LONDON – It’s Day 13 of the location work on Terry Gilliam’s latest project, The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus. The production has recommenced after its Christmas break, and this evening the crew is at Leadenhall Market in London’s financial district, having previously shot on Blackfriars Bridge over the Thames, and Battersea Power Station. Yet to come is the studio work in Vancouver, scheduled for Spring 2008. And also yet to come is the death of actor Heath Ledger. Today though, just two weeks before he died, Ledger is full of life – and he mischievously interrupts my interview with the director.
I had asked Gilliam why he’d kicked off this Dr Parnassus project, given that he’d had a number of other projects on the go – including Good Omens and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Before the director could answer, Heath Ledger, who had been listening in, leaned over to the microphone, and teased the director. “Because he’s fucking crazy”, stated the actor, matter-of-factly. Gilliam responded to the interruption, and addressed his answer directly to Ledger. “Because I needed to get Heath a job”, joked Gilliam, “His career was in the doldrums, he was practically on the streets begging. He had to go work for Warner Brothers and places like that. Oh fuck me!” Having created his moment of fun, undermining my interview, Ledger wandered off enigmatically, saying “That’s all right, I only have to keep my neck warm… Sorry!”
Gilliam then composed himself and gave a serious answer: “Things just weren’t moving forward on the other projects. So I thought it stupid, just waiting around for other people, trying to adapt other people’s books. So I thought I’d invent something from scratch. Trying to think the way I did in Python, in fact introducing everything I’ve ever done before, and changing the colours a bit.”
These are long working days for Gilliam, who was on set for 9am, to see how the set preparation work was progressing. Shooting would carry on until 3am. For the sequence being shot today, the Imaginarium – a travelling theatre/wagon – is in its opened state, situated under the clock in the central cobbled crossroads of the covered market. The director explained to me the context of this evening’s sequence. “This is the transformation of the theatre. In the scene previous to this, there has been a disaster, and the theatre’s been heavily damaged. Parnassus is running out of ideas on how to continue. Yet Tony (Ledger) comes along and says it’s old fashioned, out-of-touch. You’ve got to be modern, you’ve got to go to better places and use a different style. And that’s what we are seeing today.”
Some shots, filmed at Leadenhall Market, featured in the official trailer.
Here, Tony (Heath Ledger’s character) returns to the real world
Gilliam spoke to me in more detail as the first shot was being set up, just before the main actors turned up on the wagon’s stage in full costume, and what an odd group they turned out to be: Christopher Plummer, as Dr Parnassus, is in the centre of the stage wearing a white coat and a red turban. To the right is Lily Cole as his daughter – appearing as Eve – naked except for a long wig. Andrew Garfield is reclining on a bed of apples wearing sunglasses, a fat suit, a dress and a lady’s wig. At the front is Heath Ledger in a white suit, silver make-up and a Venetian mask with an elephant’s trunk. And to his side is Verne Troyer as Percy, in yellow costume and blacked up.
The first shot, which starts shooting at 6pm, is a pull-back. A track has been set up, perpendicular to the stage. We initially see a small cashbox, and as the camera moves away from the stage, we gradually see more of the five figures on the Imaginarium’s stage, all still except for Percy pulling a fan and Tony playing a tune on a pipe. Even for Gilliam, this is an unusual shot, and even though the pull-back is slow, there just won’t be enough time for the audience to enjoy every single detail contained within the shot.
Later on, a tall actress jumps up onto the stage, and is restrained by Verne, who is as high as the actress’s knees. Gilliam giggles, “The tallest woman I’ve ever worked with, and the shortest man. That’s what I love about Verne, you put him in there and he just gets on with it.”
Phil Stubbs: The script, by yourself and Charles McKeown, who did what?
Terry Gilliam: Well I wrote the good bits, and Charles did the long-winded dialogue! No, in fact it was like a tennis match throwing things back and forth, and slowly things kept developing. It’s weird, when you start you just have ideas, you start plugging them in… and out of it comes a tale. It’s nice working with Charles again – it’s been a long time since Munchausen.
The film is about a…
…it’s a guy who can’t get his films made… oh sorry…
Yes, it’s about an aging man who has to reduce the scale of what he does. Where on earth did you get the idea for that, Terry?
I don’t know where these things come from… I look at other people’s careers and I think “Oh, such sad people. Let’s make a film about those kinds of people.”
No, it is in that sense very autobiographically based – just the frustration of trying to get projects off the ground. Trying to get people to give you the money to make the film. I thought well, do something for $25m, that should be a reasonable number to get. And it has proved to be immensely difficult to get even $25m.
The character Mr Nick – aka the Devil, played by Tom Waits – does he represent anything from your life?
He’s the one who always distracts you from the big ideas – doing the difficult, doing the impossible. He’s actually a good, reasonable person. Probably the most sensible person around. But his is the easier life, our friend Mr Nick. Why do people go out and kill themselves, doing ridiculous things? That’s for fools.
Did the preproduction run fairly smoothly?
No, because we didn’t have the money. When you set out to do something for that kind of price for something that’s as ambitious as this, with this amount of effects and imagery, you need a lot of preparation time because that’s cheap. Yet we never had the money so every week there wouldn’t be the money to pay people. So we scrambled along with just a handful of people and somehow we’re here, still surviving despite the lack of preparation.
In searching for locations, did you see anything new about London that you’d never encountered before?
Not really, at the beginning I was trying to avoid all the iconic places, but I gave up. I thought: what am I doing? We’re in London, let’s show London. So we’ve got Tower Bridge, we’re here in Leadenhall Market, which has always been one of my favourite spots – it’s all here. Battersea Power Station, where we filmed part of Meaning of Life. We’ve ended up using some big landmarks. Blackfriars Bridge cried out for a man to hang… an homage to the Pope’s banker. We should credit him.
With the cast you have gathered, what surprises have there been?
Heath Ledger was a big surprise. He was working in London, while he was doing the Joker. He was working at the effects company, over at Peerless with Daniele Auber – who did the storyboards on Grimm. And they were working on an animated music video. One day I was showing them the slide show of what we were doing, the storyboards, and he slipped me a note saying, “Can I play Tony?” That was a very big surprise! He had read the script, I’m always throwing things his way, but that was a total and utter surprise – wonderful!
It’s similar to my last film Tideland – in a UK/Canadian co-production, you need Canadian actors, so I killed two birds with one stone with Christopher Plummer. He had been in 12 Monkeys, and he was the first name that came up, and he was Canadian as well – so thank God! This is working. So a lot of things were falling into place like that.
What qualities of Christopher make him so special for the part?
He’s a great theatrical actor, he’s theatrical. He’s of a certain age, and he’s been a huge star. His daughter Amanda Plummer worked in The Fisher King so I thought there was an interesting relationship with him and his real daughter. What has been amazing with Chris is that he’s constantly coming along and suggesting for example, that he should be in the scene at a particular point. I say, “What?” It takes me a couple of minutes to take it in. And I said, “Jesus he’s right!”
What’s fantastic is that his theatrical sense is proving to be absolutely perfect for the character. And he wants to find the humour in the character all the time. That’s been really interesting to watch. We have really good actors, but not necessarily good comedians, but they are finding the humour in all this, and that’s good.
A Dutch animator was trying to get in touch with Tom Waits, and he asked me if I’d send him some stuff, which I did. It was the first contact I’d had with Tom in several years. Tom turned down this other guy, and he said to me, “Have you got anything going for me?” And I said well there is this thing. I said I’d got a part, he said “I’m in”, before he’d even read the script.
Irene Lamb, the casting director, said Andrew Garfield is really, really good. I actually hadn’t seen him in anything, but he sent a tape, and he was brilliant. I said, “Done.” Within a week, I got a call from Heath saying, “Have you cast a guy named Andrew”. I said “Yeah”. He said, “You won’t believe it, I’m on my way to his birthday party.” He had got to know Andrew just a couple of weeks earlier.
Then Irene mentioned Lily Cole. I’d always thought she was an extraordinary looking creature, because Valentina has to be that. And Irene said she can act as well, so we did a little screen test and bingo, that was done!
What surprised me yesterday was the contrast between the way she looks, her delicate features, and the way she was dealing with those unfortunate chickens
Exactly, I’ve been doing all that stuff, I’ve been writing it in, to break down this angel look. And so I keep her doing nasty things. The other night, in a scene, she said, “Should I smoke?” She looks so extraordinary. And the minute she was cast, suddenly she’s now representing Marks and Spencer. She’s the new face of M&S, so suddenly Lily’s everywhere. These things keep happening, they always surprise me.
When did Verne Troyer enter the project, did you have him in mind?
Verne was briefly in Fear and Loathing – for two seconds. I thought if we’re going to put on a freak show, we’re going to put on a troupe of extraordinary people, an ordinary small guy is not good enough for this show… we’ve got to get the smallest guy out there. And the thing about Verne is, knowing him, I know his attitude and he’s absolutely spot on for Percy, because Percy’s cynical, he’s a smart-ass, he just doesn’t take it from anybody, and Verne is like that.
When I first gave him the script we were in LA, and we were trying to raise the money, and I’m on the way to the airport and Amy organised for Verne to get in the car before me, coming out of the meeting. So Verne’s in the car on the way to the airport. I gave him the script, he looked at a few pages and I said watch this particular line, Verne, you’ll like this, and he responded so, “Yeah, Get a Midget. Yeah I like it.” Tonight he’s blacked up and wearing an afro wig. We’ve called him the Jackson 5%! Verne ad libs a lot too, and we’ve loosened up the script in that sense, to let people work on their own lines much more, and we’ve just benefited at every point.
Tom Waits, as Mr Nick, digitally superimposed on what was filmed at Leadenhall
The weather’s been kind to you on this one
Yes I can’t believe it. The luck is on our side. It scares me to shit every day that it’s suddenly going to turn nasty… like you’ve seen in documentaries…
How are you dealing with the cold?
I’ve been fine, it’s the actors who suffer. They don’t get to wear a big sheepskin jacket. That’s the thing I worry about all the time, because it’s been bitterly cold – particularly when we were on Blackfriars Bridge, with all that artificial rain. They are all pretty knackered because it’s really hard work. But they’re all troupers.
What problems have shooting in London caused?
Health and Safety, health and bloody fucking safety. You can’t move here now, everybody is treated like children. So a call sheet, normally two pages of actors and everything. Now it comes about 25 pages, with every location you go to you have to have health and safety people looking at everything, writing down every possible toxic gas or pebble you might trip on, to make sure nobody can sue. And it’s just the most maddening thing. It’s happened since that last time I shot in London. It’s not even nanny state any more, it’s living in fear that somebody might hurt themselves and not take personal responsibility for their own state.
So is it worse than in the States?
I haven’t done anything in the States for a while so I don’t know. It probably is. There’s an organisation that checks on personal freedoms and individual rights. England is there with America, Russia and China as the worst places on the planet with the most infringements of personal liberties, isn’t it wonderful!
Lily Cole and Christopher Plummer
You’re still using the wide angles?
I’m trying to use them less. The theory was all the stuff outside in the real world outside the Imaginarium would be longer lenses, and inside would be extremely wide lenses. But I’ve failed to be true to my original intentions!
Have you been choosing the lenses well in advance or is it on the day?
Everything is instinctive, I mean Nicola and I don’t even talk about it anymore. I say what have you got? Fine, let’s go.
Or where the camera will be pointing, is that agreed in advance?
To the extent that when we rehearse the scene we know where everyone is moving so I’m not doing anything fancy. I mean it’s very to the point of what you’re trying to do and just covering it. We don’t have the time to get very fancy.
It’s a crazy schedule for what we are trying to achieve, but we’re holding it, except for one night at Blackfriars Bridge where we got really screwed badly. Everything else, we’ve managed to scrape through. The wagon guys, the horse guys, the stunt guys, the wire guys. Put it all together and three hours disappeared on Blackfriars Bridge. They just fucked up so badly. It’s maybe the spirit of Roberto Calvi… “Yes, you’ve not killed me yet”. It was early days too, and you suddenly realise that departments are not speaking to each other properly. It was a ridiculously bold scene to do right at the beginning of the shoot, without the crew really up and running.
And it’s great to have two actors – Heath and Andrew – hanging off the bridge, doing things most actors wouldn’t even think of doing. They were great, fantastic. That’s the good thing: the atmosphere amongst the cast… and Andrew – who’s now in full drag and a fat suit. I’ve now got to see how Lily’s going on, see how her Eve is getting on…