Terry Gilliam has been making movies for 40 years, with standouts like Brazil, The Fisher King, and Twelve Monkeys holding their own with Monty Python classics The Meaning of Life and Monty Python & the Quest for the Holy Grail. In his new film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Gilliam has made one of the most talked about movies of the year, chiefly owing to the fact that Parnassus is the film on which Heath Ledger was working when he suddenly passed away in early 2008.
That’s not to say Parnassus, which Gilliam also co-wrote (with Charles McKeown), should not be viewed, regardless, as the next logical step in Gilliam’s fantastical career. Doctor Parnassus (the inimitable Christopher Plummer) is an old-as-the-hills (and immortal) mystic who has made a deal with the devil, aka Mr. Nick (a wry and sinister Tom Waits, perfectly cast), regarding his coming-of-age daughter (the lovely model-turned-actress Lily Cole). Parnassus is the proprietor of a traveling show, transported in a ramshackle old truck throughout modern-day London; customers step through a magical mirror into spectacular worlds of their own imaginings. The alternate realities are swirling masterpieces, which take advantages of cutting-edge advances in CG imagery.
In a recent roundtable interview, Gilliam opened up about Ledger’s death and the subsequent accommodations he made to his film, which most notably included the casting of Jude Law, Johnny Depp, and Colin Farrell as the three alter-egos (of sorts) of Ledger’s character. He also contemplated his career’s evolution, Monty Python’s dry-and-silly legacy, and the neverending rumors around his never-dead Don Quixote project.
With a film like this, you could tinker forever. How do you know when you’re done?
Terry Gilliam: Because I get bored! And when the money runs out. [Laughs.] There are things I would still fiddle, but they are so minor, that they’re not worth fiddling with. You just know. It kind of comes down to: That’s as good as we can make it. People seem to still believe there might be a perfect film out there. I’ve never seen a perfect film in my life.
How did the new advances in technology effect you? We remember when you were doing lots of stuff with just cut paper.
TG: Well, that’s all it is! Some of the stuff we are doing here is the same aesthetic, except it’s 3-D. Not 3-D as in Avatar, but 3-D because we have a world that has layers. I love all that. I still use models when necessary, but it’s just mixing these various techniques. The advantage we had here was because we were not dealing in realistic worlds, the CG works really well.
I’ve had my own effects company since right after Holy Grail, so I know how to do all of it. The advantage of having my own company was that I could be there everyday, sitting over this guy’s shoulder, saying, “No, do it this way, do it this way.” Sometimes I just want to do it myself, and cut out the piece of paper and wiggle it around.
How much of your vision of the film changed after Heath’s passing? With the addition of Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell [as the other-side-of-the-mirror alter egos], it still seems cohesive.
TG: Basically, what happened was that we had shot everything on this side of the mirror [the present-day reality]. At one point, I was going to say it was co-directed by Heath, because he was [the one] creating these situations. As far as Johnny, Colin and Jude taking over, that was inherent in what we had, because it had already been [established] that when two people go to the other side of the mirror, one imagination may be stronger than the other. So the middle-aged shopping lady could be dreaming of Johnny Depp and not Heath Ledger!
Other than [one minor change to establish the principle that faces can change across the mirror], the dialogue, everything, is exactly as it was before. It was important to me. The scene with Princess Di, James Dean—a lot of people think it was written as a eulogy to Heath, but it was exactly what was written before he died. And that’s the advantage of it not being a studio film, because how many studios would have let me introduce Heath’s character as we do in the film? [Redacted to avoid spoilers.]
And after Heath died, Christopher Plummer didn’t want to say the line, “It could be a comedy, a romance, a tale of unforeseen death.” I said, “You have to say it. That’s the film that Heath and I were making. You don’t change these things.”
Was there anything of Heath’s that was cut? That will end up on a DVD?
TG: It’s all in. We didn’t throw anything away. Every bit is in there. For him to die when he did was—how could you do it so tidily—I don’t know what other word to use. He didn’t destroy the film. He somehow got all the important work of his done, and then died. It’s still a very strange experience, which I haven’t completely sorted out in my head.
Is that another instance of letting the film go? You were staring at him up on a screen in an editing room for more a year after he died.
TG: Well, that’s it. He was still alive. It was a very good way of grieving. Your friend is still up there, and [you’re saying], “Why is he doing that? Oh, Heath!” [Laughs.] You’re having dialogue with a man who’s no longer around.
Is that delaying the grieving, or is that part of it?
TG: Well, I think it’s part of it. By the end of dealing with it, it’s done. You know, the loss is still a shock, and it’s partly because it shouldn’t happen. A guy with that potential, with that kind of extraordinary talent, and just, as a human being, to suddenly not be there. It’s like, “What? This is not right.” But then, the world has never been right, so why should it change now?
Was there any discussion with the three other actors as to how they would portray this character? Because they all seemed to get the essence of the character Heath was playing.
TG: That was why they had to be friends of Heath—luckily, these three were able to do it. Colin, at one point, said he felt like he was channeling Heath, like he was there.
There was no time to rehearse—I had given them all a DVD of a few bits we had cut together of Heath, so they saw what he was doing, and off we went. We had Johnny for one day and 3 ½ hours—that’s all. That tells you a lot of things: 1, how brilliant he is, and 2, how well he understood Heath. So he just turned up, no rehearsal, and Go!
It was a very unnerving time, because none of us knew whether it was going to work or not. We just didn’t know until we got back to London and cut it together and showed the film to some people who didn’t really know the story, and they just assumed it had been written that way.
It seemed like it was the way it was supposed to be.
TG: That’s why you start believing in the movie gods [he said with an impish twinkle]. There was a movie god up there that was making this movie—he didn’t give a shit who was alive or dead at the end of it. It’s very strange how smooth it works. For me, the disturbing thing is when people say it may be a better movie for this—I can’t quite deal with that, because we don’t know what the movie would have been like. It might have been a far more dramatic, powerful movie, to see Heath carry the character all the way through. This way it might be a more entertaining film—it’s certainly a more surprising film, because you don’t know who you are going to see next.
Can you talk about the initial casting?
TG: I think Christopher was the first on, because who else is that age and could be a mountain of talent? We’d worked together on 12 Monkeys, and I just thought he was wonderful. And Tom [Waits] came because [we talked and] he said, “Do you have anything for me?” He didn’t know what I was doing, but I said, “Well, we just wrote this part of the devil,” and he said, “I’m in.” He didn’t read the script—he was just in.
Speaking of actors Christopher Plummer’s age, it recently came out that Robert Duvall might be in the Don Quixote film—
TG: —I’ve read that as well. [Laughs.]
Can you talk about what’s happening with that?
TG: Mr. Blabbermouth Duvall, you mean? [Laughs again.] Well, it’s up, and we’re getting it going again. We don’t have the money yet, but I just think he’s phenomenal. I sent him the script, and he was so excited about it. And I thought, if I can get Robert Duvall with that excitement and energy, and just childish enthusiasm… I think it will be great, because he does the tango, and I think he’s extraordinary.
What about Johnny Depp? Is he involved?
TG: He’s out. He’s too busy doing swashing and buckling and Tonto-ing.
Where does your fascination with time travel and alternate realities come from?
TG: It comes from reality! Isn’t that what we live in? I mean, I was in London one minute, and suddenly I’m in New York. When Concorde used to fly, I’d arrive in New York before the time it was when I left London. It’s not so much time travel as it is being able to throw yourself into time mentalities. I just don’t want to be limited by the world that’s just out here.
We’re beaten to death daily by whatever Fox News says the world is, and we buy some of that, and then NBC says it’s like this, and somebody else says it’s like that—we’re surrounded by various versions of the world, and I think it’s about choosing your own. So for me it’s making it as flexible—it’s a mindset, and I just want to encourage people to invent their own worlds. My films are really just studies on the borderline between reality and fantasy, and how each influences the other and dictates what the other is. I don’t know what the answers are—I just like playing in the mess.
So many comedians have been influenced by Monty Python. What does that mean to you?
TG: You’re part of a continuum, a long continuum. Think of all the comedians that influenced us, and that’s why we did what we did, and then it passes on. That’s all. I’m glad we were able to pass on certain kinds of humor that others have picked up. I never thought we were that original, I just thought we were taking what Spike Milliken and the Goons had done, the Marx Brothers stuff—it’s all there, you can trace it. We were just in the middle—like South Park, I want to take all the credit for South Park. [Laughs.]
There’s always a darkness and a twisted sense of humor to your work. Were you always this way?
TG: Twisted and dark? [Laughs.]
Well, the time you spent in England, with Monty Python, the other things you’ve gone through, the darkness you’ve experienced pursuing your art, do you think that has influenced the kinds of films you make?
TG: I’ve always had a dark side, because that’s what the world is, both light and dark, beautiful and horrible, and I hate missing out on any part of it. And the way I think you get through it is by having a sense of humor. I don’t know how else you deal with death and destruction and the horror that’s out there, unless you can laugh at it and find humor in it.
Humor to me is even more important to me now, because everyone is so frightened. Everyone is so timid about saying the wrong thing. We might offend somebody—what’s wrong with offending people? Aren’t people thick-skinned enough to take a little bit? I mean, somebody hitting me in the face, that will hurt me, and bad reviews hurt—but those are the things you learn to live with. People have become so timid, and that worries me—when you are closing the world in, and the world gets more and more crushing, and I just want to break through it.
That’s the great thing, I think, that came out of Python, that you could both be very British [adopts a formal air] and very silly—you could be very intelligent and very stupid, all at the same time. I always divided the world into those who giggled and those who didn’t.
I think that’s the way I can get through some of the shit I’ve been through—that I can find it funny. For example, Heath and what happened on Parnassus is, I say, a warning to all actors: You don’t turn up for work, and there are three A-list actors ready to take over your part. It’s a joke. People go, “Oooohh, how can you say that?” Well, he was my friend, that’s why I can say it. And he would have laughed as well.