INT: Terry Gilliam
Terry Gilliam is one of those directors that truly deserves being called a legend. Were it only for his work with MONTH PYTHON, he would already be an icon, but if you consider the amazing films he's directed, TIME BANDITS, BRAZIL, THE FISHER KING, TWELVE MONKEYS, FEAR & LOATHING IS LAS VEGAS, he really stands up as one of the great cinematic artists of our time.
In the last few years, he's has a bit of bad luck, with THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE being shut down mid-production, after his leading man, Jean Rochefort fell ill. His next film, THE BROTHERS GRIMM, was a collaboration with the Weinstein Brothers, and the production was reportedly plagued with creative differences between Gilliam, and Harvey Weinstein.
His new film, THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS, is Gilliam's most ambitious project in years, and truly is a return to form. Sadly, the film has been overshadowed somewhat by the tragic death of star Heath Ledger, mid-production. Fortunately, Gilliam was able to finish the film, with a little help for superstars Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. The finished film now exists as a tribute to Ledger, and in a classy move, Gilliam has even given Ledger a 'film by' credit.
I was lucky enough to speak with Gilliam a few weeks ago about Ledger, and the film.
Well, it came down to Amy, my daughter, who's one of the producers on the film, and Nicola Pecorini- the cinematographer, who just wouldn't let me do what I wanted to do, which was lay down and go home home. It was just too much to deal with, too depressing and awful. But they refused to let Heath's last work disappear. We had to find a way to finish the film- so we did a lot of talking. Eventually, I got my head around to thinking positively about doing something. And there was a lot of pressure to replace Heath- but there's no one who can replace Heath. So I made the decision to put the character through the mirror three times, and find three actors than could take over each time he went through. I just started calling close friends of Heath's- to keep it in the family as it were. Johnny, Colin, and Jude were able to step in and fill the gap. It required surprisingly little re-writing. What you see in the film was mostly written before he died- it was just small things, no big leap was made.
Well that's one of the things I liked about the film. It felt organic, and not artificial. It felt like a real continuity was established. I especially liked the use of Colin Farrell- with Lily Cole's character having a crush on him, carrying around a magazine with him in it, holding him up as her ideal man.
Well, we had to set that up. We always had that magazine in there, but originally, it was just a photo of a happy, ideal family. Because what happened, happened- I figured we should put Colin in there, so when we do the last change, we know this is the man she's been dreaming of.
How did you come up with IMAGINARIUM? Your last film, TIDELAND, was much smaller scale- but IMAGINARIUM is an epic. Is this an idea you've carried around for a while?
No, I just thought it would be nice to write something original. I got together with Charles McKeown, who I hadn't worked with since THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, and basically we just started throwing things around. The first concrete idea was this ancient, traveling theater turning up in modern London- with no one paying attention to this strange, wonderful, exotic show going on. So we started with that, and then we started building. It was very organic. We threw ideas at this thing- some stuck, some didn't, and eventually we had something resembling a script, with workable characters.
I thought Christopher Plummer was brilliant as DR. PARNASSUS. Even though he's almost eighty, there something eternally youthful about him, he's got that twinkle in his eye. You guys worked together on TWELVE MONKEYS, had you two always wanted to do something else together?
Well, we had a great time on MONKEYS. When you get to actors that age, the choice is limited, with them having all the qualities that Chris has. I mean, he's one of the greatest actors alive. It was a very quick decision. I sent him the script, and he responded immediately and we were off and running.
You've also got one of my idols, Tom Waits, in it as the Devil- which is perfect casting. He had a tiny role in THE FISHER KING, is he someone you've known for a long time?
Well, what happened was that this Dutch animator friend of mine was trying to get Tom to do some voices in this animated feature he's doing, and I was the middle man. He wasn't really interested in that project but he asked me if I had anything I was working on, and I told him that I had just written the part of the devil, and he said "I'm in!" He didn't even bother reading the script (laughs).
One thing that struck me about the film was the parallel between Heath Ledger's character, and Roberto Calvi, the Vatican banker who was found hanging under the same bridge we see Ledger hanging under during his introduction...
Well, I've always been fascinated with Calvi- or "God's Banker", and his "suicide" There's this book I read called "In God's Name"- which is the story of the whole Vatican/Masonic thing, and Calvi, and all the corruption, so this was a bit of a homage to Calvi.
I was also struck by the gorgeous imagery in the Imaginarium. How was that influenced?
Paintings mostly. I wasn't trying to create reality or naturalism. Everything was reduced to simple imagery. I'm kinda tired of what they're doing with CGI these days, with them trying to make it look realistic. What's the point? I wanted to play with it, and use it to kinda do something like my work with MONTY PYTHON, be that free- but with CGI.
Do you enjoy using CGI, or do you prefer a more practical approach, like in your earlier work, like TIME BANDITS, or BRAZIL, where you had to do everything practically?
No, I just use whatever tools can help me tell the story in the best way possible. We use a lot of model work in this too, which works for some stuff, while CGI works better for others. I'll use whatever approach allows me to get the job done in the most effective, and least expensive way.
I also wanted to mention Andrew Garfield, who plays DR. PARNASSUS' young assistant, Anton. He was brilliant in a film I saw a while ago called BOY A. Had you seen that before you cast him?
Well, I hadn't seen him in anything before he sent a tape in. We sent him three scenes to try, and he sent a tape back playing each role three different ways. He's brilliant- he's going to go on and become a huge star.
So what's next?
THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE...
That's fantastic! Who's playing Quixote?
He's very excited about it, and seeing Robert Duvall excited is thrilling...
He was in this great movie at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, GET LOW- which he's incredible in. Did you get a chance to see it while you were there?
Yes, in fact, the party after the premiere was when I first met Duvall.
Any chance Johnny Depp might come back?
No, Johnny's dance card is pretty full for the next couple of years, and I told him, "look Johnny, I'm gonna die soon (LAUGHS), and I don't know if I can hang about", so we're moving on, and looking at other people... (NOTE- in the two weeks since this interview took place, the rumor is that Depp WILL in fact be returning to THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE).
Well, thank you very much for your time Mr. Gilliam. It's been great chatting with you.
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS opens across North America on Christmas Day.
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