SDCC 2009: We Talk 'Parnassus' with Terry Gilliam


The visionary wild man behind Brazil and Twelve Monkeys is focusing his uniquely twisted eye once more on the freakish expanse between imagination and reality with The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. Terry Gilliam spoke with FEARnet's Joseph McCabe and a few other journos yesterday at Comic-Con, about the experience of directing Heath Ledger's final film. Hit the jump to find out what he had to say.

"I just had a lot of silly ideas," Gilliam told us. "I thought, ‘Okay, let's make this mirror, and on the other side – things happen!' I was playing a bit to see if I could to find a world halfway between a realistic world and a cartoon world. Based on a lot of different… This one scene with Jude [Law] – it's a Grant Wood kind of landscape. Painterly. The trick was to make sure you feel you're in the space even though it is what it is. It's not realistic."

"I always liked the idea," Gilliam continued, "of this circus or theater troupe from another time coming into a modern world. I've been playing with other ideas like something from the future world coming to the past, something juxtaposed that doesn't belong there. So that's where it started – let's take a little wagon with a little stage on it and some strange people and see where it goes. A lot of it was trying to weave in these disparate ideas to see which ones would stick. And a lot of things just got thrown out but what's there is the stuff I thought we could do."

When asked what inspires his surreal visions, Gilliam replied, "I'm much more interested in figurative art than I am in conceptual art which is so much of what there is about. I like painters and painting. There's something about figurative art that deals with ideas and thinking, where conceptual art, it's just that much vaguer. I mean, there's this great piece of abstract art that captures a lot of energy that I feel, but I like it better when you can put things in it, a painting that works and doesn't just stand there. Steve Bell, [from] The Guardian, he's the best political cartoonist on the planet. He's an utter genius."

Does Gilliam draw inspiration from any recent films?

"I don't actually do things any more," he laughed. "I just sit at home and stare at myself. Because other things are just getting too complicated."

But Gilliam explained his inspiration for Heath Ledger's protagonist came from the real world…

"I was very angry about [Tony Blair] and that war and it was a big starting point, that's all. The idea that someone could be so convincing. With Blair, he's also religious, so he believes he's right. It's the self-righteousness that sort of fascinates me. That's what Heath's character is like. Sort of a chameleon. That's one reason how I think it works with Johnny [Depp], Colin [Farrell] and Jude taking over – because Heath had created so many useful ways of looking at his character."

"It was unbelievably brave and foolish, almost, [for them all to complete Ledger's work on the film]. Because there was no time to prepare and there wasn't anything to prepare, really. I mean, Johnny came in and it was one day and 3 and a half hours. I had shown them some clips that Heath had done but there was still no rung where you can actually see where this character goes – and I'm going to be entering now! Colin in some ways had the more difficult job. Johnny grabs it and sort of works a treat and sucks you in because he's so adept, Johnny Adept. But Colin's got to take over the character at the end and get you through the finale, and that's a really tough one. Because, you know, Heath is so charming even when he's a shit. He's just lovely. That was one little bit that we shot twice, Colin's entrance."

We asked Gilliam what his thoughts were on the attention his film will receive due to Ledger's death.

"I think the idea is to make it clear that it's Parnassus's story and film. Because the first couple screenings people were just waiting for Heath's arrival and saying it was taking too long because he doesn't come in until like twenty minutes into the film. But I'm trying to push the other story – and that's what it is. It's hard to know what to say. You've got Heath passing and the other guys coming in, the whole thing is so extraordinary and it's never been done before and not going to probably happen again, where the main actor dies and three actors come in and take over. It's extraordinary. But it does tell you how much they cared about him."

Of music legend Tom Waits role in the film – as the Devil – Gilliam remarked, "Tom Waits is a living god, as far as I'm concerned. I sent him a note about someone else's project and they wanted him to do voiceover and he wrote back saying he wasn't interested, but did I have anything for him. I said, ‘Well, I'm working on this project here and there's the part of the Devil' – and he said, ‘I'm in!' He didn't read the script or anything…

"Strangely this relationship between [The Devil] and Parnassus… Parnassus is his only friend. He's his rival, his enemy, but he's also his only friend, and it becomes this beautiful relationship between the two of them."