Interview: Terry Gilliam – 'Books are dangerous. You get trapped in them and then you have to somehow get them out of your system'

Interview: Terry Gilliam – 'Books are dangerous. You get trapped in them and then you have to somehow get them out of your system'

Director, actor and Monty Python member unveils new Don Quixote quote on Edinburgh's Jeffrey Street

'I just realised, that's my Valentine's card to Edinburgh,' Terry Gilliam says to the crowd, as he points at a large, lit-up sign, which reads: 'I shall tear up trees with my bare teeth! I shall crush mountains with my fists! I shall go crazy – for love!'

The quote is from Cervantes' Don Quixote, and has been made into a 10-metre long artwork as part of the Words on the Street project being run by City of Literature Trust. The project aims to celebrate Edinburgh's rich tradition of publishing, and the power that great books have to inspire artists.

Edinburgh's association with Cervantes' work dates back to the 18th-century, when it was translated into English by Tobias Smollett, who lived at St John's Pend in the Canongate – just a few minutes' walk from Jeffrey Street where the quote was installed today. His translation was originally printed in 1755, and revised again in 1761.

In his book, Gilliamesque, Gilliam explains his own fascination with Don Quixote. When asked today how Cervantes influences his life and work, he says: 'I dunno. I don't have a career and I barely have a life.'

Famously, Gilliam is involved in an ongoing project to make the book into a film: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. It's been in the works for around 20 years, and there have been seven unsuccessful attempts to get the film made between 1998 and 2014. But Gilliam believes it could be making headway soon. 'I always believe I'm going to get it off the ground and we're going to be shooting in September. That's what I believe, the reality may be different.'

But it's not just Cervantes that influenced him. When asked about his authorial influences on his work, he says there are lots. 'I've always thought about Don Dolito who wrote White Noise which is an amazing book. I [directed] The Adventures of Baron Munchausen which is a book that had been forgotten. Hopefully the film encouraged a few other people to read it. I don't know, it depends what I'm reading.

'Until I get Quixote out of the way I'm not going to approach other books,' he says. 'Books are dangerous. They seduce you, you get trapped in them and then you have to somehow get them out of your system.'

As for this quote, it's not just something to light up a dark Edinburgh street. 'It's about passion,' says Gilliam. 'It's about believing in something, and being mad. Being crazy enough because something is so important to you. Most people are so calm and careful and studied, and go through life playing it safe and I don't want to encourage people to do that. I want them to be dangerous, take chances.'

See the artwork on Jeffrey Street, Edinburgh now.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

  • 2 stars
  • 2018
  • UK / Spain / France / Portugal / Belgium
  • 2h 12min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Terry Gilliam
  • Cast: Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgård, Olga Kurylenko, Joana Ribeiro
  • UK release: 31 January 2020

Toby (Driver) is a director of commercials who finds himself in Spain with Javier (Pryce), who thinks he’s Don Quixote. Gilliam's passion project has been more than 25 years in the making and it feels old and tired; Driver is largely unlikeable, the female characters are one-dimensional and Pryce’s madman is maddening.