Terry Gilliam Turns Back ‘Time Bandits’

(This interview article was written for Famous Monsters issue #287)

In 1981, Terry Gilliam’s whimsical fantasy-adventure TIME BANDITS enthralled audiences young and old with wit and clever storytelling. Now, the inimitable writer-director/former Monty Python trouper shares new behind-the-scenes tales of working with Sean Connery, George Harrison, an untried child actor — and the most entertaining band of dwarves he’s ever had the pleasure of filming.

By David Weiner

Terry Gilliam’s brilliant TIME BANDITS topped the box office and changed the way we look at family entertainment four decades ago with its philosophical challenges and subversive wit. Of course, time is a relative thing. Speaking with FM, the director chuckles when he thinks how time has flown by in the blink of an eye since debuting the film that boosted his career. “I haven’t grown a day,” he laughs. “The film hasn’t either. It’s just everything else has grown old.”

TIME BANDITS follows the fantastic adventure of a wide-eyed boy named Kevin (played by Craig Warnock), who is whisked away by a band of unwieldy dwarves intent on looting through the ages, thanks to a map of time holes stolen from their boss, the Supreme Being. As they swindle their way from portal to portal, they cross paths with Napoleon (played by Ian Holm), Robin Hood (John Cleese), King Agamemnon (Sean Connery) of ancient Greece, an ogre and his wife (Peter Vaughan and Katherine Helmond) in the Land of Legends, an oblivious giant, and more. All the while, the embodiment of Evil (David Warner) is intent on luring the good-natured thieves into his Fortress of Ultimate Darkness so he can steal the map and remake the universe to his liking.

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“I got [this idea] about a bunch of people that were involved in working for God, during the creation and living in heaven, who just got bored with that nice, lovely, heavenly lifestyle and wanted to go out on the road to start robbing and pillaging, having some fun,” explains Gilliam, who had decided to write a family film after growing impatient waiting for funding for what would become his subsequent production, BRAZIL. “I wanted to do it all from the kid’s point of view. I wanted the camera to be low. And I didn’t think we could get a kid who could carry the whole film on his shoulders, so let’s make all the Time Bandits the size of the kid. Short. Dwarves! And it kind of grew that way.”

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ESCAPE FROM PYTHON

Gilliam had co-directed 1975’s MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL with Terry Jones, the first wholly original big-screen outing for the British comedy troupe — and a massive hit. Looking to carve his own path from Python, Gilliam made his solo directing debut with 1977’s JABBERWOCKY, a grittier take on the Middle Ages that starred fellow Python Michael Palin. Full of offbeat humor, the film also featured Jones and Gilliam in cameo appearances. “I was trying desperately to escape from Python,” muses the director. “It was a silly way to escape from Python by doing a medieval film with Terry Jones and Michael Palin in it as well.”

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As Python’s members gradually went their separate ways, Gilliam tapped his good working relationship with Palin and recruited him to co-write TIME BANDITS. “All those ideas all sort of tumbled out of my brain over a weekend, and then I called up Mike Palin and was sort of babbling on about all these things and said, ‘Come on. Let’s write it together,’” he explains. And though he was determined that TIME BANDITS wasn’t going to be “another Python film,” he nevertheless ended up casting two other Pythons in it. “Originally, Robin Hood was supposed to be played by Mike, and then our manager [Denis O’Brien], to help assure the money, proposed the idea of John Cleese playing Robin Hood. And I could see immediately how much funnier John would be as Robin Hood. Much more overbearing and more upper class than Mike. And also him bending over the dwarves would be much funnier because of his height. So that’s what happened, and it was one of those moments that Mike did the honest thing; he sacrificed himself for the greater good of the film and took on the other part that he did [as the hopelessly lovelorn Vincent opposite Shelley Duvall’s Pansy].”

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LINING UP THE TIME BANDITS

Casting the role of Kevin turned out to be one of those great Hollywood stories — Warnock had tagged along with his brother to the audition and ended up getting the role. Gilliam wanted an unpolished, naturalistic child actor, and Warnock fit the bill. “He was a bright kid,” says the director. “He didn’t, in many ways, have to act a lot. At first, it was just making him feel comfortable, and once he survived being thrown into the deep water with Sean Connery on day one, two, and three, he kind of got into it. And there was something very natural about him. I never felt he was acting. He just did it. So he was really very easy.”

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In the roles of the Time Bandits, Gilliam cast David Rappaport as Randall, Jack Purvis as Wally, Kenny Baker as Fidgit, Malcolm Dixon as Strutter, Mike Edmonds as Og, and Tiny Ross as Vermin. Each actor welcomed the opportunity to play a more straightforward character, rather than the novelty roles they were used to getting due to their diminutive sizes, and they more than rose to the challenge. “Kenny Baker lived in a tin can as R2-D2! Jack Purvis was one of the Ewoks! So you never saw them; they were always hidden from the world,” observes Gilliam. “They had really never been given a chance to act, and some really shone. Jack Purvis, to me, just became wonderful. And I used things like that.”

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In fact, Gilliam used Purvis’ exceptional talent for a reworked scene during the film’s final battle when the original had to be cut. “Sean Connery was originally supposed to come back with all of his archers for that big showdown with Evil, and we couldn’t afford him,” explains Gilliam. “And Sean Connery as Agamemnon, the surrogate father, was the one who died in that scene. Because I couldn’t get him back, because his contract was finished, I had to kill one of the Time Bandits. … Fidgit was always the one that I knew the kids would like the most, so I killed Fidgit. That seemed to be a good thing to do. And that allowed Jack to really pull out the stops emotionally — anger and everything. It was a great moment. So the film in some ways was writing itself as we went along because we were unable to do what we originally planned.”

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Another intriguing omission from the film that led to an inspired resolution was a sequence that was to take place in the Land of Legends. “It involved two spider-women who basically used their webs to catch beautiful, young, blond knights and keep them for themselves,” explains Gilliam. “It was a really funny scene, but we ran out of money, so it got the chop. And the result of that was that we had a huge gap between escaping from the giant and getting to the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness. And so I just came up with this idea: ‘OK, what you do to save money is we’re already at the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, because it’s behind an invisible barrier, which we can’t see through. Ah! That works!’ And then we went down with the Time Bandits down to Dungeness on the coast and shot this one scene some time after we had finished the main film and it plugged that gap. It’s actually quite a nice idea, because I liked the idea of an invisible barrier that we can’t see. And it would be great fun, having all of them pressing their faces up against this barrier, squishing their noses and all.”

CONVINCING CONNERY

Despite a dip in Connery’s career at the time, Gilliam never expected to actually land the mega-star as King Agamemnon. He chuckles, “The script actually read, ‘When the great warrior removes his helmet, he reveals himself to be none other than Sean Connery — or an actor of equal-but-cheaper stature.’ And Mike and I put that in as a joke. And our manager, a less-than-humorous person, took it seriously and got Connery.” O’Brien was playing golf with the former James Bond and took that opportunity to hit him up to try the role. “I think Sean liked what Python was doing, and I think it was a chance for him to play a father figure, which, maybe in real life, he hadn’t been as present a father as he would have liked,” surmises Gilliam, confirming that Connery did indeed see that “great warrior” line in the script: “I think he must have found that incredibly funny. That’s the thing about Sean — he’s got a wonderful sense of humor.”

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Gilliam credits Connery for offering sage advice the first day of filming TIME BANDITS, an incredibly hot one in Morocco. “The first stuff we shot, the first scene, was the fight with the warrior and the kid arriving,” recalls Gilliam. “Sean is so pragmatic and so experienced, he actually saved my ass, because Craig Warnock completely froze. He was frightened. So I was spending all my time with him. And Sean says, ‘Cut out half these shots you’ve got planned with me. Just concentrate on the kid. Get me out of here quickly.’ … He’s a class act. Really. He is such a monumental figure in real life, forget about on film.”

CONCENTRATED EVIL

BRAZIL star Jonathan Pryce was Gilliam’s first casting choice for the character of Evil, but the actor was unavailable at the time of production. In his stead, the director looked to David Warner, having loved the serious actor’s turn in the 1966 comedy MORGAN — A SUITABLE CASE FOR TREATMENT. “I wasn’t actually thinking of somebody who was necessarily well known for playing evil characters,” remembers Gilliam, observing, “The character becomes ridiculous because of David’s intensity, and his focus is just wonderful because he’s not playing it for laughs. And yet, you laugh, because we all can see he’s mad and he’s surrounded himself with such pathetic helpers … to make himself look even better. To soothe his own massive ego.”

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One person who didn’t have a massive ego was executive producer George Harrison, whose Handmade Films helped fund TIME BANDITS (the company was originally formed with O’Brien to finance MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN). “He was great. He came on the set once, and that was it,” recalls Gilliam, pointing out that Harrison, being a creative type, chose not to meddle. “The Beatles certainly didn’t want people interfering, and he understood that. … He was just a great support. … When I started having fights with Denis O’Brien over his ridiculous ideas of cuts, that was the only time you could see George wasn’t happy doing this stuff. The interesting way he dealt with it was writing the lyrics of [the film’s end-titles tune “Dream Away”]. Afterwards, I found out those were his notes to me! It’s just a song — it didn’t mean anything — but there’s lines in there about not being thankful and not taking up any more time. … I think he felt I was a little bit more arrogant than I should have been, with he and Denis having mortgaged their buildings and done all sorts of stuff [for the film]. Yeah, I should have been a bit more grateful. And it’s all in the lyrics.”

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20/20 VISION AND A TIME BANDITS TV SERIES

Summing up his thoughts on the final cut of TIME BANDITS, Gilliam shares, “I looked at it, I think it was a year or two ago, when they did a Blu-ray version here in the States, and I thought it looked amazingly good considering how little it cost. It just really held up. I was really proud of it.” Asked if he learned any key lessons from the trials and tribulations of making the film, he responds with a giggle, “No, I never learn. That’s one of my strengths and weaknesses. But what TIME BANDITS did do because of its success in America — it was, like, No. 1 for five weeks — that sort of opened up the doors that allowed BRAZIL and [THE ADVENTURES OF BARON] MUNCHAUSEN to happen.”

And while a follow-up to TIME BANDITS was in the works in the late ’90s that was slated to be a series on Hallmark Channel, Gilliam says that the network pulled the plug on the project shortly after 9/11 due to changing climates. But there seems to be hope on the horizon after so many years in turnaround: “We’ve been dealing with the BBC, and it looks like they’re going to be doing a series on TIME BANDITS,” reveals Gilliam. “It’s not been announced — I assume maybe not everything is signed and sealed, so that’s just a possibility at the moment. But a very good one!”

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