As part of series over at IndieWire, Terry Gilliam discusses his life in eight movies. “That was my problem at a certain age…I still believed in movies in those days. I don’t anymore. Give me a drive-in now any day.”
With The Zero Theorem in the can — a trailer of sorts is here — Indiewire checks in with Terry Gilliam on the state of the business. “It’s so immediate now, there’s very little long-term thinking. I mean, Johnny [Depp] is one of the few who can keep making films that are somehow less successful and still end up on people’s lists.”
“Sometimes, madness is the right response to a mad world. Sometimes, illusion is the only way out.” By way of a longtime reader, The Keynote‘s Tasha Robinson discusses the origins and greatness of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, one of my trifecta of all-time favorite films (along with Amadeus and Miller’s Crossing) and at least partly the namesake of GitM (Ere I am, JH…) — I got the still above signed at a Gilliam event in NYC in October 2006. Some great stuff in here — I actually never knew, or had forgotten, how close this came to being a Tom Cruise vehicle — That would’ve been a error of Tuttle/Buttle proportions. Da dum, da da da da da dee dum…
“Ray has been a great inspiration to us all in special visual industry. The art of his earlier films, which most of us grew up on, inspired us so much.” “Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no STAR WARS” — George Lucas.
“THE LORD OF THE RINGS is my ‘Ray Harryhausen movie.’ Without his life-long love of his wondrous images and storytelling it would never have been made – not by me at least.” — Peter Jackson
“What we do now digitally with computers, Ray did digitally long before but without computers. Only with his digits.” — Terry Gilliam.
“I think all of us who are practioners in the arts of science fiction and fantasy movies now all feel that we’re standing on the shoulders of a giant. If not for Ray’s contribution to the collective dreamscape, we wouldn’t be who we are.” — James Cameron
“Christoph Waltz [plays] Qohen Leth, a computer programmer toiling to understand the meaning of existence. However, surrounded by ‘mancams’ that report all unusual actions back to the shadowy corporate authority known as the Management, Leth finds his efforts repeatedly interrupted by distractions, including a teenager and a lusty love interest.”
Back at work in the fields of dystopia that brought forth Brazil and 12 Monkeys — and even as Johnny Depp opts for his own Quixote project after all these years — Terry Gilliam is apparently hard a work on his next project, currently being filmed: The Zero Theorem. “David Thewlis, Tilda Swinton, and Matt Damon will co-star.”
“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
“‘Robert Duvall is one of the greats, no question – and he can ride a horse!’ laughed Gilliam. ‘And Ewan has gotten better over the years. He was wonderful in The Ghost. There’s a lot of colours to Ewan that he’s not been showing recently and it’s time for him to show them again. He’s got a great sense of humour and he’s a wonderful actor. He’s wonderfully boyish and can be charming – when he flashes a smile, everybody melts. He wields it like a nuclear bomb!“
While currently busy with The Damnation of Faust for the English National Opera, Terry Gilliam reveals he has a cast ready for his second attempt at The Man Who Killed Don Quixote: Robert Duvall and Ewan MacGregor, in the Jean Rochefort (Quixote) and Johnny Depp roles respectively. Shooting begins this September.
To be honest, this motley extravaganza ends up running a bit too long. And Parnassus is a ragged carnival at that, becoming more inchoate as it spins its wheels. Plus, Ledger’s final performance, alas, is mostly just set-up without the follow-through — Other actors play the meat of the character. Still, despite the movie’s very visible faults, Imaginarium nonetheless feels like a loving throwback to the days of Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination,” particularly Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. (In fact, Gilliam now argues that this film replaces Brazil in that trilogy.) And, if, like me, you have any fondness for the old-school, crazy-cartoonist, anything-can-happen Gilliam, Imaginarium is a very worthwhile experience nonetheless.
True, Parnassus is nowhere near as good or as perfectly formed as Brazil, which remains Gilliam”s magnum opus. (Although one reason this movie may have that “classic” Gilliam feel to it is the presence of co-screenwriter Charles McKeown, who helped pen Brazil and Munchausen, and appeared in the former as “Harvey Lime,” Sam Lowry’s desk-mate.) Nor is it as taut and self-contained as the three quality entrants in Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Americana” — The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. All that being said, Parnassus is the best movie Gilliam has made in over a decade, and it definitely allows him the chance to let his freak flag fly.
For Imaginarium centers on a portal — a magic mirror — that keeps leading into a “world of pure imagination,” one that bears some unmistakable glimmers of the old Monty Python scrapbook-cartoons. Kept in the possession of an immortal sage named Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer, in the plummiest (Plummiest?) role he’s had in years), this mirror has been used as a field of not-so-friendly wagering between he and the Devil (Tom Waits, a casting coup) for thousands of years. Through this garden of Gilliamesque delights wander the unknowing souls who happen upon Dr. Parnassus’ roadshow and walk through the mirror. And, more often than not — people being people — they make lousy decisions and end up in the bad company of Old Nick.
Now, thanks to another ill-advised bet with the Devil, the eternal soul of Parnassus’ only daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), is at stake. And, given that this good Doctor only has two allies in the world — Percy, his diminutive and long-suffering #2 (Verne “Mini-Me” Troyer), and a young orphan lad named Anton (Andrew Garfield) — it doesn’t look like there’s much help on the horizon. (Troyer, by the way, [a] cannot act worth a damn and [b] seems game for pretty much anything. But Garfield is really good. I kept thinking “Who is this guy? he’s solid” throughout. And, unlike Sam Worthington, he actually seems deserving of some of the Next-Big-Thing hype he’s getting right now.)
Anyway, as the tarot cards predicted, Dr. Parnassus’ troupe encounters a hanged man underneath a bridge (Ledger — yes, this intro is more than a bit eerie now.) Once revived, this fellow — Tony, formerly a charity organizer who ran into trouble — is something of an X-Factor in the age-old battle between Parnassus and the Devil. Whose side is he on? Well, as it turns out, he’s on Tony’s side. And, once he gets wind of the mirror, and the world that lies on the other side, he finds himself contemplating, almost despite himself, how he might best take advantage of the situation…
So, the elephant in the room — Heath Ledger. As it turns out, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus represents both an amazing stroke of luck and a mild disappointment. The stroke of luck is that very few stories out there could accommodate Ledger’s unfinished turn as well as this one. Here, the fact that Tony’s appearance changes every time he steps into the mirror-world — he becomes Johnny Depp, Jude Law, or Colin Farrell — feels almost intuitive and organic, as if it could have been written this way in the first place. But that being said, most of Tony’s major character-beats happen in the mirrorverse, and so Ledger’s role in “our” world — which is mostly just set-up — feels unfinished all-the-same.
In fact, “unfinished” is a good way to sum up both the weaknesses and the strengths of Imaginarium. About 20 minutes in and after several early mirror-world reveries, right as we venture into the past to witness the Doctor’s first Faustian wager, I was thinking this was turning out to be easily one of Gilliam’s best films. But the movie loses its way in the muddled middle going, and by the time, late in the show, when Valentina dances with the Devil in the pale mirrorlight, I had sorta emotionally checked out of Parnassus. (Even then, it’s still fun to watch random items well up from Gilliam’s mindscape — say, the upscale shopping mall and dowdy, pearl-clutching madam of Brazil (“My complication had a little complication“), or the fantasy-on-the-social-fringes aspects of The Fisher King. There’s even a random musical number — sung by policemen in fishnets, no less — which just about screams Monty Python.
So, yes, Ledger’s performance seems only half-there, and the rambling story at hand could’ve probably done with some screw-tightening. But, Imaginarium also feels “unfinished” in a happier sense. Whether this was a strange example of kismet or the script was tinkered with after Ledger’s passing, several of the scenes — most notably Johnny Depp’s — seem to comment directly in tribute to the fallen actor. (“Nothing is permanent, not even death.“)
And in a sense, the whole movie works like that too. As we find out in flashback, Dr. Parnassus once headed a devout order of shamans committed to the Tinkerbellish proposition that, so long as somebody was telling a story, the universe would always continue to exist. Similarly, so long as people keep watching The Dark Knight or The Patriot, I’m Not There or Brokeback Mountain, Ten Things I Hate About You, or, yes, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, so too will Heath Ledger.
A big one I missed the other day (found on Vanity Fair): The trailer for Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is now online, with Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits, Verne Troyer, Lily Cole, and, in his final performance, Heath Ledger (abetted by Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law.) Wow. Looks more Gilliamesque than anything Terry’s done in years.
“Brazil‘ is the one that will probably be stamped on my grave because that on seemed to have made a big effect on a lot of people. And that’s all I’m trying to do is affect people.” CNN talks briefly with Terry Gilliam on Heath Ledger’s passing, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, and sundry other topics. “Talent is less important in filmmaking than patience. If you really want your films to say something that you hope is unique, then patience and stamina, thick skin and a kind of stupidity. A mule-like stupidity is what you really need.“
“There’s no escaping some pacts. Nearly ten years on I find myself lending a hand to get that crazed, giggling bedlamite back in the saddle. I’m talking about Don Quixote. In spite of God and the Devil, he shall ride again!” With The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus in the can and at Cannes, the inimitable Terry Gilliam sets his sights on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote once more. Here’s hoping try #2 doesn’t get Lost in La Mancha.
Soon after Heath Ledger’s untimely death (ultimately ruled an accident) a few weeks ago, there was a rumor floating around that Johnny Depp would step in to save Terry Gilliam’s Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus by playing the “mirror-world” Heath. (“There is a point in the film when Heath falls through a magic mirror. He could change into another character after that and that is where Johnny would come in.“) As it turns out, the truth is even more interesting. According to AICN, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell have all signed on for Imaginarium to pay tribute to Ledger and to help salvage his final performance. All class acts…here’s hoping Gilliam can make something special out of Ledger’s final bow.
“I feel very unsettled at the moment…It seems somehow strange to be talking about anything else. Not that there’s anything to say really except to express one’s regret and to say from the bottom of one’s heart to his family and to his friends that I’m sorry for their trouble.” Daniel Day-Lewis pays an emotional tribute to Heath Ledger. [Story.]
In related news, some reports indicate Johnny Depp, of the previously sidelined The Man who Killed Don Quixote, may be asked by Terry Gilliam to finish Ledger’s work on Imaginarium. “There is a point in the film when Heath falls through a magic mirror. He could change into another character after that and that is where Johnny would come in. It’s a weird, fantasy, time-travel movie so Heath’s character could easily change appearance. It would be a poignant moment. Johnny’s not working at the moment so everyone is praying he will do it.“
Update: Daniel Day-Lewis dedicates his SAG award to Heath Ledger.
Who knows what Faustian bargain he made this time, but Terry Gilliam’s Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is happily off the ground, and will begin shooting next month. (The script leaked last March.) Imaginarium will star Christopher Plummer (as the titular doctor), Heath Ledger, Verne Troyer, and, in a choice bit of casting, Tom Waits as the Devil.