Terry Gilliam and the Time He Shared a Crew With ‘Star Wars’

When Terry Gilliam made his solo directorial debut in 1977 with “Jabberwocky,” he was best known for his work as a founding member of Monty Python. Mr. Gilliam’s work in that influential sketch comedy troupe was unique: Besides being a performer, he was the animator, drawing absurd cartoons as transitions between sketches.

It didn’t take a close watcher to recognize the similarities between “Jabberwocky,” Mr. Gilliam’s first major non-Python project, and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975), the troupe’s first film, which he directed with Terry Jones, another member. Both films were filthy, dark and patently silly. Along with the depictions of medieval life, “Jabberwocky” starred a fellow Python member, Michael Palin, who played an optimistic but dunderheaded cooper’s apprentice mistakenly tasked with slaying a monster.

The movie, based on a poem by a Lewis Carroll, opened to mixed reviews, but has since become a cult favorite.

With the Criterion Collection issuing a 40th-anniversary edition of “Jabberwocky” this week, Mr. Gilliam recently spoke by phone from London about the film, his fellow Pythons and the news in June that production had wrapped on “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” a film he has been working on so long that it was the subject of a documentary — in 2003.

He said he had recently watched “Jabberwocky” again for the first time in 25 years. “I thought, ‘God, I was good then,’” he said. “‘I was much better than I am now.’” Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

The New York Times review of “Jabberwocky” called it a stepson of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Was that a conscious choice of yours?

I was thinking of people like Pasolini. That’s what was in my head. I was not thinking beyond that. Maybe subconsciously but not consciously. The New York Times — they probably hated the film, didn’t they?

No, we gave it a glowing review, actually.

Ah! I got some real bad ones when the film opened.

“Jabberwocky” shared some crew members with “Star Wars.” You’ve said that crew members would come to your set and say that “Jabberwocky” was going to be a much better film. Did you ever share that with George Lucas?

I met George years ago. It may have come up. On the other hand, maybe it didn’t because it was so negative about the guy who was directing this big, stupid film over in Elstree [the British studio], while we were in Shepperton. [The crew members] never mentioned what the film was called. They just thought it was this goofy sci-fi thing with a guy who didn’t seem to know anything about filmmaking. They’d come back. They thought I was great, that I knew everything and had a wonderful time. At the very end when “Star Wars” finally came out I realized, “That’s the film they were talking about!” Just because they’re having a good time doesn’t mean it’s going to be a good film.

One of the “Jabberwocky” actors was Mr. Jones. Have you seen him since the announcement in 2016 that he has dementia?

It was showing long before the announcement. We knew what was going on, which is terrible. You see a friend, somebody you know really well, kind of disappearing. His body is there. He looks great, dressed beautifully. But the guy that I knew — the guy who would constantly be arguing — he was always finding fault in politics, he was alive and kind of a Welsh terrier, is the way I would describe him.

That person is no longer living in that body. And it’s really sad because there’s nothing one can do about it. That’s the worst part.

In June, you wrapped photography on “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.” You have called this your own Sisyphean moment. How is postproduction is going?

Well, we’ve almost finished the cut. We’re just fiddling now, figuring out a few things here and there so it’s pretty much what it is. We’ve got still months of work to do on visual effects, sound, music. But as far as the tale, it’s pretty tight now and it’s surprisingly wonderful.

I always hesitate to get too optimistic or too excited about the work I’m doing. I’d rather try to stay cynical and slightly distant from it. When you fall in love with something, it’s painful when it doesn’t work for everybody else. But all the people who’ve seen it so far — they used the words, “We’re in love with this.” So let’s see if they’re right.

I want to ask about the Monty Python reunion at the O2 Arena in 2014. You’ve said it wasn’t filling you with excitement.

[As the animator], I’ve got less to do. My main contribution is already done. As a performer, as far as I’m concerned, I’m not in the same league as the others. They’re all quite brilliant. I can do certain grotesque characters the others wouldn’t touch. I’m good at those. But once we were onstage, once there was an audience there, it was great fun because you can just get away with murder. We were having probably more fun than the audience and getting paid to do so. It was great. It was good again to be working together.

Was the reunion the last time you were all together as a group?

No, we have business lunches a couple times a year. Mike and Terry live five minutes away from where I live so we’re fairly close. John and Eric seem to be more nomadic. I think the O2 shows are the last of Python actually as a group doing something big. There’s not enough of us left.