is not like kitchen-sink drama; the world is this weird, operatic place.

TG: Well, I really want to encourage a kind of fantasy, a kind of magic. I love the term magic realism, whoever invented it—I do actually like it because it says certain things. It’s about expanding how you see the world. I think we live in an age where we’re just hammered, hammered to think this is what the world is. Television’s saying, everything’s saying “That’s the world.” And it’s not the world. The world is a million possible things.

SR: And the world is about the way in which our dreams intersect with our real life. Endlessly, the world of the imagination changes the world.

TG: But the dreams that are being offered are just whiter teeth, or thicker toilet paper. Things like that. [Mimics TV voice] Dream of three-ply toilet paper. After a real bout of diarrhea… But these are the dreams that are being offered up to us. It’s appalling. I just feel it’s compressing and compressing. And then when you see sci-fi films they’re not really doing it. They’re not taking you to a place where you can really stretch your world. And I think that’s one of the big problems with Hollywood dominating the world as far as cinema—it’s slowly squishing it down everywhere. Except living outside the States, it’s easier to rebel against.

SR: It used to be easier. It’s not easy anymore. I think the reason for that incredible flowering of the movies between the late Fifties and the mid-Seventies was because or that brief period Hollywood lost control of world cinema and as a result you get the French New Wave, you get Fellini, Visconti, Antonioni, Bergman, Wajda, Kurosawa, etc., etc. and then Hollywood put the lid back on it.

TG: I think what we should do is just close down all the television stations and just have radio again. Because I grew up with radio…

SR: I grew up with radio.

TG: I think radio gave me all my visual skills. Which is an extraordinary thing—because you have to invent it, it’s not there. The sound effects are there, the voices are there, and you’ve got to invent the costumes, the faces, the sets. It’s the most incredible exercise for visual imagination.

SR: When Douglas Adams invented The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it was invented as a radio program, and you know, planet Earth is destroyed to make room for a an inter-stellar bypass in the first minute. You just go, whoom. No more earth. This would cost $70 million.

TG: What’s interesting about Hitchhiker’s Guide is Doug spent his dying day trying to make it into a film. They made it into a television series, which I thought very disappointing because the visuals weren’t as good as you could imagine from the radio.

SR: Yeah, a man with two heads is not as impressive if one of the heads is just made with papier-mâché sitting on the shoulder. Well, I want to come back to 12 Monkeys. Do you want to say anything about its relationship to the Chris Marker movie?

TG: It was purely that Dave and Jan Peoples were asked—the producer and director company had actually bought the rights to Chris Marker’s La Jetée. They showed it to Dave and Jan, and they were like, Well, it’s fantastic, we don’t want to make a copy of this. We want to maybe be inspired by it. We want to take it and go off and leap off this thing. They talked to Chris, and he felt the same way. It was a blown-up version of the same thing. And so it was really inspired by it. In fact, it took us months to get the Writers’ Guild of America to agree on a new word in the credits—“inspired by” as opposed to “based upon.” “Inspired by” was the accurate description of what went on. I purposely didn’t see La Jetée until the Paris premiere of 12 Monkeys. It was on as the opening short.

SR: Had you never seen it?

TG: No, and I didn’t want to.

SR: No, I mean in the past you’d never seen it?

TG: No, because I knew I’d be accused of ripping it off. It was the same with 1984 and Brazil. I didn’t read the book until after. So the film—David and Jan, who are great writers, took it and went with it. La Jetée is kind of this perfect thing, this tight—like an acorn—and 12 Monkeys is kind of the oak that grew out of it after a lot of shit was dumped on it.

SR: I wanted to ask you about Lost in La Mancha, which a few people have seen here. I wanted to ask you two things. One is, instead of, you know, talking about not making a movie, one was, What was the appeal of Don Quixote? And the other was, Why did you not want to make Don Quixote itself, but this variant story of Don Quixote?

TG: Wow. Well, partly because all of the great novelists of the world just decided recently that the greatest book ever written was Don Quixote.

SR: That’s right.

TG: I guessed that before you guys voted.

SR: We got terribly trashed for voting it.

TG: Are you serious?

SR: Oh yeah. This list came out—[To audience] I don’t know if you saw this—for which writers around the world were asked to… In fact, what happened was slightly fake. We were asked to choose our ten favorite books, without ranking. Just our ten favorite books. And then that was all fed into a computer. Anyway, Don Quixote came up most, so it was declared the greatest work of art of all time, you know. And Hamlet the second. And a lot of people got very angry. Because you talk to people in Spain about how you love Don Quixote, and they say, “That?” Because they’ve all been given it to read at school and they detest it, as you would if you were given King Lear to read when you were fourteen.

TG: I, like most people, had a vague idea of what Quixote was, and it was the idea that Peter O’Toole singing “Dream the Impossible Dream” inspires a man to move forward. I called one day—this was twelve years ago—I called Jake Eberts, who was the executive producer on [The Adventures of Baron] Munchausen, and I said, “Jake, I’ve got two names for you and they’re each worth a million dollars. One’s Gilliam, the other’s Quixote. And he said, “Done.” And so we set off. And then I sat down and read the book, because I hadn’t read the book like most people haven’t read the book. And it’s a big thick…

SR: It’s nine hundred pages.

TG: And I had the nineteenth century Gustave Doré illustrated edition. [Mimes heaving each page as he turns them over.] And it took me weeks to get through this fucking thing. We sat down, Charles McKeown and I, and tried to write a script of it. And you can’t. It’s too vast. It’s so extraordinary, and it’s so wondrous. And we tried. We beat the thing to death and, ultimately, I wasn’t satisfied. Also the money didn’t come through. And so in the last moments before it all collapsed the first time—because what the film [Lost in La Mancha] doesn’t quite show is they say it’s the second time. What you see on screen is the third time—but anyway, I was working on A Kid in King Arthur’s Court, so I came up with this thought that why not steal this idea of the modern man and push him back into the seventeenth century. Because all along I thought most most modern audiences don’t know who Quixote is, and how do you distinguish between a man who wears funny armor in the seventeenth century and the guy wearing good armor because he’s dreaming about an age a hundred years before? And so [I decided] a modern man would become our guide. He would be us, and he would go into this world and it would be filthy and foul and pestilential, and also at the same time he would discover all these things that are not in his life. So that was the form of it, and I thought in the end we were able to pick the bits of Quixote that I really liked and put them together in a formula, and I was arrogant to think Cervantes would even approve of it.

SR: Cervantes was a wild guy. Cervantes was not a polite writer. I mean, he’d had one hell of a life. You know he’d been a slave, he’d been in a debtors’ prison.

TG: Yup.

SR: I mean the exact contemporary of Shakespeare, day for day. And they were both pretty much roaring boys.

There’s a great translation of Quixote. Most translations of Quixote into English suck. They make the book seem about as deadly dull as it’s possible to be. And then at one point, a couple hundred years ago, the novelist Tobias Smollett translated Quixote and his Spanish is not perfect. If you’re looking for a literal translation, it’s not. It’s the only translation in English that feels as rambunctious as the original feels in Spanish. It opens up the book completely.

There’s a wonderful sentence at the end of Don Quixote the novel, where Quixote, old and dying, has come to his senses and understood that he’s been nuts all his life. And the phrase he uses to describe his madness is: “I’ve been looking for this year’s birds in last year’s nests.” Which seems to me a wonderful description of both insanity and the movie industry.

SR: Does it ever feel like that?

TG: It always feels like that. The trick is to be more pig-headed than they are.

SR: Obstinacy, that’s the thing.

Salman Rushdie’s most recent novel is Fury.

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