Ranging from his Monty Python days to 12 Monkeys, Terry Gilliam is a legit film icon — but it was another project that really put him on the map as a director.
With his 1981 film Time Bandits approaching its 34th birthday, Gilliam sat down with Movies.com to talk about what made the quirky fantasy film such an iconic film and long-lasting success. It’s easy to forget, but Time Bandits made $40 million at the box office (in 1981 dollars), off a budget of just $5 million, and Gilliam considers it his biggest hit to this day.
Looking back at the film’s legacy, Gilliam said it’s clear to see the role Time Bandits played in establishing his career as a standalone director — and credited the project with opening doors to all the other awesome movies he would go on to make:
“Time Bandits is the important one. It’s the most successful movie I’ve done in America. Bigger than 12 Monkeys when you do conversion of whatever the money was worth in those times. Time Bandits is the one that really made my mark because Holy Grail was a codirection and it was Python, Jabberwocky did very little, and Time Bandits came out and I think was number one for five weeks, it was a huge success. And what was wonderful about it is it was turned down by all the studios in script form and they turned down again when we had a finished film.
We ended up with AVCO Embassy Pictures, which hadn’t had a success in 10 years. They distributed and George Harrison basically put the money up for the prints and ads and we went out and despite being turned down by everyone went number one and just sat there for weeks. It’s the one that really made my career; after that I was hot.”
Digging into the film itself, Gilliam had a lot to say about the practical effects and unique look they were able to accomplish with a relatively small budget and lo-fi technology. One of his proudest moments? The scene where the bandits are imprisoned in a cage hanging in (what looked like) a vast, empty space. Turns out all they needed were a few cheap tricks of perspective to make that shot work:
“The scene that stands out is the one where we did so much with so little — that’s why I like it so much — it’s the scene when the bandits and Kevin are imprisoned in this cage hanging in the middle of this vast space. Because there was no vast space, there was just some black curtains hanging around three cages. There was an actual-size cage that the bandits and Kevin are in, then the next one was two-thirds that size and the next was about a third, so we created this illusion of three cages strung out over a vast distance and that was it. The space was only like 40 feet across and the cages were 10 feet off the ground. There was black cloth on the walls and the floor, and then the trick was to light these things so the light didn’t bounce off the black cloth.
The one trick was doing the false perspective, and for that we had models made. We had little figures that slid down the rope in the wide shots, it was probably only five, six inches high. But what really makes the scene work is the sound. It’s really critical. Ray Cooper, he’s actually the hands of God at the end of the movie when he rolls up the map. He’s also in the beginning of Brazil, the guy who kills the bug who falls into the machinery. He did the sound effects and he does things in very simple and primitive ways. Ray normally plays the inside of pianos, not the keys, he stretches them, bends them, and we created a sound space that just felt vast.”
Time Bandits is being released on Blu-ray for the first time ever this month as part of the Criterion Collection. If you’re a fan, check out the full interview for a lot more insight in the fantasy classic. Criterion has also unveiled one of the special features from the release, looking back at the costumes and sets. Check it out below: