Veteran fantasy director Terry Gilliam is no stranger to adversity. As far back as 1985, the director of Monty Python and the Holy Grail was taking out full page ads in Variety to pressure former MCA/Universal head Sid Sheinberg into releasing his heady sci-fi cult epic, Brazil. Although that wouldn’t be the last time he’d clash against studio bureaucracy, Gilliam soon faced bigger problems. In 2000, a flash flood and injured lead forced him to cancel his most ambitious project to date, a whimsical yarn called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, tentatively starring Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort. After releasing the under-appreciated The Brothers Grimm and Tideland, Gilliam is back with The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. A vibrant effort bursting with visual fireworks and Faustian lunacy, the fanciful tale features a weary immortal (the title character played by Christopher Plummer) who schemes against the devil (Tom Waits) by winning over souls with an enchanted sanctuary.
Parnassus also features the last starring role of Heath Ledger, who passed away during filming. In a development as surreal as any of his work, Gilliam recruited Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to help complete his film, with each actor playing an aspect of Ledger’s character, Tony, in the hallucinatory confines of the Imagninarium. The work stands as much as a remembrance of Ledger’s undeniable charisma and energy as another exceptional work from its cinematic magician. Gilliam caught up with Paste via phone from London about his unique relationship with Ledger, his inspired style and his plans to continue development on Don Quixote, with Robert Duvall set to star.
Paste: How have you been lately?
Gilliam: It’s been really tedious because all I’ve been doing is promoting the film for the past several months. You end up in a world where you do the same thing all of the time. It becomes an out-of-body experience. It becomes mantra-like. On the other hand, it gives a sense that the world is complete.
Paste: I’m guessing that after your movie is released on the 25th you’ll be able to relax a bit and give a sigh of relief.
Gilliam: It gets worse the closer you get to the release. Everything seems to be important. You see the poster there and say, “Oh my God, it’s not going to work.” Releases of films are always very critical, because the quality of a film is only a small part of the success of a film. It has so much to do with the marketing and the weather on the day it opens.
Paste: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus marks a reunion between you and writer Charles McKeown, and also you directing one of your original ideas. What inspired you to do something from scratch again?
Gilliam: I just wanted to jump off the cliff and see what happened. I didn’t know. I didn’t have a story in mind or anything. Let’s just start with a blank page and see what happens. And something happened. [laughs]
Paste: Compared to your more recent works like Tidelands or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, this one seemed to be a bit more balanced and optimistic.
Gilliam: Maybe. Maybe it’s a better sense of who I am. Balanced and optimistic. I’m going to tell my wife that when we get off the phone. [laughs] We’ll see if she buys it. I like it, though.
Paste: I mean it in the sense that Tideland and Loathing witnessed these characters see their entire sense of structure destroyed, whereas this focuses on someone trying to put things back together.
Gilliam: Well, very much so. Parnassus is trying to reinstill a sense of wonder in people and surprise them. Even coming to terms with daughters who don’t stay in the same line of business.
Paste: Did your own experiences as a father figure into it?
Gilliam: It’s a weird one. In Parnassus, I don’t know why we very quickly gravitated toward the idea of needing a daughter. I think in Munchausen it was like that – there was the one girl that Sarah Polley played, and that seemed to be the driving force for it. I’ve got a son as well who probably takes great offense at these. The irony of this one is that my daughter ended up being one of the producers, so it ended up being a closer collaboration than normal.
Paste: There are a few son figures in the film as well.
Gilliam: Possibly. I think there’s a fatherly approach that Dr. Parnassus has toward Tony. And in our relationship, Heath always felt a contemporary of mine. That’s what was always interesting about Heath. He had half my age left in him, yet he always felt wise and experienced. And that’s what was unique about Heath. One moment he could be like a kid, the next he could be an adult, but the next he could be my teacher. I think there’s the sense that, “Oh, this is the type of kid you just want to encourage to get better and better.”
Paste: What did he teach you?
Gilliam: He just taught me what acting can be. I remember reading something with him saying I taught him how to play. But that’s what acting is. To me, he was always showing how fresh and playful one could be at the time. Watching him playing and having a good time was intriguing.
Paste: It looked like he was having a great time in The Brothers Grimm as well. His smile always seemed genuine in your movies.
Gilliam: That’s true. I think so, because I just gave him room to play and I don’t think he’d really developed his comic sense before, and he had great comic sense. His timing was exquisite. He could be really silly, and yet it was never jokey. It was never superficial. It was always solid. And that was something that I thought was absolutely extraordinary. And I think especially in something like Parnassus, he had a lot of room to play because Tony is such a comedic character. So he’s just setting up the possibilities for lots of directions to go into. But on the other side of the mirror, he’s a big fiend, unfortunately.
Paste: What was your favorite memory of working with Heath?
Gilliam: I don’t think there’s any one favorite memory. There was just a spirit that was there every day. I’d get up, I’m exhausted, I’m getting old and tired and cranky, and he’d turn up on the set and say “Come on! Let’s go to work!” And it was like, phew! I think what I liked about that is that I used to be like that. [laughs] And he just emanated joy, and the joy of working. That’s what was interesting. It was the charm.
Paste: As far as your own role’s concerned, Dr. Parnassus is a modern magician who frees people’s souls by unleashing their imaginations. How much of yourself would you say is inside Dr. Parnassus?
Gilliam: It’s more about the idea of a character like that. Specifically, the gestures, the mannerisms, and any of that kind of stuff, is not me at all. When you think of Chris Plummer, he just takes it on and puts the wonder into the character. He’s an alcoholic. He could be a bum. I don’t know this guy; he’s probably a complete charlatan. But Chris gives it such dignity and believability, and I thought he was just quite magnificent. The thing about the cast was that (Plummer) did a really good job of bringing an eclectic group of people together who all liked working together and all bounced off each other. When you start bouncing of each other everything becomes elevated and better. And that’s what was happening with this group of people.
Paste: If there’s one thing that’s seems to be constant in your work, from your animations in Monty Python to Parnassus, it’s the art direction. It has a very regal, gilded, almost Victorian feel to it. Where did you get this? Did it come to you when you were growing up in California?
Gilliam: I guess it was a desperate desire to be around something that has more than superficial beauty. Something that has weight to it. Right now I live in a house that was built in the 17th century. I’ve got a place up in Italy that’s 12th century. There’s something about the past, and the richness of the past, that just intrigues me. I’ve never been particularly good at cold, sleek modern design. I find it cold and without resonance. And so I kind of build these worlds that I would like to live in. Simple as that. I think Parnassus looks like a story book. You open up, and it’s just rich in detail. And you know that world exists. It reminds me in some ways of Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. As a kid I loved that movie, and even as an adult I do. It’s so lovingly crafted. Everything in Geppetto’s shop is thought about. It’s fantastic. The only modern comparison to something like that is Pixar’s Toy Story, where you feel that these are being made by people who understand every one of those toys.
Paste: Pinocchio’s great. I was surprised when I found out that it was a commercial failure back in the ‘40s.
Gilliam: I love being part of that club. [laughs] It is quite extraordinary that whatever the fashion is at the moment does not guarantee the success of a film long term.
Paste: So you wrote two songs for the movie- “We Love Violence” and “We Are the Children of the World.”
Gilliam: We needed this music, so I thought I’ll write myself a song or two. I think the funniest thing was being nominated with a Satellite Award for best song “We Are the Children of the World.” It was just a complete piss take of a Michael Jackson song. [mumbles “We Are the World”] That song used to make me crazy, and so here was my revenge. And it’s that terrible saccharine business that goes on, especially to do with charities and doing good in the world, and how people just fall for it in many instances. Not in all, but in many instances, it’s utter bullshit. And it’s playing on all your weaknesses and all your sensitivities are being degraded.
Paste: Is there a lot of that saccharine culture in the film world? Or was there something more specific behind this?
Gilliam: No, but it is around the film world, invariably, because the film world is full of rich people, so charities come pouring in. It’s endless. I mean, Charles Dickens used to hate charity. I’m growing more and more like Dickens, because I don’t know how many of them actually achieve their goal. How many of them actually get the money out to the people in need. Just because they’re a nonprofit, doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of people on the staff doing nicely. There’s a lot of that.
When it comes to something like “We Love Violence,” there was a thing that we did years ago with Python called “Confuse-A-Cat.” And how you confuse people always struck me as an interesting thing. So if you’ve got a bunch of very violent Russian thugs, what do you do to confuse them? You offer them a chance to join the cops. And I also think it’s a moment where Parnassus’ take on things is a bit confused. So he has the police in the fishnet tights. Parnassus may have been thinking of The Rockettes, so you have a bunch of singing, fishnet policemen singing “We love violence” rather than saying violence is a bad thing. And it’ll be legal because you’re a cop!
Paste: Between such tentative projects as Good Omens, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote and the Gorillaz feature, what do you have on the horizon that you can talk about?
Gilliam: There’s a couple others as well, but Quixote is what we’re working on at the moment. Hopefully that’ll get up and running next year.
Paste: Is it still going to have Johnny Depp in it?
Gilliam: Yeah, and I rewrote the script. Robert Duvall has agreed to play Quixote. I’m really excited. So it’s all that business of funding now.