Terry Gilliam never set out to appeal to the mainstream. His illustrious career is a result of a combination of an irreverent /wicked sense of humour and an astounding imagination.

Pivotal in Gilliam’s life in his teen years was the discovery of Mad magazine, a publication that would have a profound influence on the passion that was to become his livelihood. Whilst at college Gilliam’s degree changed frequently, like so many things in his life. The only constant was his contribution to the college magazine, Fang. So reverential was he about Mad that he dedicated one entire issue to its editor, Harvey Kurtzman and sent him a copy – a move that landed the whizz kid a job at Help magazine.

There Gilliam met future Monty Python member John Cleese. He moved to England to do madcap illustrations for Monty Python and directed some unrelated TV commercials. When the Python crew needed a director for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Gilliam and Terry Jones undertook the job together. This opportunity gave Gilliam a taste of what he now knew he wanted to do – direct.

After the Holy Grail, Gilliam directed Jabberwocky (1977) on his own, a Python-esque parody of medieval epics. Gilliam’s final Monty Python film, The Meaning of Life (1983), displayed Gilliam’s suitably irreverent directing and was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 1983.

Gilliam’s films are not constricted by time – or anything else for that matter. As creations of his ingenious mind they have no borders. He’s directed movies which take part in three millennia – some in the past, others in the distant future but they do have unifying themes; freedom, age, and reality-versus-the imagined can be identified in most of his movies. Outrageous humour is the pervasive bedrock.

Gilliam’s rampant imagination usually leads his features into wildly absurdist settings - Brazil (1985), The Fisher King (1991) and Twelve Monkeys (1995) transport audiences into visually stunning domains that Australian satirist, Clive James, claims deserve a separate country.

The world’s most syndicated critic, Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert, describes Gilliam’s world as 'always hallucinatory in its richness of detail." Brazil is widely regarded as Gilliam’s masterpiece, the Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys well received, despite, or rather because of, their whimsical visuals and highly provocative satirical content.

But two other famous trademarks can be noted: (a) budget-related disputes with production companies and (b) unforeseeable disasters which have now spawned a whole new popular reality-based genre: documentaries and books about Terry Gilliam movie-making nightmares.

There were the legendary hostilities between director and Universal over seminal science fiction fantasy film, Brazil, which set the tone for Gilliam’s best surreal films but also his contentious relationship with the studios. The impasse, particularly related to the studio’s insistence on a happy ending, documented in the book, The Battle of Brazil, by movie critic and author Jack Matthews. The soaring budget (from $US 25million budget soaring to $US45m ) – and litany of mishaps on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen made movie headlines.
 
Next, The Brothers Grimm, lived up to its title. First MGM pulled out, then the rescuers, the Weinstein Company, locked horns with Gilliam over Matt Damon’s appearance (the bump on his nose, specifically), female casting, and cinematography with Gilliam’s choice sent packing after three weeks. The confessions were documented in Dreams and Nightmares: Terry Gilliam, the Brothers Grimm & other cautionary Tales of Hollywood.

And The Man Who Killed Don Quixote – again aptly-titled -  now in itself has turned into its own genre. This time round, even God played a hand. Floods, star injuries, even  military jets exacted havoc. Fortunately the film crew on hand to shoot a 'making of’ the movie, turned it into the hilarious feature documentary, Lost in La Mancha.

Gilliam lost the rights, recently regained the rights. And conflicting reports about the movie’s current status prevail. But what’s the rush? Orson Welles’ tinkered with his version of Cervantes’ dreamer hero from 1957 till his death in 1985. So technically, Gilliam’s aborted effort - after a decade - is only in its infancy.

Heath Ledger’s tragic death during the production of The Imaginarium of  Dr Parnassus took a heavy toll on director, cast and crew. But it was one of three 'human disasters that struck: his producer, Bill Vince, died suddenly and Gilliam was standing outside a Soho restaurant when a car backed into him, breaking his back.

He revived sufficiently to attend this year’s BAFTA awards, where he was honoured with a fellowship life-time achievement award.

No wonder Gilliam called it a 'gesture of sympathy’.


- Mary Colbert