THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS at Comic-Con – Hunter Writes About the Footage and Participates in a Terry Gilliam Interview

     July 27, 2009

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At Comic-Con I was lucky enough to see some footage from Terry Gilliam’s new film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and score an interview with the man himself. He talked creativity, Don Quixote, and of course, Heath Ledger. Read on for details on the footage and the interview:

Terry Gilliam image.jpgThe gravity in the room changes when Terry Gilliam enters. Whether that room is a tiny interview suite or the massive Hall-H of Comic-Con, things just shift, like we’re all suddenly tilting at windmills.

Gilliam made his first trek to Comic-Con to promote his upcoming “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” which stars Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits, Supermodel Lily Cole, as well as Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Ferrel, who all offered their services at a discounted rate so that Heath Ledger’s final performance could see the light of day.

The film tells the story of the titular doctor (Plummer) who is 1000-years old thanks to a bet he made with the devil (Waits). But when the Devil comes to take Parnassus’s daughter’s (Cole) souls on her 16th birthday as part of the bargain, the doctor is forced to reevaluate his life choices and find a way to save her with the help of Tony (Ledger in a role that Gilliam claims is based upon Tony Blair).

“Half the part’s done and, what do you do? What do you do?” said Gilliam. “I couldn’t, for the first couple of days. I said, ‘Fuck this is ridiculous.’ The challenge was actually to see if I could resuscitate my interest in the thing because I just thought, ‘It’s over’ I didn’t even want to continue because Heath was so important. But I was surrounded by too many people who said, ‘Fuck you get to work. You’ve got to fix this, you’ve got to do it for Heath.”

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A solution was found in the magical mirror at the center of the film’s narrative. Ledger had finished almost all of his scenes set in the real world of London before his untimely death, so Gilliam went back and slightly rewrote one early scene to explain that when one goes through the mirror, his or her face can change. This tiny alteration allowed for several of Ledger’s friends to band together and help complete the project.

But the film is not about the death fetishry seeing of seeing last days of a dead man’s life. Other than the set up for the face swapping element the script remained unchanged. “We didn’t change the words,” Said Gilliam. “There are words in there that are shocking because they seem to be so prescient. And everybody thought we wrote this and that as a sort of eulogy to Heath, but nope. There is one line that Chris Plummer didn’t want to say, ‘A tale of romance, of comedy, of unforeseen death.’ He didn’t want to say it and I said, ‘You’ve got to, this is the movie that Heath and I were making, so say the words…it got done somehow and now when people look at it, they can’t believe it wasn’t intended.”

And too, the film is more than just a showcase of considerable Ledger’s talents. Beyond the enviable trio of Depp, Law, and Ferrel, the film also boasts what could well be a star-making turn from British supermodel-cum-actress Lily Cole who, beyond being gorgeous and ethereal, showed a real knack character work in the clips we were shown.

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“Parnassus’s daughter had to be extraordinary […] we just threw her into this pit of just phenomenal actors and that’s scary for anybody, but she just held her own against them and in some ways that was the most dangerous part of what I was doing, to take somebody so inexperienced and just throw her right in the deep end.”

The footage itself would be audacious even without a lead who passed halfway through principal photography. The two sequences and the teaser trailer were the kind of stuff that makes one wish for larger eyes with which to see more. The world of Parnassus is wicked and weird with massive, snowcapped monasteries filled with floating monks and what appeared to be a phoenix. The otherworldly fantasies combine Gilliam’s past experience animating “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” with the depth and detail of “Brazil” and a skewed, macabre sense of humor. And all of this was contained within scenes that Gilliam described as, “The boring parts.”

But nothing is ever boring with Gilliam and now that he has finished this film, he is getting ready for his next adventure. He recently got the rights to Don Quixote back and, after reworking the script he plans to shoot the film in the spring. Maybe then we can all tilt at windmill’s together.

“After we finished, we went to London and showed it to some people,” said Gilliam. “And they thought it was always intended to work that way.”

Finally, here are some notes I took during the panel:

  • Gilliam comes out and immediately pops a Hershey’s Kiss with a glint in his eye like it were a magic mushroom cap.
  • Shortly after He is given an inkpot award for his creative work.
  • Gilliam dedicates the panel to changing the perspective of the film from Heath Ledger’s final performance into a focus on the film itself
  • The film came out of the failure of Tideland based upon the idea of an artist living in a world where no one cares for his art any longer.
  • Tony (Heath Ledger) was based upon Tony Blair. A man he views as a chameleon.
  • Gilliam is still mad at the Hollywood establishment because they didn’t understand Ledger’s potential as the Joker.
  • 5:08 Vern Troyer shows up. he gives the normal, “so honored to be in this cast” shtick.
  • They show a clip of a drunk man accosting the gorgeous Lily Cole and ending up in a hellish nightmare within the Imaginarium.
  • Gilliam did Fisher King and Fear and Loathing simply to prove that such strange movies can get made and should be made.
  • Gilliam gets a very pained look in his face when a person asks about Ledger.
  • As with Burton earlier in the day, Gilliam attests that his films are realistic to him and not fanciful. He makes movies that show the world how he sees it.
  • Gilliam has never done acid. I don’t know if I believe this.
  • Gilliam might tilt at windmills again as he has recently got the Don Quixote back.
  • As with Burton earlier in the day, Gilliam attests that his films are realistic to him and not fanciful. He makes movies that show the world how he sees it.

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