Terry Gilliam's Tideland
by Paul Kane and Marie O'Regan
Former Python and acclaimed fantasy director, Terry Gilliam, is back with what promises to be his best movie so far. Described by Terry as ‘Alice in Wonderland meets Psycho’, and based on the novel of the same name, it tells the story of Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland), who lives in a world where fireflies have names, squirrels talk, and the heads of four dolls keep her company…
Born Terrence Vance Gilliam in 1940 in Medicine Lake Minnesota, the film-maker’s father was a traveling salesman before becoming a carpenter – which might explain a craftsman’s ability to work with the hands. The family later moved to California because of his sister’s asthma, and Terry became class president and senior Prom King at Birmingham High School (actually voted ‘Most Likely to Succeed’). It was here that he discovered Mad Magazine – then edited by Harvey Kurtzman - which would have such a huge influence on his later work. He attended Occidental College where he switched his studies from Physics to Fine Arts, before majoring in Political Science. He contributed to the college magazine, Fang, which he also edited, and this eventually led to a job working on Kurtzman’s Help! magazine.
It was through Help! that he honed his skills as a strip cartoonist, and some of his photographic strips actually featured future Python pal John Cleese. Upon moving to England, he began animating for TV’s Do Not Adjust Your Set which starred Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Eric Idle. When the boys began making Python in 1969, Terry brought his animations along with him and they became one of the most popular parts of the show. It was also Python that gave him his first big directing break, as co-director of the cult classic Monty Python And The Holy Grail(1975) with Terry Jones. His first solo venture was the fable Jabberwocky (1977) which had a similar feel to Grail and also starred Michael Palin.
Time Bandits followed in 1981, taking a little boy through history in the company of wisecracking dwarves – encountering John Cleese and Sean Connery along the way. Gilliam returned to his Python roots briefly to helm a short supporting feature ‘Crimson Permanent Assurance’ for The Meaning of Life (1983) which showed the inhabitants of office blocks turning into pirates. The stunning and hilarious science fiction satire Brazil (1985) came next, giving 1984 the Gilliam treatment and starring Jonathan Pryce and Robert De Niro no less (this one earned Gilliam an Academy Award Nomination for Best Original Screenplay). Costing approx. $46 million, his ensuing movie The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), despite being a colourful fantasy in the Time Bandits mode, only clawed back $8,000,000 at cinemas.
Luckily 1991’s The Fisher King put Gilliam firmly back on the map earning a Golden Globe nomination and winning the Silver Lion at the Venice International Film Festival. A touching tale of love and bravery, this starred the perfectly cast Jeff Bridges as a washed up DJ and Robin Williams as a tramp who thinks he’s a knight (actually seeking the Holy Grail again). Four years later, fans saw another return to science fiction – this time with the harder edged Twelve Monkeys. Here Bruce Willis leant his star power to the vehicle as a man who goes back in time to stop a plague, while Brad Pitt secured an early important role as a mental patient.
A hallucinatory romp through the gambling capital of the world was the premise for 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, based on the Hunter S. Thompson book. Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro were the trippy characters taking the journey, and the film went on to become a cult classic. In 2000, Gilliam started production on his lifelong dream project, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which would have meant a second collaboration with Depp. Sadly, severe problems led to the production being halted within the first few weeks of filming. With 2005’s The Brothers Grimm Gilliam once more explored the origins of myth and fairy tales, with Matt Damon and Heath Ledger – and bringing Jonathan Pryce back into the Gilliam fold.
Tideland, released on August 11th 2005, marks the director’s tenth feature outing and is attracting a lot of attention already in genre circles. The story revolves around little girl Jeliza-Rose, whose parents - played by Jennifer Tilly and Jeff Bridges - are both junkies. When her mother dies, she embarks on a strange journey with her father, Noah, a rock and roll musician who’s seen better days. As it goes on the film blends reality with fantasy, as Jeliza-Rose escapes into her own unique world. Four dolls’ heads keep her company - Mustique, Baby Blonde, Glitter Gal and Sateen Lips - that is until she meets up with Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), a disturbed young man who has the mind of a child. In his wet suit and diving mask, he spends his days attempting to catch the monster shark that inhabits the railway tracks…
The film is actually based on a novel by Mitch Cullin, which Gilliam found on a stack of unread books in his office in 2001. The author had sent it in hoping to get a quote for the dust jacket. ‘Terry is just so tied into everybody’s dreams,’ says Cullin, ‘It was just one of those fan things where I was hoping this God would look at it and find something there and hopefully say something nice… If I was in a bookstore and saw a book that had “Fucking Brilliant, Terry Gilliam”, on the cover, I would pick it up.’
Gilliam started reading and was hooked from page one. ‘I found four or five incredible characters that are the heart of the movie,’ the director explains, ‘whose situations become more and more bizarre and strange. Most of all I loved that it was a child’s world and that was a world I wanted to explore in film.’ He immediately got in touch with his co-writer from Fear and Loathing… Tony Grisoni. ‘At that time we were looking for something which was much more contained and a little bit smaller than Quixote, not a sprawling big budget movie,’ Terry notes. They called Cullin to ask about the rights and he was, understandably, ecstatic.
‘Terry and Tony had questions and I answered them but I trusted their aesthetics a lot more than my own,’ adds Cullin. ‘I mean ultimately it’s a Terry Gilliam film and it should be something that felt like it’s his creation.’ But at the same time, as Grisoni states, ‘There’s no way anyone would adapt this book without being in touch with Mitch Cullin, because it’s such a true book.’ T he one image that came to mind when Gilliam read the book was Christina’s World, a famous painting by Andrew Wyeth of a clapboard house in the distance on the rise with a girl seemingly crawling towards it. This was the kind of look he’d insist on when translating the material to film.
In terms of casting, there was a certain amount of anxiety about whether they could find a child actress who could play Jeliza-Rose – she is, after all, the central character in the movie. ‘ The dangerous thing about making this film was the fact that a little girl,’ Gilliam says, ‘a very little girl about nine or ten years old is in every scene, she is the movie.’ But in Jodelle Ferland they finally found what they were looking for. When Gilliam saw her on an audition tape from Vancouver, he thought: ‘there was something interesting about her, I liked her looks, her energy. We brought her to Toronto and did a little session with her and she was fantastic.’
For the part of the father, Noah, Gilliam turned to a familiar face. He’d been looking for something to work with Jeff Bridges on since The Fisher King and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. As he confirms, ‘I wanted Jeff to play the role of Jeliza-Rose’s father because you’ve got to love him and feel towards him the kind of love that Jeliza-Rose feels for him, despite the fact that his character has a lot of strikes against him. He’s a burnt out rock ’n’ roller and junkie, but with Jeff the minute he walks on screen the audience warms to him - they always do.’ Bridges is quick to return the compliments, saying, ‘Terry is the greatest audience, which is terrific for a director to be, because you’re kind of doing it for him. He’s the guy you’re bouncing it off with or making laugh or getting to find something interesting and that’s great.’
Likewise, Jennifer Tilly was eager to work with Gilliam. When she found out he wanted her for a part she told her agent she didn’t care what it was, she’d do it. ‘I adore that Terry works outside of the Hollywood system,’ she says, ‘because I guarantee you if it was a studio film there’s a million more box office actresses ahead of me. But Terry just thought I would be right for the part and I think that is the best way to cast a movie. Terry is working with everyone he likes and he’s doing the script he likes.’
And for the part of Dickens, Gilliam cast Canadian actor Brendan Fletcher. On his reason why, Terry clarifies, ‘ I always had the character of Dickens in my mind as a tall gangly spidery character, somebody you laugh at he’s so pathetic. But Brendan’s interpretation wasn’t funny. It was really believable what he was doing.” When Fletcher started working with Gilliam he found he was given quite a lot of freedom with his interpretation of Dickens: ‘I realised I could probably go a little bit further,” says the actor. “That is when I introduced the cadence and inflection into Dickens’s speech. I felt totally free to take it as far as I wanted to go.”
So what does Terry think now of the finished product? ‘I think this film is more tender than many of the others, even though I’ve likened it to Alice In Wonderland meets Psycho!’ says Terry of his new production. ‘And while I feel all my films are very different in tone, I think that they may all share an attitude towards life, and I suppose that innocence has been in almost all of my movies in some way.’
Explaining this further, he comments, ‘In the modern world it’s hard for innocence to flower, because you’re bombarded day in and day out with imagery and ideas and shit - rapes, muggings, attacks. There’s disaster out there; that was the world. But actually it’s not the world, it’s the mind that we’re presented with. I mean, how many people get mugged? It’s a very tiny percentage. The world out there can seem a dangerous place, rather than the place you walk into and discover as you go through. For Jeliza-Rose, it’s a discovery of this world that she goes through; she has to deal with it, it’s happening fast.’
So what are the other themes in the movie, does he think? ‘There’s a lot of need in this film. Its people desperate for love, it seems to me; Jeliza-Rose wants love, her parents don’t give much. But that’s there, and when it’s gone there are other people to fill the gap, and they all kind of want that.’
Like a lot of this other films, though, there are also dreamlike elements to it. ‘To children, it strikes me,’ Terry ponders, ‘that every day they wake up they can see the world as a potentially different place. Until you get to a certain age, and then it seems to get repetitive, unfortunately. I love those moments, when Dickens says he’ll kill the shark, and Jeliza-Rose says, “Yeah, then we’ll be on television...” That’s her dream, to be on television! But most of her dreams seem to be normalcy - family, Mr and Mrs and baby.’
And there are definite parallels between what Jeliza-Rose and film-making. ‘Yes, when you see Jeliza-Rose she’s constantly imagining and reinventing the world. Constantly. And that’s what one gets to do when making films, it’s probably what I do when I make a film; for that brief moment I am reinventing the world into a form that makes sense within itself.’
One of the more potentially controversial parts of the movie is the unlikely ‘romance’ between Jeliza-Rose and Dickens, who thinks he’s the same age as her. ‘ That’s dangerous,’ Terry admits, ‘because one of our panic words these days is paedophilia, and child abuse. These are the things that sell newspapers these days. I thought we walked that line really carefully, without going over the edge. I never felt we’re being voyeuristic, salacious or manipulative. My wife thinks it’s shocking because it’s innocent, and it is innocent. That was our feeling when making it: try and remain innocent.’
As in Brothers Grimm, the importance of fairytale also comes across in the film. ‘ A few years ago,’ recounts Terry, ‘I bumped into a German lady with a young daughter and she wouldn’t read her Grimm’s Fairytales, because they were disturbing. But they’re not disturbing, they prepare kids for life. Any good fairy tale is really just an old folktale that has been around for a long time so they’re dealing with something that’s lower and deeper...’
So what about this Alice in Wonderland connection then? ‘Looking at the pictures Lewis Carroll took of Alice Liddell, she looked just like Jodelle. And we tried to be like that; having Jodelle leading the way… Shooting the scene when Jeliza-Rose falls down the hole with the dolls’ heads, I tried to do it realistically, but I just failed... (laughs). No, when you’re dealing with dolls, or puppets, or cartoons, or theatre, the audience is willing to give much more of themselves, and to do a little work.’
But does this fairytale actually have a happy ending? ‘I don’t think Jeliza-Rose does get what she wants,’ Terry concludes. ‘She’ll probably get something very safe, and life will become normal for her, but she’ll never have anything as intense, as wonderful, or magical as this brief period, these few days she has. That’s the other side of things, I feel you remember your childhood, you remember moments - think of what you did as a child, but I only remember a few moments, but they were intense ones. That’s kind of what she’ll go through, I think…’
At the time of writing it looks likely that Terry’s next project will be a filmic adaptation of Good Omens, written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman – who is, of course, one of the Guests of Honour at FantasyCon 2006. But for now audiences everywhere will be able to enjoy another glimpse of Gilliam’s unique universe in Tideland.
Images © Respective Owner and Revolver Entertainment.
Text © Paul Kane, Marie O’Regan & Revolver Entertainment
© Paul Kane 2003-2018. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.