How do you become an artist? In this short extract the latest issue of the Idler, Terry Gilliam talks about early childhood and his first experience of conventional work
TH: When did you decide you wouldn’t have a proper job and that you wouldn’t do work just for money?
TG: I was lucky, my father was a carpenter and my mother was a virgin. One guy pulled it off years ago, and I thought there was room for another guy. I grew up in the countryside, and I loved reading, and I think the most important leap in my life was cultural. It was the radio, because we didn’t have television then. And radio just makes your imagination grow, because you’ve got to put faces on the voices… you’ve got to build the sets, you’ve got to put costumes on them. And I find that that was the greatest thing for my visual imagination. And so I started that way. It’s nice when you have a father who is a carpenter, who can make things. So making things – physical things – was always important. One of the most important things was to take the biffy which is, in Minnesota talk, the outdoor toilet… and by the way, we were better than the neighbours: we had a two-holer; they only had a one-holer. So, you take all the wood from it and turn it into a treehouse. So that’s what me and my father did. That business of transforming things has always intrigued me, take something that’s dealing in shit and turn it into something wondrous.
TH: What were you reading?
TG: Well, before that I was reading Brothers Grimm. I was reading The Hardy Boys, two young teenage detectives who – Sherlock Homes-like – solved crimes. Another was a man who nobody seems to know now, called Albert Payson Terhune, he was a writer of dog stories – faithful dogs that lived in the highlands of Scotland. Then I read Robert Louis Stevenson and all that. And because you’re coming from a very simple world… everything outside is bigger, more wonderful, more magical, you want to go and find that, and so eventually as you get older you start floating out into the world and hunting for real magic.
TH: Like the medieval peasants coming out of the countryside and going into the incredible city.
TG: It’s always been the story. As a kid, you go to the city… “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)” [listen below] … was a wonderful song after the First World War.
At once the bright lights are there beaming, twinkling… you want to go towards them. We then moved to California, Hollywood was just over the hill, and again, it’s always this exotic place over there where magic occurs, where wondrous things happen. And by then I was working every summer to get through college. The last summer I was at the Chevrolet assembly plant, where people were working eight hours a day – I was on the night shift, so from eight at night to five in the morning – doing this repetitive work, and I thought this was the most horrible thing that could happen to anybody. But in retrospect, I look back and say: those guys made a choice and they were happy. They had families, they went on holidays. The other choice is to be an artist, and have a miserable time. But I had good parents, I hadn’t been abused as a child, I wasn’t an orphan, I wasn’t black, I wasn’t a woman, I wasn’t gay, I wasn’t blind or crippled… so I didn’t have a chance in life as far as I could see. I thought that an artist had to suffer and that art comes out of pain. So I did that after college.