Terry Gilliam (The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus) Interview



One of the most talked-about films of recent years, Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus will open in cinemas across the UK on 16th October 2009.


> Watch the trailer.

In the dark days following the death of Heath Ledger, Terry Gilliam was grieving the loss of a close friend and couldn’t bring himself even to contemplate what would happen to the film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, that they had both been working on when the young Australian actor sadly passed on. But gradually, encouraged by his collaborators including his daughter, Amy Gilliam, who is a producer on the film, he began to accept that finishing it would be a fitting tribute to Heath even though, at first, he couldn’t see how they could do it.


There must have been times when you thought that Doctor Parnassus would never be finished. Are you pleased with the final film?

It’s good. I’m delighted with it. Delighted that it actually works and delighted that we ended up making a good film and so we won’t leave Heath tied to a piece of shit at the end of his life.

During those dreadful days after Heath’s death did you worry about the film?


It wasn’t like worrying; I just thought ‘it’s over.’ I was fatalistic about it, like ‘**** it, I don’t know what to do…’ And I didn’t seem to have the energy to want to do anything but I was surrounded by others who were determined that l carry on and make it happen. And I’ve always said that making a film is like climbing a mountain like Everest - you have a good team around you so that when one falls the others stay together and lift the whole thing up and you get there and it was like that. My daughter Amy just wouldn’t let go. Amy was a bully (laughs), that’s what she was. And Nicola Pecorini was the same and they said ‘this is ridiculous, we’re going to finish this film..’ And I said Amy ‘you don’t know what the **** you are talking about. You are a novice at this game, I don’t see how to finish It.’ But then ideas started floating around and eventually we decided to do what we did. And also the money was running out. If we hadn’t pulled something out of the hat quickly it would have gone. And I suppose the rabbit was Johnny (Depp).

Was that a call that you made?


I didn’t know what to do, I hadn’t a ****** clue but I spoke to Johnny and said ‘if we need you, will you be around?’ And he said ‘I’m there whatever you want….’ And I only found this out afterwards, but if Johnny hadn’t said ‘yes’, the money would have gone. I actually didn’t realise that at the time. I found out a lot in retrospect about was what going on, but at the time I was in my own little world.

It’s amazing how well using the three actors works…


Seamless is the word that comes to mind.

It’s almost like you could have come up with that idea in the beginning…


In the ‘post’ stage we got a rough cut of the film and the guy who was doing the ‘post’ sound saw it and he just assumed that it was meant to be like that, that it had been written that way. And that was the first time I was aware, ‘****, the thing works...!’ and then it was just a matter of tidying things up. The fact that the guys – Colin, Jude and Johnny – pulled it off is what is extraordinary. There was no rehearsal, they just dove in. And that’s why I was calling friends of Heath to get involved, because that connection was there and they all did a brilliant job.

Tell me about casting Tom Waits as the devil…


What a guy - he’s absolutely magnificent.

He doesn’t do a lot of films. Did you have to use your powers of persuasion to get him on board?

No, it’s sillier than that. A Dutch animator friend of mine wanted to Tom to do the voice-over in this animation thing. I sent it to Tom and Tom wrote back and said ‘sorry, I don’t want to do this’. But he said to me ‘do you have anything going for me?’ And I said ‘well, I’m working on a script right now and there’s one part, it’s the devil…’ And he says ‘I’m in’. And he was in before he read the script. And it’s perfect casting as far as I can see, because there’s nobody who could have done it like that.

The film is terribly poignant film to watch now because of the loss of Heath.

Yes, it is.

And there are the references to death in the film that seem terribly poignant in the light of what happened. Did you re-emphasise any of that after his death?


The references to death were all in the original script, which people don’t understand. They all thought we had written this stuff after Heath had died and no, we didn’t change any of the words. And that to me is what’s so kind of scary and spooky – why was it so prescient? It seemed to be all about death, it’s so much of it.

You’d worked with Heath before. How good was he?

Heath was a brilliant actor and he was getting better every day. And just watching him rise, was incredible. And I think that’s the thing, as well as losing a close friend, it’s just the waste of this incredible potential. I just think there was nothing stopping him; he was going to be the best, just the best. He was already right up there but he had learned to play more. And just the stuff that came out of him daily on the set. Nicola and I and the first AD, with every take we were like ‘what the **** is he doing now? Look at that!’ It was just this constant surprise. And that’s what is so awful, the loss of that talent. And I could see that he and I were going to be doing a lot of films together because he just got it, he got what I was about, I got what he was about. And suddenly, that’s it, he’s gone and I lost a partner. I think we would have done a lot of films together but I’m on my own again. Every day I think about what would have done here? What about that? And with the film, I would have loved to see the film that he would have made had he lived. I don’t know what it would have been like, everybody is now in love with what we got, but I still think about what we were going to do.

It’s been a remarkable journey to make this film. I believe you lost your producer, Bill Vince, as well. Did he manage to finish working on the film?


Bill Vince the producer died the week after the last roll of film went through the camera. He was dying of cancer through the whole film, we knew that, and I didn’t think he was going to make it. And he just stuck in there until the last bit of film was shot and then he died. A lovely guy. I miss him.

And you had an accident as well, is that right?


It was last autumn - I was hit by a van. It was in front of one of my favourite restaurants in London, Vasco and Piero’s in Poland Street and it was one of those people-mover cars. The guy pulled up and was about 15 feet away and I started walking across the street – Poland Street is a one way street – and I look and there are cabs coming, so I hesitate and he was backing in because he had obviously spotted a parking space and I was standing in it and he didn’t see me. And wham, he hit me at speed. And I flew about 10 feet into the air. And it was like ‘oh my back.’ and I broke a vertebra. So I thought, it was third time lucky – they just didn’t get me. They got the star, the producer and they were going for the director and the fuckers failed on the last one. Whoever they are… (laughs)

How long were you in hospital?


I wasn’t in hospital. I mean, it was just one of those things - with a cracked vertebra you are immobile but they can’t really do a lot. And I still have to do all these exercises. But it’s no big deal compared to most things that have happened to other people on my films.

But the film carried on even with all these setbacks. Did that make you quite fatalistic in a way?


It’s made itself – I was just one pair of hands and there were many hands. And I’ve become kind of like that, not superstitious but fatalistic about the film – it will get done. And this was happening when Bill died, all this shit was going on, we had huge insurance claims and problems and the fights were endless and I said ‘it doesn’t matter, it’s going to get done.’ And maybe it’s being older and having been through a lot of shit before and maybe all the others were just preparation for this one.

What about Lily Cole. She’s got a great look that fits so well in the film, but were you convinced, when you cast her, that she could do the job for you?

No, that was the biggest fear. It was the one dangerous choice that we made. We cast her right away because I liked her and she looked amazing. I knew she had no experience, but I knew she was intelligent and I liked her and I thought she would improve and she would just get there. And to be thrown in with that crowd of actors was probably a good thing because they were all supportive of her and they gave her a lot of help and she rose to the occasion.

What about Andrew Garfield? Had you seen a lot of his other work?


I hadn’t seen anything but I was told he was really good. So all I knew about Andrew was when he sent in a tape. We’d sent three scenes out to him and he sent back a tape and on it he did each scene in a different way and I thought ‘this kid is good’ and then, watching him develop in the course of the film was fantastic. Because he had never ad-libbed before, he had never done comedy before and he just grew into it. And again, that had a lot to do with Heath really, because with so much of Heath’s performance there is a lot of ad-libbed dialogue and I just let him go and Andrew started doing it too – at first probably just competing with Heath – and Heath was way ahead of him and Andrew kept catching up. And at the end of it, he said he had no idea he could be funny and he’s really funny. There are some people who have seen the film and they walk out and it’s Andrew who they are talking about, it’s Andrew because he is the big surprise, I suppose. Brilliant! And he is going to get better and better.

Are you already thinking about your next film and will it be Don Quixote?


Yes, that’s what I’m working on right now. I’m seeing some actors this weekend. Who knows who it will be and whether we will get the money and all that but we’ve started. Tony Grisoni and I have re-written the script. Having not read it for seven or eight years we looked at it and it was almost like ‘thank God we didn’t make it back then!’ I don’t think we are kidding ourselves but I think we have written a much better version of it. And now we’ve just got to put a cast together. And Johnny (Depp) is not going to do it – he is signed up for everything and I’m not going to wait. Normally I would, but I’m just getting too old and I’m going to die soon and I want to get a couple more under my belt before the grim reaper catches up with me (laughs). So I want to be shooting it next Spring-time and hopefully we’ll get all the bits together. Jeremy Thomas is producing it and we did one final adjustment on the re-write a week and a half ago and it was like an epiphany for Jeremy, he was like ‘oh now it’s really working, let’s go…’

Have you shown Doctor Parnassus to Heath’s family yet?


No and we’ll get that organised soon. I think they will be pleased. They have been really supportive all through this thing. They knew how close Heath and I were. And his father said to me ‘I trust you, I know you are going to make him look good.’ And we have - actually it’s easy to make Heath look good, it’s almost impossible to make him look bad...