Terry Gilliam speaks to Dreams
by Phil Stubbs
on the set of Dr Parnassus
(interrupted by Heath Ledger)
Warning: Mild spoilers on plot and details of an unusual shot
LONDON - It's Day 13 of the location work on Terry Gilliam's latest
project, The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus. The production has recommenced
after its Christmas break, and this evening the crew is at Leadenhall Market
in London's financial district, having previously shot on Blackfriars Bridge
over the Thames, and Battersea Power Station. Yet to come is the studio
work in Vancouver, scheduled for Spring 2008. And also yet to come is the
death of actor Heath Ledger. Today though, just two weeks before he died,
Ledger is full of life - and he mischievously interrupts my interview with
Click for larger view of the market
- when not used as a movie set
I had asked Gilliam why he'd kicked off this Dr Parnassus project,
given that he'd had a number of other projects on the go - including Good
Omens and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Before the director
could answer, Heath Ledger, who had been listening in, leaned over to the
microphone, and teased the director. "Because he's fucking crazy",
stated the actor, matter-of-factly. Gilliam responded to the interruption,
and addressed his answer directly to Ledger. "Because I needed to get
Heath a job", joked Gilliam, "His career was in the doldrums,
he was practically on the streets begging. He had to go work for Warner
Brothers and places like that. Oh fuck me!" Having created his moment
of fun, undermining my interview, Ledger wandered off enigmatically, saying
"That's all right, I only have to keep my neck warm
Gilliam then composed himself and gave a serious answer: "Things
just weren't moving forward on the other projects. So I thought it stupid,
just waiting around for other people, trying to adapt other people's books.
So I thought I'd invent something from scratch. Trying to think the way
I did in Python, in fact introducing everything I've ever done before,
and changing the colours a bit."
These are long working days for Gilliam, who was on set for 9am, to see
how the set preparation work was progressing. Shooting would carry on until
3am. For the sequence being shot today, the Imaginarium - a travelling theatre/wagon
- is in its opened state, situated under the clock in the central cobbled
crossroads of the covered market. The director explained to me the context
of this evening's sequence. "This is the transformation of the theatre.
In the scene previous to this, there has been a disaster, and the theatre's
been heavily damaged. Parnassus is running out of ideas on how to continue.
Yet Tony (Ledger) comes along and says it's old fashioned, out-of-touch.
You've got to be modern, you've got to go to better places and use a different
style. And that's what we are seeing today."
Some shots, filmed at Leadenhall Market, featured
in the official trailer.
Here, Tony (Heath Ledger's character) returns to the real world
Gilliam spoke to me in more detail as the first shot was being set up, just
before the main actors turned up on the wagon's stage in full costume, and
what an odd group they turned out to be: Christopher Plummer, as Dr Parnassus,
is in the centre of the stage wearing a white coat and a red turban. To
the right is Lily Cole as his daughter - appearing as Eve - naked except
for a long wig. Andrew Garfield is reclining on a bed of apples wearing
sunglasses, a fat suit, a dress and a lady's wig. At the front is Heath
Ledger in a white suit, silver make-up and a Venetian mask with an elephant's
trunk. And to his side is Verne Troyer as Percy, in yellow costume and blacked
The first shot, which starts shooting at 6pm, is a pull-back. A track
has been set up, perpendicular to the stage. We initially see a small
cashbox, and as the camera moves away from the stage, we gradually see
more of the five figures on the Imaginarium's stage, all still except
for Percy pulling a fan and Tony playing a tune on a pipe. Even for Gilliam,
this is an unusual shot, and even though the pull-back is slow, there
just won't be enough time for the audience to enjoy every single detail
contained within the shot.
Later on, a tall actress jumps up onto the stage, and is restrained by Verne,
who is as high as the actress's knees. Gilliam giggles, "The tallest
woman I've ever worked with, and the shortest man. That's what I love about
Verne, you put him in there and he just gets on with it."
Phil Stubbs: The script, by yourself and Charles McKeown, who did
Terry Gilliam: Well I wrote the good bits, and Charles did the long-winded
dialogue! No, in fact it was like a tennis match throwing things back
and forth, and slowly things kept developing. It's weird, when you start
you just have ideas, you start plugging them in
and out of it comes
a tale. It's nice working with Charles again - it's been a long time since
The film is about a
it's a guy who can't get his films made
Yes, it's about an aging man who has to reduce the scale of what he does.
Where on earth did you get the idea for that, Terry?
I don't know where these things come from
I look at other people's
careers and I think "Oh, such sad people. Let's make a film about those
kinds of people."
No, it is in that sense very autobiographically based - just the frustration
of trying to get projects off the ground. Trying to get people to give
you the money to make the film. I thought well, do something for $25m,
that should be a reasonable number to get. And it has proved to be immensely
difficult to get even $25m.
The character Mr Nick - aka the Devil, played by Tom Waits - does he
represent anything from your life?
He's the one who always distracts you from the big ideas - doing the
difficult, doing the impossible. He's actually a good, reasonable person.
Probably the most sensible person around. But his is the easier life,
our friend Mr Nick. Why do people go out and kill themselves, doing ridiculous
things? That's for fools.
Did the preproduction run fairly smoothly?
No, because we didn't have the money. When you set out to do something
for that kind of price for something that's as ambitious as this, with
this amount of effects and imagery, you need a lot of preparation time
because that's cheap. Yet we never had the money so every week there wouldn't
be the money to pay people. So we scrambled along with just a handful
of people and somehow we're here, still surviving despite the lack of
In searching for locations, did you see anything new about London that
you'd never encountered before?
Not really, at the beginning I was trying to avoid all the iconic places,
but I gave up. I thought: what am I doing? We're in London, let's show
London. So we've got Tower Bridge, we're here in Leadenhall Market, which
has always been one of my favourite spots - it's all here. Battersea Power
Station, where we filmed part of Meaning of Life. We've ended up
using some big landmarks. Blackfriars Bridge cried out for a man to hang
an homage to the Pope's banker. We should credit him.
With the cast you have gathered, what surprises have there been?
Heath Ledger was a big surprise. He was working in London, while he was
doing the Joker. He was working at the effects company, over at Peerless
with Daniele Auber - who did the storyboards on Grimm. And they were
working on an animated music video. One day I was showing them the slide
show of what we were doing, the storyboards, and he slipped me a note saying,
"Can I play Tony?" That was a very big surprise! He had read the
script, I'm always throwing things his way, but that was a total and utter
surprise - wonderful!
It's similar to my last film Tideland - in a UK/Canadian co-production,
you need Canadian actors, so I killed two birds with one stone with Christopher
Plummer. He had been in 12 Monkeys, and he was the first name that
came up, and he was Canadian as well - so thank God! This is working.
So a lot of things were falling into place like that.
What qualities of Christopher make him so special for the part?
He's a great theatrical actor, he's theatrical. He's of a certain age, and
he's been a huge star. His daughter Amanda Plummer worked in The Fisher
King so I thought there was an interesting relationship with him and
his real daughter. What has been amazing with Chris is that he's constantly
coming along and suggesting for example, that he should be in the scene
at a particular point. I say, "What?" It takes me a couple of
minutes to take it in. And I said, "Jesus he's right!"
What's fantastic is that his theatrical sense is proving to be absolutely
perfect for the character. And he wants to find the humour in the character
all the time. That's been really interesting to watch. We have really good
actors, but not necessarily good comedians, but they are finding the humour
in all this, and that's good.
A Dutch animator was trying to get in touch with Tom Waits, and he asked
me if I'd send him some stuff, which I did. It was the first contact I'd
had with Tom in several years. Tom turned down this other guy, and he said
to me, "Have you got anything going for me?" And I said well there
is this thing. I said I'd got a part, he said "I'm in", before
he'd even read the script.
Irene Lamb, the casting director, said Andrew Garfield is really, really
good. I actually hadn't seen him in anything, but he sent a tape, and
he was brilliant. I said, "Done." Within a week, I got a call
from Heath saying, "Have you cast a guy named Andrew". I said
"Yeah". He said, "You won't believe it, I'm on my way to
his birthday party." He had got to know Andrew just a couple of weeks
Then Irene mentioned Lily Cole. I'd always thought she was an extraordinary
looking creature, because Valentina has to be that. And Irene said she
can act as well, so we did a little screen test and bingo, that was done!
What surprised me yesterday was the contrast between the way she looks,
her delicate features, and the way she was dealing with those unfortunate
Exactly, I've been doing all that stuff, I've been writing it in, to break
down this angel look. And so I keep her doing nasty things. The other
night, in a scene, she said, "Should I smoke?" She looks so
extraordinary. And the minute she was cast, suddenly she's now representing
Marks and Spencer. She's the new face of M&S, so suddenly Lily's everywhere.
These things keep happening, they always surprise me.
When did Verne Troyer enter the project, did you have him in mind?
Verne was briefly in Fear and Loathing - for two seconds. I thought
if we're going to put on a freak show, we're going to put on a troupe
of extraordinary people, an ordinary small guy is not good enough for
we've got to get the smallest guy out there. And the thing
about Verne is, knowing him, I know his attitude and he's absolutely spot
on for Percy, because Percy's cynical, he's a smart-ass, he just doesn't
take it from anybody, and Verne is like that.
When I first gave him the script we were in LA, and we were trying to raise
the money, and I'm on the way to the airport and Amy organised for Verne
to get in the car before me, coming out of the meeting. So Verne's in the
car on the way to the airport. I gave him the script, he looked at a few
pages and I said watch this particular line, Verne, you'll like this, and
he responded so, "Yeah, Get a Midget. Yeah I like it." Tonight
he's blacked up and wearing an afro wig. We've called him the Jackson 5%!
Verne ad libs a lot too, and we've loosened up the script in that sense,
to let people work on their own lines much more, and we've just benefited
at every point.
Tom Waits, as Mr Nick, digitally superimposed
on what was filmed at Leadenhall
The weather's been kind to you on this one
Yes I can't believe it. The luck is on our side. It scares me to shit
every day that it's suddenly going to turn nasty
like you've seen
How are you dealing with the cold?
I've been fine, it's the actors who suffer. They don't get to wear a big
sheepskin jacket. That's the thing I worry about all the time, because
it's been bitterly cold - particularly when we were on Blackfriars Bridge,
with all that artificial rain. They are all pretty knackered because it's
really hard work. But they're all troupers.
What problems have shooting in London caused?
Health and Safety, health and bloody fucking safety. You can't move here
now, everybody is treated like children. So a call sheet, normally two
pages of actors and everything. Now it comes about 25 pages, with every
location you go to you have to have health and safety people looking at
everything, writing down every possible toxic gas or pebble you might
trip on, to make sure nobody can sue. And it's just the most maddening
thing. It's happened since that last time I shot in London. It's not even
nanny state any more, it's living in fear that somebody might hurt themselves
and not take personal responsibility for their own state.
So is it worse than in the States?
I haven't done anything in the States for a while so I don't know. It
probably is. There's an organisation that checks on personal freedoms
and individual rights. England is there with America, Russia and China
as the worst places on the planet with the most infringements of personal
liberties, isn't it wonderful!
Lily Cole and Christopher Plummer
You're still using the wide angles?
I'm trying to use them less. The theory was all the stuff outside in the
real world outside the Imaginarium would be longer lenses, and inside
would be extremely wide lenses. But I've failed to be true to my original
Have you been choosing the lenses well in advance or is it on the day?
Everything is instinctive, I mean Nicola and I don't even talk about it
anymore. I say what have you got? Fine, let's go.
Or where the camera will be pointing, is that agreed in advance?
To the extent that when we rehearse the scene we know where everyone is
moving so I'm not doing anything fancy. I mean it's very to the point
of what you're trying to do and just covering it. We don't have the time
to get very fancy.
It's a crazy schedule for what we are trying to achieve, but we're holding
it, except for one night at Blackfriars Bridge where we got really screwed
badly. Everything else, we've managed to scrape through. The wagon guys,
the horse guys, the stunt guys, the wire guys. Put it all together and
three hours disappeared on Blackfriars Bridge. They just fucked up so
badly. It's maybe the spirit of Roberto Calvi
not killed me yet". It was early days too, and you suddenly realise
that departments are not speaking to each other properly. It was a ridiculously
bold scene to do right at the beginning of the shoot, without the crew
really up and running.
And it's great to have two actors - Heath and Andrew - hanging off the
bridge, doing things most actors wouldn't even think of doing. They were
great, fantastic. That's the good thing: the atmosphere amongst the cast
and Andrew - who's now in full drag and a fat suit. I've now got to see
how Lily's going on, see how her Eve is getting on
Further interviews with Gilliam will appear here at Dreams in forthcoming
weeks. Next, the director will talk about the Art of Dr Parnassus.
A Leadenhall Market location report will also follow at this website, plus
reports from other Dr Parnassus locations.
Link to Dr Parnassus homepage within Dreams
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