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Director Gilliam Spins Tales Without Strings

January 03, 1986|JACK MATHEWS | Times Staff Writer

"Brazil" director Terry Gilliam says his next movie, "The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen," will conclude a spontaneous trilogy that began with "Time Bandits" and will end on such an upbeat note that even Universal Studios' chief Sid Sheinberg might like it.

"Maybe Sid should stick with me for one more movie," Gilliam said, punctuating the thought with a hearty staccato laugh. "He will find the end very satisfying."

It is not likely that "Munchhausen," a fantasy of tall tales, will be made with Universal money. Since Gilliam started his public campaign to force the studio to release his version of "Brazil," Sheinberg has had few nice things to say about the maverick 45-year-old director.

But Gilliam, who went to Birmingham High School in Panorama City and once worked for an ad agency that did campaigns for Universal movies, said he isn't too concerned. The money will come from somewhere.

"I know it sounds like wishful thinking," Gilliam said, before returning to his home in London on New Year's Eve. "Here's a guy who wants a lot of money to make films without strings attached. But I just think somebody will give me the money."

Gilliam, the lone American in Britain's Monty Python comedy troupe, acknowledged that he is spoiled. There have been no strings attached to any of the things he has done before--the Python series for the BBC, four Python movies, the two films ("Jabberwocky" and "Time Bandits") that he directed before "Brazil."

Gilliam said that even if he never gets to make another movie, he won't conform to Hollywood's stifling rules. He won't allow the studios, run by people he said would be middle management in any other industry, to participate in his creative process.

"There are two things I promised myself a long time ago: I won't work strictly for money, and I won't work on something where I have to give up control," he said.

When Gilliam was graduated from Birmingham High in 1958, there were few signs of the maverick who would evolve. He was a cheerleader, a letterman, student body president and class valedictorian. He was, in the era of white sports coats and pink carnations, king of the senior prom.

"I could do no wrong then," Gilliam said. "And I have no idea how it all happened, not a clue."

Gilliam, who was born in Minneapolis and migrated with his family to Panorama City when he was 11, said he had never looked ahead to a career, except for a short period when he wanted to become a Presbyterian missionary. ("I was quite a little zealot for a while. But I became disillusioned when I realized the church had no sense of humor.")

He went to Occidental College on church and academic scholarships where he minored in political science. He majored, he said, in having fun.

"I discovered something at Oxy. There was this whole other world where you could do almost anything and have fun."

Gilliam ended up editing Fang, the campus literary magazine, which he turned into one of the West Coast's hottest college humor magazines. As a disciple of Mad Magazine, he began sending copies of Fang to Harvey Kurtzmann, former Mad editor who was then putting out another humor magazine in New York.

"Harvey wrote back saying, 'Good work,' but when I told him I wanted to come to New York to work, he said, 'It's a mistake. Don't do it.' "

A few months after he was graduated from Oxy, Gilliam said he read "Act One," an autobiography by Moss Hart, who eschewed the same advice and became a successful New York playwright. Gilliam took the Big Apple route.

"When I got there, the assistant editor of Help (Kurtzmann's magazine) had just quit. I walked right into the room and got the job."

Gilliam worked for Help for three years, then returned to Los Angeles where he went to work as a writer and art director for Carson-Roberts Advertising Agency. Among his duties: designing posters and writing copy for ads for Universal Pictures.

"It was a really bad time for Universal; they were doing the worst pictures imaginable. I remember doing a line for 'Madigan,' a Richard Widmark movie. I wrote, 'Once he was happy; now he's Madigan.' That's how much I hated it."

Gilliam said he became politicized in the mid-'60s and decided to leave the country after being among the crowd that physically got rousted by police during a protest of the 1966 appearance of President Lyndon Johnson in Century City.

"That was the first nightmare I had seen in reality. I knew I would have to get totally committed, start marching and screaming. I didn't want to do that. I'd rather scream in cartoons. I took refuge within art."

Gilliam chose England because the woman he was living with at the time was a reporter for the London Evening Standard. Thanks to John Cleese, an English writer and comedian whom he had met in New York, Gilliam ended up writing sketches for a TV show, "Do Not Adjust Your Set." There he met future Python colleagues Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Eric Idle.

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