x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Film director Terry Gilliam may not know it, but he's a car man

Neil Vorano talks racing and plays games with director Terry Gilliam.

Gilliam couldn't get the feel for the F1 simulator. Ravindranath K / The National
Gilliam couldn't get the feel for the F1 simulator. Ravindranath K / The National

Sometimes, people don't mean what they say. And sometimes they don't even know it.

Take Terry Gilliam, for instance. A former member of Monty Python and director of films such as Time Bandits, Brazil and 12 Monkeys, he was in Abu Dhabi for a few days last week to promote his latest film, The Wholly Family, at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. He popped in to the VIP suite at the Fairmont Hotel for a bit of fun: racing around Yas Marina Circuit on a Red Bull F1 simulator.

"Oh, I'm not really a car guy," he laughs dismissively when I ask him. "I let my wife do all the driving."

Fair enough; not everyone is into the automobile. But Gilliam, relaxed in a rumpled patterned shirt and casual slacks, might be harbouring a secret love. His eyes sparkle and he begins to make gestures in the air with his hands as he continues.

"Actually, for my birthday this year, we rented a kart track in London for the day and invited some friends," he continues excitedly. "And it's really interesting to see a bunch of nice people become monsters on the track. But we had a very good time.

"Nick Mason, the drummer for Pink Floyd, he races [Mason is an amateur car racer]. He and his wife were racing, and they're good; they bring their own helmets. She was the best racer on the track - better than Nick.

"But the fix was, I was in pole position. So if I drove well and could keep her behind, I would win, and that's what I did."

He begins to rave about the London kart track and how well laid out it was, and I tell him about the varied elevations of the Autodrome kart track in Dubai. Gilliam immediately perks up. "Oh, where exactly is it?" he asks earnestly. His time here is tight, but he wants to get in a few laps while his daughter is shopping.

The 70-year-old is entertaining and talkative, and we chat about the huge growth of Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the past few years. Our talk wanders to the upcoming Formula One race.

"I'm not a serious F1 fan, but if the race is on, I'll watch it. Vettel has been extraordinary. But it's Mark Webber that I really like. I mean, especially after that crash he had. And, Hamilton is like ... well, I like Button too. It's Button and Webber that I like. In fact, Button and Hamilton, the day before I had my birthday at this track in London, they had been down there driving themselves."

Gilliam's attention is momentarily diverted to the wall of perfumes in one corner, and he starts to entertain a crowd by trying some. "Who would have thought tobacco and honey would smell so good?" he laughs. And then I point out the squat seat of the Red Bull simulator. "Oh, wow, that's cool," he says, eyes widening.

He struggles to drop into the seat, which is just inches off the ground. "I'm just going to drive like a grandmother," he smiles. I notice that, if this were a real F1 car, his Birkenstock sandals wouldn't be considered standard race gear; they should be OK here.

Originally, the two of us were going to race for time, but it's Gilliam's own race for time today that limits the fun. He's keen on taking a few laps though. The race starts and his car goes into the fence at the first turn.

"Oooooh, oh, oohhhh. I'm in the grass," he laughs uproariously. "How do you know when to brake?"

The rest of his lap is punctuated with curses and exclamations; the game is difficult and it's the first time Gilliam has tried a video race game like it. " Go-karting, I know what I'm doing. But this is like, wow, hard. It is what it is."

Eventually, his handler begins meekly tapping Gilliam's shoulder. "Uh, Mr Gilliam, we have to leave; uh, we should go now... the car is waiting downstairs, Mr Gilliam." But the American-born director ignores his assistant and continues to struggle till his final lap is complete.

I help him up out of the chair and he shakes his head. "I can't judge it; it's two dimensional," he says, wiping his brow. "I'm incredibly good with spatial things, but this drives me crazy.

"It's very weird. My cinematographer has one eye, but he drives motorbikes. He's learnt to do that. He would be good because he sees this."

With more sleeve-tugging from the assistant, Gilliam realises he must go; but that still doesn't stop him from talking cars, even as he is directed slowly to the door.

"You know, back home, I own a Suzuki Cappucino. It's a tiny car with a 675cc engine and a turbocharger on it. It really goes fast, it rips!"

I finally shake hands with the loquacious director and bid him goodbye. And I can't help but wonder if he'll ever realise how much of a car guy he really is.