Gilliam's 'Imaginarium': Surreal And All-Too-Real Terry Gilliam's new film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, is another entry into his long line of dream-like films. But it's also the final performance of the late Heath Ledger. Gilliam joins host Terry Gross to talk about the personal and professional challenges of creative filmmaking.
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Gilliam's 'Imaginarium': Surreal And All-Too-Real

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Gilliam's 'Imaginarium': Surreal And All-Too-Real

Gilliam's 'Imaginarium': Surreal And All-Too-Real

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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Terry Gilliam became famous as the one member of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" who was American, the one you seldom saw onscreen. Instead, he contributed short, animated bits that connected the comedy troupe's outlandish skits, little cartoons of giant feet crushing things and Venus on the half-shell slapping away a long, prying arm.

When the group ventured into film, Gilliam became a co-director with "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," and then a full-fledged director. His credits include "Brazil," "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "The Brothers Grimm" with Matt Damon and Heath Ledger.

Gilliam was working with Heath Ledger on a new movie, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," when the actor died suddenly in January 2008. But Gilliam found a way to complete the movie.

Our TV critic, David Bianculli, spoke to Terry Gilliam. Let's start with a clip from "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." The title character, played by Christopher Plummer, is the owner of a rundown circus, but he has one star attraction: a magic mirror that can transport people into an alternate world, bringing to life their best dreams or worst nightmares. In this scene, an amnesiac who's joined the show, played by Heath Ledger, is suggesting to Dr. Parnassus and another circus member, played by Verne Troyer, that some changes be made to the show.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus")

Mr. HEATH LEDGER (Actor): (As Tony) Well, I've been thinking, sir, that you know, it's quite obvious that people, you know, not many people, are attracted to the show.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER (Actor): (As Doctor Parnassus) Oh, thank you so much.

Mr. LEDGER: (As Tony) Well, you know, forgive me, but I have a couple of solutions to your problems. One, I was thinking of, you know, changing the style of the show. And two, I would change the audience, perhaps.

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Parnassus) Change?

Mr. LEDGER: (As Tony) Yeah, you know, but in my opinion, I'd change both. But you know, that's just me, and I...

Mr. VERNE TROYER (Actor): (As Percy) Change the show? Who the freaking hell do you think you are?

DAVID BIANCULLI: Terry Gilliam, welcome to FRESH AIR. A lot of attention is going to be brought to your new movie, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," because it features the final screen performance of Heath Ledger, but it was only a partial performance. So can we start by talking about the logistics of this? How far into filming were you when he died suddenly?

Mr. TERRY GILLIAM (Director, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus"): Well, we had shot four weeks in London, and we'd finished on a Saturday night. And Sunday morning, I headed off to Vancouver, where we were going to continue shooting, mainly sort of blue-screen work, and Heath headed off to New York.

And two days later, he was dead. So we'd managed to film most of the material on this side of this magic mirror that's in the Imaginarium, but the other part was not done.

BIANCULLI: Let me ask: How did you hear the news, first of all?

Mr. GILLIAM: I didn't hear it. It was my daughter, who was one of the producers, called me into her office. And there it was on the BBC Web site: Heath Ledger found dead. And...

BIANCULLI: Oh, that's awful.

Mr. GILLIAM: Oh, it couldn't be worse. I mean, it was just unimaginable. I mean, we - I mean, it took us hours before we even accepted it. I mean, Heath was so full of life and energy, and suddenly, he's not there. It was - no, it was horrible. I've never experienced anything like that in my life. I hope I never have to do it again.

BIANCULLI: Well, I love the finished film, and it seems so organic that the Imaginarium, in fact, it gives the Imaginarium itself more power by having a character, when he or she goes into it, actually changing appearance.

And so you have Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Ferrell playing different aspects of Heath Ledger's character, of Tony. But when did you come up with that rather ingenious solution? How long...

Mr. GILLIAM: Yeah, I don't know if it was ingenious. It was of desperation. I mean, the choice was whether we continue or we stop. And my initial feeling, because I was so devastated, was stop. The film is over. It's just one more of those interesting moments when the curse of Gilliam takes over.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GILLIAM: The curse that other people believe in. I don't believe in it, but others do. This is a curse that I read about in the press. But, I mean, I was just destroyed. And I said: How do you finish a film when halfway through, the star dies? It hasn't been done before, and I didn't think it was going to be done this time. But luckily I'm surrounded by my daughter, who is one of the producers, Nicola Pecorini, who was the cinematographer, and they just wouldn't let me give up. So they kept kicking me as a I lie there on the ground for a couple days until I finally said OK, we've got to do something.

Because it really was this feeling, how could we let Heath's last performance just vanish? And that was the driving force. We've got to finish this thing for Heath.

And, I mean, people were saying, oh, we've got to get another actor to take over the part. I said there's no way I'm going to have an other actor take over from Heath. And so I think the turning point was the day, perhaps the day after Heath had died, because I called Johnny Depp to commiserate because Johnny was very close to Heath, as well. And I said, you know, I don't know what I'm going to do. And he says, well, whatever you decide to do, mate, I'll be there. I'll help, whatever you want.

And that kind of - it did two things, I found out later. It stopped the retreat of the money because the money was just running away because they knew there's no way you can finish this film. So give us our money back. We don't want to spend any more. We're gone. We're home.

And then, you know, another few days went by - what do we do? What do we do? And then I suddenly realized that he goes through the mirror, the character Tony goes through the mirror three times. So three other actors might do it, three actors. And anyway, that would be very interesting. But I'd have to change the idea, which was very simple, that if you go through the mirror, your face may change. You might be part of somebody else's imagination. Their imagination would be greater than yours, and your face would be different.

So the first time a character goes through the mirror at the beginning of the first scene of the film, we had his face change, and that set the idea up. And then we just - I started calling other friends of Heath's, other actors who were very close to him because I wanted to keep it in the family. I just wanted people who were part of his life to be part of the film.

And luckily, Colin Ferrell and Jude Law were available, and so there we were. The three heroes rode to the rescue.

BIANCULLI: It sounds like there is no way to direct a film more stressfully than that. But I've read, if this is correct, that at some point, you were directing this film with a broken back?

Mr. GILLIAM: No. I mean, I didn't get hit by a car and broke my back until the film, all the shooting was done. It was in post by then.

BIANCULLI: How clever. How well-timed.

Mr. GILLIAM: Yeah. Well, the thing is, I thought the grim reaper was going for number three because the other tragedy on this film was Bill Vince, the principal producer, died a few days after the last bit of film rolled through the camera. So we had two deaths. We got the star, we got the producer, and the grim reaper was going for the director, as well, a clean sweep, and all they managed to do was break my back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: How is your back now, I should ask?

Mr. GILLIAM: It's fine. A year later, I'm fine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: On one of your first, or it may have been your first, co-directing venture with Terry Jones, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," there's one visual scene that I've always wanted to ask you about, and it's the black knight sequence, OK?

Mr. GILLIAM: Right.

BIANCULLI: OK, it's where Arthur, played by Graham Chapman, comes across a formidable warrior who won't let Arthur pass, and this is part of the great Arthurian legend. They cross swords, and Arthur cuts off one of the knight's limbs, then another and another, but still the black knight refuses to surrender. We have a portion of that clip that we can play right now. It's the "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."

(Soundbite of movie, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail")

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of grunting)

Mr. GRAHAM CHAPMAN (Actor): (As King Arthur) Now stand aside, worthy adversary.

Mr. JOHN CLEESE (Actor): (As the Black Knight) 'Tis but a scratch.

Mr. CHAPMAN: (As Arthur) A scratch? Your arm's off.

Mr. CLEESE: (As the Black Knight) No it isn't.

Mr. CHAPMAN: (As Arthur) Well, what's that then?

Mr. CLEESE: (As the Black Knight) I've had worse.

Mr. CHAPMAN: (As Arthur) You liar.

Mr. CLEESE: (As the Black Knight) Come on, you pansy.

(Soundbite of swords clanking, grunting)

Mr. CHAPMAN: (As Arthur) Victory is mine. We thank thee, Lord, that in thy mercy...

(Soundbite of shouting)

Mr. CLEESE: (As the Black Knight) Come on, then.

Mr. CHAPMAN: (As Arthur) What?

Mr. CLEESE: (As the Black Knight) Have at you!

(Soundbite of hitting, grunting)

Mr. CHAPMAN: (As Arthur) You are indeed brave, Sir Knight, but the fight is mine.

Mr. CLEESE: (As the Black Knight) Oh, had enough, eh?

Mr. CHAPMAN: (As Arthur) Look, you stupid bastard, you've got no arms left.

Mr. CLEESE: (As the Black Knight) Yes, I have.

Mr. CHAPMAN: (As Arthur) Look.

Mr. CLEESE: (As the Black Knight) It's just a flesh wound.

BIANCULLI: That's a very bloody scene from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." So my question is: How did you make the call - assuming that you made it and not Terry, or how did you make it together - on exactly visually how much blood was the right amount to be really funny and yet be daring? I mean, were there different versions of this?

Mr. GILLIAM: No, it was pretty much what you see is what we did. We didn't actually spend that much arguing about or even discussing how much blood. We just wanted plenty of blood to make it grand guignol-ish. It has to be absurd enough because what was interesting, when the film first came out in the States - and we saw it in New York with an audience. And this is during the Vietnam War, when violence, of course, was the worst thing you could even think of when you're talking to sort of a left-wing student, intelligent audience.

And when the scene started and the first arm comes off, it was just a gasp of horror. It wasn't funny. And then the second arm, and it still wasn't funny. I think we had to get to the first leg coming off before they began to realize that that kind of absurd violence could actually be funny.

And that's what intrigued me. They were misreading it because the whole thing is so absurd, and it wasn't - you know, it wasn't very naturalistic, I wouldn't have thought, the way we were doing it. It was just a clear - a dummy arm comes off. But they were shocked.

But by the second leg coming off, they were genuinely laughing.

BIANCULLI: Do you find that with other parts of the Python material, that some of it got one reaction at the time and a completely different reaction years later?

Mr. GILLIAM: Yeah, I think so. I can't be specific, but, you know, I think it was more the transition to America where the difficulty was. The English seemed to get it, and the Americans were a bit more straight-laced and more rigid in their thinking, and it took a while to get used to it, to understand what was funny.

I mean, the good thing about Python was that it divided families. I mean, it tended to be - the guys liked the first...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: People usually claim to unite families.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GILLIAM: No. I've always loved the idea of split families based on their sense of humor. That's wonderful. It's a test of a real marriage.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: We're talking with Terry Gilliam, director of the new movie "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: My guest is Terry Gilliam, director of the new movie, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." He also directed "Brazil," "Time Bandits" and many other films and provided all the animation for TV's "Monty Python's Flying Circus."

One other theme that runs through your works - I'm not trying to be too introspective here, but imagination and storytelling. Those are themes that you return to over and over again, I think so brilliantly - I mean, not only "Doctor Parnassus" but "Brazil" and "Baron Munchausen" and "The Brothers Grimm." Why is that? I mean, why does storytelling have such power to you?

Mr. GILLIAM: I just think it's from my youth, being a kid, growing up in the countryside of Minneapolis and - with only radio. And there were all these great radio shows that were storytelling, and I think the first books I read were Grimm's fairy tales.

I also remember, I was a bit older, 12, 13, as a Boy Scout, being up in the forests above - in the mountains above Los Angeles and at nighttime around a campfire and stories being told. And it's - to me, the real magic is just wonderful because suddenly you're transported from your own world into other worlds if you let yourself go. And that's the key to letting go, trusting the storyteller, relax.

And I, in my perverse way, am always trying to tell stories not the way the current mode is in Hollywood. And then I always get hauled up by the critics for being a bad storyteller, and yet, children invariably just fall under the spell of my films. They get them, and the adults often have a problem.

I remember when we did "Time Bandits." The kids just went with the flow, and the adults were panicking because we were jumping around too quickly from one point in history to another. And they wanted road signs in advance of where they were going, and I thought, we're getting into a world where people really aren't really used to that kind of storytelling anymore.

BIANCULLI: For people who don't know that you were born in Minnesota, and, you know, if they think of you as Monty Python, and they may even know that you're the American member - or were the American member - of Monty Python, the animations that you provided to that program are your key signature. When did you feel like you were an artist? How did your artistic talent develop?

Mr. GILLIAM: Oh, I mean, ever since I was a kid, I've drawn. I used to draw cartoons. You know, that's what I did. I think what's lovely about being able to draw, and particularly cartoons, that's kind of magic to people. Most people don't really respect people who can sit down and write. But if you draw something and it's funny at the same time, they love it. And for me, it was -you get immediate feedback. So I'm always a sucker for somebody laughing or saying oh, aren't you clever. So that's what I did, and so cartoons were always what I did.

And that eventually led into animation, which then led into filmmaking. But I think it's always the visuals, in many ways, come first. Then I try to work out a way of including dialogue and words. But it was always the pictures. So I think I'm very primitive in that sense. I suppose that's why I'm kind of obsessed with the medieval times, when people were illiterate, and it signs and pictures was how ideas were communicated.

BIANCULLI: How has filmmaking changed for you over these - what, it's 30-some years since you actually started officially directing. I mean, special effects and technology are so different now, and you're an artist and an animator. Do those tools make it easier for you or harder?

Mr. GILLIAM: Some of them do make it easier. To me they are tools, as you say. That's exactly what they are. I don't get excited, the fact that, oh, now a computer can do this, because the problem with so many of these advances, they just end up making the films more expensive. And the more expensive you make your films, the more limited I think you are in the ideas you can play with.

So I use it to keep my films cheap. In the case of "Parnassus," rather than doing elaborate naturalistic backgrounds, I kept the backgrounds more painterly. They're more - in fact, they're a bit more like my cartoons in Python. They're simpler. So we could do amazing backgrounds, but they're still quite cheap to produce rather than putting a Tyrannosaurus rex in there.

BIANCULLI: Now when you were dealing with things like deciding which lenses to use early on, and now it's sort of one of your signatures is the type of lenses that you can use - or now with CG stuff, how hard is that for you to learn?

Mr. GILLIAM: Oh, I've been playing with it for years, just little by little. And I just - no, it's easy. That's what I'm good at. These are the skills I have that - that's the way I see things. The wide-angle lenses, I think I choose them because it makes me feel like I'm in the space of the film. I'm surrounded. My peripheral vision is full of detail, and that's what I like about it. It's actually harder to do. It's harder to light.

The other thing I like about wide-angle lenses is that I'm not forcing the audience to look at just the one thing that is important. It's there, but there's other things to occupy, and some people don't like that because it's -I'm not pointing things out as precisely as I could if I was using a long lens, where I'd focus just on the one thing and everything else would be out of focus.

BIANCULLI: Well, doesn't that make it perfect for DVD?

Mr. GILLIAM: Ah-ha. You've put - you've - my secret is out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GILLIAM: The fact is, it's about DVDs, the fact now we can watch a film again, again and again, and for me, my films, I think are better the second and third time, frankly, because you can now relax and go with the flow that may not have been as apparent at the - the first time you saw it, and wallow in the details of the worlds we're creating.

I think what's interesting is that when I was growing up and going to films, you had - you saw the film once, or you went and saw it night after night or week after week until it was gone, and then it was in your memory for the next 20 years. That was the only way you could hold onto it.

And now - and I'm not sure it's better, the fact now we can go again and again.

BIANCULLI: It depends on the film, I think. Yes.

Mr. GILLIAM: Exactly. But I try to clutter mine up. They're worthy of many viewings.

BIANCULLI: Well, I just saw, for example, "Baron Munchausen" again, and I was taken - I don't know whether I just had a better television set this time, but the flying cherubs fascinated me, just the little flying cherubs in this one scene. It was like, how adorable, and I don't think I've ever seen anything that impish. So I don't know if there's a question here, but if you have anything to share about those flying cherubs, now's the time.

Mr. GILLIAM: You know, the terrible thing - I mean, I was actually very worried about them because they're just, you know, fiberglass figures with wings that flap and they're on wires. And I was always terrified that they were going to look just like that, but somehow, we - there's enough action there that there they are. They seem to work.

And again, I think I've got - I'm lucky in the sense that I don't work in a naturalistic way. So it allows things to be wonderful because they're like toys. They're not complete. They're not perfect, and that's what I've always liked about toys and what children do is they take, you know, a little stuffed doll and turned it into a beautiful, you know, princess that has a whole life.

And for me, what I want to do in films is to try to not make it perfect and not make it totally realistic. So you've got to do some work. You've got to use your imagination, and the more I think you use your imagination, the more you get out of it. It's probably why, you know, theater works so well because, you know, an audience has got to put a lot of their imagination to work to make that stage a real place with real events going on.

And what always worries me about television in particular and also films now, all the work is being done for you. The audience has become more passive, and I don't like that. I actually want the audience to work. You pay your money, and you go to work when you come to see my films.

BIANCULLI: Well, Terry Gilliam, I want to thank you so much for being on FRESH AIR.

Mr. GILLIAM: Lovely, thank you.

GROSS: Terry Gilliam spoke with FRESH AIR's TV critic David Bianculli. Gilliam directed the new film "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." David writes for tvworthwatching.com, teaches at Rowan University and is the author of the new book about the Smothers Brothers, "Dangerously Funny." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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