Charles McKeown on writing the Dr Parnassus script


Charles McKeown is a British writer and actor who, along with director Terry Gilliam, put together the script for The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus. I spoke with McKeown in January 2008, as the UK shoot drew to a close, just a few days before Heath Ledger died.

McKeown has worked with Gilliam before – on the scripts for both Brazil (1985) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989). He also contributed to some of Gilliam’s projects that never made it to screen, and these were discussed in the interview.

McKeown acted in Brazil and Munchausen, with significant supporting roles. In Dr Parnassus, McKeown has a small role as a fairground inspector.

Phil Stubbs: When did you start work on The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus?
Charles McKeown: My work started in 2006 – probably the beginning of November.

What did Terry bring with him when you started work?
He certainly had the idea of the travelling theatre, and the central character of Dr Parnassus as a man who is a bit lost and out of his time, and is out of gear with his audience. They don’t want to listen to his stories that he tells anymore. It’s Dr Parnassus’s adventure. It wasn’t absolutely fixed but that was fairly clear in Terry’s mind.

Were any visual flourishes in his mind or did that all come from both of you writing the script?
It’s difficult for me to tell really. As I said, he certainly had the idea of the travelling theatre, and I’m sure that evolved as we got into it more, and it became clearer in his mind than it had been to start with. I think the idea of Dr Parnassus as a semi-eastern medicine man evolved. I don’t think he started quite like that.

When you worked together, who did what?
We started off by talking around the subject for a couple of weeks, very broadly. We spent the days talking about the whole range of subjects, and then finally we started talking about the thing itself, and how it related to current events. It was a mixture of a whole medley of stuff for a couple of weeks and then we started to write a treatment.

In fact I insisted that Terry write the treatment because he had a better grip of what it is he wanted than I did at that stage. I didn’t really quite get it at that point, I don’t think. Although it was fun, I could see the story, but I thought that Terry had a clearer view of what he wanted than I did at that point. So he wrote the treatment.

After the treatment was done, I started writing scenes, dialogue, characters, settings and so on, clarifying it a bit. I would send Terry, by email, six or seven pages at a time. He would then work on that, change it, embellish it, take what he wanted and add what he wanted. He would send that back and show me what he’d done for my comments. Meanwhile, I’d be working on another lot of pages

It was a rolling process, going back and forth. We created the structure just from what seemed to be right at the time, and what followed organically from the discussions, and the way the things flowed. At the time, we weren’t living very far apart. I think we saw each other a few times in that period as well. We exchanged notes and chatted on the phone. I can’t remember if we’d got to the end of the first draft before we sat down and spent another week together or whether we decided we needed to do that before we got to the end of it. What we’d got was going in the right direction. We stopped when we got right to the end of the first draft, and discussed where we were going, and where we were so far. We did get together periodically after the first draft was complete, as well. It wasn’t all on exchanges of email after that… but a lot of it was.

Heath Ledger and Verne Troyer in The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus

During the initial two week meeting, is that when the characters were formed and the structure was defined?
Yes, they evolved during that period. I don’t think what we ended up with was what we started out with in every respect though. I think maybe Dr Parnassus is fairly close to what we started out with. The other characters changed a bit as we went along. Certainly the character of Valentina, Parnassus’s daughter, changed a lot as we went along. And the other characters too shifted, when they weren’t quite working as well as they might do.

When we got to the end, Terry showed it to a few people and got some feedback. As a result we made changes in the structure, brought things forward, moved things back and changed things somewhat. We didn’t work to any particular scheme, just what felt what was working.

I thought the script was very strong. I liked the ensemble nature and how believable those characters were, and the dialogue was.
That’s reassuring to hear, it’s always nice to know that. There’s always a worry that those things won’t work, if you work with a tiny close knit bunch of characters. That was the stuff that evolved to start with. They weren’t quite as much fun as they are now. They were a bit more tentative to start with, until we knew where we are going… and then they were able to abuse each other a bit more.

No character really dominates the story
In that sense we break the rules really, you are supposed to focus on a central character, that’s one of the recipes for success, to have a central character with whom the audience can identify. But this is a group piece and although it’s called Dr Parnassus, and he’s very much the centre of it, and everything goes around him, nevertheless you are caught up in everybody else’s story as well.

All of Terry’s films involve a protagonist who is a dreamer or is using the power of his imagination
It is also about the storytelling and this is one of Terry’s themes, and this is in that mould.

Which of the themes running through the script do you find particular satisfying, or resonate with you?
I like the travelling theatre, and the lives those people are leading and the mysteriousness of that. If that comes through in the picture, it will be interesting. I also like the fact that not everything is nailed down, there are areas that remain mysterious. I like the idea of storytelling being the thing that sustains the universe. Plus the bet with devil and all that. I think that’s evocative and fruitful, and it makes you think and pulls you into the story.

How do you think it fits in with the rest of Terry’s work?
It is about the theme of imagination, and the importance of imagination, to how you live and how you think and so on. And that’s very much a Terry theme. For some time, Terry has taken other scripts and taken books and things and made them his own, such that they are identifiably Terry Gilliam movies. Yet with this one, I think it goes further than things that he’s done more recently.

He’s had more of an input, this is more his thing. This is more a Terry Gilliam film than we have had for some time. Terry always throws himself into what he does with such tremendous energy and vigour, that it has to be worth his while. It has to be worth knocking yourself out for, and I think Brazil was like that, and to some extent Munchausen. It has this visceral quality, and Terry doesn’t hold himself back when he commits himself. And I think this is something which he has committed himself to 120%, and it has all the possibilities of delivering more of him than what he has been doing recently.

Now the location shooting is almost finished, so if something was to have gone wrong it would have been at that point.
I’d like to think so too. It’s always been a difficult period and fortunately the weather has held up. It could have been disastrous. It’s always strenuous working at night. Yet some of the stuff coming up in Canada is very tricky. All that fantasy stuff they are shooting there, the blue screen stuff is very tricky. But most of it is in the studio so it’s kind of more controlled.

You haven’t got the random element, it’s all within the filmmakers’ hands.

But it’s very complex stuff, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed for that.

Heath Ledger clings onto the back of the wagon

I popped down to London both before and after Christmas. I saw the Blackfriars Bridge scene, and that was absolutely freezing. There was a rain machine on top of Heath and Andrew. Any thoughts that actors have an easy life… well they certainly don’t on Terry’s films anyway.
I went on a recce it was just so cold, terrible.

At Battersea Power Station, everyone was hard at work for 10 hours solid. I’ve never seen people work as hard as that throughout the day on a film set.
People knock themselves out for Terry, in a way that they won’t for other people. It’s been a very hard grind. I look forward to seeing it. I spoke to Terry the other day and he was saying it was looking very beautiful. I don’t know if you have seen any of the stuff.

I saw the opening bit of the fairground scene, and also where Tony comes out of the trunk at the back of the Imaginarium. I also visited one of the days in Leadenhall Market that was an absolutely outrageous scene – the camera pulls back revealing all of the characters on the stage. Watching it once will not be enough to capture everything, it will be one for the DVD to watch it again and again.
That’s very much a characteristic of Gilliam, you’ve got to watch it more than once.

Now… after your work with Gilliam on Brazil and Munchausen, there have been other projects that you have worked on with Terry. Did you work on a Watchmen script?
Yes, we did a Watchmen script. I don’t really know what happened to it. I gather that the producer and the person who owned the rights to that fell out at some point, that’s what I heard and that’s why it didn’t move forward. Joel Silver and somebody else… that was a script we worked on. There was a pre-existing script incidentally, but we changed it, we moved it about a bit. But that fell by the wayside.

Terry has often talked about the problems of making it as a feature length move, squeezing it down. How did you go about solving that?
We cut stuff out. Part of the problem is people assume that if you’ve got an illustrated novel like that you’re three quarters of the way of getting a movie, but it just isn’t so. It’s such a different commodity really, the book is in your hands, and you are going back and forwards, the movie is just a different thing. It was always going to present problems, I think we just had to rather painfully take stuff out. It was always going to be less, it was always a bit frustrating. It’s such a great graphic novel, and we were aware of the possibility of doing damage to it. I don’t know what it is going to look like, this one that’s coming up.

You were involved with a Time Bandits project?
Yes, I’ve been involved with Time Bandits projects twice. Paragon bought the rights to the Handmade pictures, when George Harrison sold them. In the whole portfolio of pictures, a few movies in there that were good. There was Life of Brian, and a few other money makers, good pictures.

Paragon wanted to realise this investment and make a sequel to Time Bandits. At the same time, Paragon was selling the whole platform of pictures, using Life of Brian and other pictures as loss leaders to sell the lot. Now Python felt they weren’t getting the value that they should have been getting from their pictures. There was a lawsuit and Paragon lost, and this was all happening while I was writing the first draft of the Time Bandits sequel. So I only got to do the first draft and naturally there wasn’t really much hope of Paragon working with any of the Pythons, so that all collapsed.

Subsequently a few years later, Terry met up with the guy who runs Hallmark. And they talked about doing two TV specials of Time Bandits, which I put together with Terry. Hallmark then wanted to sell to ABC, but ABC didn’t go for it. I think they liked the script, but that foundered.

Was there anything else with Terry?
I began working with Terry on Don Quixote. We did a draft of that and Terry wasn’t terribly pleased with it. He wanted to go in another direction and I wasn’t sure about it so we parted company amicably. Terry went on to move ahead with the project some years later so that was a project that didn’t work out, we just quit. That was before the Time Bandits TV thing.

There has been news on the Internet about a project you are working on with Michele Soavi
I met Michele on Munchausen when he was Terry’s 2nd Unit Director. He asked me last year if I could work on a script with him – The Katakomb Klub – so that’s what I have been doing. I finished the second draft not long ago, so I’m waiting to see what response I get from that. They saw the early stuff and seemed to like it, it’s a comedy love story, with a bit of horror. Michele is talking about it as a horror movie, but I’m not sure it’s a real horror movie.

There was a pre-existing script that was owned by the producer Carlo Degli Esposti. He had taken it to Conchita Airoldi who has been Michele’s producer for some years. Michele liked it and so did I and we have been working on it, but I don’t know if it has been green lit.

It’s a very nice idea. About a group of Christians who get entombed by a group of Roman soldiers who are persecuting them, in the 2nd century AD, in Britain in the Thames Valley. A leisure centre is being built on the same spot later, and somebody falls down a hole and finds all these people who have been living down there for 2000 years. They all speak Latin and they’ve grown little horns, and they’ve got funny pointy translucent ears and filed teeth and they eat rats. It’s comedy basically as you can probably tell, that’s the intention.

I read something about a music teacher…
Yes the central character writes music, he has had a few albums, and has been quite successful, but he’s not really happy in the music business. He’s hiring himself out, prostituting himself to whoever will hire him as a songwriter and music teacher. A Russian oligarch is building this leisure centre and his wife wants to be a pop star, but she can’t sing unfortunately. Our central character is being employed to coach her, and write songs for her. He’s in a difficult position. I think it could be fun.

More to explore

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In a second interview with Dreams, David Warren talks about his postproduction design work on The Zero Theorem

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