Director's Notebook: Terry Gilliam on 'Time Bandits' -- "It's the One That Really Made My Career"

Director's Notebook: Terry Gilliam on 'Time Bandits' -- "It's the One That Really Made My Career"

Dec 11, 2014

In this monthly column we spotlight new Blu-ray/DVD releases by interviewing directors about the scenes that stood out most for them while making their movies. This month, we talk to Terry Gilliam about his bizarre fairy tale Time Bandits (available for the first time on Blu-ray through the Criterion Collection).


After making his mark penning the outlandish animations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the early ’70s, Terry Gilliam transitioned to live action: first sharing directing credit with his Python mate Terry Jones for the classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail, then with his debut solo effort, Jabberwocky. But it would be his next project, Time Bandits, which would solidify Gilliam as one of the major moviemaking talents of the next decade.

Coming up with the idea for the film out of frustration while trying to get his masterpiece Brazil off the ground, Gilliam teamed with Python’s Michael Palin to cowrite a children’s fantasy in which a young boy named Kevin (Craig Warnock) goes on a time-traveling adventure with a group of bandit dwarfs. Part The Wizard of Oz, part Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the film, backed by George Harrison when no studio would pick it up, would hit number one at the box office when it opened in the winter of 1981, grabbing the attention of children and adults alike thanks to Gilliam’s madcap storytelling and awe-inspiring visuals.

But like every Gilliam film, which are often done with little money and time, it’s the creativity behind the remarkable feats he pulls off on-screen that are the most astounding. No scene better solidifies that than the one he’s still most fond of 33 years later: the cage scene. In it, Kevin and the bandits have been captured by Evil (David Warner) and are now inside one of three cages that seem to be hanging in a pitch-black abyss. The bandits put their heads together and devise a creative way to escape. But as Gilliam explains here, there was no lack of creatively in shooting the scene either.  

Here Gilliam not only goes into detail about filming the cage scene but also explains why the advent of CGI has made him less interested in doing the fantastical action sequences he attempted earlier in his career and the reason for the controversial ending of the film.

 

“It’s about dealing with physics.”

“The scene that stands out is the one where we did so much with so little—that’s why I like it so much—it’s the scene when the bandits and Kevin are imprisoned in this cage hanging in the middle of this vast space. Because there was no vast space, there was just some black curtains hanging around three cages. There was an actual-size cage that the bandits and Kevin are in, then the next one was two-thirds that size and the next was about a third, so we created this illusion of three cages strung out over a vast distance and that was it. The space was only like 40 feet across and the cages were 10 feet off the ground. There was black cloth on the walls and the floor, and then the trick was to light these things so the light didn’t bounce off the black cloth.

“The one trick was doing the false perspective, and for that we had models made. We had little figures that slid down the rope in the wide shots, it was probably only five, six inches high. But what really makes the scene work is the sound. It’s really critical. Ray Cooper, he’s actually the hands of God at the end of the movie when he rolls up the map. He’s also in the beginning of Brazil, the guy who kills the bug who falls into the machinery. He did the sound effects and he does things in very simple and primitive ways. Ray normally plays the inside of pianos, not the keys, he stretches them, bends them, and we created a sound space that just felt vast.

“When the bandits are doing the swinging from cage to cage, that was really difficult because we had to get the pendulum right so there appears to be a rope that’s 10-times longer than it actually is, maybe 20-times longer. These are things that are very simple, it’s about dealing with physics in a very simple way with models and these fake perspectives. I really feel the tension is right in the scene and it really builds, there’s danger there.”

 

“This is when I was excited to do physical effects.”

“I’d like to say that I came up with the scene. [Laughs] I’m sure the words were Mike’s [Palin], but I don’t think he had any idea what we were shooting. And the scene did expand [from writing stage to shooting]. It’s been like that for me a few times. The scene will just be a few lines on the page, but I know it will be a big action sequence. The description on the page is quite limited and then once you begin to play with it you realize, ‘Okay, I’ve got these toys here, what can we do and how can we build it and how can we get them sliding down the rope?’

“I think with Time Bandits I was moving from cartoons into how do you do these tricks in real three dimensions? That was the enjoyable part of it. How do you cheat with very little to play with and that’s why I like that scene, it’s made out of very little but it’s really strong. I didn’t have to assemble any footage to know it was working, I just knew as I was doing it. It just got fun. I think it was only scheduled to shoot for a day and a half and it went on for four days because it was clear that we were getting something.

“And this is when I was excited to do physical effects; I’ve grown out of that. I like people sitting around and talking now. It was just the fun of it. I was still at a stage in my career where I hadn’t really thought through the complexities of doing something. And I guess it was something I hadn’t done before where you can actually create tension. With Python, that didn’t really exist, we were too busy getting to the joke. There is so much of that in Time Bandits, and it was what intrigued me.

We have our giant. I started casting tall people as the giant but they don’t look like giants when you put a wide-angled lens on them and shoot down by their ankles. What you need is a very short, very horizontal human being, a wide man. And we ended up casting a wrestler who was short but incredibly broad so with a wide angle lens it was suddenly, woooo. And you see me do the same thing in Lost in La Mancha, I cast the same for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, repeat my newfound knowledge. Then shoot it four times the normal speed and have them walking as fast as they can, it gets all the muscles swinging and it has all this weight to it. ‘Boom. Boom’ And, of course, sound effects are so important, like the cage scene, very little is going on there so the sound is vital.”

 

“I like doing things myself.”

“If I did the cage scene today we wouldn’t do it that way. The problem with the world now is it’s more expensive to do things with marionettes and things that involve a full crew. You can now do it on a computer with some guys sitting in an office. It’s cheaper. Now there’s a lot more you can do with computers than you can with marionettes, but the way light catches a real object is very different than the way an artificial light catches a computer-generated artificial thing.

"It gets pretty good at faking it, but real light surprises me all the time, and what gravity does. It becomes a partner in the crime because you have to deal with it. It’s limiting what you can do so how do you then trick the eye so it’s getting the impression of what gravity is doing? That’s the stuff that became fun. I saw Exodus last night and there’s the armies and all that stuff going on, and it’s really impressive, but there’s something in the back of my head saying 'It’s all computers.' The way its done now is farming it out and then supervising. I like doing things myself. I like pushing things around and feeling the weight of things, the texture of things myself, that’s part of the joy. What I love about Time Bandits, those are real people, they just happen to be four feet tall and are limited in what they can do and yet I love the idea of giving them the task of being the heroes of the movie. We don’t give them superpowers, they just use what they can.”

 

 

“They must be punished.”

“I had to blow up the parents [in the final scene of the movie], the whole point of the movie was to pay attention to your children as far as I was concerned. When the parents think it’s a Sunday roast [in the oven] but the boy knows it’s a piece of Evil and they don’t listen to him, they must be punished so we blow them up and the child is free to grow up to be whatever he wants to be, free from his parents. It created a great furor with the producers, they said 'It’s a children’s movie you can’t do that,' and I said, 'Watch me.' And the kids loved it. Well, the girls have the motherly instinct and were worried for him but the boys were like, 'Yeah! We can do anything.'

“And with getting that last shot to work—the aerial shot of Kevin walking towards the smoke where his parents once were—that was a situation where I’m dealing with gravity. With my films it’s always affected by the budget so that’s why gravity becomes very important. We couldn’t afford a proper crane, we had a cherry picker, it was a rising shot but the cherry picker didn’t go smoothly in that direction, it juttered as it went up. So there we are out on location, we have a kid, the sun is about the go down, what do you do?

"We ran the cherry picker backwards because it descended smoothly, which meant the boy had to walk backwards, that’s why the smoke where the parents once stood isn’t raising but descending. Well, it’s more interesting. And I knew it would work because we had to do it in the scene where Ralph Richardson [playing the Supreme Being] and the bandits go back to heaven. The dry ice didn’t look right as it came down on the Supreme Being and the bandits so I said, 'We’ll just shoot it backwards.' Everyone in that scene is acting backwards. They are saying 'Come, come,' but their movements are all the opposite of what you see. Those things become magical effects, seeing if we can run the world backwards.”

 

“It’s the one that really made my career.”

Time Bandits is the important one. It’s the most successful movie I’ve done in America. Bigger than 12 Monkeys when you do conversion of whatever the money was worth in those times. Time Bandits is the one that really made my mark because Holy Grail was a codirection and it was Python, Jabberwocky did very little, and Time Bandits came out and I think was number one for five weeks, it was a huge success. And what was wonderful about it is it was turned down by all the studios in script form and they turned down again when we had a finished film.

"We ended up with AVCO Embassy Pictures, which hadn’t had a success in 10 years. They distributed and George Harrison basically put the money up for the prints and ads and we went out and despite being turned down by everyone went number one and just sat there for weeks. It’s the one that really made my career; after that I was hot.”

 

 

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