Terry Gilliam: Time Bandits 25 Years Later
By Rich Drees
“I guess this is when I apologize for the film you are about to see,” jokes director Terry Gilliam prior to a recent screening of his fantasy Time Bandits (1981) at New York City’s Film Forum. But the audience in the sold out art house auditorium had no complaints about the film’s quality, especially considering that Time Bandits is the first film where Gilliam – a member of the famed Monty Python comedy troupe – began to exhibit his unique visual flair that has become a hallmark of his work.
Time Bandits follows the exploits of young boy named Kevin (Craig Warnock) who joins up with six dwarves who plan on pillaging their way through history with a map stolen from their boss, the Supreme Being. While encountering the likes of Greek monarch Agamemnon (Sean Connery) and another notable bandit by the name of Robin Hood (John Cleese), they are slowly manipulated into delivering the map into the clutches of Evil (David Warner) who plans on using it to reorder Creation in his own twisted view.
Following the screening, part of a two week long retrospective of the films of Monty Python and its individual members, Gilliam reappeared to discuss the film with the audience. Although currently making the publicity rounds for his latest film Tideland, he seemed more than happy to reminisce about his earlier work.
Gilliam explained that Time Bandits actually owes its existence to the fact that he couldn’t get another film he wanted to make called Brazil greenlit. Some backstory- In 1979 Gilliam and the other members of Monty Python joined with former Beatle George Harrison to form the production company Handmade Films, after EMI Studios backed out of financing Monty Python- Life Of Brian at the eleventh hour. Denis O’Brien, Harrison’s and the Python group’s mutual manager, was named head of the company.
“Denis O’Brien didn’t understand or wasn’t interested and kept stalling [on the project],” Gilliam explains. “So out of frustration one weekend I said ‘I’m going to write something for all the family’ and that’s what you just saw. I basically wrote the story and then I called Mike Palin up and said ‘Will you work with me on this?’ The words are his and between us the characters and everything grew.”
Gilliam states that the Time Bandits concept grew out of a synthesis of two different ideas.
“I was worried that the child would not be able to sustain the whole film and so I said ‘Well there’s only one way around this problem and that’s to surround him with a gang the same height,’” he says. “And that’s how they became time bandits. I think my original idea is that these people were not satisfied with heaven and life on the run, robbing and pillaging through history was much more interesting. And then there was the idea you could commit a crime and then jump to a time before the crime was committed. It grew like that.”
Although Gilliam had co-directed Monty Python And The Holy Grail (1975) with fellow Python Terry Jones as well as solo directing the fantasy film Jabberwocky (1977), American studios seemed reluctant to make the movie.
“We went to the studios with the script and nobody wanted to know about it,” he states. “So George once again put up the money to make this film. The finished film we took to the studios and no one wanted to buy it. So we ended up with a company called Avco/Embassy which was the smallest of the majors, really a mini-major. They hadn’t had a hit in ten years. But they had a distribution system. So George and Dennis guaranteed the prints and advertising and we basically used the machinery of their distribution. The film opened and I didn’t think it was going to do much. It ended up being number one for five or six weeks. It is still the most financially successful film I’ve done in America. What it did do was give me enough credibility so we could make Brazil, so it’s a very important film in my life.”
Like all films, there were struggles waged while getting Time Bandits filmed and Gilliam recounted them with a jovial tone that only twenty-five years separation from such events can provide.
“The most difficult part of Time Bandits was the beginning because I hadn’t shot a film for a couple of years since Jabberwocky,” he relates. “We started in Morocco on top of this mountain in 130 degree heat with Sean Connery and a boy who had never been in a movie before. I had my storyboards ambitious, like 30 shots in one day. Impossible. It was heading towards disaster on day one. It was Sean that said, “Shot me, get me out of the thing and then you can play with the boy.’
“He’d do things like ‘I’m not going to let you shoot me getting on the horse. I’ll look like shit. So I’ll just stand in the stirrups and I’ll lower myself down. You gotta get me on in post. Good bye, kid.’ And it was so shocking, but he got me through it. I threw everything out and I got his shots and then concentrated on the boy.”
While nearly all films are shot out of sequence and then assembled in the editing room, Gilliam seemed to take this method to the extreme when it came time to shoot the film’s climactic battle against Evil.
“Where it went a bit crazy was at the end with the big battle with the tank and the cowboys and the archers and all of that,” Gilliam explains. “I had to shoot that completely out of sequence. There was no connecting tissue for any of it. I just had my storyboards and [would do a random] shot. And then the tank wouldn’t work, ‘OK forget about the tank, let’s go and do this’ and we’d shoot that. I just had to rely totally on the storyboards because I didn’t have the confidence to just wing it. In that instance it was fantastic to just go shot, shot, shot, shot and stick the jigsaw together at the end.”
Still, the sequence did come off quite as Gilliam had initially envisioned it.
“Originally, that big battle when all those archers appear was Sean Connery’s re-entrance into the film,” he says. “He was supposed to be leading that group of archers and he was the one who was supposed to be crushed by the falling column. But we had run out of time with Sean. We only had X number of days with Sean, so overnight I rewrote [the scene]. So we killed Fidget, he was the cute one.”
But while Connery couldn’t appear in the film’s climax, he would get to appear in the movie’s coda.
“We got to the end of the film, we really didn’t have a good ending,” Gilliam recalls. “Then I remembered my first conversation with Sean and he said wouldn’t it be great if he played the fireman. He happened to be in London, he was a tax exile then, he had one day to see his accountant. I said, ‘Could you stop be the studio?’ So he stopped by the studio and I put him in a fireman’s outfit and did two shots- one where he puts the boy down and winks and then he climbs in the cab, shuts the door, winks. That was it! I didn’t write the scene until a month later. We shot with doubles the whole end sequence and it works.”
But how did Gilliam manage to get an internationally known star like Sean Connery to appear in a film that no major Hollywood studio wished to finance?
“Mike (Palin) and I wrote in the scene with the Greek warrior that after the battle with the minotaur, he takes his helmet off revealing himself to be none other than Sean Connery or ‘an actor of equal but cheaper stature,’” explains Gilliam. “That was actually in the script because we had no idea we could ever get Sean Connery. It was our little joke. Denis O’Brien was playing golf with Connery and Connery’s career at that point was really at its nadir. He had done some wonderful films that weren’t working. For what ever reason he liked the idea of this and he came on board. I think he was very important to the success of the film.”
Although Gilliam was given fairly free reign in making Time Bandits, he still had to fight to keep certain things in the film.
“The ending is the only big battle I was having,” he states. “The idea of a children’s film where the parents blew up was not possible. We had a screening in Fresno, California. It was one of those NRG screening where they hand out the cards and you fill in [your reactions]. It gives the audience a chance to have power over the filmmaker and they really grasp that moment. Something was wrong with the print and it went through the wrong sound system so the first at least third of the film was garbled. People were leaving. On the questionnaire, there were all these questions. One of the questions was ‘What was your favorite part of the film?’ and one of the answers was ‘The end.’ I took the cards home, because it’s very nice to read them because you see the handwriting. You can see the anger, you can see the joy of the person writing this stuff. It was clear that because of this terrible sound system and so many people leaving that the part they liked best about the film was the end. It was over is what they meant. But when you looked at the statistics the next day, the part of the film that was most loved about the film was the end because of the parents blowing up! So I won and got the parents blowing up!”
One unexpected bonus for Gilliam in the wake of Time Bandits success has been the responses he’s received from little people around the world.
“I’ve been a lot of places and all the little people would come up to me and say ‘Thank you for treating us like human beings,’” he says. “That’s part of the thing I wanted to do. I was so tired of seeing these guys in stupid costumes or tin cans like R2-D2. Here’s a chance to let them be heroes. Alan Ladd was short and he was a hero so why couldn’t they?”
As for the six little people actors who played the temporal thieves, Gilliam has nothing but praise.
“They were fantastic,” Gilliam recalls enthusiastically. “All the guys just rose to the occasion. My biggest fear was that they would overdo themselves. Tiny Ross is a very old guy. He was on that horse during the end when the cowboys arrive. He was sitting on the back. I left the studio for about fifteen minutes and on that we day we had a new temporary first assistant director and I said, ‘Be really careful because these guys will push themselves beyond their limits.’ When I got back fifteen minutes later there was Tiny with a broken arm. That scene was shot with his arm in a cast hidden behind the cowboys.”
Following Time Bandits, Gilliam would go on to co-write and direct Brazil (1985) and The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1988), two films that also explored the idea of the power of imagination. While at the time of Munchausen’s release Gilliam stated that the three movies dealt with dreamers at different stages of their life- youth (Time Bandits), adulthood (Brazil) and old age (Baron Munchausen), he now admits that such a thematic trilogy only came about by accident.
“It was only at the making of Baron Munchausen that I kind of realized what was going on here about the child, the man and the old man, so I took full credit for having done a trilogy,” he admits with a laugh. “I never think about these things. It’s only later that I’ve discovered what I’ve done because someone points out the obvious.”
Gilliam also admits that having revisited Time Bandits for the evening’s appearance that he noticed a parallel with his new film Tideland.
“It’s funny but I wasn’t thinking about this when I was making Tideland, but it’s only having to do this [appearance] that it brought this connection together- they’re very similar in the sense of what a child’s imagination can do,” he states. “Interestingly enough [Time Bandits] ends with the parents disappearing, blowing up and in Tideland it doesn’t take long to get rid of them.
“It’s 25 years old now, Time Bandits. I’ve been doing a lot of interviews today for Tideland, which in a strange way is 25 years on from this. They both start with a TI and they’re both about children’s imaginations, but they’re very, very different films. I’m not sure if the world has changed or it’s me that’s changed in all of that time.”
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