Gilliam's 'Imaginarium': Surreal And All-Too-Real.
Terry Gilliam's new film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, is another entry into his long line of dream-like films. But it's also the final performance of the late Heath Ledger. Gilliam joins host Terry Gross to talk about the personal and professional challenges of creative filmmaking.
Other segments from the episode on December 22, 2009
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Gilliam's 'Imaginarium': Surreal And All-Too-Real
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Terry Gilliam became famous as the one
member of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" who was American, the one you seldom
saw onscreen. Instead, he contributed short, animated bits that connected the
comedy troupe's outlandish skits, little cartoons of giant feet crushing things
and Venus on the half-shell slapping away a long, prying arm.
When the group ventured into film, Gilliam became a co-director with "Monty
Python and the Holy Grail," and then a full-fledged director. His credits
include "Brazil," "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," "Fear and Loathing in
Las Vegas" and "The Brothers Grimm" with Matt Damon and Heath Ledger.
Gilliam was working with Heath Ledger on a new movie, "The Imaginarium of
Doctor Parnassus," when the actor died suddenly in January 2008. But Gilliam
found a way to complete the movie.
Our TV critic, David Bianculli, spoke to Terry Gilliam. Let's start with a clip
from "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." The title character, played by
Christopher Plummer, is the owner of a rundown circus, but he has one star
attraction: a magic mirror that can transport people into an alternate world,
bringing to life their best dreams or worst nightmares. In this scene, an
amnesiac who's joined the show, played by Heath Ledger, is suggesting to
Dr. Parnassus and another circus member, played by Verne Troyer, that some
changes be made to the show.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus")
Mr. HEATH LEDGER (Actor): (As Tony) Well, I've been thinking, sir, that you
know, it's quite obvious that people, you know, not many people, are attracted
to the show.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER (Actor): (As Doctor Parnassus) Oh, thank you so much.
Mr. LEDGER: (As Tony) Well, you know, forgive me, but I have a couple of
solutions to your problems. One, I was thinking of, you know, changing the
style of the show. And two, I would change the audience, perhaps.
Mr. PLUMMER: (As Parnassus) Change?
Mr. LEDGER: (As Tony) Yeah, you know, but in my opinion, I'd change both. But
you know, that's just me, and I...
Mr. VERNE TROYER (Actor): (As Percy) Change the show? Who the freaking hell do
you think you are?
DAVID BIANCULLI: Terry Gilliam, welcome to FRESH AIR. A lot of attention is
going to be brought to your new movie, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,"
because it features the final screen performance of Heath Ledger, but it was
only a partial performance. So can we start by talking about the logistics of
this? How far into filming were you when he died suddenly?
Mr. TERRY GILLIAM (Director, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus"): Well, we
had shot four weeks in London, and we'd finished on a Saturday night. And
Sunday morning, I headed off to Vancouver, where we were going to continue
shooting, mainly sort of blue-screen work, and Heath headed off to New York.
And two days later, he was dead. So we'd managed to film most of the material
on this side of this magic mirror that's in the Imaginarium, but the other part
was not done.
BIANCULLI: Let me ask: How did you hear the news, first of all?
Mr. GILLIAM: I didn't hear it. It was my daughter, who was one of the
producers, called me into her office. And there it was on the BBC Web site:
Heath Ledger found dead. And...
BIANCULLI: Oh, that's awful.
Mr. GILLIAM: Oh, it couldn't be worse. I mean, it was just unimaginable. I
mean, we - I mean, it took us hours before we even accepted it. I mean, Heath
was so full of life and energy, and suddenly, he's not there. It was - no, it
was horrible. I've never experienced anything like that in my life. I hope I
never have to do it again.
BIANCULLI: Well, I love the finished film, and it seems so organic that the
Imaginarium, in fact, it gives the Imaginarium itself more power by having a
character, when he or she goes into it, actually changing appearance.
And so you have Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Ferrell playing different aspects
of Heath Ledger's character, of Tony. But when did you come up with that rather
ingenious solution? How long...
Mr. GILLIAM: Yeah, I don't know if it was ingenious. It was of desperation. I
mean, the choice was whether we continue or we stop. And my initial feeling,
because I was so devastated, was stop. The film is over. It's just one more of
those interesting moments when the curse of Gilliam takes over.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GILLIAM: The curse that other people believe in. I don't believe in it, but
others do. This is a curse that I read about in the press. But, I mean, I was
just destroyed. And I said: How do you finish a film when halfway through, the
star dies? It hasn't been done before, and I didn't think it was going to be
done this time. But luckily I'm surrounded by my daughter, who is one of the
producers, Nicola Pecorini, who was the cinematographer, and they just wouldn't
let me give up. So they kept kicking me as a I lie there on the ground for a
couple days until I finally said OK, we've got to do something.
Because it really was this feeling, how could we let Heath's last performance
just vanish? And that was the driving force. We've got to finish this thing for
And, I mean, people were saying, oh, we've got to get another actor to take
over the part. I said there's no way I'm going to have an other actor take over
from Heath. And so I think the turning point was the day, perhaps the day after
Heath had died, because I called Johnny Depp to commiserate because Johnny was
very close to Heath, as well. And I said, you know, I don't know what I'm going
to do. And he says, well, whatever you decide to do, mate, I'll be there. I'll
help, whatever you want.
And that kind of - it did two things, I found out later. It stopped the retreat
of the money because the money was just running away because they knew there's
no way you can finish this film. So give us our money back. We don't want to
spend any more. We're gone. We're home.
And then, you know, another few days went by - what do we do? What do we do?
And then I suddenly realized that he goes through the mirror, the character
Tony goes through the mirror three times. So three other actors might do it,
three actors. And anyway, that would be very interesting. But I'd have to
change the idea, which was very simple, that if you go through the mirror, your
face may change. You might be part of somebody else's imagination. Their
imagination would be greater than yours, and your face would be different.
So the first time a character goes through the mirror at the beginning of the
first scene of the film, we had his face change, and that set the idea up. And
then we just - I started calling other friends of Heath's, other actors who
were very close to him because I wanted to keep it in the family. I just wanted
people who were part of his life to be part of the film.
And luckily, Colin Ferrell and Jude Law were available, and so there we were.
The three heroes rode to the rescue.
BIANCULLI: It sounds like there is no way to direct a film more stressfully
than that. But I've read, if this is correct, that at some point, you were
directing this film with a broken back?
Mr. GILLIAM: No. I mean, I didn't get hit by a car and broke my back until the
film, all the shooting was done. It was in post by then.
BIANCULLI: How clever. How well-timed.
Mr. GILLIAM: Yeah. Well, the thing is, I thought the grim reaper was going for
number three because the other tragedy on this film was Bill Vince, the
principal producer, died a few days after the last bit of film rolled through
the camera. So we had two deaths. We got the star, we got the producer, and the
grim reaper was going for the director, as well, a clean sweep, and all they
managed to do was break my back.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BIANCULLI: How is your back now, I should ask?
Mr. GILLIAM: It's fine. A year later, I'm fine.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BIANCULLI: On one of your first, or it may have been your first, co-directing
venture with Terry Jones, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," there's one visual
scene that I've always wanted to ask you about, and it's the black knight
Mr. GILLIAM: Right.
BIANCULLI: OK, it's where Arthur, played by Graham Chapman, comes across a
formidable warrior who won't let Arthur pass, and this is part of the great
Arthurian legend. They cross swords, and Arthur cuts off one of the knight's
limbs, then another and another, but still the black knight refuses to
surrender. We have a portion of that clip that we can play right now. It's the
"Monty Python and the Holy Grail."
(Soundbite of movie, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail")
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of grunting)
Mr. GRAHAM CHAPMAN (Actor): (As King Arthur) Now stand aside, worthy adversary.
Mr. JOHN CLEESE (Actor): (As the Black Knight) 'Tis but a scratch.
Mr. CHAPMAN: (As Arthur) A scratch? Your arm's off.
Mr. CLEESE: (As the Black Knight) No it isn't.
Mr. CHAPMAN: (As Arthur) Well, what's that then?
Mr. CLEESE: (As the Black Knight) I've had worse.
Mr. CHAPMAN: (As Arthur) You liar.
Mr. CLEESE: (As the Black Knight) Come on, you pansy.
(Soundbite of swords clanking, grunting)
Mr. CHAPMAN: (As Arthur) Victory is mine. We thank thee, Lord, that in thy
(Soundbite of shouting)
Mr. CLEESE: (As the Black Knight) Come on, then.
Mr. CHAPMAN: (As Arthur) What?
Mr. CLEESE: (As the Black Knight) Have at you!
(Soundbite of hitting, grunting)
Mr. CHAPMAN: (As Arthur) You are indeed brave, Sir Knight, but the fight is
Mr. CLEESE: (As the Black Knight) Oh, had enough, eh?
Mr. CHAPMAN: (As Arthur) Look, you stupid bastard, you've got no arms left.
Mr. CLEESE: (As the Black Knight) Yes, I have.
Mr. CHAPMAN: (As Arthur) Look.
Mr. CLEESE: (As the Black Knight) It's just a flesh wound.
BIANCULLI: That's a very bloody scene from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."
So my question is: How did you make the call - assuming that you made it and
not Terry, or how did you make it together - on exactly visually how much blood
was the right amount to be really funny and yet be daring? I mean, were there
different versions of this?
Mr. GILLIAM: No, it was pretty much what you see is what we did. We didn't
actually spend that much arguing about or even discussing how much blood. We
just wanted plenty of blood to make it grand guignol-ish. It has to be absurd
enough because what was interesting, when the film first came out in the States
- and we saw it in New York with an audience. And this is during the Vietnam
War, when violence, of course, was the worst thing you could even think of when
you're talking to sort of a left-wing student, intelligent audience.
And when the scene started and the first arm comes off, it was just a gasp of
horror. It wasn't funny. And then the second arm, and it still wasn't funny. I
think we had to get to the first leg coming off before they began to realize
that that kind of absurd violence could actually be funny.
And that's what intrigued me. They were misreading it because the whole thing
is so absurd, and it wasn't - you know, it wasn't very naturalistic, I wouldn't
have thought, the way we were doing it. It was just a clear - a dummy arm comes
off. But they were shocked.
But by the second leg coming off, they were genuinely laughing.
BIANCULLI: Do you find that with other parts of the Python material, that some
of it got one reaction at the time and a completely different reaction years
Mr. GILLIAM: Yeah, I think so. I can't be specific, but, you know, I think it
was more the transition to America where the difficulty was. The English seemed
to get it, and the Americans were a bit more straight-laced and more rigid in
their thinking, and it took a while to get used to it, to understand what was
I mean, the good thing about Python was that it divided families. I mean, it
tended to be - the guys liked the first...
(Soundbite of laughter)
BIANCULLI: People usually claim to unite families.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GILLIAM: No. I've always loved the idea of split families based on their
sense of humor. That's wonderful. It's a test of a real marriage.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BIANCULLI: We're talking with Terry Gilliam, director of the new movie "The
Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: My guest is Terry Gilliam, director of the new movie, "The
Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." He also directed "Brazil," "Time Bandits" and
many other films and provided all the animation for TV's "Monty Python's Flying
One other theme that runs through your works - I'm not trying to be too
introspective here, but imagination and storytelling. Those are themes that you
return to over and over again, I think so brilliantly - I mean, not only
"Doctor Parnassus" but "Brazil" and "Baron Munchausen" and "The Brothers
Grimm." Why is that? I mean, why does storytelling have such power to you?
Mr. GILLIAM: I just think it's from my youth, being a kid, growing up in the
countryside of Minneapolis and - with only radio. And there were all these
great radio shows that were storytelling, and I think the first books I read
were Grimm's fairy tales.
I also remember, I was a bit older, 12, 13, as a Boy Scout, being up in the
forests above - in the mountains above Los Angeles and at nighttime around a
campfire and stories being told. And it's - to me, the real magic is just
wonderful because suddenly you're transported from your own world into other
worlds if you let yourself go. And that's the key to letting go, trusting the
And I, in my perverse way, am always trying to tell stories not the way the
current mode is in Hollywood. And then I always get hauled up by the critics
for being a bad storyteller, and yet, children invariably just fall under the
spell of my films. They get them, and the adults often have a problem.
I remember when we did "Time Bandits." The kids just went with the flow, and
the adults were panicking because we were jumping around too quickly from one
point in history to another. And they wanted road signs in advance of where
they were going, and I thought, we're getting into a world where people really
aren't really used to that kind of storytelling anymore.
BIANCULLI: For people who don't know that you were born in Minnesota, and, you
know, if they think of you as Monty Python, and they may even know that you're
the American member - or were the American member - of Monty Python, the
animations that you provided to that program are your key signature. When did
you feel like you were an artist? How did your artistic talent develop?
Mr. GILLIAM: Oh, I mean, ever since I was a kid, I've drawn. I used to draw
cartoons. You know, that's what I did. I think what's lovely about being able
to draw, and particularly cartoons, that's kind of magic to people. Most people
don't really respect people who can sit down and write. But if you draw
something and it's funny at the same time, they love it. And for me, it was -
you get immediate feedback. So I'm always a sucker for somebody laughing or
saying oh, aren't you clever. So that's what I did, and so cartoons were always
what I did.
And that eventually led into animation, which then led into filmmaking. But I
think it's always the visuals, in many ways, come first. Then I try to work out
a way of including dialogue and words. But it was always the pictures. So I
think I'm very primitive in that sense. I suppose that's why I'm kind of
obsessed with the medieval times, when people were illiterate, and it signs and
pictures was how ideas were communicated.
BIANCULLI: How has filmmaking changed for you over these - what, it's 30-some
years since you actually started officially directing. I mean, special effects
and technology are so different now, and you're an artist and an animator. Do
those tools make it easier for you or harder?
Mr. GILLIAM: Some of them do make it easier. To me they are tools, as you say.
That's exactly what they are. I don't get excited, the fact that, oh, now a
computer can do this, because the problem with so many of these advances, they
just end up making the films more expensive. And the more expensive you make
your films, the more limited I think you are in the ideas you can play with.
So I use it to keep my films cheap. In the case of "Parnassus," rather than
doing elaborate naturalistic backgrounds, I kept the backgrounds more
painterly. They're more - in fact, they're a bit more like my cartoons in
Python. They're simpler. So we could do amazing backgrounds, but they're still
quite cheap to produce rather than putting a Tyrannosaurus rex in there.
BIANCULLI: Now when you were dealing with things like deciding which lenses to
use early on, and now it's sort of one of your signatures is the type of lenses
that you can use - or now with CG stuff, how hard is that for you to learn?
Mr. GILLIAM: Oh, I've been playing with it for years, just little by little.
And I just - no, it's easy. That's what I'm good at. These are the skills I
have that - that's the way I see things. The wide-angle lenses, I think I
choose them because it makes me feel like I'm in the space of the film. I'm
surrounded. My peripheral vision is full of detail, and that's what I like
about it. It's actually harder to do. It's harder to light.
The other thing I like about wide-angle lenses is that I'm not forcing the
audience to look at just the one thing that is important. It's there, but
there's other things to occupy, and some people don't like that because it's -
I'm not pointing things out as precisely as I could if I was using a long lens,
where I'd focus just on the one thing and everything else would be out of
BIANCULLI: Well, doesn't that make it perfect for DVD?
Mr. GILLIAM: Ah-ha. You've put - you've - my secret is out.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GILLIAM: The fact is, it's about DVDs, the fact now we can watch a film
again, again and again, and for me, my films, I think are better the second and
third time, frankly, because you can now relax and go with the flow that may
not have been as apparent at the - the first time you saw it, and wallow in
the details of the worlds we're creating.
I think what's interesting is that when I was growing up and going to films,
you had - you saw the film once, or you went and saw it night after night or
week after week until it was gone, and then it was in your memory for the next
20 years. That was the only way you could hold onto it.
And now - and I'm not sure it's better, the fact now we can go again and again.
BIANCULLI: It depends on the film, I think. Yes.
Mr. GILLIAM: Exactly. But I try to clutter mine up. They're worthy of many
BIANCULLI: Well, I just saw, for example, "Baron Munchausen" again, and I was
taken - I don't know whether I just had a better television set this time, but
the flying cherubs fascinated me, just the little flying cherubs in this one
scene. It was like, how adorable, and I don't think I've ever seen anything
that impish. So I don't know if there's a question here, but if you have
anything to share about those flying cherubs, now's the time.
Mr. GILLIAM: You know, the terrible thing - I mean, I was actually very worried
about them because they're just, you know, fiberglass figures with wings that
flap and they're on wires. And I was always terrified that they were going to
look just like that, but somehow, we - there's enough action there that there
they are. They seem to work.
And again, I think I've got - I'm lucky in the sense that I don't work in a
naturalistic way. So it allows things to be wonderful because they're like
toys. They're not complete. They're not perfect, and that's what I've always
liked about toys and what children do is they take, you know, a little stuffed
doll and turned it into a beautiful, you know, princess that has a whole life.
And for me, what I want to do in films is to try to not make it perfect and not
make it totally realistic. So you've got to do some work. You've got to use
your imagination, and the more I think you use your imagination, the more you
get out of it. It's probably why, you know, theater works so well because, you
know, an audience has got to put a lot of their imagination to work to make
that stage a real place with real events going on.
And what always worries me about television in particular and also films now,
all the work is being done for you. The audience has become more passive, and I
don't like that. I actually want the audience to work. You pay your money, and
you go to work when you come to see my films.
BIANCULLI: Well, Terry Gilliam, I want to thank you so much for being on FRESH
Mr. GILLIAM: Lovely, thank you.
GROSS: Terry Gilliam spoke with FRESH AIR's TV critic David Bianculli. Gilliam
directed the new film "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." David writes for
tvworthwatching.com, teaches at Rowan University and is the author of the new
book about the Smothers Brothers, "Dangerously Funny." I'm Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.
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A Different Perspective On âthe Familyâ And Uganda
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross.
Last month we featured an interview with Jeff Sharlet, the author of the book
âthe Family: The Secret Fundamentalism At The Heart of American Power.â Sharlet
has spent years researching the Family, which is a secretive group that some
senators and congressmen are affiliated with including Tom Coburn, John Ensign,
Joe Pitts, Jim DeMint and Sam Brownback. the Familyâs most visible project is
sponsoring the National Prayer Breakfast each year in Washington, D.C.
After Sharletâs interview last month, we received an email from a longtime
member of the Family who was mentioned in the interview, Bob Hunter. He wanted
to respond to things that were said about him and the Family, which he says is
better known as the Fellowship. So we invited Hunter to talk with us.
In an email he sent us prior to the interview, he was concerned that he'd been
portrayed as a right wing fundamentalist when in fact he's a long-time consumer
activist and is now the director of insurance with the Consumer Federation of
America. He served in the Carter administration as well as the Ford
Bob Hunter's work with the Family came up in my interview with Jeff Sharlet
when we were discussing Uganda, where anti-gay legislation has been proposed
that would sentence to death some homosexuals and imprison anyone who didnât
report a homosexual. In my interview with Sharlet, he talked about the Family's
connections to Uganda and their possible influence on this draconian bill.
The president of Uganda was brought into the Fellowship by Bob Hunter, who's
been working in Uganda since the '80s with hospitals and other charitable
groups. Hunter says neither he nor anyone he knows in the Fellowship supports
the Ugandan bill and that's one of the things he told Jeff Sharlet in the
meeting that they had after our interview.
Sharlet wrote a post on Warren Throckmorton's blog about their conversation
clarifying and correcting some of his statements. You'll find a link to that
blog on our Web site.
I spoke with Bob Hunter yesterday. We talked first about his work in Uganda.
Bob Hunter, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, what did you do to help connect the
leadership of Uganda with the Fellowship?
Mr. BOB HUNTER (Consumer Federation of America): Well, I started reaching out
because the trouble was so bad in the country, I started reaching out to the
various leaders, and because I was one of the very few white people in the
country during this really troubled time, I could walk in and see anybody and
they would let me in.
And so I met with leaders from the opposition party. I met with leaders from
the president's party. I met with leaders even in the bush, and I started
saying, can't we get you guys together? And they were willing to try to,
because they all claimed to be Christians, and they were willing to try but
they were afraid of the president and they said the president might think it's
a coup if we get together.
Then I was giving up, really, but on the way out of the continent, I bumped
into at Nairobi airport an African-American woman who was a missionary to
Uganda whose father was Andrew Young. So through that chance encounter, I
reached out to Andrew Young, who came with me on the first trip where we
actually got to meet a president.
It was before Museveni. It was the President Obote, who was a very evil man.
But we met him and he gave the authority for us to try to bring some people
together, which began the process.
GROSS: Now, what's the Family's relationship, or the Fellowship's relationship
now, with the Ugandan President Museveni?
Mr. HUNTER: He...
GROSS: Because Jeff Sharlet, who wrote the book "The Family," says that
Museveni is the Family's key man in Africa.
Mr. HUNTER: Well, that's probably an overstatement. The Fellowship has key
people working in countries. These are the people that, you know, help put
together meetings, make sure the people from various tribes get involved, the
various religions, and not just Christian, get involved, and those are the
people that are really the close-in family, and they're actually meeting and
praying together and trying to figure out ways to help people get together that
normally would be divided. They're the close in ones.
The presidents are sort of tools to hold prayer breakfasts and so on to try to
move the agenda toward peace. There's no doubt President Museveni has been one
of the close contacts since I first introduced him to people here. But he is
not the day-to-day guy, nor is he the guy you can push around and suggest that
he adopt a position or something.
GROSS: Uganda now has anti-gay legislation before parliament that is really
draconian. It would call for the death penalty for anyone who is gay who had
HIV-AIDS, the death penalty for adults who have gay sex with minors, jail for
anyone who fails to report a gay person within 24 hours if there's been gay
activity, life sentences for people in same-sex marriages, and this bill also
calls for extraditing gay Ugandans living abroad so that they can be brought
back to Uganda and be prosecuted.
What's your opinion of that bill, being so close to the country of Uganda?
Mr. HUNTER: Well, my opinion is it's a terrible bill and shouldnât be adopted,
and I believe no one that I know, in America particularly, and my close friends
in Uganda, I know of no one who supports it in the Fellowship.
GROSS: Since you have so many connections in Uganda and since you know
President Museveni and helped bring him to the National Prayer Breakfast in
1997, which is organized by the Fellowship - the Family â did you - have you
spoken out to your connections in Uganda?
Mr. HUNTER: Oh yes. Definitely. In fact, when I first called them, and well,
first was an email contact, they said, look, the guy who introduced the bill
came to one of our prayer breakfasts and afterwards, in a private meeting he
told us about the bill and we told him it was a bad idea. So even before the
bill was introduced, members of the Fellowship had said you should reach out to
other people before you do this. It's, you know, be cautious. This is not a
good idea. They did it in a very polite Ugandan way but the fact is they spoke
out even before it was introduced.
GROSS: Now, some members of the Fellowship in the United States have eventually
spoke out against the bill in public, including Senators Coburn and Grassley.
I'm wondering if other members of the Fellowship in the United States who have
made Africa among the top things on their agenda have spoken out, such as
Senators Brownback and Inhofe.
Mr. HUNTER: Inhofe has. I know that. I donât know about Brownback. I haven't
heard. We have certainly passed the word around to contacts on the Hill of our
position, but I donât keep track of day to day what each on said. I know Inhofe
GROSS: Now, so these are statements that have been made in the United States.
What about statements to Ugandans like calling up connections or calling up
people who they have prayed with?
Mr. HUNTER: My understanding is there has been some connections. I know I have
done it personally and talked to people who would be close to people in the
decision-making process about our concerns, which is very unusual. You know, we
never involve ourselves in these political things. That's not our role. But
this one became so, you know, hot that we decided - I decided that I should
speak out, and then I found out they were already speaking out in Uganda.
I would say that, one other thing...
Mr. HUNTER: ...and that is that Mr. Sharlet now recognizes that we had nothing
to do with the anti-homosexual bill and has so said so in post by Warren
GROSS: David Bahati, who introduced the bill to the Ugandan parliament that is
a draconian anti-gay bill, did David Bahati organize or is he involved with
organizing the National Prayer Breakfast in Uganda now?
Mr. HUNTER: He was involved in this last one. As a member of parliament, anyone
who went - who goes to the prayer breakfast - the weekly prayer breakfast of
parliament where people pray together and talk about their families and such,
is part of that organizing committee. So he was a part of the organizing
committee but he was not central, in my view, to actually organizing, putting
together the prayer breakfast.
But he was on - he's a member of parliament and he goes to the prayer breakfast
weekly. And so therefore he was I think on the - I donât know. I haven't seen
it. But he probably would be considered an organizer, yes.
GROSS: Is David Bahati a member of the Fellowship?
Mr. HUNTER: Well, he's a part of that group that meets in the parliament, so to
that extent he is. There's 10,000 groups around the world, so I donât know what
they're all doing. But yeah, he, to that extent he would be considered part of
the Fellowship, yes.
GROSS: Now, Jeff Sharlet did say that he found two memos you submitted to Doug
Coe detailing your meetings with Ugandan and Kenyan officials and a possibility
of recruiting them for the Family or the Fellowship. What do you say to that?
Mr. HUNTER: Oh, itâs possible. I mean I wrote trip reports on all of my 25 or
so trips to Africa. I write trip reports on my trips and I send them to a lot
of friends, including some that are in the Fellowship and some that aren't, to
members of my family and so on. There's nothing ever about me doing a political
trip trying to gain political access.
Maybe I would like to reach, say, the Hutu, who was the number one political
Hutu in Burundi and also the number one Tutsi to try to find a way to bring
them together to avoid another Rwanda next door, you know, things like that I
would say. But the goal was always out of love to try to find a way to bridge
gaps between people.
All kinds of gaps - ethnic, tribal, economic, religious - we try to find a way
through, and we also try to build groups in the parliaments that represent the
whole country so that the group would have a Muslim and a Christian and a
northerner and southerner and, you know, this tribe or that tribe. And so I
would write, yeah, I'm trying to reach somebody. We have these three but we're
missing the very important fourth. We're trying to reach them. I would write
something like that.
GROSS: And did you submit a report to Chester Crocker after one of your trips
to Uganda, who was then the undersecretary of state for African Affairs?
Mr. HUNTER: He might've gotten a copy of one of my trip reports. I only met him
once and I could've possibly sent him a copy of one of my trip reports. A
couple of times we discovered things. Like on my very first trip I got taken
into the Luweero Triangle, which is where most of the killing was, taken into
one of the camps that was a death camp and I was able to actually witness it
and I did write when I got back and told the government what I saw, because,
you know, I thought it was so horrible.
I donât remember if that one went to him. I donât think so. I may have sent a
later one. When we were helping bring the final tribal group - the powerful
Hutu in Burundi into the peace talks, and our role was never peace talks, our
role was build trust between the various people so that they would feel
comfortable to start peace talks.
When I came back and said we had actually brought them together and I actually
called the State Department to tell them, they said I donât believe you. No one
can do that. Mandela has tried, you know, the U.N. has tried, weâve tried. No
one can do it. I said, I'm telling you the truth. They said it's ridiculous.
It's impossible. But it happened.
GROSS: My guest is Bob Hunter. He's been a part of the Fellowship, also known
as the Family, for about 30 years. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest Bob Hunter is here to respond to an interview I recorded last
month with Jeff Sharlet, the author of "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism
at the Heart of American Power." The Family is a secretive religious group that
several prominent senators and congressmen are affiliated with.
Hunter has been part of the Family, which he says is better known as the
Fellowship, for about 30 years. He objected to some of the things Sharlet said
and to a couple of things I said.
I know one of the things you objected to when I interviewed Jeff Sharlet,
author of the book "The Family," was my introduction to the interview. And in
that introduction I said the fundamentalist group the Family has operated
secretly with the help of influential congressmen and senators who are members
of the group to promote their anti-gay, anti-abortion, pro-free market ideas in
America and other parts of the world.
I know you have a lot of objections to that sentence, so tell us what they are.
Mr. HUNTER: Well, first of all, the Family has no idea or agenda like anti-gay,
anti-abortion, pro-free market. It's - there is no agenda. The agenda is to
reach people, to bring them into small groups where they could read the
It's always focused on Jesus but it's focused in a way that comfortable for a
Muslim, because we say, okay, you think he's a prophet, come on in and have
fellowship with us. Or even, you know, Jews, you say he's a great rabbi, come
on in and have fellowship with us. And it works. We can get through, because
unlike a lot of Christian groups, we donât say you got to convert and be like
us before you can join. We let people join - in fact, some of the religious
community are upset with us because we don't â they say we are, you know, not
following through on the great commission and â but we think if you're going to
build a â within the country, some kind of unifying force. We think Jesus can
do it but because he can â he does cross those religious boundaries.
Christianity doesn't. If you go in and say, let's have a Christian group then a
bunch of people don't show up. And so we try to use that as a way to bring
GROSS: So, I describe The Family as operating secretively.
Mr. HUNTER: Yeah.
GROSS: Your reaction?
Mr. HUNTER: Oh, I think we are little too secretive. There are some things have
to be secret, you know. For example, if I'm in the middle of a negotiation with
Hutus and Tutsis and Twa in Burundi trying to bring them together, I can't be
public - go out that night and hold a press conference every night. It simply
doesn't work. We're trying to build relationships and trust. We have to do that
quietly. There are things that are like confessionals where people tell me, you
know, or we tell each other some of our issues, temptations, things we're
dealing with. You don't broadcast that obviously. But I also think we should
have a Web site. We don't really, you know, we should tell the good stuff about
the orphanages, we help the hospitals, we help - the work with children all
over the world that we're doing. I think we have a great story to tell. And
there is some resistance in the organization against being more open and I
think it's a mistake. I think we can be open without giving up things that have
to be private.
GROSS: In Jeff Sharlet's book, he says that in 1966, Doug Coe, who was the
leader of The Fellowship also known as The Family, decided that the time had
come to submerge and that after that The Fellowship avoided any appearances of
being an organization. And also like Doug Coe has made the analogy to the
mafia, that the mafia gets a lot of its power by being secretive and the way to
have to power is to operate kind of secretly.
Mr. HUNTER: Yeah, I â but I've heard Doug talk about it a lot. He believes that
things that are invisible are more lasting than things that - and that's from
scripture: things that are invisible and more lasting than things you can see,
that the rest â the things you can see will pass away, some of the invisible
things will last forever. And things like that which I think influence him on
that. I think â there was a time when it probably was okay to not have public
information. But I think we should be reaching out more and making people more
aware of what we're doing without giving out the part that has to be private.
GROSS: Do you think that that will happen, that The Family will be less
Mr. HUNTER: Well, there's a discussion underway. There was a meeting couple of
weeks ago and certain people spoke out for a Web site and more openness and
others were resistant. But I think sooner or later it will be more open.
GROSS: Why now? What was that meeting the reaction to?
Mr. HUNTER: Well, it was part reaction to Sharlet's book and this history, you
know, troubles and the inability for anyone to be able to respond because they
just don't have a mechanism for responding. And so the media looks for a Web
site, I would too. And there is nothing there and so the media goes, well, it
must be a secret organization even though Jeff Sharlet found 273 footnotes in
his book. So, it isn't totally secret. And so, it's â I think the secrecy will
end. It just â I think we're just going through the process.
GROSS: And by thatâ¦
Mr. HUNTER: I think it was â I think the notoriety and the lack of a response
has hurt The Fellowship and I think it's time to â I haven't, by the way I
haven't cleared this with anybody. I'm here because I felt I was personally
GROSS: On our show?
Mr. HUNTER: â¦right-wing fanatic on your programâ¦
Mr. HUNTER: â¦as a right-wing fanatic who the U.S. government sent over to
Uganda and so on. And I think we've straightened that out I hope. But that
isn't who I am.
GROSS: Isn't it kind of okay for you to be here without telling other members
of The Fellowship that you were doing this?
Mr. HUNTER: Sure.
GROSS: Are you breaking any kind of understanding?
Mr. HUNTER: No there is no code. There is no code or creed or anything. It's
just sort of the way it's been. You know, I suppose I could get in a little
trouble with some of the people. I will find out. It's not a written down
thing. It's just been sort of the way it's been.
GROSS: Okay, one more thing in my one sentence, and we're getting a lot of
mileage out of that one sentenceâ¦
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: â¦my introduction to Jeff Sharlet's interview. I said that The Family
operated secretly with the help of influential congressmen and senators who are
members of the group to promote their anti-gay, anti-abortion, pro-free-market
ideas in American and other parts of the world. So, let's get to that idea of
promoting anti-gay, anti-abortion pro-free-market ideas around the world.
Mr. HUNTER: Well, The Fellowship does not promote any agenda that's political.
The only agenda is to get, to reach people and try to bring them closer to God
and to each other in a way that would help people. Hopefully, you know, it
doesn't seem to be working. Republicans and Democrats would respect each other
better if they sat down and prayed with each other and learned about each
others' families and, you know, shared each others' pains and triumphs and so
GROSS: My guest is Bob Hunter. He has been part of The Fellowship also known as
The Family for about 30 years. We will talk more after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest Bob Hunter is here to respond to an interview I recorded last
month with Jeff Sharlet, the author of, "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism
At The Heart Of American Power." The Family is a secretive religious group that
several prominent senators and congressman are affiliated with. Hunter has been
part of The Family, which he says is better known as The Fellowship, for about
The Fellowship, also known as The Family, raises some complicated questions
about the separation between church and state and I'll give you an example of
what I mean here. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma spoke and this is â there's
a clip of this on YouTube. I would play the sound except the sound is a little
too muddy for the radio. I think our listeners would have trouble hearing it.
But he is talking to Rob Schenck who is the founder of a ministry called Faith
And Action In The Nation's Capital. And in this conversation, he said that
Jesus said, take my name Jesus to the kings. And Inhofe says, if you're a
member of the U.S. Senate in Africa they think you're important. So, you always
get in to see the kings. The first one he went see was a guy that our State
Department thought was the worst terrorist in the world, Sunny Abacha from
Nigeria. He started talking about political things. And so, after a little
while I said, Mr. President really, yeah, I'm a member of the U.S. Senate but I
didn't come over here as a senator. In fact, I came all the way across the
Atlantic and down to Sub-Saharan Africa to tell you that in the spirit of
Jesus, we love you.
Now he's saying, Senator Inhofe is saying to Abacha in the story, I'm not here
as a senator. I'm just here to tell you that in the name of the Jesus we love
you. But at the same time Senator Inhofe is, in fact, a senator. And the
contact that he is making there is a contact that he can also use as a senator.
And if you do this in a country where, say, you're coming in the name of the
Jesus but you're really a senator and that country is looking for money, for
grants from the United States, you could use your influence to get it. There is
a lot of political favors that could be traded. And it's really a murky line
there between what's church and what's state, and a visit like that when a
senator says that they are taking the name of the Jesus to the kings.
Mr. HUNTER: I'm not surprised he would say something like that. That is sort of
is the message that we are not there for politics, he said. And we are here to
reach a different level of spiritual connection with you and, ultimately, with
people in your parliament and, elsewhere. And you usually start at the top to
get clearance, particularly if there is some kind of ethnic trouble or
religious trouble going on in the state that you're going to.
Now, can you use those contacts wrong? Sure. I mean, I â there are definitely
social climbers who come to The Fellowship to try to meet important people. And
there are people who might even try to make money. But, the people I work with,
they tend to fall away because it that isn't the way it works, you know
GROSS: But we're talking about Senator Inhofe here. We are talking about a very
Mr. HUNTER: Well, Iâ¦
GROSS: â¦who is going in the name of Jesus but he also a senator and isn't that
muddying the line between church and state?
Mr. HUNTER: I don't think so because I think he is being clear there. He is
saying that I'm not here on political state business. I'mâ¦
GROSS: But he is still â but he is stillâ¦
Mr. HUNTER: Well, he can't helpâ¦
GROSS: â¦a senator making an international trip seeing a head of state.
Mr. HUNTER: You can't help who you are. I mean, if I â can't he have a friend.
GROSS: But what got him in the door in the first place was being a senator. He
says, if you're a member of the U.S. Senate in Africa they think you're
important. So, you always get into see the king. So, he is using his stature as
a senator to see a head of state and then say oh, I'm not here as a senator.
I'm here representing Jesus.
Mr. HUNTER: Yeah, well, as long as he - I have no idea what he did in Nigeria
which is where Abacha was, as long as, he keeps it clear and separate, I don't
see it's a problem.
GROSS: The way Jeff Sharlet portrays it, The Fellowship is about trying to
reach leaders, powerful people. And that there is one set of teachings for the
powerful people and another set for people less powerful, but that The
Fellowship is really geared toward the powerful, whether it's members of
Congress or heads of state in other countries.
Mr. HUNTER: Well, he calls it the elite. There is a ministry toward leaders in
The Fellowship. There are also ministries toward poor people in The Fellowship.
But yeah, you know, The Fellowship does reach to leaders as part of the
strategy to bring more unity into countries and into troubled situations.
GROSS: Well, Bob Hunter, I appreciate you're responding to us after our
interview with Jeff Sharlet. I appreciate your coming on to talk about your
response to it. Thank you very much. And I wish you a merry Christmas and also
a good and healthy new year.
Mr. HUNTER: Oh, thank you, Terry. Merry Christmas to you and to your listeners.
GROSS: Bob Hunter is a longtime member of the secretive religious group The
Fellowship, also known as The Family. He is also director of insurance with the
Consumer Federation Of America. He was responding to an interview I did about
the group, The Family, with Jeff Sharlet, the author of "The Family." After
that interview, Sharlet and Hunter met. Sharlet blogged about their meeting.
You will find a link on our Web site freshair.npr.org.
I'm Terry Gross.
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