'Parnassus' director Terry Gilliam fights to keep 'freak show' real

by Joe Williams

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

6 January 2010


TORONTO — Terry Gilliam is not someone you’d expect to see lounging poolside at a luxury hotel. For almost three decades as a director, and before that as the animator and token Yank in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Gilliam has been decidedly non-Hollywood.

Although occasionally his films employ big stars — Robin Williams in “The Fisher King,” Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt in “Twelve Monkeys” — Gilliam has famously struggled to interest the major studios in his fevered visions.

He was J.K. Rowling’s choice to direct the first “Harry Potter” movie but was rejected by Warner Brothers. Gilliam’s attempt to adapt Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” was derailed by disputes over budget and casting. And twice he tried and failed to make a movie out of Alan Moore’s comic-book series “Watchmen.”

Even when he’s gotten a green light, Gilliam has hit roadblocks. Health and weather issues scuttled “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” starring his frequent collaborator Johnny Depp (“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”). (The bad luck was chronicled in the documentary “Lost in La Mancha.”)

And in 2008, the sudden death of Heath Ledger halted the filming of “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.”

Yet after Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell volunteered to play different faces of their friend Ledger’s shape-shifting character, Gilliam was able to finish the film.

In September, Gilliam was looking tanned and triumphant by the pool of a posh hotel. Yet it was in Toronto, Canada, not Hollywood, U.S.A. Gilliam has been a British citizen since 1968 and, because he renounced his U.S. citizenship, he can visit his native country only 30 days per year.

Toronto, the site of a prestigious film festival 80 miles from the U.S. border, seemed like an fitting place to talk to Gilliam about his curious career.

Q: Are you uniquely bedeviled, or do bad things happen to all good filmmakers?

A: It’s a hard business, and everyone has disasters. It’s just that mine have been uniquely documented, with someone pointing a camera at me or writing a book about it. Actually, I think I’m lucky. I’ve gotten away with murder over the years. And I’m lucky in the sense that it doesn’t really get me down. I just move on to the next thing.

Q: When you try to get money, do executives at the studios say, “We love your work, but we’re not going to work with you?”

A: Every day. They all say, “We loved everything you’ve done, but this one, we’ll have to pass.” I’ve heard the same damn thing for 25 years. It goes back to “Time Bandits.” Every studio passed on the finished film. The costumes change, the names and faces change, but it’s the same thing. I’ve had good friends, really smart people, go to work for the studios, and within months they all start talking about the parameters of the system instead of pushing the system forward. In no time at all, they’re corrupt, and they don’t even know they’re corrupt, They just think they’re being pragmatic. There are very few people who survive in Hollywood with their initial enthusiasm about how movies should be made.

Q: How do you feel about people watching your movies on laptops or iPods?

A: I hope they all die horribly. Maybe I’ll find a way to embed an explosive device in the film that if you watch it on an iPod, it will blow up in your face. You should choose to go into that dark space, into that temple, and actually experience something. But some people are too busy texting to experience anything.

Q: There’s a motif in many of your movies in which a character is transformed by passing through a wall or ceiling. In “The Imaginarium,” it’s a magic mirror through which Heath Ledger’s character leads lonely women to their fantasies. After Ledger died, did you have to rewrite the script to accommodate the physical change from him to the other three actors who finished the role?

A: No, it would have been the same thing, with Heath saying the same lines instead of Johnny and Colin and Jude. What we’ll never get to see, what I would love to see, is what Heath would have done with the changing aspects of his character on the other side of the mirror. But what we did, it works amazingly well — much to my relief.

Q: Do you think kids should watch this movie?

A: I’ve had 8-, 9-, 10-year-olds see the movie, and they all love it. A certain distributor who passed on it said, “It’s wonderful, but it’s too sophisticated for audiences.” This is the exact same argument I had with “Time Bandits.” I told them this film was for ages 7 to 70, and they couldn’t conceive of that. Of course, it works on a slightly different level for kids, they don’t quite get the theme of mortality, but they do get lost in this imaginary world. As a kid, I loved freak shows, with the lizard lady and the two-headed man. But they were always kind of disappointing when I went through and they weren’t as exotic as the pictures painted outside the tent. I’m determined not to let that happen with my movies.

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