Few film directors have led as wildly a distinctive a career as Terry Gilliam. It’s hard to imagine the mingling of urban reality and dark fantasy of 2014’s “Birdman” without the precedent set by Gilliam’s “The Fisher King” a quarter-century earlier and his many other films.
After a childhood spent partially in the San Fernando Valley, he left for England and began his career as a member of the groundbreaking Monty Python comedy troupe, appearing on-camera and creating their mind-bending animations. But it was as a feature filmmaker, first with 1977’s “Jabberwocky,” and followed the likes of “Time Bandits,” “Brazil” and “12 Monkeys,” that he left his most lasting mark.
The movies weren’t always hits, but many have found intense cult followings in the years that followed. “I’m like a wine maker,” Gilliam joked on the phone with Marquee. “I put my films in an oak barrel and 10 years later they’re ready for drinking.”
He’s now published a richly illustrated autobiography, “Gilliamesque: A Pre-Posthumous Memoir” (Harper Collins), which he will discuss onstage Oct. 19 at the Alex Theater in Glendale.
What led you to write the book?
It really was supposed to be a book about just my art — whatever my art is — starting with childhood cartoons. My daughter Holly assembled a chronology of the work I’ve done. I would sit with a microphone and talk about it. Somewhere along the line, the publisher says “Oh, God, this is better as an autobiography.” It ended up being that, even though it’s a very incomplete one. I refer to it as my “Grand Theft Autobiography.” It’s a high-speed chase, crashing around the place, a lot of bodies left all over the place. It’s not the great summation of my life in the last hours of my life.
What was your reaction when you started digging into the art you had made?
I was surprised because I don’t linger in the past. Things I’d done over the years had been filed away. Holly had been archiving and dredging this stuff out. The other day I found something and I thought, “God, I can’t believe I could draw that well 20 years ago!” I can’t draw that well anymore.
From the beginning, you established a very distinctive flavor in your films.
I was just being arrogant and confident and doing things that I wanted to do. I was doing what entertained me. The fact that they were successful — that was a surprise. These are flukes in some strange way. I had the privilege of not having gone to film school, so I wasn’t educated. When it came to filmmaking, I was self-taught, I suppose, learning on the job. The style was just me doing what interested me, without the luggage of too much knowledge about films and filmmaking.
Do you see your influence on other filmmakers today?
I don’t really think about it. I’m told I’ve influenced a lot. But I couldn’t tell you what it was or wasn’t. I could tell you all the people who have been influenced by Spielberg.
It seems like “Birdman” owes something to “The Fisher King” in terms of mixing reality and wild fantasy. You broadened the boundaries.
Years ago, there were filmmakers who asked me how I did this business of having reality and fantasy in the same film, and how I distinguish between the two things. And I said I don’t distinguish between the two of them. Fantasy I shoot just like reality. They seemed really amazed by that. They thought you had to change the color or use different lenses to distinguish the two. No, the whole point of what I’m doing is it’s very hard to distinguish between reality and fantasy. They mingle. They interlock and flow one into the other.
Does that require faith in the audience?
With Python, we were in this position to do what we wanted to do and were successful. We don’t assume the audience is dumb. I would rather do something that raises the audience up. You may have to work a little bit more, but boy when they do, the results are better. When we did “Time Bandits,” we had a saying: This is exciting enough for adults and intelligent enough for children.
Is there any movement on getting back together with Johnny Depp to do “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”?
No. We were supposed to be shooting about now, and unfortunately a few weeks before prep began, John Hurt was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was playing Don Quixote, so it’s put everything on a big delay.
The project could reemerge at a later time?
It’s my default position. The minute I stop doing anything, it’s back to “Quixote.”
What do you think you’ll be doing next?
“Quixote.” [laughs] I’m rather monomaniacal. I’ll keep hammering away. My wife says, just put it down. Let it lie there in the middle of the road and walk away from it. I keep coming back to it. My theory is that it’s become a kind of cancerous growth somewhere in my body. It’s a tumor that I’ve got that I need removed so I can get on with my life.
It sometimes seems like the story behind your films are as intriguing as the films themselves — whether it’s “Brazil” or “Don Quixote” or some of the others.
“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” in particular. I feel like I keep getting hammered with baseball bats but I manage to survive and the films get made. I used to make jokes about Werner Herzog, when he was making “Fitzcarraldo.” The process seemed to be more interesting for him than the film itself. What I’ve learned is you have to be very careful about what you laugh about.
Did you ever meet Orson Welles?
No, sadly I didn’t. But I did meet [Welles confidante] Henry Jaglom, and I used to get lots of tales about Welles from Henry. I spent a lot of my life not wanting to meet my heroes. I fear they will disappoint me, so I’d rather hold onto my romantic ideas about who they might be.
In an interview a year ago, you were describing how movie executives want to meet and tell you how much they love “Time Bandits” or “Brazil” but end up wasting your time because they don’t give you the green light for another film. It reminded me of how Orson Welles’ later career was.
It’s one of the things that Henry Jaglom told me. He said that Welles in his later years referred to himself as a dancing bear. He would be taken to lunch, he would tell wonderful tales, the executive would have a wonderful time, and go home and tell his wife who he had lunch with. Welles would walk away with nothing. That’s why he said he was a dancing bear. I avoid Hollywood so I can’t be compared to Orson Welles and a dancing bear.
You’ve also said you cut your ties to Los Angeles. You don’t have an agent here and you don’t come out nearly as much as you used to.
Yeah, I have a lawyer and that’s all. That’s my only connection with Hollywood at the moment. I’m coming out on a tour flogging my autobiography, so I’m coming to L.A. But it’s going to be very quick.
What: “An Evening With Terry Gilliam”
When: Monday, Oct. 19, 8 p.m.
Where: Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale
Tickets: $53 to $113 (with signed copy of book; $25.50 (no book)