The Dr Parnassus Press Conference at Cannes – Part 2


Here is Part Two of the Dr Parnassus Press Conference at the Cannes Film Festival. Part One is here.

Director Gilliam with Verne Troyer

(To Gilliam, T) It seems to me a compendium of all of your movies in the past. I wanted to know something about the choice of Christopher Plummer… and Tom Waits as the devil. I wanted to know your point of view about the pact – what it means, because they are also friends.
The eternal battle between good and evil. They need each other don’t they. One without the other does not really exist. I wouldn’t say they are friends but they are old enemies for so long, they develop a relationship, and they do need each other.

A Dutch animator friend asked me if I knew Tom Waits, and if I could get in touch with Tom doing the voice on an animated film. I wrote Tom and let the guy offer up this opportunity. Tom said no, but he wrote back and said have you anything for me? We were just finishing up the script on Parnassus and I said I got a part for you, you are the devil. He took the part without reading the script. It was as simple as that. I thought you couldn’t ask for a better devil. He’s so dark, wonderful, poetic. I think Tom is the great American poet for me.

I worked with Christopher on 12 Monkeys and we got an exceedingly well, and then saw him in New World, the Terry Malick film. I thought Chris is great, he looks wonderful. It was very quick, I thought we’ve got to get somebody like Chris. One of the great, great actors out there, and it’s a part that demands that. What’s wonderful about him, he doesn’t listen to me when I start trying to direct him, and that’s really important. He knows what he is doing, and he is brilliant. That’s what I loved about Chris, it’s a series of double acts: Chris Plummer and Tom Waits; Chris Plummer and Lily Cole; Chris Plummer and Verne Troyer. We’ve put Chris through every possible strange relationship you’d hope for. He’s the rock, it’s really his movie. He’s just the centre of this whole thing, and he was great to work with, I remember the first time we were doing rehearsals, the scene where Heath comes out of the trunk. In the script it said, and now Parnassus makes his entrance and Chris says no I don’t think so. No wait a minute, it says here in the script… He said, no I don’t think it would be right, I would just be standing around. So OK I don’t fight him, we just moved his entrance down, because a great actor, especially a theatrical actor, they know entrances and exits. Always trust them, they are right.

Verne, Lily and Andrew – what kind of director is Terry? Does he gives you a lot of direction?
Troyer: He gives you a lot of insight on what the character is and he lets you explore that in your own way. When you have a director like that it makes it so much fun. I worked with Terry one other time, in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – just a small part… no pun intended. I got to know him then, so I was just so grateful when he offered me this role in the film.

Cole: It was interesting for me because it was pretty much my first experience. I had no relativity of what directors are like. In retrospect, he does allow an amazing… playground was one word Andrew used earlier on. A playground where he trusts his actors and guides us so we know where we are going then we are also given the scope to play with it. He also has impeccable instincts and he knows when something’s not right and something is right. If we haven’t quite got there, we play with different ways to get where we need to go and hopefully – I haven’t seen it yet – have the right instinct to choose the right part and take.

Garfield: I hated it. It was horrible, just a horrible time overall. No, it was lovely. These guys said it all.

(To Gilliam, T) Given what we know of Heath Ledger’s Pythonesque sense of humour, do you think he might be perversely amused that the first view we get of him in this film is swinging from a bridge, apparently lifeless?
That was the great thing about giving Heath a chance to really work on his comedy. His comedy timing was impeccable, and he was such a funny guy. He hasn’t had that many roles that allowed him to and he had a lot more up his sleeve on this one. The beginning was really… His first appearance was really an homage to Roberto Calvi, the famous Italian Vatican banker who was found hanging under that very bridge.

In some ways the character of Tony was… its initial idea is based on Tony Blair, a person I love dearly. And I thought I couldn’t imagine a more fitting beginning for the character to be hung from a bridge. There is irony throughout this film. There is even more irony post Heath’s own death. It’s just very strange. We didn’t change any dialogue. Some people have already commented on the scene with Johnny and the Louis Vuitton woman (as she is known) living forever young and never growing old. Those were all written in advance. And I really felt we weren’t going to change anything. At one point, in a scene in the monastery, Chris has a line where he’s talking about stories, romance and comedy, a tale of unforeseen death, and Chris didn’t want to say that line. And I understand completely why. This was after Heath had died. I said, no, we say the line. This is the movie Heath wanted to see, and this is the movie we will do. I hope he will be pleased with it, I think he would be.

(To Gilliam, T) Tom Waits is pretty much perfect casting, but he is known for his eccentricities. What was he like to work with and do you have any stories from the actual shoot?
I don’t understand where the eccentric stories come from because he is one of the most normal, decent, sweet human beings you’d ever meet. What I love about Tom is that he was fascinated by filmmaking. He’s been in many films but he seemed to be like a kid just watching this thing, he was always around the set. Strangely enough he’s just a simple, direct, sweet man, and absolutely a genius. And again he started adlibbing stuff. He and Chris are the great romance in the movie, I think. It’s just wonderful between the two of them. They just sparked each other off. And when you think of these two people coming from the totally opposite sides of the creative world. They just met in the middle and they were so comfortable with each other. It was really boring, no bad story to tell about anybody on this film. What a dull film we got here.

(To Gilliam, T) I liked your point about Tony Blair, your suggestion…
Did I say Tony Blair?

(To Gilliam, T) That he might be a snake oil salesman, can you expand a bit on that?
Snake oil salesman? Absolutely, well said. I think Tony believes whatever comes out of his mouth, even though he’s never thought about it until the moment it comes out. That’s our man in the Middle East. As Gaza is being bombed, he’s getting an award pinned on his chest by George Bush. That’s how you deal with the peace in the Middle East. Well done, Tony.

(To Gilliam, T) Thanks also for picking up Andrew Garfield and Lily Cole, who are great up-and-coming young British actors.
They proved to be brilliant, they were obviously dangerous choices. Everybody was saying I was making a fool of myself by choosing these two people, but they are absolutely wonderful. That’s what I love about the film, more than the look or anything. I think it’s the most wonderful collection of actors and everybody has done such a spectacular job. It’s alive. It is a character piece, I don’t think it’s a visual piece at all. It’s about the characters, that’s what I care about in the film.

Amy and Samuel, what was your biggest challenge as producers on this film, was it dealing with Terry?
Hadida: Making his vision right, that everything that he has in his imagination will be on the screen, the challenge to get through that.

Gilliam, A: I agree, I also wanted to say that we had the support of another wonderful producing partner who was our Canadian partner, William Vince. He was with us at the beginning of this movie and unfortunately he passed away during this film. He was a big help.

Gilliam, T: That’s right. Bill really pushed this thing from the beginning, he was there at the start, and pushed and pushed. And managed to fool people like Sammy to come on board and save our ass. Bill died the week after we finished the final bit of model shooting so it’s been a double tragedy, and at the same time it’s been absolutely magical. There seems to be a force at work to keep this thing going and at times one can get quite mystic about it, but we won’t today.

(To Gilliam, T) With regard to the producing of this film. Clearly you work outside of the Hollywood studio system and you said yesterday how much you hate it. That is unfortunately is an old story because there are reasons to hate it, and that’s why its said. Nevertheless, you cobble together production money from all sorts of interesting places these days. This is not a Canadian film but it’s a Canadian co-production, it’s a British co-production, a French co-production. I’m curious for you to talk about how to cobble together money in this modern world, in this fractured film business.
Gilliam, T: Honestly I don’t know how it’s done. That’s why Sammy sits next to me here. Bill brought the Canadian side, he started with that. We brought the English side, Amy and I. And Sammy brought the rest of the world.

Lily Cole,Terry Gilliam and Andrew Garfield

Hadida: Absolutely, but you have to know that Terry’s movie are always appreciated all over the world by all the distributors. Distributors like to work with him. We need his movies because he has his own voice and his perspective on movies. I distributed Brothers Grimm before, which is how I began to know Terry. If you want the big challenge with his script, his vision, the cast he has assembled to have all the distributors in the world to follow the project. This is what the big challenge is. We made a little promo, we went to see all the distributors in the world. And then we ask them to buy and pre-buy this movie – because it was important to have Terry Gilliam coming back to his roots with a bigger budget fantasy. This is what everybody wants to see today – they want to see Terry Gilliam at his best. That was the idea, and that is what we have now today. Everybody went on board. After that it is easy, when everybody commit, they give you the money!

Gilliam, T: That’s what’s been great about this film – I think it’s been total freedom. Everybody has been totally supportive. Strangely enough, when Heath died, it created a much more interesting situation. It was very difficult, we had to solve things in the most pragmatic way. It wasn’t a case of: Wouldn’t it be nice to do something, I’ve got a great idea… It was: How do we solve this puzzle so the whole process from Heath’s death has been a pragmatic one: getting through making choices that were the only choices available.

In some ways that’s why I’ve always thought Heath was co-directing this movie because he was creating a situation where there was only a couple of choices and that was very much part of the process. And as painful as it was, it was nothing as bad as working in other situations I’ve been in, where there’s a lot of people interfering. Everybody was solid on this one, let’s be clear about what we are trying to do, and if it doesn’t work, let’s get that out.

Hadida: All the distributors in the world has allowed us to continue after the tragedy. You have the first commitment, but when the movie stopped, they repeated their commitment to Terry’s vision. All the talent, all the industry said that they were going for the movie until it’s finished.

Gilliam, A: At the very beginning of this film, when Bill Vince and myself were handed the script, Terry was determined we were going to make it. I was determined that we were going to make it, and Bill was just as determined. The three of us were fighting with a great team of people from the Canadian side and the British side. We were just going to make this film, come hell or high water. It was a challenge before the departing of Heath, and before we got Samuel – who saved the day. We were in preproduction with no money. We were jumping off the cliff and hoping to get our wings, and we did – and that was amazing.

Gilliam, T: The real thing has got to go to Johnny, Colin and Jude, which was an extraordinary thing. They were all doing other things, they were all doing other projects. They came to the rescue of this thing. They did it basically for nothing. The money they would have been paid went to Matilda, Heath’s daughter. They are the real heroes, they are extraordinary.

(To Gilliam, T) After this amazing adventure, are you in the mood to retake your project on Don Quixote?
Ah, Don Quixote rides again! We have rewritten the script, we finally got the script back from the lawyers. We have rewritten it and Jeremy Thomas is producing it. The plan is to start shooting next Spring time, and I don’t have anything more to say about it, except that we are at that beginning stage: get the money, get the bodies, and lets go!

Link to Dr Parnassus homepage within Dreams

More to explore

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