You grew up in Minnesota, but—weird as it sounds—Moss Hart brought you to New York.
Yes. I was a teenager, reading his autobiography, Act One, which was all about him coming here and meeting his idol George S. Kaufman—I mean, he comes to New York and meets the biggest guy in town, and they end up working together! What a great story! So I came to New York without a clue. The one person I had in mind was Harvey Kurtzman [co-founder of Mad magazine, then the editor of Help!], to whom I’d been sending my [own] magazines when I was in college. He’d written an encouraging letter, but then I said I was coming, and he wrote, ‘Don’t bother—it’s a big city, there are no jobs. Don’t do it, kid.’ And I walked into the Help! offices, and this guy Chuck Alverson was quitting, and I got his job, just like that. This is why I believe in fairy tales.
Do you remember your first meeting?
Kurtzman was working in the Algonquin, and as I walked into the room, there were all my favorite cartoonists, all working away on “Little Annie Fanny.” Will Elder, Arnold Roth, Al Jaffee, I want to say Jack Davis, Wally Wood—they were all there, every one of them, Mad comics sitting in a room. It probably wasn’t as spectacular as that, but that’s the way I remember it.
You’ve said that you learned about filmmaking by making fumetti—comic strips made from photos.
We’d cast actors and pose them in front of the camera, and we’d put bubbles in their mouths. It was like making movies, but nothing moved: props, costumes, actors.
And Woody Allen ended up in one of them?
We cast him as a gangster. His stand-up down in the Village was utterly brilliant. Nobody had ever done a neurotic act like that.
Were you a serious filmgoer back then?
At the Thalia, you could sit there with art lovers and locals in the audience—at the time that part of the Upper West Side was Needle Park—and it got really weird. They brought back Chaplin films. The New Yorker Cinema was another epiphany. You knew about Buster Keaton, but you’d never seen all of that stuff.
How did you get from there to your Monty Python collages?
There was a Stan Vanderbeek film about Nixon that used cutouts. But it wasn’t so much that I thought, Wow, I could use that later: We had two weeks to do the collages, and I had to work fast. It just clicked. There’s been a few moments when the guy picks up the trumpet and just knows how to play. Animation was like that for me. And the airbrush—on the West Coast, Bob Grossman was doing airbrush cartoons, so I got an airbrush. I don’t have to learn how to do things, I just grab something and I know.
You draw from a lot of art history in your work, too—does that come from your experiences cutting-and-pasting?
In college, I wanted to be an art major, but I couldn’t stand the guy who was lecturing, so I quit. But at Help! we did this thing where we’d have comic captions on paintings, so I was always down at the New York Public Library picking out images. That was my art education. Python was just like Help!: You find a beautiful painting and desecrate it. You’ll notice that I never used Bosch or Brueghel, because they’re my favorites. I don’t touch them.
I’ve read that you were a good kid, right?
Just the perfect child, straight A’s, clubs. Head cheerleader, student-body president.
Were you a reader?
All the fairy tales. And—this is a good one—Albert Terhune. Look him up on the Web. Nobody knows who he is … books about faithful dogs in Scotland. For whatever reason, I was just into them. And the Hardy Boys.
I notice you’re not talking much about influential movies.
No. I liked movies, but it wasn’t the obsession that Marty Scorsese, John Landis, or Spielberg had—they know films. It’s breathtaking. But it may have played to my benefit because I can fool myself and think I’m original. I’d rather go back to books. Movies worry me, because they’re not as true or as singular as a book. A book is one person. The movies that stick, in the end, are made by the guys who really have signatures. Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, that was an epiphany. I didn’t even know who’d made it. But I was like, Wow, we’re supposed to have happy endings and the good guys don’t die like that. It was truthful to me when everything else was entertaining.
At least two of your movies—Brazil and The Fisher King—seem to draw on your time in New York.
Brazil was inspired by fascist German and fascist American architecture—Rockefeller Center. For Fisher King, I started thinking in those terms: a nice steel-and-glass photogenic place with no soul, but full of life and jest and joy and beauty and color. And what I like about [the film] is, it did seem to enchant people about New York—the story of the woman who walks home afterwards twenty blocks in the wrong direction, the fact that they waltz in Grand Central station. I put a line in the movie when Jeffrey’s hanging off the building—he says, “Nobody ever looks up in New York.” Architects do the ground floor with a lot of elaboration, then nothing till they get to the top, then they have the crown: It’s like they’re showing off to God. We deserve to see that, too.
Director, The Brothers Grimm
Opens August 26