"I think the problem is we're living in a time with too many film schools," Terry Gilliam said to me as I headed out the door after completing an interview for The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. "Too many people are trying to intellectualize it and put it in simple words that everybody can understand." As appreciative as I was for Gilliam's candor, I couldn't help think he was referring at least in part to me, who had just spent the better part of the previous 15 minutes trying to get him to explain in detail how he comes up with those wonderful, weird ideas, and then somehow puts them up on the silver screen.
Gilliam has been working in film for more than 40 years, creating some of the most amazing, spectacular, and most of all unexplainable imagery audiences have ever seen. Unfortunately, however, rather than offering a return to form for the visionary filmmaker, his latest project has thus far been recognized primarily as a eulogy for the late, great Heath Ledger, who died during filming, and whose role was eventually completed with the help of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, who stepped into his character's shoes to shoot the film's final scenes. Cinematical spoke to Gilliam late last year during a press day for Parnassus, and in addition to discussing the ramifications of Ledger's death on the production, the iconoclast pulled back the curtain on his unconventional style, and reflected on four decades of moviemaking – little of which, despite my best efforts, could be explained or analyzed intellectually.
Cinematical: Maybe just to get the most obvious question out of the way, notwithstanding the use of other actors in the role of Tony, how much changed or had to be changed following the death of Heath Ledger?
Terry Gilliam: Nothing. Just the idea of a face change. There were certain scenes I had to drop, but it's exactly as we wrote it except one scene was on this side of the mirror. Heath wasn't around to do it so I pushed it on the other side of the mirror so Jude [Law] did it with Andrew [Garfield]. There's a scene when he first appears with Parnassus that we just cut out completely, but you don't miss it. And that was about it, [although] there's a lot of little fiddle things all the way down the line to set up certain things. So it's basically the film we set out to make, plus three extra people (laughs).
Cinematical: Was there anything you shot with Heath you had to cut out?
Gilliam: Nope. Everything is in there. We didn't waste a moment of Heath's stuff (laughs).
Cinematical: The opening of the movie seems to be a response to audiences who take spectacle for granted. Was that a deliberate choice?
Gilliam: Everything I do is reactive. It's whatever I'm feeling about the current state of the world, so there's a lot of that. I think there's extraordinary things out there that people aren't paying attention to. They're too wrapped up in whatever they're doing – drinking, shopping, playing their Playstation games. There's a world out there; wake up, folks! And Parnassus is there and they can't be bothered. They're like Martin the drunk because he's just always seeing something silly and something he can abuse and take advantage of. And he must pay a price (laughs). It's a film where people pay the price, again and again.
Cinematical: How deliberate is the integration of themes that go into your movies? For example, do you think, "people aren't appreciating some of the amazing things in the world," and then build a story around that? Or do you start writing something and a theme naturally emerges?
Gilliam: Well, a lot of things emerge along the way. I didn't have a story in mind when we started this; it was just a compendium of things I'd done before, whatever that may or may not mean. And let's have this wagon from another time turn up in a modern city and nobody pays attention. That's literally all we had to start with and then we'd start building characters in there and then shoving a bit of this in. I find it really funny the more I'm trying to talk about how we wrote it [because] I don't know. I can't remember (laughs).
Cinematical: Do you find that in order to discover that structure, you have to have complete freedom, or do you have to structure yourself so you examine or explore the things that are important to you?
Gilliam: I've never taken a writing course or learned at film school. I just do it – are we telling a story that interests me? Am I involved with these people? Are they interesting people? Where are they living? You start with effectively a fairy tale, saying a guy's done a deal with The Devil. His daughter is payment. The Devil's arrived. Okay, that's simple, now we're off and running. But it's funny – okay, let's make a movie out of that, and have a lot of tension. But I didn't want to make that kind of movie. I sort of like rambling around the place, meandering, and then we start saying, who is this Parnassus? And then we invent some huge tale about him in this monastery that maybe fits, and maybe not. And then you find that the daughter is living in this exotic, wonderful world, but all that she wants is normality – a bourgeois Ikea existence. Now, that's a relationship between father and daughter. And little by little, and you stick in Anton, who's in love with her and she doesn't recognize that. And then you pop in the cuckoo right into the nest, Tony, and see what happens. The story eventually unfolds itself; as we were working on it, we never had a throughline right at the start. We just started building.
Cinematical: You alluded to this, but there's also a theme in the film examining the price you pay in the relationships you have as a result of following your vision. If you see that in the film, do you feel any sense of personal recognition in that idea?
Gilliam: Everything has a price. Nothing is free. We're told that life, is oh, if you buy the right toilet paper, your life will be complete. It's all such bullshit to tell that though. One of the things, like getting Mr. Nick in the story, it's like, okay, we got this imaginarium. Let your imagination blossom, and all of these things start happening that relate to who you are as you go through. But then, this can't go forever, so there's a choice. So there's one way you go and maybe find fulfillment or something more meaningful, and the other way which is the wrong way, and then it's just more fun to say, okay, let's put The Devil there and you pay the price and it's really brutal. And it's not relative, it's just over. That was kind of fun. Now you've got Parnassus and The Devil, who are both kind of demigods doing what they do, and... I wish I'd kept notes. One day, and this is the sort of thing I should be doing before I do these interviews, is go back and look at the development of the script so I can answer these questions properly. But it seems so long ago; the process of making this film has been so sort of draining on so many levels that to come out the other end with a film that we're really proud of and think works is just like, well, I don't really care how we got there. We got there! Because it's been three years of just relentless problem-solving, but it's the film that we'd written, and there it is.
I wish I knew how to talk about films in an intellectual way. I'm never going to learn that. Actually, I'm learning to do it even less as I go on. You know what's really funny on this film? I can't remember how Charles [McKeown] and I wrote it. We sat together, we talked, we went away, he wrote some stuff, I wrote some stuff, we took some stuff out, stuck it together, and boom boom boom – little by little. We were even writing when we were shooting, and when I'm shooting we're changing things all of the time as things develop. You just feel your way through it.
Cinematical: How has technology enabled or changed the design or the facilitation of the designs you come up with for the look of your films?
Gilliam: Quite frankly, it's kind of what I was doing with Python, except I was just doing it with pieces of paper, flat stuff, and now I can do it an a three-dimensional space basically. That's the difference. The ideas, some of them are easier to do with CG, and some of them are easier to do with models, the way I've always done it. I just mix it. I don't have any theory about anything. You watch Michel Gondry, he plays and he sort of has ideas about what the texture of something means and the importance of that, but I don't. I'm just a real whore when it comes to getting whatever it is I want done. I mean, I've got my own effects company, so over the years we've developed from optical printers and simple stuff to digital work; I mean, I've been doing CG digital work for years and nobody's noticed (laughs). So that's why, again, I don't think about it. It's just "I've got that tool," and that will solve that problem. I thought we could make this film for a reasonable amount by making very limited sets where action could take place, and then we could fill it up with background CG and it would be really spectacular. They were very conscious things; there was no creature animation as such – I mean, okay, a snake comes up, but that's very basic. Probably the most complicated thing was the melting of the jellyfish; we don't have to have Tyrannosaurus that have to look believable, or any of that stuff, so it's very simple, what we've done. It's just the choice of the ideas and the design of it, and also the fact that we don't give people enough time to see the trick. We're out of it before they get to see too much, and we're in another world the next time we go through.
Cinematical: Are there specific lessons that you learn in the exploration of these ideas or themes? Whether it's on this movie or others, have you learned things that you applied to your future work or even your life? Or is it-
Gilliam: Just a big mush. I make films that just deal with certain things and I'm interested in or angry about or whatever, and I get through it like, oh, I made a film? Oh, that's pretty good. Well, I liked it, and most things worked the way we planned. And then you start again. I never consciously think about what I'm learning or not learning. I think I get better at certain things, and at other things I probably get less good because I maybe know too much. I never intellectualize what I do, I don't have theories about what I'm doing. It was like when we were cutting the film, the editors I worked with, Leslie Walker on Tideland and Brothers Grimm or Mick Audsley on this, we have no theories. We just put one thing after another, and that thing works better than that. That's why I would never be able to go to a film school and be a teacher; I don't have any theories, I just do it. I've kind of always done that in my life. I don't intellectualize it, I just learn – and then it's only years later that I realize I learned a lot, but I can't tell you what I learned and how I learned it. But I can do it (laughs).
Cinematical: Talking about that approach being very intuitive, do you find that frees or limits you, not in terms of developing ideas, but finding people out there who will invest in bringing them to life?
Gilliam: See, the thing is I've reached that stage where I've done enough work, enough films that people will just know what I do, so they like it or they don't and then they come to work or they don't come to work. It's really weird; I mean, the really bad, sloppy way I go about life, people are always giving me their cards, saying "I'd do anything to be in your film," and then I lose all that stuff. And then it comes time to make a film and basically at that moment it's all very serendipitous. Who's available right now? Who happens to walk in the door? They get the job. And the guy who might have been much better who had been trying for years to work with me wasn't there on the day and doesn't get the job. I don't know why I've become like this, but I am Mr. Serendipity.
Cinematical: At Comic-Con you mentioned that The Man From La Mancha might be the next thing that you're doing. This film seems to have rekindled your passion for filmmaking. Do you feel more emboldened this time trying to take it on that you did before?
Gilliam: No, I was much more bold before. I was much more convinced we could do everything and anything and it was going to be easy. Now I'm much more cautious because this time is particularly bad to try to raise money for anything more than a couple of million dollars. But what I did do was getting the script back after seven years, the script being in the French legal wilderness, I looked at it again, finally read it, and it was a nice thing to be away from it for that long. I looked at it and I said, it just doesn't work – it's not good enough. It was very clear what was wrong, and very quickly Tony and I rewrote it, and a lot of it is based on what has happened to me in the last seven years. I just incorporate my own life into the thing. Yeah, we do that, and that's that, boom, and suddenly we've got a film where, say, two-thirds hasn't changed, except it's changed completely what those two-thirds mean now, because the third we rewrote. It sets everything in a different motion, so that is as simple as that or as complicated as that. I think the problem is, I never learn to do anything, I just live and survive and somewhere along the line I picked up a few tricks (laughs).