Mind Games

Mind Games

Director Terry Gilliam had to deal with the death of Heath Ledger and the timidity of Hollywood suits in getting his latest film made


Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on January 2010



Terry Gilliam really loves this island nation of ours: “Japan gets me buzzing. The place is extraordinary, the most incredible juxtaposition of beautiful, ugly, big and small. I used to think it was a totally schizophrenic place but it is probably more like my brain than anywhere else on the planet. I keep thinking I should be able to do something with all this.”

The 69-year-old director, best known for his fantasy films, was back recently to promote his latest visual feast, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which stars Heath Ledger (in his final film, albeit an incomplete outing), Christopher Plummer, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell, Tom Waits and Lily Cole. Set in the streets of modern-day London, the film follows the title character (Plummer), the wizened 1,000-year-old leader of a traveling troupe who has made a deal with the devil. Parnassus offers audience members the chance to transcend their humdrum lives by passing through a magical mirror into a world of limitless imagination. Like most of Gilliam’s films, it requires multiple viewings, and even then, many people still won’t get it—which is fine with Gilliam. “I always try to encourage people to think. My films don’t spoon-feed people. I want you to come on in and play with us. I leave the film ambiguous so that audiences can do their own interpretation.”

Gilliam, who was born in Minnesota but is now a British citizen, has a lifetime of whimsical experiences that he draws on for his films. “As a kid, I used to hang around circuses and sideshows, seeing people who made a living being exotic. I’ve always been intrigued by the world of the outsiders, freaks and weirdoes who float around the edge.”

Gilliam first shot to fame 40 years ago as a member of the Monty Python troupe. His movie career started in 1977 with Jabberwocky, and was followed by Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys and The Brothers Grimm, among others.

In almost every case, Gilliam has had to fight running battles with studios to get financing. “I am deemed to be a bad boy,” he says with a laugh. “The reality is that almost all my films have made money, except for a couple. Somehow, they think I am out of control. Finding money for films like this is always hard. I’m just a little bit more public than others you have never heard of. With Heath Ledger, he made The Dark Knight in 2008 and was one of the biggest stars on the planet. But do you think I could get $25 million to make this film? Hollywood’s thinking is short-term. They couldn’t make that leap. The guys who run studios are middle management and are all frightened to take risks.”

Gilliam said Ledger’s death halfway through filming was devastating, both emotionally and financially. “The shock of that is still reverberating. At that point, the film was dead. I didn’t have a clue what to do. Then people said Heath’s last work must not be forgotten, so I had to find a way to finish the film. The phone call to Johnny Depp was the most critical because that stopped the money running away. Once I got my head straightened out, the solution was easy. I rewrote the script in a day and a half, so that now, when the women go through the mirror with Heath’s character into their fantasy world, the man they imagine being with no longer looked like Heath, but Johnny, Jude and Colin.”

Young British actress Lily Cole, 21, who plays Parnassus’ daughter and the object of the devil’s machinations, said she was daunted by having to work with such big names in only her second movie. “It was intimidating, like being thrown into the deep end,” she said. “However, I didn’t have time to stop and think about it. I never felt patronized or mollycoddled. Even with all the big names, it was still a very emotional thing to work in this huge void left by Heath every day.”

Gilliam is already in pre-production for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, another of his on-again, off-again projects with a troubled history. “I’m not as successful as George Lucas or Steven Spielberg,” he says with a shrug. “What I lack is dignity, but I have fun. I start with an idea and then someone comes along with a better idea and I top that idea and they top that. Hopefully, I am just creating a playpen, a world that people will want to see over and over again—even if only two people see it.”

Chris Betros is the editor of Japan Today (www.japantoday.com).