It’s January 6, 2008, a cold winter’s night in East London, and Terry Gilliam looks to be having the time of his life. In a covered shopping market near the City, the former Python is directing The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, an imaginative flight of retro-fancy starring Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Andrew Garfield and Lily Cole. In 16 days time Ledger will be found dead in a New York apartment of an accidental overdose. But tonight the 28-year-old Australia actor is, despite an awful cold that’s bordering on flu, throwing himself into each and every take with unbridled enthusiasm and without a single word of complaint. Between shots, Ledger bundles himself up in his blue parka, a small hot water bottle clutched to his chest in an effort to keep warm, chatting with the extras on set, or watching the playback on the monitor with Gilliam, his admiration and respect for his director very much in evidence.
In the first scene of the night, Ledger’s Tony, the latest recruit in Doctor Parnassus’ travelling troupe of players who trawl around London in a horse drawn caravan that doubles as living quarters and theatrical venue, is centre-stage. Wearing a white, pinstriped suit, and a deep red cravat, a Venetian mask hanging around his neck, his face dirty with gold paint, Ledger spends much of the night swinging a series of ladies in and out of a magical mirror that leads to the Imaginarium itself, those women who emerge reduced to a near orgasmic state. He’s joined on stage by Cole’s near-naked Valentina, dressed (or rather not, as is the case) as Eve, Garfield’s Anton, who sits, in drag sat atop a pile of apples, Plummer’s mysterious Parnassus who claims to be thousands of years old, and a blacked up Vern Troyer. Originally planned as a montage sequence, the scene was hastily rewritten that morning, turning up the slapstick. Every time Ledger’s pushes a woman through the (fake) mirror, the crew, and especially Gilliam, cracks up. As anyone who’s seen Lost In La Mancha will attest, the sight of Gilliam enjoying himself on a film set, is something to be savoured.
During a short break, Gilliam and I sat down for a chat.
There have been projects you’ve been trying to get off the ground for years, and yet this one seems to have come together very quickly.
Partly out of frustration that all these other ones that I keep reading about don’t seem to come together for various reasons. Literally, just over a year ago I said, “Fuck it, what can I do for $25 million? I must be able to get $25 million” and just sat down with Charles McKeown [screenwriter of Brazil and The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen] and in about a month we had basically written what we were trying to do and it constantly keeps getting rewritten as we go along. But in a sense it was to just go back to what I used to do long ago, the ones you bookend your career with [laughs] when you die. Even with something like Tideland which was $12-15m budget it too Jeremy Thomas quite a while to get that money which is why, in a sense, I went off to do Brothers Grimm and came back. [It’s because] what I’m doing is what the big films are doing for a fraction of [the cost]. I think if I asked for $100m it would probably be easier.
Where did the idea come from?
It’s sort of pragmatic, saying, “You want to do fantasy, you want to do spectacle without the $250m budget, how do you compete?” Well you do it in little pieces. So let’s go through into another world and it can be extraordinary and then back to the real world and hopefully you save a lot of money and you don’t get bored. Because I find with the big fantasy films, within 15 minutes I take it for granted, so it’s really hard to keep upping the ante. So I thought this way, by constantly contrasting one world with another, you can achieve something that’s constantly surprising.
Stylistically this feels very much like Baron Munchausen.
Time Bandits, Munchausen are the things it’s closest too. I had my wife look at some rushes the other days and [she] said it’s, “Baron Munchausen. But much smaller.” Everything I do, probably in one form or another, is autobiographical, at least one aspect of it. And this was a guy with a travelling show that nobody pays attention to. [Laughs] And he’s trying to get people to use their imagination, get excited, and nobody cares, people are into iPods and things. So you start from that position and then we start adding things. So choice is a thing we seem to live with, everyone demands a million flavours of Starbucks coffee. What’s wrong with a cappuccino? So okay, choice, that’s important, you go inside this place where your imagination blossoms but then you have to make a choice, a simple one, you don’t get 20 choices, or 100 choices, you have one. You go that way or that way. And that allows you to just transcend things, the other the devil gets you, that’s all. Simple stuff. So you play with just simple ideas and elaborate around. The idea of a man who claims to be a thousands of years old — is he telling the truth or not? Again, you get Munchausen. This guy might be a lying, everything you see might be a lie, I don’t know. But what I find… you spend a lot of time working on the script and then you bring the actors in and you start rehearsing, it starts changing, mutating, and that’s the part I really enjoy right now. Like this scene this morning, it was written as a montage of successes, and said, uh, this is how we do it, and the surprise is the girls we’ve cast as the various women going into the Imaginarium, each one surprised me, they did something interesting. And that’s what I get excited about. And I’ve got the advantage again, I’m not surrounded by a bunch of nervous executives, I can go for it.
Are you relishing that freedom?
I’ve always had freedom to be honest, even with the studios, they’ve left me alone, basically. What’s scary about this one, because it’s so ambitious for the kind of money we’ve got, for what we’re trying to do, every day is like a living hell. I get up and think, How do we get through this day? And we’ve been scraping through each day, we get there and it’s been amazing. And it frightened me, because the weather’s been good to us. How is this possible? I’m not used to this.
Why has it proved so difficult in the past for you to finance your grand visions?
Because nobody understands what I’m doing. I’ve heard for 25 years now, every time I go to Hollywood, “God Terry we love your films but this one… no.” I’m so tired of hearing that. But luckily my daughter Amy was working with Bill Vince, Infinity who produced Capote, and Bill thought, Let’s go for it, and along the way Sammy Hadida has joined in and we seem to be making it.
Let's talk about this wonderfully eclectic cast you’ve amassed.
Christopher was a very early one because we were a UK-Canadian co-production and Christopher is Canadian. But it wasn’t because he was Canadian it was because he was perfect for the thing. And then what was very funny was Heath who had actually read the script but I had never asked him to do it. He was working at my effects company doing an animated pop video, he was working on and he was in the main room and one day I was showing a storyboard, projecting it to the effects guys, and in the middle of that he slipped me a note and he said, “Can I play Tony?” And bingo! And then Verne Troyer, you have a character like Parnassus and because it’s meant to be a troupe of extraordinary people, who’s better than Verne Troyer. He was in Fear And Loathing for a brief moment. The casting director, Irene Lamb, had seen a test Lily done with Sally Potter and said she’s really good, and so I tested her and she was really good. And then the last person was Andrew Garfield and he sent a tape in and I just thought he was fantastic. So it’s not your normal cast by any means, it’s this mixture but that’s what intrigues me. You take one of the shortest men on the planet and put him next to one of the great classical actors and see what happens. You make a double act out of that.
Tell me about tonight’s scene.
This is a revamp of the theatre. The theatre doesn’t normally look like this. The previous scene went very badly for them, they were at a pub and Andrew’s character Anton who’s very much in love with Valentina (Cole), and is being pushed out of the way by Heath’s Tony, tries to do all the things that Tony can do, sophisticated, clever, charming, and he basically creates a disaster and the wagon is semi-broken, destroyed and they’ve really hit rock bottom. And Tony, Heath’s character, says you’re doing it wrong, you’re old fashioned, you don’t understand what people want any more and he shows them fashion magazines, and says this is what people want. And so you have Lily as Eve, representing innocence and purity, Anton is representing Western decadence and greed with a pile of apples. She’s got the original apple. And poor Verne is blacked up and representing Africa and all the Third World countries that the West takes advantage off.
It seems very slapstick in nature.
Well, this became slapstick. The scene wasn’t but I thought, "Oh fuck it, let’s just do something." When we were writing it I was a bit more serious about saying something. And as we start working on it, I think, come on, let’s enjoy ourselves. But it isn’t just enjoying ourselves, it’s making it more enjoyable for the audience, so hopefully one’s saying certain things but making it funny. The other cast I didn’t mention is Tom Waits who before I even sent him the script I said I got a part for you and he said, I’m on. that’s the part I really love, working with people who are in it because the joy of the thing, it’s not just another job. Everybody’s coming in here and they’re working hard, they’ve been in extremely cold conditions, it’s be almost all night shoots, freezing cold, fake rain pouring down. Heath and Andrew do this whole scene under Blackfriars Bridge, one of the big bridges across the River [Thames], 60 feet, 70 feet in the air. Heath is hanging by his neck from an arch in the middle of the bridge and Andrew is on a wire, swinging in to rescue him. No stunts. The guys doing it for real. I think everybody has approached this thing with real passion and just a willingness to do what’s needed.
Are you enjoying doing a London film?
In some ways. I like being at home for one thing. I like English actors. But I find the world here has become so constrained, health food, safety, you can’t move anymore in London. Everything has grown, kind of like America. Filmmaking has become too big, there’s too many people worry all the time. Somebody’s had to go around every location to check for nuclear waste, the toxics, the viperous animals. What are we talking about? It’s literally like you can’t move which is another aspect of this film, the restriction of much of the modern, western world, just closing in on itself. I don’t know how long it can function like that.
The caravan the players ride around in is very old-fashioned and anachronistic.
It’s from another time, it’s 19th century, maybe earlier, when travelling players would come to town. It’s exotic, extraordinary, it was one of the first things I drew, the wagon, because the idea seemed simple, why not do like a 19th century fold out travelling theatre, and then we can just pop it anywhere we want. It’s driven us crazy but it’s a stunning thing when you see it coming down the street. The theatre itself looks like the cut out Victorian toy theatres, that’s what I was thinking of, because I loved it. Suddenly you go back into an aspect of your childhood, and hopefully, just visually, that does that to people. You’re in kind of wondrous, magical, innocent world which is fading and crumbling… we’re still playing around on the special effects side, because one hand I use CG a lot, because I’ve got my own company, but the other day I said, this whole opening sequence that we were going to do it CG, I said let’s do it with models, because I have this very strong reaction to the opening sequence in Pan’s Labyrinth where you see the little girl running and its just a model made out of polystyrene painted black and it just hits parts of your imagination… wow. For a lot of people it’s a retro thing, but there’s a kind of innocence in that. CG is now big business, it’s corporate, you see it everywhere. It’s always been a temptation for me to go back to very primitive stuff. When you’re doing CG, I really like playing with it, but you’ve really got to work hard to try and make it real, cos you can cheat so easily. There’s a tangibility, a tactile nature to models, that I think must work on parts of one’s brain. Which the other doesn’t.
It's great to see you having so much fun making a film.
It’s funny, because I know what I’m doing and I’m still finding this as I go along. That’s what’s been interesting on this one, I’ve been looser in many ways on many things. Heath, in particular is, so incredibly inventive. He’s extraordinary. The world has no idea how good he is, yet, even though he’s been nominated. His range is phenomenal. And here he’s playing with comedy much more, because on Grimms I thought he found such comic moments all through that, and then, on this one, he’s doing the same thing and we’re letting him just run… because he’s so fired up, he’s got such energy and intelligence and just utter craftsmanship. Extraordinary. So what you’re seeing here is us working on a silent movie, basically.