When you think of a Terry Gilliam film, wild images, colors and creations come to mind. As Gilliam walked into the intimate press conference that was held for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, you could tell his personality is just as unique as his films. He walked in, wearing a patterned button down shirt, his hair was loosely tied back in a ponytail, and he went straight to the window and looked out to admire the view from the 9th floor of the Four Seasons. With a smile he sat down and with open arms welcomed questions of all sorts.
He spoke openly and freely, perfectly aware of what others have said about him, both good and bad, and unafraid to talk about anything we were willing to bring up. He spoke about his goals as a film-maker, how he always tries to create an experience for his audience to take in and not necessarily analyze. Most importantly the tries to create films for people to enjoy.
There were of course questions asked about Heath Ledger’s final performance and Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell stepping in to finish the film. What was beautiful was that Gilliam didn’t skirt the issue but answered the questions honestly, showing that there are no dark secrets to Ledger’s death and that he more than anyone saw the beauty in Ledger’s talents and misses him dearly…
Terry, there is no way of watching your movie without thinking about the way imagination is being cut off from the world because everybody now is so addicted to the internet and computers and then you go the opposite way and show that the mind is still a brilliant place to be. Having said that, where does this inspiration come from? Is it contrary to this world that we are living in technologically?
TG: Well I think…the biggest thing I find is we are so overwhelmed by information now and the media pours in, the internet pours in. I don’t know how people maintain their own individual identity anymore and how you imagine your own world because it’s that. I don’t know. I was lucky. I grew up living in the country with only radio so I’d imagine a lot of things and that’s, I think, where it comes from. It’s like with my son. We’ve got a house in Italy and there’s no television, there’s no telephone, and when he was younger, we’d go there and he’d be bored for the first couple days. No PlayStation – “Where’s the stuff?!” It’s doing all the work for him. And I said, “Wait for him.” About two days into it he starts making things with a stick and then there’s a little bit of this and suddenly he’s come alive and he’s inventing a world and he’s playing. That’s fantastic.
I’m really trying to get people to just kind of switch. We used to be able to say “I want people to switch off.” And my biggest thing now is everything is about networking and connections and blah, blah, blah. Mine is about aloneness. I’m trying to get people to learn to be alone. Turn it all off. Just be with yourself and see what’s there, see if there’s anybody home or whether you’re just a neuron or a synaptic gap is what you may be.
So then how do you do about trying to turn that switch for an audience?
TG: Well I throw a lot of shit in there in front of you and hopefully it might spark off a few things. My attitude is, I just do that. I throw you around and you may come out and say, “Oh, well I saw that” or “I didn’t see that.” I don’t know. What I’m trying not to do is give answers and hopefully ask some questions, offer possibilities, but get out before I waste too much of your time.
With the sad passing of Heath Ledger, how did you come up with the idea to finish the film?
TG: Once you decide to carry on, which is the hard part, you say “Alright, he goes through the mirror three times. Three actors.” On just a totally pragmatic level, there was no way to get one actor to replace Heath. I didn’t want to do that anyway. And there’s no way to get a great actor to turn up at the last moment. We’re making a movie. People have schedules. They’re all busy working. The fact we were able to squeeze Johnny, Colin and Jude’s schedule into our schedule in some way was kind of a miracle and so you needed a chance. You’ve got three possibilities out there and it was actually just more interesting as well. I thought you needed three A-list actors to replace Heath. He was that good. That was my attitude. But once you make the decision that people’s faces can change on the other side of the mirror, that was basically simple. I didn’t rewrite much. There’s a lot of little things that I’ve done but nothing of any substance. Everything you hear – the dialogue was all written before. That speech that Johnny gives about the young dying, some people think there’s a eulogy to Heath. No. That was written. This film was about mortality. That’s the great irony of the whole thing — mortality being a central part of the story and look what happens. I supposed one’s got to be careful of what one writes at times.
When they go into the mirror, did you ever consider, aside from Heath, changing the other actors as well so that you’d have more of a through line.
TG: No, because what’s going on there, you get two things happening. You go through the mirror – let’s do the Johnny scene for a moment. Here’s my logic, my reasoning for what we do. So, you go through and you’re actually in the imagination of the woman, the Louis Vuitton woman as we call her. Shoes, the temple of shoes, giant shoes with a Buddha for shoe enlightenment ultimately. Enlightenment through shopping is what we’re offering there. And suddenly this guy turns up, “That’s the guy. I dreamed you would look like that.” That’s a line that I added. I added that line to explain. She has dreamed he looks like that so now he can be that. Now, okay, he looks like her dream boy but when he’s dancing around, suddenly Lily is back in there, because he still fancies Valentina and she’s wise. So now we’re in his imagination with Valentina floating in the air. It’s this idea that we’ve got two imaginations at work. First, it’s hers and she transforms Tony into that, into Johnny, and then he’s dancing around saying “Whoa! Here’s this babe floating in the air” and it’s Valentina and she’s looking really nice. That’s the idea of what’s happening there.
With the three actors, how much did you want them to emulate Heath because you could really tell they were playing his role? How much did you want them to do something more?
TG: No. I just – what we did is I gave them all – number one, I chose people who were close friends of Heath’s so they know Heath. So that’s to start. And then we gave them all DVDs of what we’d been able to assemble of what Heath had done so they can see what he was doing, how he was moving and how he was talking and everything. And then, they arrived. No time to rehearse. Do it. I know, it’s really brave of them. It’s extraordinarily brave because they could have just fallen flat on their faces. I thought out maybe this was the way we could pull this thing off. I wasn’t certain. And they just came in and got to work. Johnny, we had one day and 3-1/2 hours – that’s all – to do everything he did. I watched it the other day and said “How the fuck did we do that?” But it’s that kind of – because he came, he was totally on the ball, we just started shooting. That’s what’s wonderful because I think as actors they all got to escape from their own egos. They suddenly were doing something for Heath outside themselves and they just breathed Heath in and spewed him out.
Your stories are always very visual, almost like a fairytale but grounded in the real world. Is that how you would describe it?
TG: Yeah, I think that’s probably true. I don’t analyze what I do. I just kind of do it. You’re probably a better judge of what I do than what I think. It is a fairy tale quality. To me, when I look at my films – I was watching this one the other day silently and it actually works as a silent film, surprisingly. You can actually follow the story. You don’t need to know all the words. You get the basics – it’s the bad guy, it’s the good guy. I was really quite amazed because I was happily watching these images and it was like a child watching a storybook with beautiful drawings in it. It’s like – I don’t know – I haven’t seen The Wild Thing (Where the Wild Things Are) but that Maurice Sendak book, each image you could spend hours in there looking at it and I kind of want to do that on my films. Freeze a frame and spend regular time watching it and looking at it.
Having such a great body of work, I was just curious if you could talk about how things have changed for you as a filmmaker? Maybe a pro and con in terms of how things have changed for you over the years?
TG: Oh I wish they had changed. It feels exactly the same as when I started. Every one is the first film I’ve ever made. Every one is hard to get off the ground. For instance, with this film, when I come out to Hollywood to try to beg for money, and I go into the offices and they say, “Oh Terry! We’ve loved every film you’ve done. Oh God, we’re huge fans. But this one I’m not sure about.” I’ve heard that for 25 years. The list gets longer of films they’ve loved but the word after “but” is always the same. It doesn’t change. I mean, Nietzsche was wrong. What doesn’t kill you doesn’t make you stronger. It just makes you more tired. That’s my problem.
Being a very artistic director, can you tell the difference between when you started drawing and the draw that we have nowadays? It looks like the type of art that you’re used to doing kind of lost its place and now it’s all 3-D. How do you relate to that? It seems only in your movie is there space for your kind of art. Do you agree with that?
TG: Yeah, but it’s just because I’m running the show. I make space for my art. I think what’s happening with so much CG work, especially in the live action films, is trying to be naturalistic. The world might be fantastical. It might be extraordinary, but it’s naturalistic and that doesn’t interest me. I thought what we can do here is to do more of a painterly world. I suppose it’s live action with Pixar backgrounds. It’s a bit more like that. I just want that freedom. What we’re doing in Parnassus was being very pragmatic, knowing we don’t have the kind of money to compete with an $80/90/100 million film. So we have got the mirror. You go through for a brief moment and get out before we spend too much money and that’s how we’re able to do it. But also, the other thing about the big films is after 10 or 15 minutes you accept that world as normal and then you’ve got another couple hours to keep spending a lot of money to make this normal world. So, to me, it was more interesting to be able to get in and out and each time you changed the world on the other side of the mirror so it’s a constant surprise. It’s kind of a constant delight. What next?
You’re always the guy that surprises us. What surprises you?
Oh, actors surprise me. I’m always begging for surprises. Well Heath did the big one. That was the kind of surprise I don’t need, but he surprised me.
You’ve been considering Good Omens as a project. That falls into a game of one-up-manship between the Devil and God or the forces of God. Did this grow out of this interest you had in that sort of conflict?
TG: Well it’s always been there. I went to Occidental College on a Presbyterian scholarship. I mean, the Devil has always been there in that kind of good and evil, right and wrong, the right choice, the wrong choice, all of those things has always obsessed me all of my life. That’s why I was interested in Good Omens and that’s why we wrote this. The same obsessions have been pursuing me all my life and sometimes I get them out.
Do you think you may yet do Good Omens one day or did you sort of exorcise that yearning with this film?
TG: No, no. It’s still sitting out there. It needs a lot of money though. I mean it’s a very different story. Admittedly, okay, there’s an angel and the Devil but it’s very different and it’s whether I can find somebody who wants to take charge of that project. One of the things is that and another project sort of got mired in costs of things and now it’s very hard to get those films moving because they’ve got a price tag on them before you even begin now. So, one day, if somebody gets interested, it’s waiting.
Do you see yourself working with Johnny Depp in the future?
TG: Anytime he’s available I’m ready to work with him. He’s a very busy boy though. His dance card is full. He’s got a swash and buckle for another couple years.
Gilliam left with a smile on his face, signed a few posters, and wished everyone the best. His film will hit theaters Christmas Day and is not to be missed!