This is an interview I did with Terry Gilliam for Film Independent in December of 2009
To call Terry Gilliam an auteur almost seems like an understatement in today’s Hollywood where so many directors are also writers – producers – actors, but it takes more than hyphenates to earn one’s own adjective. “Gilliamesque” is a word that conjures up a rich world of surrealism, humor, beauty, risk, and sometimes failure. My own love for the director began with Time Bandits, which I probably saw 20 times, but nothing could match that first viewing when I watched slack jawed as the hero’s parents blew up at the end of the film. Who does that? No one in Hollywood, that’s for sure. These kind of absurd and unorthodox choices are what lead Mr. Gilliam to his permanent status as an ex-pat independent filmmaker extraordinaire.
His latest film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which FIND is screening on December 9, has gotten more press than any in decades, due to its standing as “Heath Ledger’s last film” and fans of Ledgers will not be disappointed. He has a surprising amount of screen time and his talent and passion are in full bloom. But the film should also go down in history as the moment when CGI finally caught up to the imagination of Terry Gilliam.
The movie is Faustus on acid, and it is impossible not to be enchanted by the stunning imagery and the vision of contemporary London as lived by a group of seemingly medieval actors wobbling around the city in a horse drawn carriage/house/portable theater. At the center of this eccentric troupe is Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) an immortal man who has promised his lovely daughter (Lily Cole) to the devil (Tom Waits) once she turns 16. Parnassus decides to take advantage of the devil’s lust for gambling and offers him one last wager in an effort to save her.
Mr. Gilliam spoke to FIND about the joys and frustrations of filmmaking, inspiration, and his own dance with the devil.
By Carolyn Cohagan
Even after all these years of making films, you still seem giddy about filmmaking. Where do you get your inspiration?
I don’t know if I am giddy. I may just be a very good actor pretending to be giddy. I’m normally giddy at the end of the process, because it’s over and we’ve got a film and it works. During the process, I’m not like that at all. I’m much more worried and concerned. It’s just a great thing to be able to make films, to be able to work with the kind of collection of people that are necessary to put a film together, from carpenters, electricians, writers, dancers, actors, singers, the whole lot. You’re in this mini-world of people who for a brief period of time are all focused on one thing – getting this film done and that’s great.
When is your favorite part? Preproduction when the idea is coming together and you’re finding those people? Or is it the middle when you’re on set, or when it’s over and it’s in the can?
To be honest, I think editing is the best part. In the beginning, in preproduction, it’s all about the dreams, the possibilities, and it’s all exciting, and it’s going to be great. And then shooting is the reality and you run out of time there, you don’t have enough money to do that, and you make a mistake there. Shooting is always nerve wracking. And then you come to editing and that to me is finite. You’ve got the pieces, or enough pieces to play with hopefully, and I really enjoy that part. It’s quiet and it’s me and the editor, and it’s like you’re doing it yourself.
I read that at one point you were a real pain in the ass in the editing room, that because of your background in animation you wanted to be involved in the cutting of every frame.
(Giggle) That was a difficult moment. That was on Jabberwocky and the editor Mike Bradsell wasn’t used to a director who was in there every day. He was used to people who would come in and look at the film and then go away for a few weeks and come back and say, “Well done. Change two little things,” and that was it. And coming from animation, I was more aware of what every frame was, or what it could be, or what it meant, so I was a bit focused on minutiae. It wasn’t necessarily the best way to work and eventually I wore myself out. I think the hardest thing when you’re editing is to maintain objectivity.
And now you’re able to stand back a bit more?
I think maybe I get bored more easily now. (laugh) But I try to keep myself back more and once you’ve found good editors who you like working with and who are on the right wavelength, you can let them fiddle with whether it’s one frame or two frames, that way or the other way.
So it’s a lot about trust.
Yeah. Eventually, over the years, you find the right people.
Dr. Parnassus keeps making deals with the devil. You’ve compared raising funds for your films to working with the devil. Do you think artistic compromise is inevitable if you want the public to see your work?
It depends if you’re somebody who wants to communicate to an audience, whether you like the audience or not, or whether you’re just a complete egomaniac and want to say or make something that only pleases yourself. I’ve always liked audiences and I want them to come and I want them to enjoy and appreciate the film, to get involved in it, so I’m always thinking about audiences. It’s never just about my idea, which is the most brilliant thing on the planet and must be preserved at all costs.
When you start working on a script, you’re trying to write a story that people will find interesting. The compromise that I won’t allow to happen is when the studio wants to change the story after we’ve made it, presumably to reach a larger audience and that’s just not fair. That’s not part of the game. Brazilwas the perfect instance of that. We all set out and we made exactly the movie that we had enscripted and then the studio wanted to give it a happy ending and change very essential elements. I said there’s no way that’s going to be allowed and so we go to war.
Do you miss the immediacy of cartooning?
Cartooning was nice because it was basically a one-person job. It could be me doing what I want do to and not having to spend a lot of time convincing other people of my ideas or what I think we should be doing. But working on films is great because you are collaborating with a lot of people, and so you are testing your ideas all the time and whoever you’re working with suggests something else, which you can either accept or not, and usually their idea is an interesting one, and that triggers a new idea in my mind, so the thing is constantly growing and that’s equally exciting. So it just depends on my mood, whether I want to be gregarious or whether I want to be alone. (laugh)
If you were just starting out now as a filmmaker with the Internet and Youtube at your disposal, what do you think you’d be up to?
I have no idea, frankly, because I really don’t know what’s going on anymore. On the one hand, you make little films on your digital camera and you edit on your computer and you put them out over the Internet and people can see them and that’s great. I’d probably be doing things like that. Whether that leads to proper filmmaking, I don’t know. Before I ever directed, I had a Bolex 16mm and I’d take a three minute roll of film and on a weekend I’d write a little story and I’d try to shoot a little film. And with the Internet I’d probably make my three-minute film and share it with a lot of people. I never thought I was reaching a larger audience back then, but they were fun little things to do, and I would probably be doing that now.
What is it about medieval imagery and iconography that inspires you and feeds you?
It’s a bit of everything. I’m a real magpie. I’ve always loved painting – Brueghel, Bosch, the Surrealists, the Symbolists – the work I love, most of my visual ideas, have come from reading books and listening to the radio, frankly, because I’ve got to imagine the scene. And comics are wonderfully free and uncensored. I don’t watch that many movies now. If I have films in my head they’re from 20 years ago.
I loved seeing the combination of contemporary and medieval London in this film. The traveling stage was unbelievable – the height of it. I can’t imagine what it was like to film it.
It was a nightmare. We thought this little traveling stage was going to be very simple, it was a nightmare. It had to be adaptable so one minute it could be static and then it could open up and it had to be pulled by horses, so in each mode a lot of work had to be done to transform it into the next stage. By the end of it, we were quite angry with that little theater.
You have complained about a lot of current filmmaking being repetitive and formulaic. Can you name some filmmakers that you think are doing interesting work?
My problem is I’m not watching films. I’m so bored with them. The Coen brothers always do good work. Guillermo del Toro. Have you seen the film Let the Right One In? That got me going. The Lives of Others. I thought that was a fantastic film. What’s happening in America is that there are too many film schools, too many film students. They seem more interested in how to have a successful career rather than in being bold and taking chances.
You once said that you were making the same movie over and over again. Is that still true?
I keep playing in the same playground over and over again, this borderland between fantasy and reality. I guess they’re all about that in one form or another.
After you finish something, how do you refill the well? Do you return to certain locations, books, art or films?
I don’t know. What usually happens is I finish the film and I spend four or five months promoting it, and by the end of that I hate the film, because I’ve been talking about the same thing for so long. And then if I’m lucky, I’ll sink into a deep depression that will take up a few more months, and then little by little, if I hit bottom, then I start crawling my way back up, looking at some old ideas, looking at some new ones. Hopefully someone calls me on the phone and says, “What about this?” And little by little you start reassembling a world worth living in.
Join us at the FIND Film Series screening of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus Wednesday, December 9.