Terry Gilliam: “We live in a time where a serial liar gets to be PM”

The Monty Python legend reveals how he was always drawn to Britain, which of his films his teenage self would rate and his history as a cheerleader in this week’s Letter To My Younger Self

When I was 16 the family moved from Minneapolis, Minnesota – the countryside – to the dream, which was the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. So we were now living in a tract home just like proper Americans are supposed to. I was abused as a child. Seriously abused. Because I wanted to be artistic. And I thought the only way to be artistic is to suffer. But my parents were totally supportive. They loved me. Whatever I wanted to do, they were there to back me up. Friendship has always been important to me as well and I had good friends. We laughed a lot, we played a lot. In fact, aged 16, I became a cheerleader. I wasn’t a great football player. But getting in front of the crowds with several beautiful girls, getting everybody to shout cheers and all sorts of noise was great fun.

I started getting interested in politics because of a little thing called the Vietnam war, which I thought was the most ridiculous thing for America to be involved in. When I was at school we were inundated with all sorts of terrible propaganda, one that America was gonna be a communist country by 1972, blah, blah, blah. And then there was all this racist bullshit coming in, and pictures of some black guy being lynched because he was seen with a white girl in the south. It was absolutely horrific. I grew up thinking, I believe in truth, justice and the American way. And now, in my high school years, I’m seeing horror. The underbelly of America. And it’s a dark, ugly place. I was getting more and more disillusioned and frustrated with the realities of America as I went through college. I felt, I’m a white guy, I’ve been well educated. I’m supposed to have some kind of ability to change the world for the better. And I couldn’t see how. I was a good cartoonist, so I could do political cartoons. But I realised they weren’t changing anything and I thought maybe it’s time to start making and throwing bombs. But instead of doing that, I left the country.

I’d always been a bit of an Anglophile. When I was younger, Ealing comedies were playing in American cinemas, then along came The Beatles and The Stones and Herman’s Hermits. I hitch-hiked around Europe for four months and saw the world outside of America and began to realise the effect America was having on the rest of the world. And that began to bother me. And England was the one place I could speak a language that was similar to the one that the natives spoke. I just fell in love with England in 1964, the spirit was so different. For me it was beautiful, like being in a costume ball. The world was changing. Suddenly all this music was coming out and it was taking over the world and I suppose I wanted to be part of that in some way. I went back to America and worked there for another year or so, and then decided, I’m getting out. And I came to England. And that was it. I never looked back.

I was drawn to so much English comedy. The Goon Show – I was getting recordings of that when I was in America. The Goons were the most extraordinary, surreal, wonderful, outrageous thing. Peter Cook, Beyond the Fringe… Actually, on the coat-tails of Beyond the Fringe, a year or two later Cambridge Footlights came to America and I actually got [future Monty Python’s Flying Circus colleague] John Cleese to appear in a photo story in the magazine I was editing. It was about a man who falls in love with his daughter’s Barbie doll and I got John to play the man. It was a very funny piece, and John was wonderful. And the odd thing is, I think it had such an effect on him. All of his subsequent wives looked like Barbie dolls.

It was a relief when I came to Britain not to feel responsible for the country I was in. As an American, I felt responsible for what was going on in America. But here in Britain I was free from all of that. And when I started working with [future Python colleagues] Mike [Palin] and Terry [Jones] and Eric [Idle] on Do Not Adjust Your Set I just began to feel more and more comfortable. In fact, when I started on those programmes, it was like I finally found my audience. The Brits seemed to get what I was doing, which was wonderful. I found my performers but more than that, I found my audience.

Which of my films would the teenage me like the most? That’s very hard. I don’t remember who that guy was anymore. It was so long ago. I’ve been so many people along the way. I could hopefully throw anything at him. I could certainly throw Brazil. The review I loved the most was of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I am not into drugs, I’ve been able to save my money by not being into drugs. But I loved this 15-year-old kid I heard about who saw Fear and Loathing and his parents were giving him a hard time for liking it. They said, it’s all sex, drugs, rock’n’roll. Horrible behaviour, these characters are horrible. And he said, no, it’s the first film I’ve seen that wasn’t hypocritical. I think that’s a good review. It made me feel, I’m doing something right. There’s so much hypocrisy running around the planet, now maybe more than ever.

DID YOU KNOW…

Last year, 27,000 people worldwide earned an income selling street papers, making a total of £23.4 million.

If I could go back and have one last conversation with anyone… Well, I had a great lunch once with Kurt Vonnegut Jr. A very wise, brilliant man. Those are the kind of people that have left their marks on me. The ones who really were honest, and were looking at the world with all these absurdities and dangers and also saw magic up there. Right? I like people who have maintained a sense of humour no matter how dark their lives are. I’ve been very lucky. And because of that, it seems to me I have a responsibility to be honest about things. That’s all I can say. And I try to be, whatever I’m doing or saying, I hope it’s honest. Those in power or trying to be in power right now – they lie and lie and lie. We live in a time where a serial liar gets to be prime minister. These are bad times we’re living in.

Nature has been central to me always. I grew up in the country. I grew up next to a swamp and a dirt road with a forest behind it. We didn’t have an indoor toilet. Of course when you’re young you can’t wait to move on to the big city. And eventually you get to New York and you’re seeing what mankind can do. And then after a few years in the heart of mankind, you want to get back to the country. I worry about the planet a lot now. You see the Trumps of this world: ‘We don’t even believe in an input guys, let’s just make as much money as we can since it’s all going to burn anyway’. And then there’s the evangelicals, the ones who believe in The Rapture, when Jesus comes back, and sees the place has burnt, and everything is wiped out, all the sinners and all the sin. If you believe in that, well you’ll think let’s hurry up the process and let the place burn quicker. I’ve actually been thinking, wouldn’t it be great if we could make Dr Strangelove again? For now. But I don’t know how to do it.

If I could relive any moment in my life… I must admit, when I was doing the animation for Python, in the middle of the night, three in the morning – those were kind of great moments because I didn’t exist during those times. Because my ego was gone. I was just in the zone when you’re totally creative and the ideas seem to be coming from everywhere. It’s like you’re connected to some major highway in the universe, something in the universe is guiding you and your ego is gone. Nothing really beats that feeling. I mean, sex comes close but it’s not like that. I think if you do that enough times you can become Jesus or Mohammed or Buddha. I think those are what those experiences are about, why the great prophets come out; because they’ve escaped themselves completely. These days I still do birthday cards for my family, my wife – but that’s the extent of my drawing now. I’m not so good anymore. But I still remember how it felt.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote previews nationwide on January 23 with a Terry Gilliam Q&A and is in cinemas from January 31

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