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Imaginarium of vacant dreams

Talent Press interviews Terry Gilliam after the release of THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS.

Terry Gilliam on the set of PARNASSUS

This is the first time since THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1988) that you’ve worked with [frequent screenwriting partner] Charles McKeown. Why the gap?
He needed a job, so I thought I’d help the old guy out [laughs]. We started out with no ideas - that was what was so interesting about it. I just started with a blank page. I didn’t have any desperate need to tell a story, I just wanted to see if I had any more original thoughts in my head to construct something from nothing. We very quickly latched onto the notion of an ancient traveling theater arriving in a modern city and nobody paying attention to it. And that seemed a good start. Little by little, characters started evolving. Two of the films I was thinking about were AMARCORD (Fellini, 1973) and FANNY AND ALEXANDER (Bergman, 1984) - films that were done at a certain point in their careers where they just seemed to relax and have a good time again. I thought, it was time for me to have a good time again, and do something that came from me rather than adapting.

How long did it take to finish?
We knocked it off very quickly. I like working fast - just to get something down on paper. In the course of getting a script finally finished, it’s changing all the time: I’m adding to it, taking away. Plus there’s going out and trying to raise the money and simplifying it so that the executives can understand it. Then you start designing it, and actors come and they’ll add. It’s a constantly shifting thing, but with PARNASSUS, I didn’t expect it to shift as much as it did. This time around we simply had to. [Gilliam’s referring to the passing of lead actor Heath Ledger on January 22, 2008; Ledger was then on a brief hiatus from the shoot as the production team switched gears to handle all of the “Imaginarium” sequences.]
I’ve always wanted to be surprised, and Heath managed to surprise me more than anything that has ever surprised me in life. It was interesting. It was an once-in-a-lifetime experience - or the last of someone’s lifetime experience - and what it did was turn the film into something a bit more magical.

Were there scenes included that you had to delete after his passing?
Well, we needed to get three other people [Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law.]. We didn’t need to change the script too much, as the basic conceit could be moved very easily. But I did need to drop one particular scene that Heath wouldn’t be around to do, and put another one where he was supposed to be in on the other side of the mirror. In both instances, they were improvements, so in a way, it was Heath posthumously co-directing and re-writing the film. [In the closing credits, the picture is labeled as being ‘A Film from Heath Ledger and Friends’.]

And so the dialogue concerning James Dean and other tragic figures was always in place?
It was all in there - every one of those words. After all, the film is about mortality and the business of not dying young. But that was at best spooky and at worst… [pause].
You’ve just got to be careful with what you write. This one was the most painful and difficult but the results are fantastic. People who see it just feel that it’s seamless [with the other actors portraying Ledger’s behind-the-mirror personae] and can’t imagine it any other way.

A few words about the fantasy designs in PARNASSUS. How do you begin and how do you prefer to work?
In a way, I just start drawing things completely out-of-scale. With this one, we wanted to give the impression of [Parnassus’s] stage behaving like a pop-up book. In regards to the other stuff, I storyboard like I did with all of my previous films and in my animation. You start looking at references, painters, photographs and gather them together. With this one, there was a lot of material, like the American painter Grant Wood - his landscapes are what are behind Jude Law on his latter. There were elements of [American artist] Maxwell Parrish, but we didn’t succeed as much with that one.
There are a lot of different inspirations I’m stealing from, I must be honest. You know, all of it becomes like a magpie work: anything that catches my eye I try to incorporate. And it evolves. The trick is to be working with good people who have a flexible approach as well. And you just keep playing and inventing. You never quite stop until you cut the last bit of film or put the last bit of music in.

How do you work with your cinematographer, Nicola Pecorini? [Gilliam and Pecorini have previously collaborated on 1998’s FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS and 2005’s TIDELAND.]
Nicola’s quite exceptional. He’s a big opinionated Italian who sometimes agrees with me. Most of the time when we agree on something it’ll be because we’re working instinctively - it’s always bad when I have to sit down and talk analytically of what we do, because I can’t, as it’s all instinctive to me. Nicola builds up a bible which is quote elaborate, attaching photographs for reference. All of it’s done in prep, and then when we start shooting we end up throwing everything out the window and wing it.
The trick is to plan in detail, so that if anything goes wrong, we can always revert to the plan. But if we have a better idea we can move off of our original approach. The good thing about film is that you can always retrieve it in the editing if you’ve gone too far from the map.

When did you decide to cast Tom Waits as the devil figure?
He’s just one of the few living gods out there, I think. I worship him and his music is spectacular. I just think he’s the best in this country. And for the devil, he can do the most sublime, sweet beautiful stuff to the darkest and most disturbing, and those are things the devil should have to play with, it seems to me. He’s totally seductive in the role.

Backtracking quite a bit, what was it like to have dinner with Federico Fellini during the filming of BARON MUNCHAUSEN?
It was very funny, and an amazing experience. While we were making MUNCHAUSEN, Fellini kept poking his nose in because I was on his turf with his designer. And finally, on the last night - my last night - we all went to dinner. His wife, Giulietta Masina, was there. And it was great - the thing I remember most was walking arm-in-arm with Fellini around the Trevi Fountain. That was my first and only time at Cinecitta. I remember telling him, “After 8 months of Rome, I think I’ve been raped. You Italians raped me, and you ended up making your movie. But I must admit - it was enjoyable to be raped by you guys!”

And backtracking even further - before you were a film director - you did the animated opening titles on a Vincent Price film. [1970’s CRY OF THE BANSHEES, directed by Gordon Hessler.]
Yeah, it was all very basic stuff, but the interesting thing was, soon after that, I came back from a month-long holiday with my wife and found a letter from Stanley Kubrick. He wanted me to do the opening credits for A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971), but by the time I got back, it was much too late. So, my career with Kubrick - over before it even began! I’m sure I still have the letter somewhere - there’s so much junk in my house.

Although you’ve never adapted him proper, I feel there’s a lot of Philip K. Dick in your work. And you’ve expressed interest in the past.
Oh yeah, he’s absolutely extraordinary. After THE FISHER KING (1991), [screenwriter] Richard LaGravanese and I wanted to adapt A SCANNER DARKLY, but the studio in their wisdom - after making more profit for them than anyone else that year - simply said no. And that’s the moment I realized I couldn’t even begin to understand what Hollywood was all about. If it wasn’t about making money, then what? We were just two guys who just made them a lot of money, and were asking for nothing more than to option a book and let us write a script. And it was still no... It eventually got made [by Richard Linklater in 2006], but I never saw that version.
I think I kind of secretly steal from him, though. You know UBIK? I’ve always loved that one. And then there’s THE WORLD JONES MADE, which really intrigues me because it’s about a society where everything’s become relative, and along comes a guy who can predict the future - suddenly things aren’t so relative anymore! [laughs]. Of course, there are no definite plans to make that one - like everything else at the moment, it’s just another vacant dream.

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