From producers’ scissors to on-set disasters, Terry Gilliam collects troubled productions the way some people collect stamps. Fortunately, the expansive, fantastical visions of his films outlive the controversies of their productions—think of Brazil, and what comes to mind isn’t the arduousness of studio interference, but the visionary density of Gilliam’s dystopia and his protagonist’s obsessive yearning for flight. So it goes with The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a messy and heartfelt fantasy which, with unwavering faith in fabulist storytelling (and the help of a trio of celebrity stand-ins), manages to overcome the tragic death of star Heath Ledger to offer the filmmaker’s new reverie of dreamers and yarn-spinners. I spoke to Gilliam earlier this year at the Toronto Film Festival, where we talked about charlatans and artists, Monty Python and Faustian deals, and, finally, Heath Ledger.
How did Imaginarium originate?
The beginning idea was of the little traveling theater arriving at a modern city, with nobody interested in it. We didn’t have much other than that at first. The concept of the imaginarium and people going through it came up as we were working on it, which allowed me great freedom with the fantasy imagery on the other side of the mirror. The story was built in a weird way. We didn’t have a real plan, but little by little the plot grew out of the ideas and suggestions we kept hammering at.
This marks your third film with Charles McKeown, who co-wrote Brazil and Baron Munchausen.
We work in a bit of a leapfrogging way. We sit and talk—“Let’s try this and that”—and then we write separately and get together again. Charles is far better with dialogue than I am, and I’m probably better at visual gags and ideas. And he can put into words a lot of the things I’m trying to say with images, so it’s a constant give-and-take.
The fantasy sequences are very striking. All digital?
No, we had model shots and sets mixed in as well. I felt it was important to have actual scenery so the performers could have that feeling of physicality and not just of screens. I hate when actors have to mime and fake stuff and you can tell there’s nothing really there. So I tried to give them enough real space so they could engage with the surroundings, and then add the backgrounds afterward. In the early fantasy with the drunk going through the portal, for example, we had actual cutout trees, and we got certain effects that wouldn’t have been possible with CG technology alone.
Has CGI made the translation from sketch to screen easier for you?
In some ways, yes. We were on a limited budget, so I was doing pretty basic stuff compared to, say, Avatar. It’s a good technique, but you have to use it carefully. In the scene where Jude Law is tottering on those ladders, he was actually rigged up on stilts, doing the stunt and not just pretending. Even when the film is about this big, extravagant fantasy world, you try to not make it about the effects.
As a cartoonist and animator, do you favor storyboarding?
This was the first time I properly storyboarded scenes since Munchausen. I did a little bit of it in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as well. Most of the time, though, I prefer to work from drawings. “Hey, that’s an interesting image. Maybe we can rewrite the script to include it.” The shifts between the eye and the pen give you more freedom.
I like the fact that, as extravagant as the film gets, there’s a handmade quality to the details. The magic mirror in Doctor Parnassus’s stage show is a carnival prop, a sheet of mylar.
[Laughs] It looks really crappy! Well, artists do with what they have. I’m a bit obsessed with mirrors. They reflect, but they also distort the world around them, like the characters.
Visionaries and charlatans.
Exactly. You see that in Heath’s character Tony, but at first we’re not sure whether Parnassus is a fake as well. And I love that Tony, whom you feel is supposed to become the main character, is revealed as being multiple people, having multiple sides. Kind of a bastard, really. We originally took “Tony” from Tony Blair, whom we were furious with for the Iraq War. Again, a guy who’s charming and silver-tongued. We believed him, and look at where it’s taken us. Con men are seductive. And Heath was just wonderful, because he could be immensely charming without neglecting that devious side.
There’s a Lear-like feel to Christopher Plummer’s performance.
Oh, he’s magnificent. He’s all the heads of Mount Rushmore rolled into one. He gives dignity to even the silliest of situations. Parnassus’s show is so shabby, so squalid, and yet there’s this genuine, beautiful graveness at the center. And I like the contrast between him and Verne Troyer, who plays his assistant like he’s Jiminy Cricket. It’s as important a double-act to the film, I think, as his relationship with Tom Waits.
Mr. Nick [Waits’s Mephistophelian character].
The Devil himself! I love his relationship with Parnassus. They’re lonely people, bound by flaws. Old adversaries can be like married couples: They need each other. Like when Mr. Nick triumphs over Parnassus, and instead of gloating over him they commiserate together. Winning is a disappointment to the obsessive gambler.
Are Faustian deals part of an artist’s survival?
I think so. I’ve had my share of compromises. You want your movie to be watched. If a studio asks for five minutes to be cut, you stop and ponder: Will that hurt the film, or will it benefit it by reaching a larger audience? Years ago, when Monty Python took ABC-TV to court for bowdlerizing the show, they couldn’t understand why we were upset. They were, after all, making it more “accessible” to more viewers, and it never crossed their minds that the show’s “flaws” might be part of the work, part of us. The arguments would go back and forth. We won, then we lost, then we won, then we lost. Exact same thing with Brazil. The studio wanted a new ending in order to reach wider audiences. Well, a different ending is a different movie, isn’t it? So the fight starts again, and off you go.
This seems like a perverse question, but do you think these challenges might help stimulate you creatively?
[Laughs] I hate admitting it, but that might be true. There are always restrictions, always people afraid of losing their jobs if they don’t make the studio more money. And I hate, hate, hate clashing with them, yet during these battles I find that my adrenaline gets going. Suddenly I come up with new ideas, new ways to go around limitations. And some of these ideas that I’m forced to come up with are better than the originals. It also helps me sharpen my focus on what’s important. When I start a movie, I’m very greedy. I want everything. Those battles and skirmishes help prune away the excesses.
I was delighted to spot bits of Monty Python humor.
The line of cops singing “We Love Violence.”
Don’t forget the “We Are the Children of the World” number. I’m looking forward to that one playing at the Michael Jackson memorial.
It’s fitting to have mementos from your earlier work here, because this is certainly a memory film. Parnassus’s memories, and also yours.
Oh, sure. The word kept coming up: “compendium.” I kept thinking of Fanny and Alexander, you know. Amarcord. Those are films that Bergman and Fellini made at a certain point in their lives after they had pushed themselves to their limits and struggled with their demons, and they now could relax and take stock of their art.
They also had an interest in mortality.
Absolutely. And I wanted that feeling of impermanence, of changeability, here as well. There’s a line Christopher says in the film about “a tale of unforeseen death.” He didn’t want to say it, because Heath had died just a few weeks earlier. That line was in our original screenplay, and being prescient like that is a horrible thing. But we went ahead, to honor Heath’s life and art.