Q & A with Writer-Director Terry Gilliam

Christopher Plummer as Dr. Parnassus, Lily Cole as Valentina, and Andrew Garfield as Anton - Photo taken by Liam Daniel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Christopher Plummer as Dr. Parnassus, Lily Cole as Valentina, and Andrew Garfield as Anton
Photo taken by Liam Daniel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to writer-director Terry Gilliam (“The Fisher King”, “Twelve Monkeys”, “The Brothers Grimm”) about his new fantasy drama “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” from Sony Pictures Classics, starring Heath Ledger in the final performance of his career.

“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”, an official selection at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and Toronto Film Festival, is a fantastical contemporary morality tale. Its story revolves around Parnassus and his extraordinary traveling show where members of the audience get an irresistible opportunity to choose between light and joy or darkness and gloom.

The film began principal photography early in December 2007 in London where Gilliam shot dramatic scenes featuring Parnassus, his company and their imposing horse-drawn dwelling and theater, against a wide range of the city’s familiar landmarks. The wagon, driven by Verne Troyer, became a familiar if mind-boggling sight for London’s merry pre-Christmas revellers as it clattered through the nighttime streets.

A series of wintry night shoots saw the Imaginarium’s travelling stage fully dressed and unfolded in a bustling fairground dominated by the familiar profile of Tower Bridge; then at the center of a drunken riot in the imposing shadow of Southwark Cathedral; and later invaded by Russian mobsters in the Victorian confines of Leadenhall Market. Two of the principal characters were suspended perilously in an icy gale and an artificial downpour from Blackfriars Bridge over the Thames while the gigantic, crumbling magnificence of Battersea Power Station, the largest brick-built structure in Europe, hosted a variety of domestic scenes featuring Parnassus and his extended ”family“.

After shooting these contemporary sequences, the production moved to Bridge Studios near Vancouver in Canada for seven weeks of blue-screen photography, creating the Imaginarium’s epic grandeur. Vancouver also offered some striking locations — including the magnificent art deco theater The Orpheum, which hosted the film’s charity ball and press conference.

Oscar winner Heath Ledger (“The Dark Knight”, “Brokeback Mountain”), stars as the film’s mysterious stranger Tony. Also starring are multiple award-winner Christopher Plummer (“The Insider”, “The Last Station”) as Parnassus, recent BAFTA winner Andrew Garfield (“Boy A”, “Lions For Lambs”), Verne Troyer (“The Love Guru”, “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” and “Goldmember”), supermodel Lily Cole (“St Trinian’s”) and Oscar nominated musician Tom Waits (“Wristcutters: A Love Story”, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”) as the devilish Mr. Nick.

Triple Oscar nominee Johnny Depp (“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, “Neverland”, “Pirates of the Caribbean”), multiple award-winner Colin Farrell (“Miami Vice”, “Alexander”) and two-time Oscar nominee Jude Law (“Cold Mountain”, “The Talented Mr. Ripley”) stepped into the breach halfway through the production after Heath Ledger’s tragic death to portray the other aspects of Tony.

The supporting cast includes Peter Stormare (“The Brothers Grimm”, “Dancer in the Dark”), television star Maggie Steed, Mark Benton (“Three and Out”) and Simon Day (“Run, Fat Boy, Run”) with newcomers Paloma Faith (“St Trinian’s”), Richard Riddell (“Dogging: A Love Story”) and Montserrat Lombard (TV’s “Love Soup” and “Ashes to Ashes”).

Directed by Terry Gilliam (“Time Bandits”, “Brazil”, “Twelve Monkeys”) from an original screenplay which he wrote with Charles McKeown (“Brazil”, “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”), the film is produced by William Vince (Oscar nominated for “Capote”), Amy Gilliam (“Push”), Samuel Hadida (“Solomon Kane”, “Silent Hill”) and Terry Gilliam.

The behind-the-camera talent includes Gilliam’s close collaborators, cinematographer Nicola Pecorini (“Tideland”, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”) and BAFTA winning editor Mick Audsley (“The Grifters”, “Twelve Monkeys”, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”). The film’s musical score is by the multi-award-winning Canadian brothers Mychael Danna (“Little Miss Sunshine”, “The Sweet Hereafter”) and Jeff Danna (“Tideland”, “Silent Hill”).

The movie’s elaborate visual effects, drawn from Gilliam’s own imagination, were brought to life by Peerless Camera Company, the London-based optical house which has worked with Gilliam on all his films and which did the cutting-edge visuals for such films as “United 93” and “Casino Royale”.

The tragic loss of Heath Ledger during the film’s production threatened closedown, but Gilliam fought to re-configure the story without losing the performance Ledger had already committed to film. The director, his ensemble cast and crew worked tirelessly to complete the journey which began in the boundless imagination of Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeown less than eighteen months before.

The Story in brief (spoiler alert): Doctor Parnassus has the extraordinary gift of inspiring the imaginations of others. Helped by his travelling theater troupe, including his sarcastic and cynical sidekick Percy (Verne Troyer) and versatile young player Anton (Andrew Garfield), Parnassus offers audience members the chance to transcend mundane reality by passing through a magical mirror into a fantastic universe of limitless imagination. However, Parnassus’ magic comes at a price. For centuries he’s been gambling with the devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), who’s coming to collect his prize — Parnassus’ precious daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) on her upcoming 16th birthday.

Oblivious to her rapidly approaching fate, Valentina falls for Tony (Heath Ledger), a charming outsider with motives of his own. In order to save his daughter and redeem himself, Parnassus makes one final bet with Mr. Nick, which sends Tony (played during his several visits to the world beyond the mirror by Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law) and Valentina and the entire theater troupe on a ride of twists and turns, in and out of London and the Imaginarium’s spectacular landscape.

Terry Gilliam first came to recognition in 1969 as the only American member of the hit television show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, for which he crafted the animated sequences. In 1975, he co-directed, with Terry Jones, his first feature, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, which was soon followed by his solo directorial debut “Jabberwocky” (1977).

His subsequent films include “Time Bandits” (1981), “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life” (co-directed with Terry Jones; 1983), “Brazil” (1985), starring Jonathan Pryce and Robert De Niro, for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, a Los Angeles Film Critics award for Best Film and widespread critical praise, “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” (1988), a return to historical fantasy and “The Fisher King” (1991), which earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director and the Silver Lion at the Venice International Film Festival.

After directing the science fiction epic “Twelve Monkeys” (1995), he went on to make “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1998), an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 novel. In 2000, Gilliam started production on his lifelong dream, “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”. Severe problems led to the production being shut down within the first week of filming against his wishes. In 2005, released “The Brothers Grimm”, starring Matt Damon and Heath Ledger, followed, a year later, by “Tideland” starring Jeff Bridges, Jodelle Ferland and Janet McTeer.

After enjoying an early look at “Doctor Parnassus”, I was happy to be able to focus with Terry Gilliam on the making of the movie.

Terry Gilliam - Photo taken by Liam Daniel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Terry Gilliam
Photo taken by Liam Daniel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Q: Any filmmaker’s nightmare must be to have the star of the movie pass away before production has been completed. And that’s what happened to you when Heath Ledger died during filming.
A: This (film) was a dream and his death was a nightmare. There’s no question of it. The other day I was thinking about this because somebody mentioned the loss of La Mancha (his production of “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”, which was shut down during its first week of production) and I thought, well, if I hadn’t been through that I probably would have completely and utterly given up this time around. In fact, I only gave up for a day or two. Then I was sort of beaten into thinking seriously about if we could salvage the film in some way.

Heath’s death more than anything (was horrible) because he was a very close friend. Dying like that and in the most shocking way (was overwhelming), having been working with him three days earlier. Stars don’t die in the middle of the film and the film gets finished. But I don’t know — there was a lot of talking, fighting, pushing, shoving and trying to make me use my “imagination”. I finally came up with the fact that the character (Ledger was playing) goes through this mirror three times so why I don’t see if I can get three friends of Heath’s to come in and finish it and that’s what we did.
Q: That was an inspiration to see that going through the mirror three times could mean as three different people.
A: They were saying, “We’ve got to get somebody to replace Heath” and my attitude was that there was no way that one person was going to (achieve that) either on an artistic level or even on a pragmatic level because we had to continue to keep shooting. I thought, at least, by spreading the load to three we might be able to actually find three people who were available while we were still shooting. And that’s how it worked. The principle was actually there in the script that if you go through the mirror with somebody else their imagination may be stronger than yours.

So it was a matter of fixing the scene with the drunk at the beginning when he goes through (so that) his face changes. Then the principle was solidly established. I called Johnny Depp not to get him to take over the part. I called him just to commiserate because he was a close friend and he was a close friend of Heath’s. He said, “Whatever you decide to do, I’ll be there”. Actually, the turning point was when I told the other producers about that conversation. That gave them some ammunition to stop the retreat of the money people, the bank and insurance and completion bond companies and everybody else.
Q: How much of the film had you shot at that point?
A: Basically, half of it. We shot most of the scenes on this side of the mirror. They were done and we were heading out to Vancouver to shoot all the stuff that was taking place within the Imaginarium, itself. There are certain scenes that we rewrote. I thought I might find a solution without Heath using a double or something. In the end, it didn’t happen that way.

I actually pushed one scene on the other side of the mirror. It’s the scene that takes place between Jude and Andrew Garfield after the dancing policemen. Actually, it works better there. There was another scene that I couldn’t find a way of doing and we don’t have it — and, again, that works better. It’s one reason I thought when we were shooting that Heath was co-directing the film with me after he died because he was limiting what I could and couldn’t do.
Q: But to be able to bring in on such quick notice Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law was a stroke of good luck. Most of the time these guys are off on locations doing films and it would just be impossible to get them. How did you get that lucky?
A: There was a lot of luck involved. I had called some other people before the final three were there, who were in the situation that they were shooting or they were preparing a film and they just couldn’t get free. Colin and Jude were finishing some projects, themselves, and there was a gap in their schedules. Johnny ultimately we got him because of a fluke. Michael Mann’s film “Public Enemies” was delayed by one week and Johnny pops in and that was it.
Q: So what you shot with these guys must have been done very quickly.
A: Oh, totally. There was no time for rehearsal. Nothing. We shot on Johnny for one day and three and a half hours. That’s it. The second day it was basically just three and a half hours and he was out.
Q: How did you do that? A director in a normal situation would find that hard to do, but you had so much going on?
A: Yeah, well, that was my only choice. That’s how we had to deal with it. You know, you just leap into it. The actors had no time rehearsing. I knew what I was doing. I knew what the camera was going to be doing and the world we were creating and it was just a matter of leaping in and, “Here we go!” That was one reason why I wanted friends of Heath to do it because they knew him. They each had DVDs I’d given them of some of the stuff we’d cut together that Heath had done so they could have a sense of what he was doing.

It was really flying blind. None of us knew whether it was going to work until I got back to London and started cutting the thing together and showing it to some people who had hardly any idea of what had gone on. The first time we showed it these people thought it had been written to be done that way. And that was the moment I realized it works.
Q: Did you find the circumstance of having to work this way energizing for yourself?
A: No. I found it debilitating. I mean I was just on auto-pilot. It was the only way we were going to save Heath’s last performance. These are the things we were saying to ourselves — “We’re doing it for Heath”. Luckily, it was a great team of people and everybody just committed themselves totally. Tom Waits and Chris Plummer had stop dates and they kind of let them go. Everybody was just doing it for the film and for Heath, but Heath was the driving force. You have no idea how loved that guy was. He was just esteemed by everybody who worked with him.
Q: I understand that you storyboarded the film.
A: Yeah. I hadn’t really done that except for tiny sequences in films. “Munchausen” (1998) was the last time I did any real storyboarding. Because this is also the first original thing I’d written since “Munchausen” time, I just wanted to get back and behave like a young filmmaker again.
Q: Did it turn out to be good luck that you did storyboard it so you could jump in and deal with all the rewriting and reworking of the story?
A: No, it’s not that. I storyboarded it at first and then we did the next thing, which is doing pre-viz. But we knew what we’re doing. I’ve always known that when I get into the special effects sequences I have very clear images in my head. And that’s one reason why by storyboarding it you clarify it for other people, as well. Because when you’re doing this stuff you need a lot of people to keep reminding you what you’re original intention was.
Heath Ledger as Tony, Lily Cole as Valentina - Photo taken by Liam Daniel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Heath Ledger as Tony, Lily Cole as Valentina
Photo taken by Liam Daniel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Q: Coming back to working with Heath, how did he like to work and how did you guys work together?
A: Heath was just getting more and more playful. He was going to be a film director and this is what he was thinking a lot about. So right from the moment he got involved he was suggesting, “Why don’t you put scene here and there and do other things?” I was quite happy to listen because it was that kind of enthusiasm and fresh energy of his was wonderful. When we actually started working, rehearsals and all, he started adlibbing a lot of dialogue that normally I wouldn’t be having too much adlibbing going on. But he was so into the character, it was wonderful. And a lot of it was funnier and sharper than some of the things Charles and I had written.

So I was quite happy to sort of let him fly. We rehearsed. We talked about things and that was kind of it. The thing that he had — Johnny’s got it and I think Colin’s got it, as well — is the ability to play. You do your research. You do your preparation. And then you go in to play. I was finding that on almost every take Heath was doing something different and surprising. Every moment was fresh and alive. He wasn’t like certain actors who are machinelike and repeat themselves all the time. I think that energized everybody and particularly the other actors the thought that this is a chance to spread our wings a bit. And that spread to someone like Andrew Garfield, who had never adlibbed before and actually had never been comical before. And suddenly he was rising to the energy that Heath was creating.
Q: You and Heath had worked before on “The Brothers Grimm”.
A: I read after Heath died that he’d said that working on “Brothers Grimm” was the first time he had actually was having real fun working and learning this ability to play. And he was crediting me with that, which at the time I didn’t realize because we were just having a great experience working together.

The one thing about Heath, though, was that whatever he did there was gravitas there. It was never silly. It always was grounded and that’s what I loved about him. He feet were always solidly on the ground.
Q: Had Heath changed much as an actor over the two or three years since you’d done "“The Brothers Grimm”?
A: Not really. By then he’d done “Casanova” (directed by Lasse Hallstrom) and “Brokeback Mountain” (directed by Ang Lee). When we were in Venice with “Brothers Grimm” he had three films all at the same time at the Venice Film Festival — “Casanova”, “Brothers Grimm” and “Brokeback Mountain”. So he was working fast and hard. He was just getting better with all of this happening with him.

I mean, all the stories you read in the press about The Joker affecting him, that was utter nonsense. I get very angry at the things they were writing. Just bullshit! Simple bullshit. Playing The Joker, he would come back because we were preparing “Parnassus” in London and I’d given him a space to work in my effects company. He’d come back after a couple of days as The Joker, just giggling like a kid. He said he was having so much fun getting away with murder. He said nobody knew how to control this character, which was what was making fun for him.