Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits is a dark fantasy classic. But nobody would fund his movie about time-traveling robbers, and George Harrison had to mortgage his office to get the film made. That's just one of the secrets of Time Bandits in this exclusive excerpt from the book Very Naughty Boys: The Amazing Story of HandMade Films.
Very Naughty Boys comes out on September 24 from Titan Books, and it covers the whole story of ex-Beatle George Harrison's production company, which started to fund Life of Brian and wound up funding Time Bandits, Withnail & I, and some other movie classics. Below, find out how it was that George Harrison wrote a song for the Time Bandits soundtrack full of lyrics demanding an apology from Terry Gilliam.
Ever since Jabberwocky, Terry Gilliam had a vision, bleak and Orwellian, of a pen-pusher’s Utopia. He christened the script The Ministry before changing his mind and calling it Brazil: ‘After Life of Brian, we just started talking about projects and I was trying to sell Denis on Brazil and he didn’t have any understanding at all of what I was trying to do there.’ So out of sheer frustration that his pet project was going nowhere fast, Gilliam sat down with the sole intention of making a movie that at least had a chance of being financed, and one that the whole family could enjoy. But it was to be the antithesis of your average children’s film, a return to the Brothers Grimm and the darker world of fantasy. In other words, a kid’s film with fangs!
The idea for Time Bandits was born over the course of one brainstorming weekend in November 1979. Gilliam says, ‘I wanted to do this whole film from a kid’s point of view, making a child the hero. But I didn’t think that a kid could carry a whole movie, so I decided to put a gang around him, people the same height, and off it went, it just sort of grew from that.’ Gilliam loved the notion of this rapscallion band of midgets from heaven who’d been part of creation, toiling away in the tree and shrubbery department, thoroughly pissed off with their lot and turning to crime. Stealing a map of the universe that pinpoints all the various rips in the fabric of time and space with the intention of jetting between centuries to loot the art treasures of history, they crash-land inside the twentieth-century bedroom of an 11-year-old boy called Kevin and take him on a series of adventures, meeting the likes of Napoleon, Robin Hood, Agamemnon and the Devil himself.
O’Brien was entranced by the idea, no doubt impressed by Gilliam’s enthusiastic pitch in which he not only described the plot but acted the whole thing out, too. It was a ‘go’ project. Next, Gilliam recruited one of his Python colleagues to help with the scripting chores. Michael Palin recalls, ‘He came round to the house one afternoon with this bit of paper and said, “Look, this is it, Time Bandits. Do you want to write it?” So that’s how it started. I really liked the idea of another collaboration with Terry. I’d enjoyed doing Jabberwocky and I do admire him and his work. He’s got a wonderful imagination, Terry, an ability to get it out of his head and on to film. I really admire that. And I think the scale of how he wants to do things is matched by an intelligence that runs through it as well, and there aren’t many people quite like that.’
It was going to be a race, though, with less than two months to complete the script as plans were already under way to shoot during the summer of 1980. But there was one minor problem. Palin said to O’Brien, ‘I can’t start on the script for another month because I’m doing a Great Railway Journeys series for the BBC,’ which elicited the response, ‘What! A Great Railway Journey? Michael, I love railroads, too but, I mean, a railway journey for the BBC? This is a Hollywood movie we’re about to make.’
Getting finance, however, proved impossible. O’Brien took the finished screenplay to Los Angeles but nobody wanted to know. ‘Who the hell is Terry Gilliam, anyway?’ seemed to be the Hollywood reasoning. Palin comments, ‘You look back and Time Bandits was very successful but, at the time, very few people were falling over themselves to do Terry Gilliam films. Terry had made Jabberwocky, which was a marvellous film, but a dark and unusual film. So Time Bandits was quite a risk.’ In the end, Harrison and O’Brien decided to back it totally themselves, again mortgaging the office in Cadogan Square to raise the required $5 million.
In the Python universe, Palin had written most of his material in conjunction with Terry Jones. The pair also collaborated on the successful Ripping Yarns comedy series for the BBC. So it was largely a new experience writing with Gilliam, one that Palin found pleasurably stimulating. Together, they made a formidable creative team with Gilliam’s more darkly surreal humour nicely counterbalanced by Palin’s more affably absurd approach. ‘Terry’s into fantasy more,’ observes Palin, ‘and I’m slightly more realistic in that I like writing real, rounded, three- dimensional characters. I wouldn’t write about horses going through wardrobes in a child’s bedroom because I wouldn’t know quite how you do that, but Terry does because he’s not afraid of the potential of cinema in any way; he will test himself all the time with wonderful and inventive visual effects which he would just throw in, and I wouldn’t have done that... you have to know what you can get away with.’
With the main story already planned out by Gilliam, this left only the dialogue to be worked out and for the characters to have flesh put on their bones. ‘It was like writing a series of small playlets within the framework that Terry had created,’ Palin adds. ‘I had to create as succinctly as possible a whole raft of different historical characters who only had maybe ten minutes to establish themselves. And also to create characters for the Time Bandits themselves, their relationship with the boy and the fact that they weren’t a kooky little bunch of dwarfs. We didn’t want that at all; we wanted them all to be quite disagreeable, argumentative, as bad tempered as anyone else.’
When it came to describing the character of Agamemnon, the stage direction simply read: ‘The Greek warrior removes his helmet, revealing himself to be none other than Sean Connery, or an actor of equal but cheaper stature.’ It was largely put in as a joke. Gilliam says, ‘We’d no idea we’d ever manage to get Sean. You wanted somebody who was a big surprise and a major star in what we thought was this small, little movie. The shock value of somebody as big as James Bond, Sean Connery, was what we were after. I just couldn’t think of anyone else who had the qualities Connery has. Agamemnon had to be a hero, a king and he also had to be a father figure to the boy. We wanted a hero and Connery’s a hero.’
With his eye firmly on the international box office, O’Brien took Gilliam’s stage direction literally and set out to snare Connery at any cost. He caught up with him on a golf course. Luck was on O’Brien’s side as Connery happened to be a big Python fan and was both intrigued by the idea and sympathetic to HandMade’s struggle to find backing. The Hollywood star recalls, ‘I was amazed that Terry Gilliam had such a problem raising only five million. I did the picture for nothing but a piece of the gross.’
Gilliam was gobsmacked when O’Brien called him up with the news that Connery was on board and the director’s first encounter with the superstar at London’s Grosvenor Hotel remains vivid to this day. ‘When you first meet Sean, he’s overwhelming; he’s the only star that I’ve ever met who is as big as he appears on screen. He’s actually more intimidating and more impressive in real life. He’s just like this great mountain, a giant. And he doesn’t suffer fools at all. I wouldn’t ever want to cross Sean. All he’s got to do is growl at you for a minute and you’re reduced to quivering jelly.’
But the casting of Connery also created the first of numerous flash points between Gilliam and O’Brien that later were to reach volcanic proportions. Gilliam’s perspective was, ‘Denis gets full credit for Connery being in the film, that was his great casting contribution. But the deal that Denis was going to do with Sean was for not much money up front but this huge gross percentage which was going to come out of my percentage. So if it had been done, Sean would’ve been collecting all this money and I would never get it because it would always go to Sean first. And this was my manager who was doing this deal! I thought, This is great! Luckily, Anne James, who was running the Python office before and became our manager afterwards, spotted this one and said, “Terry, don’t do it.” Denis’s job as my manager was to look after me, but he seemed at times more interested in looking after Connery at that point; there’s a future in Sean, who knows if there’s a future in me? Anyway, that got resolved.’
The only proviso to Connery signing was that all his scenes had to be shot during a brief break in late May before work started on his main picture of the year, Outland. This pushed forward the schedule drastically, leaving Gilliam to organise costumes, props, a skeleton crew and the Time Bandits themselves all in double-quick time. The dwarf auditions were held at the Neal’s Yard offices that Gilliam and Palin shared in London’s Covent Garden. Gilliam recalls, ‘We used to have these two old banana warehouses, Georgian buildings, very small with incredibly steep stairs going up to the first floor where the office was and these little guys would come up for auditions. You’d hear, clunk, clunk, and a little head would appear at the bottom of the door.’
With dwarf actors fairly thin on the ground, Gilliam succeeded in assembling a highly talented troupe that included David Rappaport, who’d worked on television and subsequently appeared with Sean Connery in Richard Lester’s Cuba, and Kenny Baker (the man inside Star Wars’ R2D2), part of a vaudevillian- style double-act with fellow cast member Jack Purvis. Gilliam credits Palin with breathing life into the various dwarf personas, achieved more often than not by imbuing them with the real- life characteristics of the actor. Gilliam says, ‘Randal, played by Rappaport, was always the leader. Strutter, who was the lieutenant, was always bitching and moaning but he didn’t really have the stuff to be the leader; he’d stab you in the back if he had a chance. Fidget was Kenny Baker, we made him the cute one, the one that everybody liked, but in a sense that’s the way he is, so we were definitely using their real characters in some sense.
Jack Purvis was in many ways the most heroic of the guys; there was something about Jack that was always the strongest and the best and so he became that character. Og is the stupid one and Vermin is, well, just vermin, really. So it was a combination of having some characters that were rather well established in the writing, and the others just grew out of who they were.’
The whole notion of casting a film with dwarfs came from Gilliam’s memories of growing up in the San Fernando valley where a circus used to roll into town each year and local kids would find odd-job work with them. ‘One year, I did the freak show tent so I got to see all these extraordinary people sitting around being ordinary and it really fascinated me, so that stuck with me. I just love the idea of taking guys that are small and treating them like heroes, treating them like Alan Ladd, almost as tall as Alan Ladd, I think he was about three inches taller than those guys. That’s what the joy of doing it was and giving these guys a chance to get out of their fucking Womble costumes and R2D2 tin cans and be people. And they all rose to the occasion, they were all brilliant.’
As May arrived, Gilliam found himself up a mountain in Morocco, it was 120°F and his young male lead Craig Warnock, chosen from hundreds of applicants to play Kevin, had not only never made a film before but faced with acting opposite James Bond had completely frozen. It was panic time. Gilliam, who hadn’t directed since Jabberwocky four years earlier and was still to a large degree learning his craft, was lumbered with pages of elaborate storyboards that were proving impossible to film. It was Connery who saved the day.
‘Listen,’ he said, pulling Gilliam to one side. ‘Here’s what you do. Shoot my stuff first, get me out of the way and then you can have all the time you need with the lad.’
Gilliam heeded Connery’s advice, admitting later that he wouldn’t have got through the Moroccan shoot without his encouragement. He came away from the experience impressed by the Scot’s professionalism and down-to-earth persona. ‘There was no starriness about Sean, he was just one of the people working on the film. He was totally at ease with everybody, there was no sense of hierarchy. When we made Time Bandits, it was a time when his career was going through a bad patch. Also, I think he was feeling guilty that he hadn’t been maybe the father he should have been to his son, that this was a chance for him to be a surrogate father to the young boy.’
With an unknown adolescent leading player, backed up by a myriad of anonymous midgets, the film was seen as something of a gamble so it was decided to play safe and cast ‘name’ actors in the historical roles. Palin had written the part of Robin Hood with himself in mind, but it was O’Brien’s idea to bring in John Cleese. Indeed, O’Brien desperately wanted all of the Pythons to be in the film. Palin remembers that ‘Terry didn’t want Time Bandits to be a Python film. You see, Jabberwocky had been called a Python film and the other Python members were quite touchy about that, Eric especially and rightly so, because it wasn’t a Python film. And as Time Bandits was not intended to be written by the rest of the Pythons, the idea of having all the group in it would have added real confusion. I don’t think Denis ever quite understood that, that there was a feeling within Python that it was very important that only Python films should be given the Python name, that is when you had everyone in them. But they wanted John in the film; this was all financial, it’s about money and John’s still the most tempting Python to investors, so we adapted the Robin Hood part for John. I wasn’t annoyed, it wasn’t a central role; I gave away a role which I know I could have done but John I think did it better in the end. It then meant I had to write myself the part with Shelley Duvall. We just invented this pair of star-crossed lovers. Denis insisted that I should be in it, and any other friends of Terry that were around, so Shelley Duvall was around and these two characters were very quickly cobbled together.’
Cleese himself, who’d found the script ‘a very funny piece of writing’, was oblivious to these backstage machinations. ‘I was only slightly discomfited to discover, several months later, what no one had told me at the time, which was that Michael had written that part for himself. I really had not known this. I think Denis applied a bit of pressure to Michael; obviously Denis was looking for my reasonably well-known name, and Michael consequently had to play another part which wasn’t as good as Robin Hood.’
Cleese’s entire appearance in Lincoln green tights runs to just five minutes and he was only on location in Epping Forest (standing in for Sherwood) for two days, ‘...which is about, as far as I’m concerned, the ideal amount of time to film for. You know, the first day’s fun and then you get bored at tea-time on the second day. I’ve never particularly loved the process of filming, it’s so slow. But I got on well with Gilliam and liked the people that I was working with, including dear David Rappaport. And I got fascinated by how quickly one adapted to the fact that these guys were midgets. It seemed very strange for a few hours and by the second day you were just sitting chatting to them. It sounds condescending, but in one’s own mind they’d just become like anyone else. It didn’t take very long.’
Miles away from the dashing brawn of Errol Flynn, this Robin Hood is frightfully polite and well spoken, seemingly oblivious of his grime-ridden surroundings and the Bruegel- esque peasantry, based as it was on the Duke of Kent. Cleese explains, ‘I remembered that utterly meaningless procedure by which, before football matches, the Duke of Kent or somebody similar would appear from a tunnel and shake hands with all the players. It always struck me as the most extraordinary ritual, the complete futility of that walking up and down thing, you know, are you looking forward to the match, those sorts of questions. It was like the fact they used to sing ‘Abide with Me’ at the Cup Final. When I asked why, somebody said, “It’s the Queen Mother’s favourite song.” I remember thinking, I didn’t know the Queen Mother was playing in the Cup Final, or indeed refereeing it. It’s one of those extraordinary manifestations of British traditional behaviour that leaves one almost reeling in an attempt to understand its significance.’
However good Cleese is as Robin Hood, and he is good, his decision to appear in the film was not altogether an altruistic one. Steve Abbott observes that ‘there was no question that Time Bandits was basically sold to John Cleese as a financial thing. He was sold the Robin Hood part as something that was tax efficient. It was my first major professional clash with Denis because he used a financial report I’d prepared for John without me being there, he used my figures, my report, to persuade John to do a film for tax reasons. And there’s nothing wrong with that; Denis was playing to his strength, he was good at tax planning.’
After Connery and Cleese were snared, the rest of the cast fell conveniently into place. As Mr and Mrs Ogre, a seafaring husband and wife cannibal team, it was hoped to pair Peter Vaughn with Katherine Helmond. Gilliam notes that ‘the studios had no interest in Katherine because she was a TV star in Soap — that doesn’t count — and so I settled on Ruth Gordon, but she managed to break her leg on a Clint Eastwood movie, so she was out and I got Katherine.’ In came Ian Holm, complete with cod-French accent, as a height-conscious Napoleon, and Ralph Richardson as God, played like a fusty old boarding- school headmaster. Great casting, and dear Ralph took it all oh so seriously, marking out his lines in red ink and occasionally saying, with absolute assurance, ‘God wouldn’t say that.’
‘Suddenly out of the blue getting people like Sean Connery and Ralph Richardson, just wonderful,’ says Michael Palin. ‘All these wonderful people I never thought I’d ever write anything for. It was quite a challenge to get things right for them, but Richardson rewrote most of his scenes, in a sort of gentlemanly ruthless way. I tried to get Richardson to do one of the Ripping Yarns because I thought he was such a funny, quirky actor. I think the God we created for him was probably from my school days, a 1950s post-imperial God, a bit cheesed off with the way history had gone.’
With Richardson installed as God, the only question remaining was: who should play the Prince of Darkness? ‘Originally, I offered the Devil to Jonathan Pryce,’ says Gilliam, ‘but he obliged to take a very large shilling from another film that went nowhere rather than the penny we were offering.’ Instead, Gilliam cast David Warner, whose wildly pantomimic personification of evil is the film’s scene-stealer.
Time Bandits was a successful, if highly pressurised, shoot. Some rewriting did go on, mainly to combat problems that arose during filming, like ideas being too costly or difficult to realise. Gilliam referred to the script as being organic, forever trying to keep up with the production. The biggest casualty was a lengthy sequence that preceded the dwarfs entry to the Devil’s Fortress of Ultimate Darkness. Gilliam explains, ‘The gang had escaped from a giant and were trying to get their bearings when suddenly this tendril wraps around Og and drags him into this cave. Inside, the bandits find these two desiccated old women knitting away and this tendril is in fact a bit of their yarn. What they’re knitting are huge spider webs all over the place and the spider webs are full of young, good-looking knights in shining armour, pretty boys that they’re keeping stored for their use. And under their great broad skirts they have eight feet and they scuttle along the floor. They’re just sitting there looking for new boyfriends and our gang have to escape. So we shot that scene, and it’s a really good scene, but it’s gone now, destroyed, it doesn’t exist anywhere. I’ve got one bad Polaroid of it, that’s all.’
Other fascinating missing scenes included Kevin waking up at night to find his bedroom flooded with water and a pirate ship sailing through his window, and the bandits in twenty-second- century London. ‘They rob a bank and it’s a silly thing where they’re too short, the bank teller can’t see them,’ Gilliam observes. ‘It was a silly sequence and we cut it out before we shot.’
Gilliam, though, still regrets losing the spider women but by then he had insufficient money to shoot the two linking scenes that had been written to go either side of it. That left the problem of how to get the dwarfs into the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness. ‘We had to make a quantum leap. How do we get from A to B as quickly as possible. The answer is, you’re there already, you just can’t see it, it’s an invisible barrier.’ A new scene was hurriedly written in which the bandits, lost and disorganised, turn on Randal who, in defence, hurls a skull at them, shattering the invisible barrier and thus leading the way ahead. It was a brilliant piece of improvising that reflected what was really happening amongst the actors who’d all been on a ‘hate David Rappaport’ campaign for weeks. Gilliam remembers, ‘That scene is about those characters and so we made Dave Rappaport that little shit, which was what everybody felt. So in that scene if you look at them, they really aren’t acting any more, they’re really going to get the fucker.’
Throughout filming, Rappaport had built up huge resentment between himself and the other dwarf actors by not wishing to be associated with them. ‘Rappaport saw himself as different from the rest of the gang, because he wasn’t a dwarf, he was a great actor,’ Gilliam says. ‘I said, “No, no. Dave, you’re a really wonderful 4ft 1in actor; you’ve got to put the two things together, you cannot separate one from the other, Dave.” He was actually different from the rest, he wouldn’t sit with them. If it was lunch, he’d be near John Cleese, with the “actors”.’
Perhaps the biggest moment of desperation came as filming drew to a close and Gilliam realised he didn’t have an ending. Connery was limited to just 14 days on the film, for tax reasons, and his time had already been used up. This was pretty bad luck as Agamemnon was due to take a central role in the climactic Good vs Evil battle, dying the kind of hero’s death reserved only for A-list stars. Gilliam was stumped. Then it came to him — since he couldn’t kill Agamemnon, why not snuff out one of the midgets? ‘So I said, “Let’s kill the cute one.” And so we killed Fidget. And the good thing about Fidget dying is that Kenny Baker and Jack Purvis were a stand-up comic duo, so I thought, Kill the guy’s partner and you’ve got something going. That led to a great emotional scene with Purvis as Wally raging against the Devil.’
Next, Gilliam was reminded of something Connery said at their initial meeting, a desire to return in the film’s final moments as a fireman who rescues Kevin from his burning home: ‘So I got Sean the one day he was back in the country... I think he was seeing his accountant... and he had like a couple of hours in between meetings. We got him over to Lee International studios in Wembley and put him in a fireman’s outfit. All I had was a fire truck as a bit of a set and we got two shots of him, one of putting the boy down and then another getting into the cabin, looking back and winking.’ It was a nice final touch.
The making of Time Bandits turned out to be the phoney war; the real blood and guts began once the film entered the editing stage. Gilliam says, ‘Denis started interfering. His skill was that he was brilliant at economical jugglings, but this is always the problem with anybody from the financial or executive side of film-making, they think they’re creative, too. I mean, they’re creative in their area, which is the stuff we can’t do, but somehow they can’t seem to ever stop at that. Denis doesn’t understand the other part of the process. But that’s when they all come in, during post-production; not just Denis, because now there’s an object, a finite thing, you can see it, you can have an opinion about it, everybody can have an opinion about it, then the question is, is their opinion more useful, more interesting, more correct than the film-maker’s opinion?’
The first ripples of discontent surfaced when O’Brien insisted that Gilliam change the film’s ending where Kevin’s mother and father are killed. ‘You can’t blow up parents at the end of a children’s film!’ exploded O’Brien. Gilliam stood his ground. ‘That’s the whole point. No one’s done it before.’ But O’Brien was insistent. ‘It’ll alienate the audience.’ Gilliam was ready for that one. ‘The audience is kids and every kid has this fantasy about getting rid of his parents.’ To solve the argument, a special screening for a bunch of youngsters was arranged and the first one out, a particularly precocious five-year-old boy, was asked what his favourite moment of the film was. ‘The parents being blown up!’ He whooped with delight.
The next battleground was over the music. O’Brien wanted to pepper Time Bandits with a batch of new George Harrison compositions, plus what Gilliam describes as ‘Heigh Ho’ songs that would render the work like some warped version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Ray Cooper had been drafted in to help supervise the score. ‘I’d never met Ray before,’ Gilliam says. ‘I think his main function was to try to convince me to put a lot of these songs all over the film so it was a musical. Ray and I agreed within the first two or three minutes that this was a bad idea, this was not what the film was trying to do.’
The two men formed a solid friendship from that moment. ‘We sort of got joined at the hip at that point,’ says Cooper. ‘And so far I’ve been a part of every one of his films, which is a great privilege. He’s a very masterly, interesting, crazy person to be around, manic and wonderful, always that spark is electrifying. And Time Bandits with Michael Palin writing, the two of them together, I wish they would do that again, it was a stroke of genius. All of Terry’s innovation, animation techniques, everything he’d learnt came to full fruition for Time Bandits, and therefore for HandMade, which then was on a real wave.’
The pressure of post-production meetings between Gilliam and O’Brien reached a head one afternoon at Ray Cooper’s home when Gilliam completely lost his rag, seized a print of the film with one hand and with a nail in the other barked into O’Brien’s face, ‘Here’s this nail, here’s the negative. I’m going to rip it down the middle, ’cos I made it, I can destroy it!’ Gilliam had become utterly exasperated by this stage with O’Brien’s behaviour, always seemingly on his back about the film, bringing up a succession of problems. ‘We had huge fights,’ remembers Gilliam. ‘It just became like bashing a head against a brick wall, but I was the brick wall and he was the head, that was the stupid thing. I kept saying, “No, don’t go there, Denis.” And he’d go — Wham! “Stop it, Denis.” And eventually I started screaming at him, “You’re a fucking idiot, Denis. I’ve told you time and time again your brains are bashed out all over this wall that I am and you won’t stop.” That was the first time that I was aware of his pig-headedness, how he couldn’t back off. When I get possessive and protective of my films, George can see it and Ray, OK, just step back, there’s no way of dealing with Terry at this point, let it rest for a day or two. Denis could never do that, he just was convinced of his own rightness all the time — so was I, but I think my credentials were a little bit better in that area. He doesn’t actually understand how an artist works. George and Ray do, they’ve been there.’
It’s striking how Gilliam refused to budge on anything with O’Brien over Time Bandits, even eliciting mild exasperation from one of his most ardent admirers, George Harrison, who told the director, ‘You remind me of John Lennon, you’re so difficult, so bolshie. Can’t you just compromise?’ It was the thing that Gilliam was most proud of that Harrison ever said to him. Harrison’s other major critique over that incident took the form of his one and only song for Time Bandits, which plays over the end titles. Gilliam remembers, ‘What I discovered after the event was that that song is George’s notes to me about my attitude on the film. On the lyric, there’s something about apologies. He felt I owed Denis and him some apologies because I was so unbending in the way I approached things. It’s really funny because I enjoyed listening to the song but at the time I had no idea it was George writing his notes to me.’ Some of the lyrics read ‘Greedy feeling, wheeling dealing. Losing what you won. See the dream come undone,’ and most revealingly, ‘...all you owe is apologies.’
Eric Idle actually believes that some of the gloss came off the HandMade wagon for Harrison as a direct result of Time Bandits’ turbulent post-production. ‘I think George fell out of love with it when he made Time Bandits because he just realised what Gilliam was really like. You try to discuss a budget with Terry Gilliam, it’s kind of ridiculous. Terry is completely mono, he’s taken several businesses out of existence. Several companies have fallen victim to the Gilliam piracy.’
Palin, too, is a little critical of his Python colleague in the inflexible approach he took on that film. ‘I think Terry is very keen to get things exactly the way he wants them. I’m much more prepared to sort of duck and dive, to weave around a system which I know is never going to be perfect. You’ve got to be able to deal with people, you’ve got to make a little deal here, step back there, go forward there and decide how you are actually going to get to do the work you want to do.’
When their relationship had irretrievably broken down, Gilliam’s parting shot to O’Brien was a gift of two small brass balls. ‘Denis had been spending so much time in LA he’d developed all these habits — “Put your balls on the table” — that sort of macho talk. One Christmas after Time Bandits, I felt nice for a moment and had these two brass balls made and put them into a beautiful box. I actually made the lining of the box crushed velvet and a little brass label that hung there and said “For putting on the table”. And I sent them to Denis. And he sent it back saying, “I think you’ll need these more than I do.” He didn’t get the joke or accept the thing and I thought, This is stupid.’
The ultimate cost of Gilliam’s spats with O’Brien over Time Bandits was that it turned out to be the only film he ever directed for HandMade. A major regret, because in many respects Gilliam was the archetype HandMade director. His childlike exuberance for the film-making process encapsulated what HandMade initially stood for — films made by artists, individuals, not corporations, not committees. Gilliam’s attitude towards cinema at that time was almost to treat it as if it were a cottage industry, some eccentric hobby one pottered about doing in a garden shed on weekends.
This was especially true of his approach to special effects. Certainly he was out to prove such magical feats and images could be achieved for little money as opposed to the millions spent on, say, Star Wars. The madcap space-ship sequence in Life of Brian, for example, was shot on a shoestring in his Neal’s Yard office. Months later, Gilliam actually bumped into George Lucas who raved about it. ‘Yeah. OK. We did it for a fiver,’ Gilliam replied nonchalantly.
It’s ironic that, in recent times, Gilliam has become best known for his profligacy rather than his artistry, mainly due to the budgetary problems incurred on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Back in the era of Time Bandits, he spoke passionately about a desire to steer away from computers, to fiddle about physically with the celluloid himself, to feel his fingerprints literally on the work, so that his movies were, in a revealing quote, ‘more handmade than other films’. The loss of Gilliam as a director to O’Brien and Harrison and to HandMade Films was great indeed.