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August 2014
Issue: March 1, 2010

DIRECTOR'S CHAIR: TERRY GILLIAM - 'THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS'

By: Iain Blair
HOLLYWOOD — If the mark of a great director is a unique personal vision coupled with the ability to bounce back after disaster hits, then Terry Gilliam is a very great director indeed. With such films as Jabberwocky, Time Bandits,  Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Brothers Grimm, Gilliam has created a body of work that has earned the director a reputation as both an inspired visionary and a maverick with little regard for the realities of Hollywood filmmaking.

First there was the legendary battle with Universal and studio head Sidney Sheinberg over the distribution of Brazil. Then there was the financial disaster of Baron Munchausen followed by the collapse — mid-production — of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.

Undaunted, the American ex-patriate and Monty Pythoner (who has lived in London since the ‘60s) bounced back with The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a fantastical morality tale starring Heath Ledger — only to see the actor’s life tragically cut short before filming was completed (Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law quickly stepped in to play versions of Ledger’s character to help finish the production).
 
The film stars Christopher Plummer as Doctor Parnassus, who is cursed with a dark secret. An inveterate gambler, he made a bet thousands of years ago with the devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), in which he won immortality. Centuries later, on meeting his one true love, Dr. Parnassus made another deal with the devil, trading his immortality for youth, on condition that when his daughter reached her 16th birthday, she would become the property of Mr. Nick. Desperate to save his daughter, Parnassus sets out to seduce five souls (the condition of her freedom) with a magic mirror that, once passed through, reveals magical worlds, and Gilliam, whose love of animation dates back to the ‘60s and his Python work, makes liberal use of extended animated sequences throughout these scenes.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, the director talks about making the film, and his passion for post production, animation and visual effects.

POST: With your star’s tragic death, it must have turned out very differently from the film you set out to make?
GILLIAM: “Not really, and that’s what’s so bizarre about it, as we didn’t change anything of any substance. Once the face is changed, then you’re free. The dialogue’s the same. The difference is, how it would be if Heath had done all the stuff on the other side of the mirror [the film’s magic doorway]. This way, it’s probably more of a surprising ride for the audience.”

POST: What were the biggest challenges?
GILLIAM: “A great chunk is done with bluescreen and CG models, and there’s a lot of visual effects — over 650 shots. But technically this is what I do. I’m used to this process, so although it’s always complicated, it’s a fun challenge and I try to simplify certain things. We’d build the working sets for the actors and then do all the CG work as backgrounds. It was a way of being able to create these amazing worlds without spending a fortune, as we didn’t need creature animation going on.”

POST: Why did you do all the bluescreen in Vancouver, not London where you shot?
GILLIAM: “Because it was a UK-Canadian co-production, and that was the deal. We did a month’s shoot in London, and then we did nearly two in Vancouver, but it was very tricky trying to match Johnny’s, Colin’s and Jude’s schedules to ours. We were constantly shifting things around as we didn’t know when they’d be available, so you build a set on one stage and suddenly they turn up and you’re stuck with the wrong set [laughs]. There was a lot of that going on.”

POST: Do you like post?
GILLIAM: “I love it because it’s finally the time when you have all the pieces of the jigsaw and none of the pressure of daily shooting. You’re just sitting there and having fun putting it all together. I think, though, on this the post with all the effects proved to be very, very difficult, because we originally planned to do 250 shots and then it ended up at 650, which is huge.
“Peerless Camera Company in London, who’ve always done all my effects work, just weren’t quite ready for that big increase. So we ended up mixing the film without shots even being finished. We were working in the dark, which was very hard. We were also running out of money! Everything was going crazy, as we had a huge insurance claim that was being argued while we literally ran out of cash. Luckily I got hit by a car and broke my back, so I got free travel for a while. And Andre Jacquemin did all the sound design — he’s an old friend who did all the Python albums, and I had to take advantage of him  and he did it for very little money, just so we could get through it.”

POST: Where did you do the post? How long was the process?
GILLIAM: “We did it all in London at Goldcrest in Soho, and it took over six months, as the visual effects shots were almost two months late.”

POST: You used two visual effects supervisors — Richard Bain and John Paul Docherty. How did that work?
GILLIAM: “Paul Docherty basically runs Peerless, so he was there all the time dealing with that end, and Richard Bain is this brilliant compositor who’s worked on films like Casino Royale and Mission Impossible, and he was in Vancouver with us on the set all the time and working on certain stuff. We had previs’d everything, after I’d storyboarded it all — which I don’t usually do, but this time I felt it needed storyboards and I really enjoyed doing it. So I was really on top of it all the whole time, but even so, to be honest, the post on this was just a nightmare.
“We were dealing with the insurance company and we didn’t know what we’d get until that deal was done. And at Peerless, they didn’t want to hire extra crew yet as they didn’t even know if this film would actually get finished. It was the worst post I’ve ever been involved in because of all the unknown elements.”

POST: The film was edited by Mick Audsley, who worked on Twelve Monkeys with you and who has cut films like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Tell us about the editing.
GILLIAM: “He’s on the set all the time and he’s a really wonderful editor. What I love about him is that he used to be a musician, so his cutting is very musical. There are rhythms there and beats, and he began cutting while we were shooting, as we were trying to get far enough along to even see what we had. And then to see what we still needed. So that was the hard part, having to edit while partly still in the dark, as Heath had shot half of his part, but there were still all the scenes on this side of the mirror that he hadn’t finished. So how were we going to do those scenes?
“When I rewrote it I thought we could do certain bits with doubles, but I realized as we got closer to shooting them that it wasn’t going to work. Then there was one scene where we absolutely needed Heath, and he wasn’t there, so Mick then said, ‘OK, let’s try and re-cut the film without that scene and see if it works,’ so all the time we were trying to invent the solution as we were still shooting. [Laughs]. And at some points the editing was more advanced than you’d normally be, just to see if certain scenes were going to work or not. Then after Vancouver, we all moved back to London and continued the editing at Goldcrest.”

POST: All your films play like fantastic dreams and in this one, the worlds behind the mirror are dreams-within-dreams. How did you approach that?
GILLIAM: “I wanted to create worlds that weren’t naturalistic, that were closer to paintings and animation — but yet they had to be totally believable. You had to feel you’re actually in there. I’d draw stuff, we’d start building and then get into all the CG. What’s interesting is these guys on computers are so used to doing naturalism that when you give it a slight, painterly twist, it was hard work. And it should have been simpler!
“It was less demanding in detail and so on, but they had to be more artistic, and a lot of them are just not. If you ask for a leaf, they’ll make you a perfect one. But if you want a painted leaf, they’re a bit at a loss. I remember I had trouble explaining how the clouds should look in one sequence, so I went home, Googled a tons of images, did a quick collage and said, ‘That’s what I want.’ And that’s the advantage I have, of being able to draw and use Photoshop and so on.
“Anyway, we created these amazing worlds that don’t exist, but each one had reference points and sources. So the big ladder one is Grant Wood, the American landscape painter, and the boat sequence was supposed to be Maxfield Parrish, though we didn’t quite get it right. The big problem is trying to control effects people as they’re all showing off, and I was like ‘We’ve got a limited budget — just do this! Don’t show off!’”

POST: They have a very Monty Pythonesque feel.
GILLIAM: “Exactly. It was a chance to do my animations, but much more elaborately. Instead of just cut-outs, they’re 3D environments and real hybrids of CG, animation and bluescreen. We’d build part of the set, so the actors had spaces to work in, and we also did a lot of model work and then added CG elements. They’re all just tools, and I’d go with whichever one was the most efficient — and cheapest [laughs].”

POST: It seems like there’s such a trend now toward hybrid films that mix live action, visual effects and animation?
GILLIAM: “There’s a lot of confusion about hybrids and the whole subject of animation, and the truth is, so many of the big films today have some kind of animation, from Harry Potter to the big comic book films like Transformers and Iron Man, even if you wouldn’t call them ‘animated films.’ My theory was, use animation because it’s cheaper and it’d give me more freedom. There’s no doubt that this trend of hybrid films will grow, simply because animated films — however you define them — are the most successful movies being made today, which is fantastic. So filmmakers want to make them, but you’re not going to get $200 million to do a Pixar [film], so for those of us with far smaller budgets, we become hybrid makers.”

POST: What’s next?
GILLIAM: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. We’re resurrecting the old bastard! My plan is to start in spring, and we’ll see if it’s just a dream or reality.”