Filmmaker Terry Gilliam has led a challenging career. Some might even go so far as to call it unlucky, if it weren’t for the fact that his career has seen tremendous highs to counter the lows. His first work of note was as the sole American member of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” in the early 1970s. He began with the troupe as an animator, creating the cartoons that linked the show’s sketches together, but was later credited as a full member after acting and directing several Monty Python sketches and movies throughout the decade that followed.
Gilliam then created the highly stylistic and decidedly dark film “Brazil” (1985), but had to battle with Universal Studios while trying to get it made. “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” followed in 1988, but it was beset with budget issues and never received a wide U.S. release due to financial problems at Columbia Pictures. However, the movie was nominated for four Academy Awards.
In 1991, the director’s “The Fisher King” was nominated for five Academy Awards, and Gilliam saw his “12 Monkeys” become a huge box office hit in 1995. Unfortunately, he ended that decade on a down note when production was shut down on “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” due to scheduling conflicts, a lead actor with a herniated disc, budget cuts, and a huge flood.
Finally, in 2008, Gilliam was dealt one of his biggest blows while on production with “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” – his lead actor and good friend Heath Ledger passed away. While the death of Ledger did temporarily halt the making of the film, Gilliam persevered. The show must go on, right? With some alterations to the script – and a helping hand from actors Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell – the movie was completed. And this film is the reason, of course, the filmmaker was present at Comic-Con International.
The discussion panel began with a short video introducing Gilliam and gave a small retrospective of his career with clips from many of the movies mentioned above. It concluded with the filmmaker talking about “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” which he described as “the most mature thing I’ve ever done, as well as the most juvenile thing I’ve ever done.”
Gilliam then came out on stage and was given a surprise by CCI representatives – an Inkpot Award for achievement in film arts! The filmmaker thanked everyone, and wondered aloud where it would fit in his suitcase. He added, “I’ll probably get arrested [taking this back to England] because you can probably take over an airplane with a weapon like this.”
Moving onto the topic of “Parnassus,” the writer-director explained that the story is about the immortal 1,000-year old Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), who leads a travelling theater troupe that offers audience members a chance to go beyond reality via a magical mirror. Joining him in his troupe are a sleight of hand expert (Andrew Garfield), a dwarf (Verne Troyer), and his daughter (Lily Cole).
Parnassus has been granted immortality and other gifts thanks to a deal he made with the Devil (Tom Waits) for his daughter’s soul. When the Devil collects his due on the girl’s sixteenth birthday, though, the troupe – along with a mysterious outsider named Tony (Ledger’s role) – embarks on a journey through parallel worlds to rescue her.
What happened to the movie when Ledger passed away during production? As the characters were travelling through magical realms, it made sense to the filmmaker that an individual (especially one like Tony) could appear differently depending on which realm he was in. Gilliam made some tweaks to the script, recruited Depp, Farrell, and Law to play Ledger’s part in various incarnations, and…voila! Heath Ledger’s final role will be seen by the world.
Gilliam then showed the audience other clips from the film, but before he did so, he explained that he hates when trailers give away all the “good parts” of a movie, so he would only be sharing the “boring bits.” Well, from the audience’s reactions to scenes with flying carpets, surreal magical mirror worlds, and carnival barkers in modern London, Gilliam left no one in the room feeling bored.
The filmmaker then introduced a member of the cast who worked with him on “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” as well as “Parnassus” – Verne Troyer (“Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me”). The actor joined him on stage, and they then opened up the microphone to questions from the audience. The first fan asked where the idea the Gilliam’s latest project came from.
“I was feeling sorry for myself because ‘Tideland’ wasn’t the great success that I’d hoped. I felt that no one wanted to see the kind of story I’m telling anymore,” Gilliam said. “So ‘Parnassus’ grew out of that as a man with a travelling show trying to get people to allow their imagination to blossom.”
Gilliam explained that he had a bunch of ideas, all of which he brought to his former collaborator Charles McKeown, with whom he had written “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.” They got together, let the story grow “in an organic way,” and the end result was “Parnassus.”
The writer-director talked about Tony, an important character to the film in more ways than one. He said that Tony was inspired by Tony Blair, “One of the great prime ministers of England who got us into one of the most insidious wars imaginable.” This would be Ledger’s eventual role, even though he didn’t write it with Heath in mind. However, the two had worked together on “The Brothers Grimm” and were in contact at the time.
“Heath had been doing his work as the Joker, and I’d put him up in this little workspace in our special effects company,” Gilliam recalled. “And one day, I was showing my storyboards to my special effects guys while he was sitting there working. And in the middle of all this, he slipped me a note that said, ‘Can I play Tony?’ And I said ‘YES!’”
At that point, took his script, art for the film, and commitment from Ledger to studios, but none were willing to finance the project. The filmmaker said he knew the actor was going to be huge after “The Dark Knight,” which hadn’t been released at that point, but for whatever reason the studios couldn’t see it. So the film ended up being made on a far smaller budget than he had hoped.
On working with Ledger, the panelists had nothing but kind words. Troyer said, “I really liked working with Heath. It was an honor and a privilege.”
Gilliam added, “He was an exceptional actor and human being. He was one of the greatest actors of his – and other – generations.”
Another fan who stepped up to the microphone asked how Gilliam picked his projects. The filmmaker simply replied that he didn’t. “My projects pick me,” he said. “I get an idea or something inside me bristles and takes over. The only times that hasn’t happened were ‘The Fisher King,’ ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,’ and ’12 Monkeys.’ Those were scripts that I thought were so extraordinary but would never get through the [Hollywood studio] system, so I decided to make them to prove they could be made.”
When asked about his inspiration and where he gets his “wacky” view of the world, Gilliam responded, “I see my films as normal, but everyone else calls them crazy and weird. I just thought that’s what the world was like. I was trying to be an honest documentary filmmaker, but it doesn’t seem I come off that way, does it? Most of my inspirations come from literature, paintings, music, but not as much from films as you’d think.”
The final audience member to ask a question mentioned how much he had enjoyed Gilliam’s films and wanted to know what he would be doing next. The writer-director said that he had reacquired the rights to “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” (which he had lost due to all the production troubles mentioned earlier), and was planning on moving forward with the project. That said, it won’t exactly be the same film this time around.
“After seven or eight years of not reading the script because it was perfect, I read it…and we’ve rewritten it,” Gilliam confessed. “It wasn’t perfect, so maybe that many-year gap has been good for the film. Jeremy Thomas is producing it, and I am now on the hunt for actors… and money.”
With that, fans gave the filmmaker – and Inkpot award-winner – a big round of applause.