Gilliam, Searching for His Audience

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 27, 2006

Attention, uptight, macho moviegoers: "Tideland" might not be the film for you. That's according to Terry ("The Brothers Grimm") Gilliam, the man who co-wrote and directed the surreal drama based on Mitch Cullin's disturbing novel about a little girl (Jodelle Ferland) who uses her vivid imagination to cope with the deaths of her drug-abusing parents (Jennifer Tilly and Jeff Bridges).

In town to promote the movie, the jet-lagged American expatriate and Monty Python alumnus, who has called London home for almost 40 years, spoke about "Tideland" -- and its elusive search for an audience -- while sitting in the lobby of a hotel just off the Mall. One interview down (at the studios of XM Radio), Gilliam was killing time before appearing later that evening at the Washington premiere of his film at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

"Oh, I'm fading," sighs the 65-year-old filmmaker, adding hopefully that "the drugs will kick in soon" as a waiter scurries off to collect his double espresso.

Judging from photos on the Internet, Gilliam appears to be wearing the same baggy, disheveled outfit he had on 24 hours earlier, when, in a low-key publicity stunt, he showed up outside a Manhattan taping of "The Daily Show" carrying a plastic cup and cardboard sign scribbled with the words "Studio-less filmmaker. Family to support. Will direct for food." With graying hair trickling down his back in a scraggly rattail and reading glasses tethered to his neck, he has the look of a homeless intellectual.

So who exactly is the audience for "Tideland" (see review on Page 34), a film that fellow director David Cronenberg, much to Gilliam's chagrin, has called a "poetic horror film" but which Gilliam himself prefers to think of as his "most tender" film to date? This despite the "sex, drugs and necrophilia" encountered by its underage heroine, even a small taste of which was enough to make all the major studios -- and their quasi-independent subsidiaries -- "run away" from the film. "I mean, the minute you get to the page where she's preparing heroin for her father," says Gilliam, laughing as he recalls the typical reaction to the script, "it's pretty much, 'Okay, thank you very much. Come again.'

"I think people who are reasonably balanced, who are at ease with who they are, they come through it fine," Gilliam insists. Add to that list all members of the creative class: "Musicians, actors, artists, painters. They go for it immediately." Also gay men and men who are "in touch with their feminine side," says Gilliam, noting the book's over-the-top aesthetic. "There's just a sensibility there that I think, 'Okay, that's going to be gotten.' " Throw women in there, too -- because of their ability to relate to the theme of a little girl in peril -- and you've pretty much got the film's target demographics.

Well, almost.

In deciding to make this film, Gilliam says, "I was convinced we could get the audience that made 'Titanic' a success, which is teenage girls." Seriously? "It's true. Teenage girls respond to it," he says. "They're still at the age close enough to that kind of character. But they're probably not going to be allowed to see it."

Not many, anyway. Not with its R rating, a restriction the Motion Picture Association of America has slapped on "Tideland" for what it calls "bizarre and disturbing content, including drug use, sexuality and gruesome situations -- all involving a child -- and for some language."

All the same, Gilliam calls the world of "Tideland" a "small, tender, sweet, beautiful, little child's world." Or maybe not. He bursts out laughing maniacally after that straight-faced but patently ludicrous description, letting out one of the machine-gun giggles that interrupt much of his conversation, even before the coffee arrives.

"Time Bandits," "The Fisher King" and "Twelve Monkeys" aside, Gilliam acknowledges that most of his films have not generally been well reviewed. Not that he cares. "The only thing I wish is that if they write a bad review, they write a good bad review," he says. "They're just not even interesting, the bad reviews."

What's an example of a good bad review, then, one that Gilliam can, as he says, learn something from? Those that are able to identify -- and are not afraid of -- both positive and negative aspects of a film. "It worries people that something can be good and bad," he explains. "But I don't know if they mean 'good' or 'bad.' It's just that it's that and it's that . Normally, in America, it's hard to have two conflicting things in a movie. That's why I like Japan. They can hold on to about three or four completely conflicting ideas and make sense of it. In America, it's on or off."

That's not the only thing he's a little defensive about. "Storytelling is all it's about for me, really," he says. "But I never get reviews that say that. They're always criticizing me for my inability to tell stories. Or maybe my inability to create narratives that are just like any other narrative." Most films today, he says, are like McDonald's hamburgers. "They're comfortable because you know what it's going to be. It's not going to be great. It's not going to be surprising. It's not going to be terrible. It's just you know where it's going to go."

Not that this would ever be said about any Terry Gilliam film. Which makes one wonder whether that unpredictability -- what might be called the filmmaker's inherent untrustworthiness -- is precisely what's so creepy about "Tideland."

Gilliam laughs uproariously at the thought.

"See, that kind of worked against 'The Brothers Grimm,' " he says, "because I got pilloried -- for a very mediocre film, basically, is what they were saying. And that was about expectations. They expected something extraordinary from me. More edgy. But that's not what I was making. I was making this other kind of film. And so I suppose when people say, 'Oh, Terry Gilliam films' -- they talk as if it's a genre -- I don't know what, I really don't know what they mean by that. Because I think my films are very different. People keep talking about the common thread, in that always there's an element of fantasy and reality in it, that borderland that I keep playing in. But beyond that, they're so all over the map."

As for the low-budget, Thinkfilm-distributed "Tideland," Gilliam says, "If I could find more projects of this scale, I think I'd be very happy because I can get this kind of money easily. I don't have to go and wallow in Hollywood."

There's an irony in that, since Gilliam says that the films that were the easiest ones to make were those done within the Hollywood studio system and with Hollywood money. Still, easy has never been his goal. One need only remember Gilliam's "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote," the never-finished Johnny Depp vehicle whose demise is chronicled in the documentary "Lost in La Mancha," or his ambitious adaptation of Neil Gaiman's graphic novel "Good Omens," which has been in development hell since at least 1999.

"I tend to shy away from easy things," Gilliam says. "Right now, there's a project I've been offered. I could probably shoot it in a six-week shooting schedule. It's easy. You do it. It's all there. And I'm saying, 'Why don't I want to do it?' "

It could have something to do with the fact that, as Gilliam gets older, he's getting choosier about his options. "I keep feeling, 'How much time do I have left?' " he says. " 'What films should I do in that time?' "

Or the answer might lie elsewhere. Despite bad reviews and disappointing box office, Gilliam's films have always eventually found their audience, if only in the afterlife. "The great DVD graveyard is where my films end up," he says, adding that the prestigious Criterion Collection edition of the "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" DVD was "the first Criterion DVD sold at Wal-Mart."

Maybe that signboard he carried outside "The Daily Show" wasn't so tongue-in-cheek after all. Maybe Gilliam really isn't cut out for the Hollywood system but is, when it comes down to it, nothing but a -- shudder -- cult director.

"I think I'm stuck with that one," he says with a laugh.

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