Getting Dr Parnassus off the ground: interview with Amy Gilliam


Producer Amy Gilliam spoke to Dreams during the location shooting of her father Terry’s latest project The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus. At the time of the interview, cast and crew had been filming in London for just a few days.

That the project reached production was to a large part a result of not only Amy’s faith in her father’s vision, but also her steely determination to make this film. Heath Ledger was working with Gilliam and the other actors on set while this interview took place.

Amy Gilliam at the
Cannes Press Conference

Phil Stubbs: Can you tell me how the project The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus came about?
Amy Gilliam: At the end of 2006, I was aware that Dad/Terry was writing a new script, which turned out to be The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus. Then at the beginning of 2007, I was in Vancouver, working at Infinity Films with fellow producer Bill Vince. Terry was in London, and I was hearing rumours he was doing something. I was at the beginning of my producing career, and I was getting my feet wet on other projects. Yet one of the biggest ambitions I had was that if I only make one film in my life as a producer, I want to make it for my Dad.

I’m passionate for Terry; passionate for anything he wants to do. I was adamant that he was going to get his film off the ground, so I coaxed the script out of him. Around February 2007, I got him to send it to me. I read it, and so did the people at Infinity. I started revving it up, and getting excited. From my excitement, Bill was getting excited. He could obviously see the passion and energy I had towards it: it’s Terry and we’re going to make this movie. I was determined to get this film off the ground. It’s what I’ve been saying throughout 2007. I don’t know if Terry realises that, but it’s definitely what’s been going on.

Around April or so, Terry was considering making the film with other producers. What luck he was having I’m not entirely sure… My involvement as producer came from my persistence – I kept pushing. We then made this beautiful leather-bound book with an embossed front and featuring beautiful images. Terry had put in considerable working on the project by this point. He’d been developing everything at Peerless and doing drawings, so now I gathered them and put them together in a book. Then we went to Los Angeles to pitch it. Bill and I did the first round on our own, to prepare the way for the great auteur, to start pitching, and then Terry came out.

Valentina (Lily Cole) with Anton (Andrew Garfield)

Everything has happened very quickly. Terry had identified the actors he wanted. Unlike the other film I’ve worked on, where we did a casting process, Terry just knew what he wanted. He phoned up his friends, and they’re doing it.

Again, around April, I was in Vancouver, and I remember getting a phone call one morning. It was from Heath Ledger. He said, “Guess what? I’ve just agreed to do the movie!” I thought: “Fuck, this is amazing…” I remember going to the office that morning and I ran around like a crazy person, jumping up and down and yes, we are going to make this movie. When Heath came on board, that’s when it all really hit off. All these pieces were coming together, but it was all happening in London and I was in Vancouver.

In the summer, we went back out to the States, trying to get the American sales. At the same time, we were then going broader to other European distributors to try and get the money. And we got tax credits from Canada. It hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t become easier, but I think from just the excitement and the passion, and just the constant push, despite the financial problems, we’ve moved forward. Every day, we have had to knock the budget into a different shape. The amount of time since April we’ve manipulated and changed budget – it’s just ridiculous, but obviously that’s filmmaking. Everyone keeps saying to me, “Amy, it’s incredible that from the script being written in February, and you’re shooting the film in December – it’s unheard of! It takes years to get a film financed and off the ground!”

When Terry was in Toronto, later in 2007, we raised some money – tax credits and Canadian funding. Progress came when he was with Samuel Hadida in Toronto. Terry was telling the story, always energetic and incredible, and Samuel was dragged into this incredible world, and how could he say no? Well, that’s what I think, but I’m probably biased. Samuel did say yes, that he wanted to be involved. And from Samuel saying yes I’m in, it was the next piece of the puzzle that allowed the financing to happen.

Was that the green light that allowed preproduction?
Prior to that, for several months, Terry had been in pre-preproduction. Terry was set up at Peerless, with Infinity having paid to have pre-visualisation done. Terry was very adamant that the preparation on this movie had to be really detailed, and it had to start far enough in advance from shooting, so that the shooting could be smooth and cheap. And his idea about the whole project was to write a script where the set was just one set and it travelled, and that’s cheap! He was going to make a film for no more than $25m. So, to do all the things he wanted to do cheaply, he’d always said we have to prep months in advance, to enable us to be prepared, because it is so complex.

Has that plan actually come to fruition?
In Terry’s mind, half and half, I would say. We didn’t have all the cash we’ve needed, but we were able to do pre-visualisation, and we were able to hire a production designer. Things were happening in London to help put the thing together. Actually it was mainly the visual effects world, to get that together and planned out, because it was so detailed and needed all that precision.

So Infinity were helping, coming from the persistence and love that obviously was being shown from me within the company. Everyday I said “Come on Bill, we’re going to do it.” Being pushy is obviously in the Gilliam blood. We never give up, we don’t take no for an answer, and we figure things out somehow. So Terry was getting on with things in London, and what money we could get from Infinity, we were giving. When Samuel came on board, I know Infinity were on the floor, needing some help desperately. That was what made it all come together: it’s not like the financing was all in place, and Samuel was taking a lot of risk himself. But now we’re shooting, so we keep going! And we’re not letting anyone go!

Dr Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and Valentina (Lily Cole) take to the stage

What are you responsible for?
I don’t know! I feel as though I am responsible for everything. I’m a control freak and I’m very protective, mainly for the director because he’s my father. This is my second film as a producer, and probably the first one where I am properly and deeply involved. It’s a co-production and it’s very complex. I’m responsible for everything, but I make a point that I read everything that is being signed. But if you put something in front of Terry, he’ll sign anything!

I know everything that’s going on with the financing, the accounting, the money and the schedules. It’s about watching over everything. You let everyone do their job of course, but you’ve got to manage it and watch it – especially if you think the director’s making a bad decision about agreeing to a schedule. The thing with Terry is that he’s been in this business for so long and he knows it far too well, yet I’m just beginning, so it’s an interesting situation to be in.

Terry once said something along the lines of: sometimes some of the decisions I’m making are harming the film rather than helping it, and people have to stand up to me. Have you stood up to him?
I stand up to him in a different sort of way. I don’t know if it looks like I’m standing up to him, it’s just how I talk him. He’s far too experienced, and I’m the junior, so it’s an interesting mixture.

What interests you about the project?
I think it’s a wonderful cast. It’s incredible that it was done so easily, and so quickly – Terry just cast the movie himself. I’ve never asked about the script, but there is a daughter and a father, and that means a lot to me. There was something quite special when I read it, I’m incredibly close to my father, and I look up to this incredible person, and there is something remarkable about the script, the fact that there is this daughter. In a way she’s following and looking at this amazing father of hers, and at the same time she wants to escape because it’s too much. Sometimes I can say I feel like that. And there’s something quite real about what the script is, maybe the reality of my life a little bit – that’s maybe intriguing, that is the beginning of it.

As far as the production is going, I’ve been working with Terry a lot, and of all the films I’ve worked on in my career, in my life, it’s a marvellous thing to work with him and to be around a crew who just come up and go, “It’s such an honour and it’s incredible to be able to expand my imagination, to push myself and that is what Terry gives us.” It’s all pretty special and amazing.

Amy Gilliam (2nd from left) at the Cannes screening of The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus

What have you most enjoyed about your job on this picture?
I’m really lucky that Bill believed in me as a producer. It’s wonderful to be a producer with another producer, and to work with someone who’s wanted to make my wish come true as well, and believe in this thing. He might not have the Gilliamesque mindset as maybe I’d like, but to have someone who has supported me and believed in me, to have someone to work with and learn from, that’s been terrific.

The other good thing about producing with someone else, is that making a film is like a horrific emotional rollercoaster. You can have the biggest highs and the lowest lows. One minute you have something great and it’s amazing, and the next minute, it’s: “Where’s the fucking money for tomorrow?” To do it on your own would be horrific! It’s a joy to be working with someone who’s got it here and he’s a good person to be around.

And the most frustrating thing?
The most frustrating thing on this is financing. Maybe we can talk about that more when we’re good and going. But there’s always frustrations about filmmaking isn’t there? That’s all par for the course.

How is working with Terry from day to day?
I’ve done it a lot over the last five years or so. It’s good. I love it, I wouldn’t do it otherwise. The worst thing is we then have to go on family holidays together, and we have to be very sure to say that we are not talking about work, and we are not having an argument about the fucking issues that are going on with the job, because we are on holiday with the family. There are times when he tries to talk about work over dinner. I have to be firm and say: no I’m not talking about it – that’s tomorrow. So he runs upstairs and sends me an email.

Link to Dr Parnassus homepage within Dreams

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Films in depth

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
The Zero Theorem
The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus
The Brothers Grimm
Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas
12 Monkeys
The Fisher King
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Time Bandits