The imaginarium of Terry Gilliam

The visionary filmmaker talks about the strange, sad, spooky resonance of directing Heath Ledger's last movie

Published December 26, 2009 2:30AM (EST)

Terry Gilliam, left. Right: Lily Cole from "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus"
Terry Gilliam, left. Right: Lily Cole from "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus"

Terry Gilliam has a reputation of being a little prickly and defensive, especially around film critics, who he feels have consistently misunderstood, misinterpreted and misrepresented his work. So I was somewhat surprised that the jovial fellow who met me on a recent morning in New York — assuming it was indeed Gilliam, and not some dubious doppelgänger or hired actor — turned out to be an utterly charming breakfast companion, with a mischievous-Santa twinkle in his eye and an infectious, Falstaffian laugh.

Gilliam was in town to promote yet another of his troubled projects with a tortuous production history. As he put it in our conversation, every film he makes becomes a film about the making of a film. The one-time Monty Python member has had collapses, aborted projects and problem-plagued productions before, from his underappreciated box-office bomb "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" to his failed efforts to adapt Alan Moore's "Watchmen" to an unproduced "Time Bandits 2" script to "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote," which was shut down after a week of filming in 1999. (Gilliam and Johnny Depp still hope to make that film.)

But Gilliam's new film, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," has bigger tabloid headlines attached to it than anything else on his résumé. Star Heath Ledger died in January 2008, with the film about half finished and several key scenes featuring Tony, Ledger's character, still unshot. Gilliam's first impulse was to shut down production, but his daughter Amy — a producer on this film, which is partly about a troubled father-daughter relationship — persuaded him to find a solution. Since the scenes still left to shoot featured Tony's voyages into an alternate dimension — into a fantastic realm constructed by the eponymous sideshow performer, Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) — why should he look the same there as he does in the so-called real world?

So Gilliam's "Imaginarium," as we now see it, feels like the result of a cruel cosmic joke. In its blend of fantasy and pathos, its spectacular special effects and its pranksterish, stories-about-storytelling meta-narrative, it's Gilliam's most satisfying film in many years. And one of its most ingenious touches -- Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law playing alternate aspects of the character that Ledger plays with marvelous brio outside Doctor Parnassus' realm — happened only because a talented young man, in the all-too-real world outside the movie theater, took a drug overdose and died.

In more ways than I can enumerate, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" feels like a personal film for Gilliam. Co-written with his frequent collaborator Charles McKeown, this is Gilliam's first original screenplay since "Baron Munchausen" more than 20 years ago. Plummer's Parnassus may or may not be a 1,000-year-old man who has dealt with the devil (played by Tom Waits as a garrulous carny-barker type) to achieve amazing psychic powers, but he's definitely an aging showman working the fringes of modern English society, left behind by popular tastes. He's trying to get up the nerve to tell his gorgeous daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) that on her 16th birthday, a few days hence, the devil will come to claim her as his own.

Anton (Andrew Garfield), another performer in Parnassus' troupe, pines for Valentina and yearns to take her away from all this. But that's before the traveling players come upon Ledger's Tony, a charismatic and highly ambiguous figure they find hanging from a bridge over the Thames, but not quite dead. (As Gilliam says, this is a scene likely to elicit gasps from the audience.)

Like everything else Gilliam has ever made, "Imaginarium" is a film about filmmaking and a story about storytelling, a fantasy whose central subject is the delights and costs of fantasy. It's an endlessly digressive fable — an "onion of stories," in Gilliam's words — made by a guy who seems determined to combine the tools of pop filmmaking with the pre-postmodern yarn-spinning of Scheherazade, Laurence Sterne and Diderot. Doctor Parnassus' clanky, cranky old wagon is pulled by a shaggy dog that frequently veers off course, but that too is deliberate in its own way. Gilliam's fans will love this movie tremendously — it has a grand, career-summing scope and feeling — and unlike some of his recent work, it doesn't seem calculated to drive others away.

At several points in our conversation, Gilliam mentioned that he reads all the reviews of his films. I couldn't decide whether this was his way of telling me that he had indeed read my hostile response to "Tideland," his last film, but was too polite to bring it up directly. I still think that movie is a grotesque misfire, but "Imaginarium" is so weird, rich and juicy it makes me want to take back the sweeping and unkind remarks I made about Gilliam and his career.

Reading back the transcript of our breakfast chat, I can see that the bitter and curmudgeonly aspects of Gilliam's character (his phrases, not mine) are there just below the surface, mixed in with the ample charm and the philosophical attitude. There are contradictions to this guy: As Gilliam once told Salman Rushdie, he left the United States for England in the late '60s because he feared he'd become a "full-time bomb-throwing terrorist" if he remained in America. (A native of Medicine Lake, Minn., he has been a naturalized British subject since 1968.) But he has always yearned for mainstream Hollywood success and seems continually surprised that his movies, which deliberately defy narrative convention and jab a thumb in the audience's eye, are not massively popular.

I almost missed what Gilliam said as the publicist came to drag him away from his half-finished plate of sausage and eggs. "I only want to be as successful as George Lucas and Spielberg," he told me, sliding out of the banquette and exploding into one of those wild guffaws. He knew it was a ridiculous thing to say, but he wasn't exactly kidding.

It must be gratifying to have gotten such a big, ambitious film made, especially after everything that happened. You've had so many projects collapse, and this could easily have been another one.

It wasn't easy to get it made in the first place, believe it or not. Here we have a film that by any standard should be treated like a big film. It is a big film, with a cast like that. I ended up making it for $30 million. For anybody else, it would have cost $70 million or $80 million.

It does make a difference that Johnny, Colin and Jude — it's not that they worked for nothing, but they made sure that the money that would have gone to Heath, had he lived, went to his daughter and his family.

When we went out to Hollywood in 2007, we couldn't get any money for this film, even though Heath Ledger was starring in it. They always do this thing, "Oh, we're doing the numbers. What are we getting out of Germany? What are we getting out of Italy?" Now, you can do this in an afternoon, if you have any talent for the job. But it takes months, because it's going to Goldman Sachs. That's where it's going! Goldman Sachs is deciding which films get made.

Here was the problem: The last film I had done was "Tideland," which was never meant to be a commercial success, and the last film Heath had done was "Candy," which made even less money than "Tideland," if that's possible. So here's a couple of losers! [Laughter.]

Yeah, I think the algorithm that's based on "Tideland" plus "Candy" equals: Don't give these guys any money.

We're trying to tell them: In 2008, "Dark Knight" is coming out, with Heath as the Joker. He's going to be the biggest star on the planet, and we'll be coming out a few months later. There was nobody who could rise to this massive leap of the imagination, because they don't understand films or filmmaking or why people go to movies. It's terrifying. And that was the good old days!

And this is for a fantasy film, the most popular genre, with one of the biggest stars in it. That's actually somewhat shocking.

This film has opened in England, France and Italy already, and the one country where it's done phenomenal business is Italy, because they treated it like a big film. I'm convinced that audiences can smell something if you've got a big cast like that and it's aiming toward some independent, art thing. Something's wrong! In Italy they went out and said, "This is as big as 'Public Enemies' or anything else." And they went for it, right across the board — kids, adults, all ages. Which is a very hard concept to explain to these people: A film that works across the board. They say, "Oh no, it's too intelligent."

I had that same problem with "Time Bandits." We had three campaigns: one for kids, one for hip Python-"Saturday Night Live" people, and then one for general audiences. It's still the most successful film I've ever done in America.

I'm not quite sure you could get "Time Bandits" made today.

I couldn't, no. But then, you've got "Fantastic Mr. Fox" out there. I don't know how it's doing. But it's animated. It's in a world where fuzzy, puppety things go on. You've got "Up," which is lovely. But they're basically puppy-dog films! They have big eyes. They're sweet. How can you not love them? If you do something that makes you think, or that doesn't go down the normal paths — when you throw in Heath Ledger hanging by his neck, that's a gasp from the audience.

Well, most of our pop culture most of the time is totally unchallenging, isn't it? It's about gratifying audience desire all the time and expunging all vestiges of darkness.

It's terrible. I've been watching it for years, going crazy. You feed people baby food, you coddle them, you cuddle them. Hollywood's thinking is that if you make people think, they will choose not to. [Laughter.] They would prefer not to pay their money and be asked to contribute to the process by thinking. And the last thing you do is to depress them in any way, or make them worry about the state of the world they're living in.

I'd always prefer to give the audience the benefit of the doubt. There's intelligent life out there. If you feed them intelligent things, they'll rise to it. There was a line we used for "Time Bandits" that I still love: "Intelligent enough for children, and exciting enough for adults." I just thought: That's it!

You know, a famous director who runs a distribution company, I won't tell you who, saw the film. And so did a 13-year-old girl who's the daughter of a producer. Now, the 13-year-old said it was the best movie she'd ever seen in her life. It made her think, she said. It involved her. But this very famous person, the director, saw the film and loved it, but said it was too sophisticated for their audience. This makes me crazy! Kids see it on one level, and intelligent adults see it on another. The two things are not in conflict, and if anything kids are more open-minded. Most people, the older they get, the more closed-minded they become, the more structure dependent.

If I'd written a novel with this kind of structure, people would say it was wonderful. You do a film and they say, "It's a mess! Where's it going?" There was one review in London which more or less said: "This is a story about a guy who does a deal with the devil, and his daughter is about to be taken by the devil on her 16th birthday. Where's the suspense? Where's the tension?" My response to that is: You're looking at the coat hanger and not the beautiful ball gown that's hanging from it.

I love the way you play with the idea of storytelling in this movie. When he's the head of a monastery in Tibet, Doctor Parnassus claims he and his monks are keeping the universe going by telling their story. I felt like, on one hand that's what you think — the universe keeps going on stories. And on the other hand you're making fun of him, as Tom Waits' devil does so well.

I suspect Parnassus may be a liar. Maybe everything he says in there is a lie. It's about ego: He and his monks are telling the eternal story that keeps the universe going. It's about him! And then he discovers, "Oh, other stories are just as important as my story."

That's all we live on, is story. What is 24-hour news? Most of it is story. It's invented. You have to fill 24 hours of shit, and there just isn't that much news. So you create stories, and they can be anything. That's what I'm trying to say: We live on that. It gives form to our lives. It gives form to everything, whether it's a good story or a bad story. People talk about journalism as factual. I think it's fictional, or at least half of it is.

I think Parnassus is a terrible egotist and maybe a liar. When we were making the film, I always had this feeling about that opening shot, when the wagon comes into town and there's this bum asleep in the foreground: It's all his dream. He is Parnassus. Is he really all the things he claims to be? Is he lying to his daughter and everybody else, or does he really have these abilities and is a thousand years old? It's a dodgy game to be playing with an audience who wants to know the truth. I'm not interested in the truth. Truth is a very amorphous thing, and you have to make your own truth out of your intelligence, your observations.

This seems to be such a personal film for you, in so many ways. I mean, it's a film about a man's complicated relationship with his daughter, and there you were, making the film with your daughter.

Yes, and mortality is a central issue in the story. The making of the film becomes what the film's about. Every film that I've done is like that, and this one more than most of them. I really have to be careful what I write. It's terrifying. Which fits perfectly into the Parnassus ego-mode: One's writing is so powerful that it is dictating life and death on the planet. [Laughter.]

It's funny, the father-daughter relationship has been there since "Munchausen." Maybe it's the way I'm dealing with my children, since I never see them. Except of course that Amy was there this time, in the thick of it. There are so many different things that I'm trying to say at the same time. Particularly an original screenplay like this — if that's what it is — it's a compendium of what's going on in my life at the moment, the things I'm thinking about. Then you try to squeeze them all together, create some kind of structure that can hold this mélange of ideas.

The fact that it went on and became what it becomes — that was terrifying. There are lines in the film, like the eulogy that Johnny reads — everyone thinks that was written after Heath died, but everything was written before. Chris Plummer didn't want to say that line in the monastery: "It's a comedy, a romance, a tale of unforeseen death." He said, "I can't say that." I said, "Chris, you have to say it." And all that stuff Johnny says — "a prince who died, died young" — all of that was written before Heath died.

That was spooky, to a point that's very hard to deal with sometimes. If this had been a studio film, can you imagine them letting me introduce Heath while he's hanging by his neck? No. And the lines right around there are devastating: "Why are you fishing dead people out of the river? He's dead!" But that's the point: To do it. There was no way to change it. My attitude was: That's what we wrote. That's what Heath and I were making, and that's what we will finish.

I'm sure your first thought and second thought and third thought after Heath died were not about yourself or your movie. But you must have had the thought at some point: Oh, Jesus, here's another Terry Gilliam film where something terrible has happened.

Yeah, for a moment I did believe in that curse I keep reading about. On the other hand, if I hadn't had the experience with "Quixote," I wouldn't have been prepared for dealing with this. It did take me over a week before I finally decided, yes, we're going to plunge ahead and find solutions. It was too hard, really, for all of us.

But my daughter turned out to be great. I'm lying on the floor, and she's kicking me, saying, "Get up, you're going to finish this movie for Heath." I'm going, "Fuck off, you're inexperienced. I've been through this, you don't know anything about it." Amy's naive energy was very important. She pushed everyone forward. Another of our producers, Bill Vince, was suffering from terminal cancer and subsequently died. So she was pushing a semi-dead man and a man who had given up, and trying to keep the money from running away.

I imagine you know this already, but all your stories, even going back to your animated sequences on the Python show, are stories about stories, stories about storytelling, stories about the relationship between fantasy and reality. Is that your only subject?

That's kind of it, because I still haven't worked out the answer! In each film I try to do another variation on this theme: the borderline between fantasy and reality, and how the two interrelate and create each other. I just keep playing in that. It's the area that intrigues me. I keep thinking about "The Saragossa Manuscript": You're telling a story, and within that story another story starts up and you move into that story. You're going into this onion of stories, layer by layer. That's always fascinated me.

To me, telling stories about stories, it's trying to get people to think. At the heart of everything I'm doing is trying to get people to think, and to encourage those who have the capability of thinking to say, "Oh, I'm not alone. We can play in there." Sometimes it happens the first time the films come out, and sometimes it takes years. More often than not my films play better the second time you see them. The first time you say, "What was that?" I'd like to think I'm modern, I'm part of the DVD generation. You can watch my films over and over again and you'll find something new. It doesn't help the opening-weekend box office, necessarily. [Laughter.]

You have higher goals in mind.

I only want to be as successful as George Lucas and Spielberg. Then I can die happy. [Laughter.]

What about doing a version of "The Arabian Nights"? That's the ultimate onion of stories, isn't it?

I'd get lost forever in that. It would never end. And then I'd have to make some sort of clever anti-Islamic jokes, which would get me killed.

"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, with wider national release to begin Jan. 8.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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