Terry Gilliam, an expatriate American living in England, who's earned a reputation for strange bits of animation unlike anything anyone has ever seen, earned his stripes as a member of Monty Python.
Born in Minnesota, his career started as an editor at a satire magazine called Help!, for which he made comic strips that you may recognize. Through the mag, he met a tall Englishman named John Cleese, who formed a friendship with him. As you may have suspected, the two of them were going places.
Animating a Classic
From art, it was a quick jump to animation, and Gilliam eventually moved to Britain, where eccentric oddballs are kind of a national treasure. He composed a short called Beware of the Elephants, which caught the right eyes and landed him a gig doing animation for a British comedy show called Do Not Adjust Your Set. The short was pretty cool, and again, we suspect it may look familiar. Don't believe us? Take a look.
There were a couple of other names connected to Do Not Adjust Your Set that you may have heard of: Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Eric Idle. When that show was canceled, the four of them got together with Cleese and former medical student Graham Chapman. They weren't ready to be finished with their TV adventures just yet, and less than six months after Do Not Adjust Your Set was canceled, they hit the British airwaves with another comedy show.
It was called Monty Python's Flying Circus. We're pretty sure you've heard of it.
The show ran for five years, and it pretty much set a standard that no oddball comedian can ever match. They used absurdity as the cornerstone of their humor: their jokes didn't have a specific target or point but were so inspiringly silly and weird that they made you laugh. Gilliam didn't perform much on the show, but he brought his animation skills to the table, and oddly enough, that was a big part of the show's success.
Why? Sketch comedy usually depends on a given bit having a beginning, a middle, and an end. That's tough to do, especially if you have a concept that can't hold up for very long. (And if you've ever seen a lousy Saturday Night Live sketch, you know exactly how bad that can be.) But Monty Python didn't need to stick to that. Their bits were already going off in weird directions; it wasn't hard to simply drop one sketch after it had run out of gas and shift to another.
And that's where Gilliam came in. He could take a sketch that had finished its run and move it to the next level. Queen Victoria's head on a giraffe's body? Tap-dancing teeth in the face of a game show host? Giant feet coming out of nowhere to crush chicken-winged generals who hatched out of eggs?
These guys were like rock stars, and when the show ended, they weren't ready to stop it. Live stage performances followed, as did records, and, of course, movies. The first one was Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which Gilliam directed along with the other Terry in the group—Terry Jones.
Gilliam's animation background meant that he was great at setting up shots—figuring out where everyone needed to stand and pointing the camera in the most interesting directions. Jones could coach the actors, while Gilliam fiddled with the camera.
The success of this first movie led to more Python films—Monty Python's Life of Brian and Monty Python's the Meaning of Life—which Gilliam did not direct. Gilliam went on to do a few duds, but with the sophomore slump out of his system, he was ready to try a bigger challenge—which is what brings us to this little flick. He co-wrote it along with Michael Palin while trying to get his movie Brazil off the ground.
Time Bandits was an easier sell (though not necessarily an easier production), and with help from George Harrison, the money came together enough to let Gilliam run with it.
The production was, well, difficult, which is something Gilliam's films became known for. Producer Denis O'Brien repeatedly locked horns with the director. And some things happened by pure chance. For instance, the script describes King Agamemnon as "Sean Connery, or someone of equal but cheaper stature." O'Brien missed the last part and went and got the actual Sean Connery for the part. But that meant squeezing the shooting schedule into 007's very narrow timetable.
So things were kind of chaotic, which might have been a good thing, considering that the movie is actually about chaos. The worst of it perhaps came in the editing, when O'Brien's control-freak tendencies went full tilt against Gilliam's, and—in a clash worthy of Wally and Randall—the two fought right down to the end. O'Brien didn't want to blow up the parents at the end, for example, and he also wanted more Snow White-style songs in the film, among other things. Gilliam claims he actually threatened to destroy the only negative of the film rather than submit to O'Brien's ideas.
The good news? Time Bandits was a hit, and the director's willingness to put it all on the line probably contributed to it.