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The NS Interview: Terry Gilliam

“Making films is just a cheap version of being God”

Do you vote?

Yes, I do.

You renounced your US citizenship in 2006, partly in protest against George W Bush. Did you vote there before that?

I haven't been in America for 43 years. It didn't seem to be my country any more. It wasn't just a protest. There was the fact that my wife would have had to sell the house to be able to afford to pay the taxes when I died.

You have no plans to go back?

No, no. Even though America has been blessed with possibly the best leader the world has got at the moment, I don't feel the need to go back and help him. He's on his own.

In all your films, you spill your imagination on to the screen in a way other directors don't.

Maybe they're just more cautious and career-oriented. I just do what I do. Things take me over, then I want to get them out of my system. My films are exorcisms, auto-exorcisms!

Your new film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, is also about imagination, isn't it?

I find it hard to describe my films. That's why I always find it difficult to raise money, because I can't give a tidy little explanation. Yeah, it's about encouraging imagination in those who watch it. I hope they come out saying, "More things are possible." I think that, if anything, is what I'm trying to do -- not just get my imagination on the screen, but to try to encourage other people to develop their own. And that's one of the problems of having an imagination: trying to communicate it and keep people interested.

There's a political element to that -- the idea that another world is possible.

It's that kind of social statement that's really political. I grew up in the 1950s, with the threat of communism and the bomb. The 1960s opened it up, and now we're back in a very closed state with fear outside the gates.

So do you think human history swings between fear and optimism?

Roger Miller sang, "England swings like a pendulum do". He's a great singer in America! I don't know -- it's either a pendulum or, in the east, it's a circle. What it isn't, though, is linear.

You talked about the east there. There's a kind of metaphysics implied in the film. Passing through the imagination is like passing through the veil of illusion into something like the Buddhist realm of truth or a Platonic realm of eternal forms.

I don't subscribe to any particular religious belief any more, but I tend to believe that, to break through Maya -- the veil of illusion -- you see it. That's very much what I believe. And then there's enlightenment. When in the film those women come back from the Imaginarium, they've been enlightened - that, or that they've just been fucked! But there's been an orgasmic moment. The creative moment is orgasmic, whether it's enlightenment or sexual energy. I didn't realise it -- good Presbyterian kid, going to college on a scholarship -- but over the years, little by little, I've drifted more eastern because I just find their view of the world more enlightened, more interesting and more open. Polytheism is so much more interesting than monotheism. Monotheism is all about control. Polytheism is: "Oh there's that, there's that over there." It actually seems to be amazed at the world.

Do you see films primarily as a visual medium or as a narrative medium?

I try to make narrative films, but the narrative is only part of the tale. The problem is trying to link together a lot of different ideas -- some are visual, some are musical, some are aural . . . It's kind of a battle of all these elements.

You also art-direct your own films, don't you?

I have to, because you've got to create the world. This is just a cheap version of being God. And you've got to do it in six days. It's never enough time, just like there wasn't for him.

What about technology? Have technological developments in cinema - CGI, for example -- liberated you as a film-maker?

It hasn't liberated me, it's just made things easier. That's all it's about. You can do the same thing with people with two pieces of paper, but there's a certain visceral quality. What I really like about CG work is what the camera can do. Because we used to do the static frame, and we'd do maps, and so it was very clunk, clunk, clunk. But now I can swing the camera all over the place in front of a blue screen and the computer can track what the camera does, and then when we see the CG background or a model background the camera can replicate that move. I couldn't do that before, and that, to me, is the greatest advancement that computers have done for me.

What are the continuities between your early work for Monty Python and your film-making?

I look back at my old cartoons and the stuff is all there. I just get better at some things and worse at others. I never reach any great heights.

Did The Imaginarium come to feel like a monument to Heath Ledger, after he died?

We were just trying to make something worthy of being his last movie, and I think, in the end, we did it. In a sense, it's a monument to how much he was loved and admired. We just saw the tip of the iceberg of what he was capable of. Everyone was willing to do whatever it took to finish that film. For Johnny [Depp], Colin [Farrell] and Jude [Law] to come to the rescue -- that's never happened. Heath's last film was something that will never happen again in the history of motion pictures.

How did it come about, getting those three in the film?

That was the very difficult part of it. The first person I told when Heath died was Johnny. I was commiserating with him 'cause he was a friend of Johnny's as well, and I said, "We have to pull the plug on this whole thing," and he said, "Well, whatever you do, I'm there, I'll help you." And that was a kind of turning point. Johnny was really serious. Everyone was involved in other projects, and trying to juggle their schedules was a complete nightmare. In the end, thanks to Michael Mann's film being delayed by one week at the very last moment, Johnny popped in.

How do you think Heath Ledger will be remembered?

We just saw the tip of the iceberg -- we saw so little of what he was capable of. He was just an extraordinary actor. He was fearless; whatever he did, there was a reality and gravitas about it. It's hard to know. He was nipped in the bud. I'm glad that Parnassus is getting released because I think what Heath is doing in Parnassus is a bit more of who he was as a person.

In what sense?

He was playful, he was charming, he'd do anything. He was just so generous. The character himself is very chameleon-like; his voice is changeable. He's Aussie one minute, cockney the next -- he's everywhere. That was what Heath was capable of and a million times more. As an actor, he could shape-shift, and that's what I love about all actors. I can't do that, and they fascinate me and convince me that what they're doing is real.

Did Dickens and Hogarth inspire the film's vision of London?

They did subconsciously, because those images of London still entrance me. I remember when I first came here, I used to love walking around Shad Thames, which now is a very prosperous place; but then that part of London was so amazing and so derelict. I was seeing Chuck Dickens everywhere.

Do you think London has changed for the better or worse in those 40 years?

I find it a lot worse. It may have been my youthful romanticism, but I felt there was a greater sense of community then. When I got here in the Sixties, it was a costume party. Then you got strikes and socialism - everything seemed to be changing. And now, I don't know what it is; it's a kind of amorphous society. I think I preferred the world of three or four television channels. Now it's so diffuse. I miss that sense of society. Margaret Thatcher got rid of it very successfully.

Was there a plan?

The only plan was a negative plan. When I quit my last proper job, doing the night shift on the assembly line at the Chevrolet plant, I said I'd never work for money again and I would only do things I had control over. That was pretty much the end of my career. It closed all the easy roads that would have been more lucrative.

What would you like to forget?

I don't have a problem with that: my memory is just gone. The one thing I don't forget is the name of the problem I have, which is "nominal aphasia" - I can't remember people's names.

Are we doomed?

Oh, yes. As human beings we're built to be doomed; we can't seem to stop ourselves. But we also have resilience and we love rebuilding. We have to reach the highest part of the cliff and fall off, and then start again.

DEFINING MOMENTS

1940 Born in Medicine Lake, Minnesota
1958 BA (politics), Occidental College, LA
1967 Moves to England
1969 Starts animating Monty Python's Flying Circus
1975 Directs first film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail
1986 Brazil receives Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Art Direction
2006 Renounces US citizenship
2009 Receives Bafta Fellowship award

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" (12A) is out on 16 October.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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