Terrence Vance Gilliam was the only American in the Monty Python troupe (although he does have British citizenship) but added the most surreal elements of the show through his many animations. As the series progressed he also did many small roles the other actors didn't want to perform for various reasons, and had very few speaking parts (one of his most notable lines is "I want more beans!" He was also Cardinal Fang of the Spanish Inquisition). He also wrote a number of the sketches, and from there co-wrote the troupe's three films based on original material with the rest of the troupe; he also co-directed Monty Python and The Holy Grail and directed the opening segment of The Meaning of Life, "The Crimson Permanent Assurance".
From there he moved into writing and directing non-Python films, though some of his fellow troupers have appeared in and/or co-wrote them. His specialties are fantasy and science fiction films, often laced with dark humor (one could construe his worldview as "We're all doomed! Isn't that hilarious?"), and he was J. K. Rowling's choice of director for the Harry Potter movies -- however Warner Brothers decided against it.
This is understandable given that few directors in the history of film have been so prone to Executive Meddling, production delays and budget overruns, and just plain bad luck as Terry Gilliam. After Jabberwocky (1977) and the hit Time Bandits (1981), the first great tale of his struggles came with 1985's Brazil. It put him at odds with Universal Pictures when executives attempted to recut the movie, especially its ending; the subsequent book The Battle of Brazil tells the tale. His next film, 1988's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, went wildly over budget and then bombed in the U.S. thanks to Columbia Pictures undergoing a regime change that kept it from getting proper release and promotion.
In the 1990s, things were looking up with The Fisher King (1991), Twelve Monkeys (1995), and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). Then at the Turn of the Millennium, his films became a parade of It Got Worse situations behind the scenes. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was never completed thanks to trials and tribulations covered in the documentary Lost in La Mancha. The Brothers Grimm (2005) was beset by Executive Meddling, this time via Bob and Harvey Weinstein. Tideland (also 2005) made it to theaters, but was overlooked (plus it was set in, and filmed in a desert, but it just kept raining during filming). And finally, perhaps saddest of all, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) became Heath Ledger's final film when he died before completing his role.
Bad luck simply doesn't cut it: the man's cursed.
The Onion once joked that if Terry Gilliam were to have a barbecue, it would be beset by production delays. But his perilous productions have resulted in a portfolio of fascinating, if not always successful, films.
The films of Terry Gilliam provide examples of the following tropes:
- Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: The Brothers Grimm
- Cool Horse: Bucephalus, Baron Munchausen's horse.
- Deranged Animation: It doesn't come more deranged than that.
- Doing It for the Art
- Tideland. A fairy tale of the sort modern people do not tell any longer. Absolutely unsuitable for commercial purposes.
- Gilliam in general is a fine example of this. Most filmmakers would have called it at day after barely surviving Brazil and the ensuing Executive Meddling. The rest would have certainly thrown in the towel after The Man Who Killed Don Quixote collapsed. Not Mr. Gilliam.
- The Dung Ages: Along with the other Pythons, popularized the trope with Monty Python and The Holy Grail; as a solo director, this appears in Jabberwocky. In general, his period settings are not particularly tidy.
- Executive Meddling: Boy howdy!
- Grimmification: The Brothers Grimm
- Johnny Depp: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus; he was also going to be the lead in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
- The Nth Doctor: To complete The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus after Heath Ledger's death, he hired Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law to play Ledger's character in the alternate worlds the Imaginarium leads to.
- Re Cut: Brazil; the Criterion DVD includes three different versions, including the one Universal wanted to release.
- Robin Williams: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (under a pseudonym) and The Fisher King. He was going to be in The Brothers Grimm until objections were made by the Weinstein brothers.
- Scenery Porn: His films have a very distinct look (highly detailed sets shot with very wide lenses), to the point where cinematographers often call a 14mm lens "the Gilliam lens". Granted, what he's actually shooting isn't always that pretty.
- Thematic Series: He considers Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to be his "Imagination Trilogy". The movies themselves are not connected by continuity but they share similar themes.
- Trickster Archetype: Baron von Munchhausen and Mr. Nick in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
- Troubled Production: Nearly all of them. Parodied by the man himself here.
- What Could Have Been
- Tons of them, but most obviously how Warner Bros. wouldn't let him direct any of the Harry Potter films.
- The Man Who Killed Don Quixote... (Though there have been rumors that he's planning to try it again.)
- He was approached to direct Watchmen back sometime in the 1990s, but they took him off the project when he insisted that the only way to do the story justice would be with a big-budget miniseries on a channel like HBO. Many still feel he was right, but as with all things...
- J.K. Rowling originally wanted Gilliam to direct Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone but Warner Brothers Executive Meddling led to Chris Columbus being hired. Gilliam has stated:
"I was the perfect guy to do Harry Potter. I remember leaving the meeting, getting in my car, and driving for about two hours along Mulholland Drive just so angry. I mean, Chris Columbus' versions are terrible. Just dull. Pedestrian."