Directors’ Trademarks: Terry Gilliam

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No matter his success as director or writer, Terry Gilliam will always be remembered for his contribution to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Despite his name, Gilliam was the only American member of the posse. Although he wasn’t featured as heavily as the rest of the cast, Gilliam found his niche as the show’s animator. Those silly and very British newspaper/cardboard style animations that gave the show its unique style were created and organized by Gilliam. It’s only fitting then that he used his artistic talents after his time on the TV show to become a full-fledged movie director.

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Gilliam’s “hits” as director include a co-directing credit for Monty Pyton and the Holy Grail, 1981’s Time Bandits, Brazil (1985), Twelve Monkeys (1995), and the movie adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). The reason I put “hits” in parenthesis is because Gilliam was never really a commercial success as director, but has found popularity as his films have since earned cult status. Gilliam’s artistic talents have never been questioned, but his films are often eccentric and too indulgent for the mainstream. Gilliam is still active today with his latest film being 2009’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. His next film, The Zero Theorem, starring Christoph Waltz, is in production now.

So the question is, if you are watching a Gilliam film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Gilliam’s trademarks as director, in no particular order.

The Double-Whammy Twist at the End

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I don’t want to give away any spoilers here, so I won’t give any examples. To put it simply, if you thought that M. Night Shyamalan was the king of twists at the end of films, well then you’ve never seen a Gilliam film. Not only are the endings of Gilliam’s films often unexpected, they are downright bizarre and often inconclusive. That’s right. Gilliam likes to leave his films with something to make you think. Furthermore, there isn’t usually just one twist at the end, there are two (or three), and they usually take place one-right-after-the-other. Gilliam really knows how to “pull-out-all-the-stops” at the end of his films, and really gives his audience the finale in true showman spirit.

Surreal Visuals

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From his days as animator on Monty Python, Gilliam has forged a unique and distinct visual style. While not all his films exhibit visuals as cartoonish as those in Monty Python, they nevertheless never seem normal. Furthermore, even if the scenery appears mundane it’s not. There is always so much detail packed in that it can often be overwhelming. Gilliam is not afraid to dial in a twisted perspective by altering or warping either the camera angle (see next paragraph) or the spacing of on-screen items/people. He’s not afraid to be silly, goofy, cheesy, or even too dark. Gilliam relies heavily on his visuals to create a tone in his films, and is one of the all-time best at doing so on a consistent basis. 

The Wide Angle Lens

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Along with the surreal special effects, Gilliam makes heavy use of the wide angle lens to distort the audience’s perspective. This gives simple shots more interesting detail and can help to isolate characters and locations when needed. It’s an excellent example of a director using the physical form of his film to better capture ideas from the script and enhance his story telling ability.

Admiration for History

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Nearly all of Gilliam’s films have something to do with history or make some reference to it. If his characters are alive in modern times, they are often preoccupied with ages that have passed long ago. Gilliam’s films are full of fairy tales, legends, and archetypal characters that have been part of literature and popular culture for many centuries. Even when his films take place in the future, that future is always modeled on the past. Look at the retrograde technology abundant in Brazil or the cluttered mess of machinery in Twelve Monkeys that looks like it is from the Edwardian era.

Big-Name Actors

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Despite the cult-like status of many of his films, Gilliam has attracted and worked with many big-name and legendary actors and actresses. Furthermore, despite being a visual-minded director, Gilliam always seems to get great performances out of his cast. His frequent collaborators include Heath Ledger, Jeff Bridges, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Robin Williams, Christopher Plummer, Katherine Helmond, and Jonathan Pryce.

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Also, of note: Gilliam is also famous for many of his projects going horribly wrong, most often during production. Most of the problems have come from disagreements that have caused work to be delayed. For two decades, Gilliam has tried but failed to direct a film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, but many many problems have prevented that from happening. Most recently, Heath Ledger unexpectedly died during the filming of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus which not only caused delays, but a rewrite so that the work that Ledger had done up to that point (which was considerable) could be left in the film without having to do a recast and start over.