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Terry Gilliam on His New Film (and Heath Ledger’s Last): ‘Lower Your Expectations!’

Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus opens with a scene in which a club kid gets whisked away in the tentacles of a giant, luminescent, intergalactic jellyfish, and that’s far from the craziest thing in the movie (which hits theaters in limited release tomorrow). Indeed, the craziest thing about it might be that it exists at all. As pretty much everyone knows, star Heath Ledger died halfway through production, and Gilliam was ready to give up when Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law joined forces to help him complete it, each filling in for Ledger during different parts of the film. (The actors are all donating their fees from the film to Ledger’s daughter, Matilda.) How exactly does it work? The film is about an ancient and immortal storyteller, Dr. Parnassus (played by Christopher Plummer), who carts around a traveling show featuring a magic mirror that allows people to enter his “Imaginarium,” a fantastical, storybook world where they find themselves faced with pivotal, life-altering choices. Along the way, Parnassus meets the young, mysterious, and charismatic Tony (played by Ledger), who helps him woo bystanders into the Imaginarium. At the time of his death, Ledger had shot all his scenes on the real-world side of the mirror. Now, when Tony goes through to the Imaginarium side of the mirror, he’s played by Depp, Farrell, and Law. The effect is seamless, and even Gilliam seems a bit surprised. The director met with us to talk about Parnassus, his frustration and obsession with movie reviews, and what scares him the most.

At a screening of the film last night, you told everybody to “Lower [their] expectations.” What was that about?
That’s my little joke. I do it all the time now. This thing has been built up so much in people’s minds. It’s just my way of saying, “Just stop. It’s just a fucking movie.”

You’ve said that very little rewriting was necessary after Heath Ledger’s death to make the film work so that his character could turn into Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law at different points.
Yes. Now that’s my advice to young filmmakers: “Always make sure there’s a magic mirror in your movie.”

How do you think the film might have been different, though, if Heath had lived?

I don’t know. How about that? Heath set up the possibilities in his performance. At one moment he’s speaking with an Australian accent, which then slides into a Cockney accent, and we understand that he’s a chameleon. He was always making stuff up on the spot, and I don’t know what he had planned. He had so much shit ready to play with. The only thing I can think of is that if Heath had played Tony all the way through, his character’s journey might have been more dramatic. Because we like him — so even as Tony becomes worse and worse and we find out more about him, we always keep hoping he’ll turn out okay. But he gets dodgier and dodgier, and by the end we realize what a complete shit he is.

It’s funny. This is a movie in which one of the characters is the Devil, and by the end of the movie, you realize he’s not even the real villain.
Exactly. The Devil actually has some principles. Tony struck me as a very modern man. He is principle-less. He’ll say whatever he needs to, and believe it. Tony Blair was always in the back of my mind. He dragged us into the Iraq War, because he believed in it. He’s like Harvey Weinstein, too. As the words actually leave his mouth, he’s convinced he’s telling you the truth. Years ago, I met [Death Wish director] Michael Winner. I don’t like his films, and I always thought he was a bit of a monster. But then I saw that he knows he’s a monster, and he understands his monstrousness. And he’s very charming and funny about it. So … I like him now.

We’re told that Doctor Parnassus controls the Imaginarium, but by the end he’s lost inside it, at its mercy as much as everyone else. Why do I get the weird sense that, as a director, you might identify with that?
I like to say that the movie is making itself. I start the film, and it eventually becomes something greater than me. All religious fanatics think that, of course. The difference is that they think they’ve got a God that’s in control and that he has got a real good plan, and I don’t actually believe that. With films, they just become what they’re going to be, despite themselves. There’s a scene in the film where we see the first time Parnassus and the Devil met: Parnassus is in a monastery where they’re telling “the Eternal Story,” and he thinks that if they stop telling the story, the world will end. And when the Devil forces them to stop, Parnassus realizes that there are other stories being told all over the world. He’s not the only. What we’re really talking about is an egomaniac: “Wow! Stories exist in their own right? Wow!” We’re all kind of like that. I’m like that.

That’s something that a lot of people seem to not get about your films. Yes, your heroes are often aligned with the imagination, but you make it clear that the imagination can also destroy you.
Exactly. The real struggle is between chaos and order. Chaos is the imagination. It can save you, or it can destroy you. I mean, Dick Cheney is a pretty imaginative guy. Look at Donald Rumsfeld’s belief system. These people became victims of the story they were telling, as much as one of my characters. I think that’s something that bothers a lot of people about my films. It’s not black and white. It’s not clear. And I think that can be scary to people.

So, what scares Terry Gilliam?
What scares me? I don’t know … I don’t feel particularly frightened of death. I guess I’m scared of my family dying before me. Simple things scare me. That I won’t get any more films made before I kick the bucket, that scares me. The end of the world doesn’t scare me. I am scared of becoming cynical. You have to have some level of optimism in your work, you have to believe it can make some kind of a difference. Otherwise, you’d probably lose your drive and your ability to work.

Have you ever lost that drive?
Every night! You know, Nietzsche was wrong. What doesn’t kill you does not make you stronger. It makes you really tired. But that’s such a weird, optimistic idea, that everything can be a learning experience, for the better. It’s a very American idea.

It sounds like you read your reviews.
Oh, I read all my reviews. I shouldn’t, but I actually go and find them and read them, and I go crazy. It’s like self-flagellation. I can’t help it. I mean, I’ve got critics I admire and those I don’t. I don’t particularly care if they like or dislike my movies, but the review — it’s gotta be intelligent. My old buddy Joel Siegel, who’s dead now, used to do this thing where he would use clips from a film as a straight-man lead-up to his joke. It drove me crazy. I said to him, “Joel, what are you doing? A lot of people work very hard to make these films!” Feel free to not like them, but to use them as the lead-up to a throwaway gag was really disrespectful. I think he stopped after that. These days, I actually prefer online critics: They have more time with a film, and they don’t have to worry as much about hard deadlines.

Doctor Parnassus is packed with so much story, and it comes at you so fast: Are you worried that audiences might not get it on the first viewing?
I have heard that it’s better the second time from just about everybody. You take in more of the story the second time. But I don’t think I’m particularly special in that regard. Maybe I’m being naïve, but I just remember movies used to be like that. You came to the theater, you sat down, and you focused on this. You didn’t have to multitask. Now, people are so used to television, they’re thinking, “Let’s go to the kitchen and find something to eat.” You have to work a little bit. I mean, you don’t go to a play and stop after twenty minutes or whatever. That said, maybe it’s just me. As a teenager, when I went to drive-in movies in L.A., everybody would be making out, and I’d be there saying, “This is wrong! I want to see the movie!” Needless to say, I was rather bad as a double dater.

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics