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HomeColumnsDirector SeriesTerry Gilliam on Creating The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Terry Gilliam on Creating The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

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Terry Gilliam
Terry Gilliam directed The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is director Terry Gilliam’s first film in four years. The movie tells the story of a circus wagon with a troupe of players traveling through modern-day London. Presiding is Doctor Parnassus, played by Christopher Plummer, as a wizened old storyteller who supposedly has lived for thousands of years. Within the wagon is a magic mirror that is the entrance to a world that changes as different people go through it, reflecting their own thoughts and fantasies.

The movie, the last starring Heath Ledger, was almost called off when the Australian actor died suddenly in the midst of filming. Coming to the rescue were three of Ledger’s close friends—actors Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law. They played variations of Tony the barker, Ledger’s character. After the script was altered, the movie not only hung together but was somewhat enriched.
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Photos taken by Liam Daniel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Like other Terry Gilliam films, this one sports ingenious visual elements that cram the screen with imagery. Gilliam—a gifted illustrator and animator from his days as part of the Monty Python troupe—gets a art direction credit along with Dave Warren. Anastasia Masaro, who also worked on Gilliam’s 2005 film, Tideland, served as production designer. Director of photography Nicola Pecorini, editor Mick Audsley and brother composers Mychael and Jeff Danna again collaborate with the director.

Below the Line recently spoke with Gilliam when the director was in Los Angeles promoting the film.

Below the Line: After Heath Ledger’s sudden tragic death, how close was the film to being canceled?

Terry Gilliam: It took a few days to get our heads around the fact we could actually save the film. The money people—the banks and all that—convinced the film was over, had started to cash their checks and go home. The turning point came when I called Johnny Depp to commiserate, because he was a close friend of Heath’s, and he said, “Whatever you want, I’ll be there to help.” The flight of money slowed down, which gave us some breathing room. I rewrote the film fairly quickly to accommodate the addition of the trio of actors.

Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini
Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini
BTL: Was it hard to keep your crew together?

Gilliam: Everyone was in such shock, but they said that they would be there if I could salvage the film. The atmosphere was incredibly positive. Everybody who had worked with Heath wanted to do it for him.

BTL: You are involved in almost all the departments when you make a film. You also have your own artistic skills. I’ve heard that after you finish the script, the changes you make later are done as drawings.

Costume designer Monique Prudhomme
Costume designer Monique Prudhomme
Gilliam: That’s mostly the case. I also storyboarded this film—something I haven’t done for a long time. So I was very hands on when it came to the look of the movie and all departments. On the art direction, it was Dave Warren and Anastasia Masaro served as production designer. But it was a three-way collaboration.

It was a U.K.-Canada co-production. So we had a number of people from Canada, like costume designer Monique Prudhomme and others from England.

Production designer Anastasia Masaro
Production designer Anastasia Masaro
BTL: You’ve worked with your DP Nicola Pecorini several times before including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Tidelands. Nicola uses wide-angle lenses quite a lot. Why is that your preference?

Gilliam: I like the sense of wide angle lenses because I feel the film is surrounding me. It’s actually more difficult because you have more trouble hiding the lights. You’ve also got to be more careful with composition. Everything is a little more complex.

BTL: You get a richer picture frame with a wide-angle lens?

Art director Dave Warren
Art director Dave Warren
Gilliam: I’m trying to put the atmosphere in the film, so the images are really rich, there is much more to see. It feels to me like I’m immersed in the world. I like to give the audience a lot to look at. It is like looking at storybook as a kid, when you have an incredible illustration that is full of all this detail. And wide-angle lenses help me create those images.

Today you also have DVDs. Whereas people previously saw a film maybe once or twice in a theater, now they can watch it again and again at home, and they can discover new things with each viewing.

BTL: Was shooting of the night scene next to the Battersea tower in London a challenge to photograph?

Gilliam: The biggest challenge was how miserable and cold it was. It was December and London was freezing. But we lucked out on a few things while shooting the sequence. In the scene there’s a fairground next to Tower Bridge, so the bridge was already lit. We didn’t have to do it. Also there was a German-style Christmas fair along the embankment, with its own Ferris wheel and other attractions. That let us extend our own tiny little setting into something that looked more expansive and expensive.

BTL: You have used computer graphics in the past. Did you use CG more in this movie? I’m thinking of the interludes behind the magic mirror.

Gilliam: There are 150 effects shots. But I also used a lot of traditional techniques–whatever was the most effective. I wanted a painterly world behind the mirror, which is what CG is very good at. But we also used a lot of models and miniatures.

With blue screen, which we used, you can move also the camera all over the place. The computer can analyze what we’ve done and match those moves later. That’s what I love most. I can wiggle the camera around easily without panicking.

BTL: Before you started shooting, you assembled a book filled with drawings and images that served as a jumping off point for your production keys?

Gilliam: I made this rather beautiful book when I was trying to raise money. We had concept art in there, my storyboards and reference photographs. So there was a lot of information for the crew heads to look at when they came on board.

BTL: Your costume designer, Monique Prudhomme said she used a “hunt and gather” approach, which combined many styles that were then layered.

Gilliam: Within this traveling troupe of players, they had gathered things over the years, and, in the case of Doctor Parnassus, over the centuries. We didn’t have much money, so Monique and I went to Angels, the costume house in London, looking for odd and unusual things. It was great fun and she brings an incredible eye to the process of pulling these disparate pieces together.

BTL: Sarah Monzani used a lot of traditional stage makeup, which works well because the characters are in fact part of a theatrical troupe.

Gilliam: Very much so. Anton has this silver makeup on as part of his Mercury costume. Lily has a great range of wigs. But when the entertainers come off stage, they take their costumes off and they are normal people again. Sarah made a bold choice for the scene between Parnassus and the devil at the monastery. Because they are wearing a lot of stage makeup, you conjecture that this whole thing may just be a story Parnassus is telling, and the monastery is in his imagination. I like the idea of not being certain if Parnassus is genuine or just a storyteller.

BTL: Talk about Mychael and Jeff Danna who did the score. They are brothers?

Gilliam: Yes, and they are both composers in their own right and have very different personalities. But on this film they worked as a team. We tried to make the score sound timeless and archaic. Normally, I sit on a score very ruthlessly. But because I had worked with them before, I trusted them, and they kept surprising me. It’s a very eclectic score, going all over the place—a real potpourri of different sounds and textures.

BTL: The look of the theater wagon is also a potpourri of sorts.

Gilliam: It has elements of the old sideshows in circuses that I used to love. We tried to fill the stage and surround it with all this esoteric and mysterious arcana. At the same time it’s like an old Victorian theater with cut-out trees for scenery. And each time someone goes into the Imaginarium, there are different worlds on the other side. Each one is completely surprising, so it provided everybody with a lot of ways to play around.

BTL: Critics have said that Imaginarium is more of a “Terry Gilliam film” than you’ve made for quite a while.

Gilliam: That’s sort of true. The last few films I have done have been adaptations. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was an adaptation. Brothers Grimm was an adaptation of sorts. This was the first time in a long time that I started out with a blank sheet of paper, with no idea, no story and no characters. Very soon the idea came to me of this traveling, strange theater wagon trundling through London and very few people are paying attention to this wonderful world.

BTL: Recently you’ve also taken part in the Monty Python 40th anniversary reunion while you’ve promoted the film. It must have been nice to have a glimpse back into your Monty Python Imaginarium.

Gilliam: That took just a few days, but we all enjoyed it. What amazes me is that every time I come to the United States, I am introduced to young kids who have just discovered Monty Python and are addicted to it. It’s not something old and almost forgotten.

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