Archive for category Filmmaker Interviews

Interview with Terry Gilliam on “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”

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.

INTERVIEW with Lynn Shelton, director of “Humpday”


Lynn Shelton recently won the Acura Someone to Watch Award at the 2009 Spirit Awards. She continued her lucky streak with the much-lauded Sundance premiere of her latest film, Humpday, which was picked up for distribution by Magnolia Films. The actors starring in Humpday, including Shelton herself, improvised all the dialogue, and the result is a candid and hilarious tale of two straight men who decide to have sex with each other in the name of art.

Our members love to hear the logistics of how a film gets made. Can you tell me about your shooting schedule and budget?

The budget was very lean. It was under half a million. No one got anything up front.

I pulled it together with a lot of in-kind donations. I gave everyone back-end (points) so that when I made money, they made money. I’ve worked with these guys over the years and so we’ve developed a relationship. And our shooting schedule, because of the nature of the production, was a 10-day shoot.

Wow, that’s impressive. What was your background before you started making films?

I have a BA in theater. I was an actor in my teens and twenties, but I became disenchanted after a while. It wasn’t fulfilling all my creative needs, and it became unhealthy for my mental state. So I transferred my addiction to photography, a side interest of mine. I ended up getting an MFA in photography at SVA, the School of Visual Arts, in New York, which, luckily for me, also had “related arts.” The school was more about trying to help you find the artist that you were meant to be. We worked with computers, sculpture, and video. I made three video pieces while I was in school. I was trying to figure out if I was going to be a video artist like Bill Viola.

I had one marketable skill when I got out of school: editing. When I moved back to Seattle to raise my family, I started getting a lot of jobs editing narrative films. And that’s where I learned about narrative structure. I came very late to filmmaking. I guess I needed this long circuitous route. I don’t think I would’ve had the confidence when I was younger.

Is this the first film you’ve directed and also acted in?

Yes. It was hard. When I’m acting, I have to be completely unselfconscious. I can’t be watching the scene from the outside, and that’s exactly what you need to do as a director. At first I thought, “I can never do this again,” but later I thought, “I can, I just have to have a lot more pre-visualization.” The scene I was most featured in was the most difficult to shoot [the party scene], and it involved a lot of people. Plus we didn’t have enough time in that location. That was the only big, big challenge. But I learned so much from doing it. It was really a delight.

How did you decide to take the role?

I was stumped on who to cast, and [cast member] Mark Duplass suggested I play the part. At first I dismissed the idea, and then I realized it would be easier – one less person to beg to work for nothing. Plus I didn’t want to cast an actress and then describe this person that I had so clearly in my mind. A friend had cast me in a short film a year before, and I’d learned a lot about acting for the camera, so that also gave me an extra bit of confidence.

I know you work organically and get inspiration from the people you know. How did the idea for Humpday come about?

It started with me wanting to work with [director/actor] Mark Duplass, who was working on a film in Seattle [Baghead]. I was a still photographer on that set. I hoped to meet him and bond with him, and my little plan worked. He blew me away, his acting in particular. He said, “Let’s do it. Let’s make a movie,” and he went back to LA.

I was trying to think of ideas, and a buddy of mine came and stayed with me in Seattle, another filmmaker, and he went to this local festival called “Hump,” which showcases amateur porn videos. It was the first time he had sat down and watched gay porn, and he was totally compelled, but he couldn’t say exactly why. He just said it was fascinating visually, like sculpture.

I thought it was very amusing and it got my wheels turning, just thinking about straight guys and the boundaries of their sexual identities. It’s unique. Male friendship is really compelling to me. Over the years I’ve seen male friendship with so much passion that it verges on homoerotic, and yet there’s this terror that they might secretly be gay.

I once asked a male friend why he was so adamant about not sharing a bed with another straight man and he answered, “Because in the middle of the night, I might forget I’m not gay.”

[Laughs] It’s like they’re all terrified of their latent sexuality. And I decided that it was an interesting dynamic to explore. At first I approached Mark about being the traveling character, but he had just gotten married and had a baby so he was like, “I’m so feeling the domestic thing.”

What was the dynamic between your lead actors on the day of the big “hump” scene?

They were well prepared. We shot the whole thing in order, which is such a luxury. We didn’t know what was going to happen. I had an outline, but the actors improvised the actual dialogue. We didn’t want the outcome to be a foregone conclusion. By the time we shot it, they were really close to those characters – it was almost like they were those characters.

It was the first time either of them had kissed a guy, period. There was this one improvised scene that was half an hour long, and it was unbelievable. I was holding the second camera most of the time, and it was so hard to keep it still. They just, completely off the cuff, improvised the whole scene – taking off their clothes, putting them back on, the Pretty Woman line, running to the bathroom. It was really exciting.

So at this point the guys didn’t know if they were going to end up in bed?

The guys were pretty clear about how far they were going to go. They were so invested. I think they would have done it if it had felt right. Josh said that it was the first time he’d kissed a man and it felt wrong, off, but if it hadn’t, nothing was predetermined.

Were there lessons from your last film, My Effortless Brilliance, that you used on Humpday?

My Effortless Brilliance was very pure. I created a process out of a reaction to frustrations I’d had with my first film [We Go Way Back]. I made it in the traditional way, with a full crew, a script, I auditioned actors, and we shot on 35mm. We were on a very, very tight schedule, which I observed was really hard on the actors. And people who had blown me away in auditions, mostly theater actors, didn’t have that comfort on a film set.

I longed for a more organic process. I had an idea for an experiment, where there would be no script and I would just use people I already wanted to work with, rather than hold auditions. I was delighted when there was a movie at the end of it. Afterwards, I felt so much more confident.

But with Brilliance I probably cut too many people off set. I had no lighting. It was just me and my DP. So the next time out, I wanted to up the quality and my DP felt the same way – better eyelines, better lighting, just better looking. I wanted Humpday to have a strong narrative drive, to be a more classic movie experience.

Also, on Brilliance I was the sole producer on set. It was stupid and I don’t know what I was thinking. So this time I had a couple of producers. We also had an editor ready to go. It was the first time I had worked with an editor – I had edited all my own films before – and it was a big deal to hand over the controls. But that turned out to be a beautiful relationship.

People have described you as part of the “Mumblecore” movement. Do you think that’s accurate?

Oh God, I don’t know. Isn’t that term passé? [Laughs] A lot of people when they write about “Mumblecore” describe young, single, white guys – slackers – writing about their lives, which is not my category. At the same time, if you look at my work from a technical view – the shoestring budget, hand held cameras, a lot of improv – I suppose it could fit. “Mumblecore” is a bit of a ridiculous moniker. It was good for a while, but now it’s outworn its usefulness.

What advice would you give to filmmakers wanting to use improvisation and collaboration to create their scripts?

Casting is essential. Not every actor is up for this kind of work. It can be too loose and meandering. And some people feel a need to riff and be funny, but I find that if everyone has a clear objective and action in the scene, that need lessens. I’ve always hoped that the people who are attracted to this kind of working are going to be good at it. You know, everyone uses improv in such a different way. Mike Leigh, he workshops with people and writes down their words and creates a script. I don’t rehearse at all. The final draft happens in the edit room.

What are you working on now?

David Gale of MTV, who used to be with MTV Films and produced Election, moved over to their new media department and contacted me a day later. He asked if I’d be willing to create a relationship with them and create a web series. It’s a hybrid of documentary and narrative format, based on a series called $5 Cover, about the music scene in Memphis. It’s musicians playing themselves with music interwoven into the whole series. It’s very authentic feeling, and really great, and I really like the particular aesthetic. But instead of trying to clone the Memphis version, they want me to add my vision to the Seattle version. I’m in development on that.

And I have another movie that I am planning to shoot after the web series. It’s a sort of My Dinner with Andre film – a nice, easy, one location shoot.

There was a bidding war for your film at Sundance. How did you finally choose Magnolia?

Magnolia gave us the best deal, that is, unless the film totally tanks, because they gave us a decent percentage of the gross. Which means their model is the same model that I used to make the film. I love [president of Magnolia] Eamonn Bowles and [senior vice president] Tom Quinn and they were the ones in Park City pitching to us.

I wanted to sell the picture to people who really, really believed in it and who could give it a large theatrical release. Magnolia has the means to do that – they have that relationship with Landmark – and they promised us a 15 city minimum. Their belief that it could succeed in theaters and their willingness to give us a percentage of the gross is what tipped the scales.

We met with a lot of great people. I wanted to sell the movie to everyone! [laughs]

Shortly after this interview Humpday was selected as part of the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes. To see Humpday at the LA Film Festival please visit