14 May 2009 - 12:27 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

Terry Gilliam – Tideland

With the twisted and controversial drama TIDELAND, trouble-magnet TERRY GILLIAM once again proves that he couldn't make a “normal” movie if he tried. BY FILMINK'S GAYNOR FLYNN

When his publisher told him that he needed quotes from well known personalities to endorse his debut novel Tideland, author Mitch Cullin decided to aim high. He'd been a fan of filmmaker Terry Gilliam's since Brazil and he hoped that his Southern Gothic tale would pique the iconoclastic director's interest. It did. “Fucking brilliant” was Gilliam's first reaction. His second was to option the novel.

“Within a few pages, there was no escape from it,” recalls Gilliam with a giggle. He and Tony Grisoni (who adapted Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas) wrote a script but when the money didn't materialise, Gilliam went off and made The Brothers Grimm instead. When he got the call to say that the money was in place, there was a catch. Gilliam, who was editing The Brothers Grimm, had to make the film immediately. “So that's what we did,” recalls the 64-year-old, “It's so funny because the two films are like flip sides of the same coin: one frightens children and the other one frightens adults.”

Adults have indeed been frightened by Tideland, a dark tale that revolves around nine-year-old Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland), who lives with her junkie parents (Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Tilly). When her mother dies, father and daughter head off to a dilapidated house in the middle of nowhere. Left to her own devices, Jeliza-Rose's vivid imagination helps her escape the loneliness of her situation, which becomes even more precarious when she has to depend on a demented taxidermist (Janet McTeer) and a mentally damaged young man called Dickens (Brendan Fletcher) for survival.

”It's Psycho meets Alice In Wonderland,” says Gilliam with his slightly maniacal laugh, and it's an apt description, as Jeliza-Rose plummets down a proverbial rabbit hole and emerges into a vividly imagined landscape of rotting corpses, harrowing train wrecks and talking squirrels. “Jeliza-Rose is this incredible character,” continues the director. “It's a child I've never seen or heard before on screen. I knew that it would push a lot of people's buttons.”

It did. Audiences were upset at The Toronto International Film Festival, where the film screened to a chilly reception. It's not just that we see Jeliza-Rose prepare heroin for her father. There are even creepier scenes that suggest a romantic attachment between her and Dickens, including a kiss and talk of babies. “Whenever I'm asked to introduce the movie, I warn people that they probably won't like it,” says Gilliam with a smile. “And then I ask them to try and forget their prejudices and preconceptions for the next couple of hours. This movie needs to be seen through innocent eyes, and I tell them to not be afraid to laugh.”

Few laughed at Toronto, and it all makes you wonder about the effect on young actress Jodelle Ferland. After all, actress Sarah Polley called Gilliam up during Tideland and told him how working on The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen all those years ago had traumatised her. “Jodelle's mother approved everything,” Gilliam says. “We didn't try to be salacious or manipulative in any way. It had to be done innocently, as it is in the book. To Jodelle, cooking the heroin was just learning a process, like learning an accent.”

At this point in the conversation, Gilliam sighs. He's always had to defend his films and if he was hoping for something different on Tideland, he'll be disappointed. “Hollywood and audiences have always been confused by me,” he shrugs. “But I know that there are a lot of people out there who are willing to go on an adventure and not be served up the same stuff.”

Gilliam's work has always divided audiences, but for every person who thinks he's an out of control megalomaniac responsible for disasters like Baron Munchausen (which ran so far over budget that it's now the stuff of folklore), there is another who thinks him a visionary genius. Gilliam is often painted as a reckless filmmaker, and those who agree will cite the abandoned Don Quixote project (so memorably captured in the documentary Lost In La Mancha) as yet another example. But many of his films (like the brilliant Twelve Monkeys) are not only commercially successful, but have also been delivered on time and on budget. Not that American critics are interested in that. “They prefer the back story,” Gilliam says. Take The Brothers Grimm, for example, which generated the worst reviews of his career. “What happens in America is that they try so hard to be so
fucking clever,” Gilliam fumes. “They knew about the struggles with the Weinsteins on that film, and they write about that. They're not writing about the film.”

Does he ever just want to go off and make a nice, simple romantic comedy? “This is the only thing I know how to do, let's be honest about it,” Gilliam giggles. “I can't make a naturalistic film. I can't make most films. This is it.”