A Q&A with writer-director Terry Gilliam
Just four months ago, writer-director Terry Gilliam was anticipating the Christmas Day release of the most unintentionally notorious film of his career. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (now available on DVD) was an epic fantasy with lush visuals (it would go on to be nominated for Academy Awards in both Art Direction and Costume Design), an A-list supporting cast (including Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell), and was, of course, Heath Ledger’s last full-length feature. The 29-year-old Australian was Gilliam’s friend and Imaginarium’s leading man until his untimely death, right in the middle of shooting. Gilliam spoke with WE about stealing inspiration, his troubles with Hollywood, and the feat of finishing without Ledger.
WE: Did your vision for Imaginarium change when Heath died?
Terry Gilliam: Heath’s death didn’t really change my vision at all, except of course having to work with the three hacks [Depp, Law, and Farrell] who replaced Heath. (Laughs) Going down to the actor’s depot in Hollywood, they’re just hanging around all desperate for work... In reality, I was lying on the floor in grief, my daughter kicking me and making me get up again. It was a different kind of pain but it helped me keep going.
Imaginarium is stunning visually. What were some of your inspirations?
It starts with me just doing the storyboards and doing silly things, and then we take my drawings and make them a little more elaborate. I’m very magpie-like. I just steal from anything that interests me, squeeze it all together, and hope that something interesting comes out. That’s my approach. There’s nothing original in what I do. I steal all the time. If I’m smart, I steal from dead painters. They don’t sue.
What’s up next for you? I know Don Quixote’s been a long time in the works.
Don Quixote’s what I’m working on at the moment, and hopefully we’ll be shooting next year. I was hoping to be shooting in the spring time, but it’ll have to be later than that since we don’t have any money yet. (Laughs) It’s always the money. The writing, directing — that bit is the easy bit. It’s the money. Anytime I go out there with my begging bowl, I walk into these offices and they always say, ‘Oh god, Terry we love your films! I grew up on Time Bandits, Munchausen, 12 Monkeys... Oh, these are brilliant, Terry. We are such big fans.’ And then I give them the scripts and they go, ‘Oh, well, but this one... I’m not sure.’ I’ve been hearing the same thing for 20 years, maybe 25 now. The list gets longer of films they love, but they don’t want to do the new ones. It’s always the same. So I have to lure people in like Heath and Johnny. That’s how we get the films made, by suckering those famous actors in. The thought of something new and original and different is just not what they’re ever looking for. They’re frightened of that. And even though my wife says I keep making the same film — that I’m just changing the costumes — the guys with the money think it’s all different.