The single concession I made to standing in immense lines to get into a big hall was to see Terry Gilliam late in the day. Comic-con is many things, but it is not a simple microcosm of the real world. It is a place where Terry Gilliam is as big a star as Robert Pattinson. Some might say that is an improvement on reality. The man next to me in line wearing home made Starcraft power armor that made him eight feet tall certainly felt that way.
Terry Gilliam is eminently entertaining. He is the sort of man whom you can toss onto a stage in front of several thousand fans and he will calmly and good naturedly ramble about art and movies for half an hour while plowing steadily through a pile of Hershey kisses. As he began talking, he turned to crane his neck at the large projection screen behind the stage, and exclaimed “Oh shit! That’s me!” as he almost fell out of his chair.
He introduced The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus by showing a trailer, and insisting that he hated how most trailers show you all the good bits of the film so that there’s nothing worth seeing in the theater. Thus, he assured us, all of the trailers and clips he showed at Comic-con were composed of the boring bits, so that when we all saw the film in theaters we would feel that we got our money’s worth. The trailer and clips show a film with that trademarked Gilliam combination of surreality, humor, and darkness.
The story is of a Faustian bargain struck between Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and the Devil (Tom Waits). The Devil grants Parnassus eternal life, but will take in exchange any child fathered by Parnassus on his or her sixteenth birthday. After a thousand years, Parnassus fathers a daughter (Lily Cole). The film begins the day before her sixteenth birthday. Parnassus thus makes a wager with the Devil, double or nothing as it were: the first to steal five souls wins.
The film is also notable for being Heath Ledger’s final film. He died a third of the way through production, leading to a long pause in filming. Eventually, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell all signed on to play Ledger’s character throughout the film. The result is a fascinating character with a face that changes from scene to scene. It doesn’t seem like something that should work, which makes it so surprising that it actually does.
Gilliam explained that the film could not have happened without Ledger and thus he was adamant about keeping Ledger in and not reshooting his part entirely. Parnassus had been constructed in elaborate storyboards before any money had been raised at all and Ledger happened to visit the studio where those storyboards were being presented. During the presentation, Ledger slipped Gilliam a note “can I play Tony?”. After signing Ledger, Gilliam still could not find any studios willing to finance the project, because despite critical acclaim, that guy from Brokeback wasn’t enough of a draw to get a movie funded. The Dark Knight had begun filming by this point, which gave Gilliam the ammunition of: Ledger is playing the Joker next summer, he’s going to be huge, let’s get this film ready for release right after that.
The audience questions yielded some gems from both Gilliam and the audience. One audience member blanked and forgot his question, so Gilliam gave him some good natured guff. The questioner retorted: “I’ve been battling fucking Twilight fans for two hours just to get in here, my brain’s fried”.
Gilliam noted when asked where he gets his inspiration: “Lack of sleep. Whenever I run out of ideas, I stay up all night. Lack of sleep does wonders for your creativity.”
Asked in a similar question about the surreality pervasive in his work, Gilliam answered: “I see my films as normal. Everyone else thinks they’re weird, but I’ve always tried to be a documentarian.”
Speaking of the frustrations of trying to raise money for projects, he explained that he didn’t work well with studios and simply made the movies that he wanted to make the way he wanted to make them. Consequently he doesn’t “get to make movies with the budgets of certain far more talented directors”. Can you tell he was in Monty Python? He speaks with a wit so dry that it desiccates the front row of the audience.
Another interesting tidbit from Gilliam was that he really doesn’t draw much inspiration from films, but from art, especially early surrealists like Hieronymus Bosch. When he feels a need for inspiration he goes to art museums and comes out feeling fresh and full of ideas. “Steal ideas from dead painters, then you don’t get sued.”
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is slated for an October release, and Terry Gilliam is now working on the long delayed project The Man Who Killed Don Quixote having finally re-secured the rights to it after almost a decade of limbo.