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By Jason Guerrasio

Leading up to the Oscars on March 7, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Jason Guerrasio interviewed The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus co-writer-director Terry Gilliam for our Winter 2010 issue. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is nominated for Best Art Direction (Art Director: Dave Warren and Anastasia Masaro; Set Decoration: Caroline Smith) and Best Costume Design (Monique Prudhomme).

An elderly man pulls his carriage to the curb and prepares to put on a show. Onlookers watch with a mixture of bewilderment and vague familiarity; the man’s shtick, once enjoyed by the masses, now gets passing glances. The show begins and it’s hard to tell if the crowd is entertained or simply bemused by the old-fashioned spectacle.

The above scenario befalls the titular hero of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, but in some ways it also describes the struggles of the film’s perspicacious director. For 30 years Terry Gilliam has battled to tell his fantastical stories without interference from the prying hands of Hollywood. But lately audiences have seemingly become tired of Gilliam’s madness. The Brothers Grimm, a realistic look at the 19th-century fairytale writers, received lackluster box office returns. Gilliam followed up with the low-budget Tideland, which did even worse. In fact, you could make the argument that the best of Gilliam’s recent work was contained within his biggest failure. In the award-winning documentary Lost in La Mancha, directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe filmed the disintegration of Gilliam’s 2000 The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a project bedeviled by a flash flood, NATO test flights interrupting location shoots and, finally, an injury to Gilliam’s Quixote, Jean Rochefort, which halted the project permanently.

With Doctor Parnassus, Gilliam once more seeks a multiplex audience, this time by returning to the anarchic blending of fantasy and reality that garnered him critical acclaim in the ’80s with films like Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Christopher Plummer plays Parnassus, an immortal dream weaver who travels around modern-day London in a horse-drawn wagon with his street performers, Percy (Verne Troyer), Anton (Andrew Garfield) and his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole). Putting on shows in front of bars and strip mall parking lots, Parnassus uses his powers to lure people into his magical mirror, where the unsuspecting volunteers find themselves in a world created from their subconscious. But unbeknownst to them, they have to decide while in the Imaginarium if they will exit back into the real world or go deeper inside where the Devil is waiting. We learn this is a game Parnassus and the Prince of Darkness (played with great wit by Tom Waits) have been playing for centuries, and now Parnassus’s daughter is the prize for whoever can get the most souls by her 16th birthday. But with Valentina’s sweet 16 nearing and Parnassus’s theatrics less enticing to modern audiences, Parnassus needs a new draw. He picks up a con artist named Tony (Heath Ledger), and with his help the game suddenly changes.

The film was selected for the Cannes Film Festival and has received generally good reviews, but, as everyone knows, production catastrophes seem to plague all of Gilliam’s films. Two days after wrapping shooting in London and moving to Vancouver to do the CGI for the Imaginarium scenes, Ledger was found dead at his New York City apartment of an accidental overdose. The passing of his star and good friend sapped the energy out of Gilliam, who was prepared to terminate production. But through the coaxing of his daughter, producer Amy Gilliam, and others, he rewrote the story, with Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell all volunteering to take over Ledger’s character, giving Gilliam the rejuvenation he needed to bring his latest fantasy to life.

Gilliam sat down for lunch with Filmmaker in New York City last month to talk about why he won’t pander to the audience, the resurrection of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote and what drives him to still make movies.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is currently in theaters through Sony Pictures Classics.


Filmmaker: Is it true that this is the first original screenplay you’ve written since Brazil?

Gilliam: I think so. Everything else, and you can include Munchausen, there was a book that started it. This was the first one that started with nothing except hopefully whatever imagination and talent I still have left. Well [it started with] me and [screenwriter] Charles McKeown [Gilliam’s collaborator on Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen] as, literally, a blank page. I just wanted to see if I still had the stuff anymore.

Filmmaker: What comes first for you when you write: visual images or story?

Gilliam: Well, there was no story for quite a while. There had been a thing that I had been pondering over for years, images of something from another time ending up in our time and nobody being able to explain it. It was as simple as that. Then at one point, because I have a house in Italy, people said, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great to do the whole thing in Italy?” And I thought of images of an old wagon and then, bingo, it was pretty quick to the idea of this traveling show from another time turning up in modern London. Something wonderful, exotic, ancient and weird, and nobody ever paying attention to it.

Filmmaker: Tell me about your collaboration with McKeown.

Gilliam: There’s no real form. Half of the time it’s by trading e-mails — we don’t have to be together. So he’ll write a whole chunk, and I’ll write, and we’ll stick it together and see if we should change it or not. It’s a constant dialogue, I suppose, and the story develops that way. I wish I had a system but I don’t. There isn’t a system except my instinct. And what’s difficult with Charles is he’s more verbal and I’m more visual, so he has to trust that the visual bit that I’m doing is going to work.

Filmmaker: What about the character of the street performer, which is a familiar one from much of modern cinema. Was this a starting point?

Gilliam: Yes and no. It was actually the wagon itself. That first shot of the film is really where it began for me in my head. And then we work out who are these people, what are they doing, what are they selling? And little by little we came up with [the story]. I told Charles it would be great to do something like Bergman did in Fanny and Alexander and Fellini with Amarcord, which were both films at a certain point in their career where they relaxed, stopped dealing with hard issues and just did what was natural. This was a way to use all of the ideas in my desk that had never found a home. They all didn’t make it into the film but they were nice starting points. I think the other film that I remembered watching was The Seventh Seal. Suddenly there’s that little traveling theater and that little family in the movie, and in fact the character Joseph, the father in the movie, is who we based Anton on because he’s an innocent. Then with Parnassus having a daughter, that was me coming into the scene just like Munchausen — it’s me having two daughters. My son is really pissed off — he never turns up in my films. [Laughs]

Filmmaker: I’ve read that Georges Méliès was an inspiration. Didn’t he do street performing at the end of his life?

Gilliam: No, he had a little stall outside of a train station in Paris where he sold children’s toys. I mean here was the guy who was the first great fantasist, sci-fi filmmaker, magician, everything, so the end of the film is an homage to Méliès. I discovered a month ago in France that the train station outside of which Méliès was selling his toys was named Montparnasse. It’s moments like these when you think there are forces at work.

Filmmaker: How much of Parnassus’s personality, particularly his relentless drive to tell a story, come from you?

Gilliam: Well the part that I put in was the frustration of thinking that I have interesting things to say and to inspire and enlighten and nobody is paying attention. It’s that frustration that any artistic person feels in one form or another. No matter how successful you become that is the needling thing — you can reach more people… if only. [Laughs]

Filmmaker: It felt to me that you were saying it was never too late for us to find that imagination, but that perhaps modern technology is leading us away from the creativity contained naturally within us.

Gilliam: It’s like theater. Theater is artifice, it’s fake, but you, the audience, have to take those sets and make them into real things. It’s like children when they play with toys. [Gilliam begins playing with his knife] I have a train and I’m going to put it here — that’s an active imagination turning that knife into a beautiful silver train. That’s what children do. I think adults stop doing that. They learn to focus. That’s how they think you have to get through life, with structure. I think cinema and television now are becoming passive mediums because there’s so much information, you don’t have to fill in the gaps. Everything is already all there. The big films today are the same film again and again and again. You watch trailers, they’re exactly the same, just different costumes. The rhythms are the same, and that’s what bothers me.

[Most films] are naturalistic, no matter how fantastical they are. I’ve always wanted to be hyperrealistic but not naturalistic, and in this one in particular. In the Imaginarium those landscapes are obviously not naturalistic but they’re believable. And also, I just want the audience to work and then start to get involved. The more you work on something the more you get out of it. It’s like Don DeLillo’s White Noise — we’re inundated with noise, information, facts, but how much do they actually apply to our lives? The example I use is we have a house in Italy and my son will come over. It’s very basic; we have no television or phone. It’s just there. And we would go there and he’d be bored. He’s a 13-year-old kid, and he’s like, “Where are the video games?” Then by the third day suddenly he’s doing things. That tree becomes something, and he’s inventing a world, and he’s excited and having fun. But when we leave he’s back at the television. So that’s what scares me about the modern world.

Filmmaker: You use CGI, which is a tool that most films today use. But is there a point when you even find that it becomes too much, when it fights against that “hyperrealistic” feel you are looking for?

Gilliam: The budget. [Laughs] No, it’s not an aesthetic problem in that sense of what is real, what’s tangible, where you need weight and gravity and where you don’t. I’m pragmatic, [looking for] what will get the job done most efficiently and cheapest. I don’t want unlimited things. I want to be restrained.

Filmmaker: When did Heath Ledger originally get involved in the project?

Gilliam: After Brothers Grimm we were really close but he went through a very weird year after Brokeback Mountain. He hated doing all of the publicity for the Oscars. You go through all of that and you don’t win, so he said he wanted to go back and do some small films in Australia. He was going in all directions, and I offered him a couple of things. He was in London working on the editing of his Modest Mouse video — this was around the time he was playing the Joker — and while he was working on that he passed me a note asking if he could play Tony. I asked him why and he said, “Because I want to see this movie.” Ironically he’s the one person who can’t see the movie. The god of irony is the most powerful god of all.

Filmmaker: Once you started up the project after Ledger’s death, how long did it take you to realize it could still work?

Gilliam: Pragmatically there was no way to get one great actor to come in for a couple of weeks and take the part, nor did I think it was the right thing to do. But three actors, that would be interesting. So I just started calling friends. And we ended up with these three losers. [Laughs] They were great, but it was a real nightmare to work around all their schedules. And the difficult thing about it was I had no faith that it would work. Then we were in London to do the assembly. We showed it to the guy who was doing the postproduction sound and for some reason, I guess he hadn’t been reading the papers, [laughs] he’d just assumed it had been written to be done exactly like that. That’s when I knew it would work.

Filmmaker: This could be my imagination at play, but when we’re introduced to the different Tonys in the Imaginarium, before seeing their faces, it almost looks like Heath’s features before Depp or Law or Farrell are revealed. Was there any CGI used to blend his facial structure into theirs?

Gilliam: You spotted it. But it’s not CG — it’s all real. We found a double, his credit is hidden but it’s Heath’s double, Zander Gladish, an actor from New York who looks so much like Heath it’s crazy. No one has asked me about this, but that’s why the transitions work. You don’t go into the mirror and become someone else — you gradually do it. It was just spooky — there were days you’d come to work in the morning and Zander would be sitting there and I’d swear it was Heath.

Filmmaker: How about in terms of the storyline? Was it difficult to rewrite after Heath’s death?

Gilliam: No. We held onto certain scenes that I thought I’d be able to block, which in the end I kind of did. I changed the drunk guy’s face in the beginning, but the rest of it is as written. I added things like the women revealing Johnny and saying, “I dreamed you would always look like this” — that sells the transformation. But the rest is the original story. There is a scene were Tony and Anton fight on the other side of the mirror. Originally that was supposed to be in the wagon, but now it works better because it’s the two rivals fighting over Valentina, and that’s why I always say Heath co-directed this film posthumously.

Filmmaker: I’ve read that some of your highest test-screening scores have come from children.

Gilliam: Yes. I keep telling people this. All of the good, sophisticated, knowledgeable people in the business think I’m crazy, and they are absolutely wrong. The youngest are 7 year olds who’ve seen the movie — 7, 8, 9 year olds. It works right across the board, just like Time Bandits and Munchausen. I don’t know why the [executives] don’t understand — for kids this is wondrous. It’s a beautiful storybook, and you don’t have to understand all of the intellectual ideas.

Filmmaker: Is it true that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is back in the works?

Gilliam: After seven years in the French legal wilderness I finally read the script again. Through this whole time I’d never read it because I thought it was perfect. Then I went back and read it and thought, “This is a piece of shit.” [Laughs] We did a rewrite, only the beginning [of the script], but it has now changed the meaning of everything and it’s so much fucking better. People say it’s the curse of Gilliam. It’s the luck of Gilliam — I would have made the film and it wouldn’t have been good. So we’re out there casting and Robert Duvall let it out [that he wants to play Quixote]. I have been staying quiet. I think it would be exciting to have him do it. Now we’re just looking for money. [Laughs] But we have a script and a budget, and we’re trying to get realistic with the budget because we’re in the difficult money, the $25 to $30 million range — no one will give you that. The way you do it is through foreign money. There is money out there. That’s what we did with Parnassus; we patched it together from all over the world.

Filmmaker: And Johnny Depp is no longer involved?

Gilliam: Johnny and I are happily divorced. [Laughs] I love him and he’s one of my best friends, but he has to escape from Jack Sparrow. Jack has run its course, but how can you run away when they’re offering you that kind of money?

Filmmaker: So you’re still searching for someone?

Gilliam: I have someone but I’m not telling.

Filmmaker: Looking back on your career there have been struggles in every project you’ve done. What is it that keeps you driven to continue making films?

Gilliam: That’s the thing, I don’t know what it is. It’s much easier to say, “Fuck it, I don’t need this anymore.” But I do it every day. My wife wants me to stop. It’s partly out of sheer perversity. I’ve now entered my 70th year on this planet. That’s an old fart, and it’s the weariness that creeps in that I’m most worried about. Once you get working the adrenaline is pumping and the enthusiasm is there, but it’s the business of pushing something into existence, this money phase, I’m just fucking tired of. I hate it. Whenever I go out there and raise money I talk to people and they tell me how Time Bandits changed their lives and that they loved Munchausen. “But this new one, I just don’t know.” Well, nobody wanted those other ones either. [Laughs] You find the one guy in Hollywood who wants it made and then everybody thinks it was obvious.

Filmmaker: What’s the payoff, then?

Gilliam: People like my films. When I see an audience beaming it’s great. It’s that more than anything. It’s not so much that I have important things to say and they must be said at all costs. It’s not that. It’s that I make it and somewhere down the line somebody walks up to me and says, “Munchausen… man.” You know you actually got to somebody. It’s as simple as that.

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