Interview: Terry Gilliam on The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus and Heath Ledger

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus will never be remembered as a great movie, even though there are some who will say it is. It will, instead, be remembered as the movie actor Heath Ledger died during the production of. For most directors, this would have proved an impossible obstacle to hurdle, but Terry Gilliam already lives in a world of impossibilities. Just look at his credit list, which includes Time Bandits, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and Brazil. When Heath died playing a character who guides people through a mystical mirror that reveals their deepest desires on the other side, Gilliam thought, "Why not get three of Heath's closest actor friends to play Heath during these interludes?" The problem of an unexpectedly deceased actor immediately was solved, and to surprising effect. I sat down with the legendary helmer recently to discuss his seemingly boundless imagination, Parnassus, and, of course, Heath's passing.

Cole Haddon: It's impossible to watch one of your movies without thinking about the way imagination has become addled by the Internet, and then you go the opposite direction and show that the mind is still a brilliant place to be. So where does this inspiration come from? Is it contrary to this world that we are living in, technologically?

Terry Gilliam: Well, I think the biggest thing I find is we are so overwhelmed by information now, and the media pours in, the Internet pours in. I don't know how people maintain their own individual identity anymore, and how you imagine your own world because it's that. I don't know. I was lucky. I grew up living in the country with only radio, so I'd imagine a lot of things and that's, I think, where it comes from.

It's like with my son. We've got a house in Italy and there's no television, there's no telephone, and when he was younger, we'd go there and he'd be bored for the first couple days. "No PlayStation. Where's the stuff?!" It's doing all the work for him. My wife says, "Oh we've got to entertain him." I said, "No, don't do anything. Wait for him." About two days into it, he starts making things with a stick, and then there's a little bit of this, and suddenly he's come alive and he's inventing a world and he's playing. That's fantastic. He's having a great time because he's in his own head now. And then, we go back home and the first thing he does is turn on the television and he's dead again.

I'm really trying to get people to just kind of switch. We used to be able to say, "I want people to switch off." And my biggest thing now is everything is about networking and connections and blah, blah, blah. Mine is about aloneness. I'm trying to get people to learn to be alone. Turn it all off. Just be with yourself, and see what's there, see if there's anybody home, or whether you're just a neuron or a synaptic gap is what you may be.

Imaginarium of Doctor ParnassusCH: Can you recall when you first heard Heath Ledger had passed away?

TG: What you need to do is read the Vanity Fair article [I did]. I'm actually bored describing the moment when I found that Heath was dead.

CH: Fair enough. Then how did you come up with the idea to finish the film?

TG: Once you decide to carry on, which is the hard part, you say, "Alright, he goes through the mirror three times. Three actors." On just a totally pragmatic level, there was no way to get one actor to replace Heath. I didn't want to do that anyway. And there's no way to get a great actor to turn up at the last moment. We're making a movie. People have schedules. They're all busy working. The fact we were able to squeeze Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law's schedule into our schedule in some way was kind of a miracle, and so you needed a chance. You've got three possibilities out there, and it was actually just more interesting as well.

I thought you needed three A-list actors to replace Heath. He was that good. That was my attitude. But once you make the decision that people's faces can change on the other side of the mirror, that was basically simple. I didn't rewrite much. There's a lot of little things that I've done, but nothing of any substance. Everything you hear, the dialogue was all written before. That speech that Johnny gives about the young dying, some people think that's a eulogy to Heath. No. That was written. This film was about mortality. That's the great irony of the whole thing: mortality being a central part of the story and look what happens. I suppose one's got to be careful of what one writes at times.

CH: When Heath's character goes into the mirror, he changes into three different actors. Did you ever consider using the same sort of transformation for other characters who passed through the mirror? [In my defense, I already understood the answer to this question; I just thought an explanation from Gilliam for readers would be invaluable].

TG: No, because what's going on there, you get two things happening. You go through the mirror -- let's do the Johnny scene for a moment. Here's my logic, my reasoning for what we do. So, you go through and you're actually in the imagination of the woman, the Louis Vuitton woman as we call her -- shoes, the temple of shoes, giant shoes with a Buddha for shoe enlightenment ultimately. Enlightenment through shopping is what we're offering there. And suddenly this guy, [Johnny playing Heath's character], turns up, "That's the guy. I dreamed you would look like that." That's a line that I added. I added that line to explain. She has dreamed he looks like that so now he can be that. Now, OK, he looks like her dream boy, but when he's dancing around, suddenly Valentina [Lily Cole] is back in there, because he still fancies Valentina and she's wise. So now we're in his imagination with Valentina floating in the air. It's this idea that we've got two imaginations at work. First, it's hers and she transforms [Heath's] Tony into that, into Johnny, and then he's dancing around saying "Whoa! Here's this babe floating in the air," and it's Valentina and she's looking really nice. That's the idea of what's happening there.

CH: Did you ever ask Johnny, Jude, or Colin to emulate Heath in their performance?

TG: No. Number one, I chose people who were close friends of Heath's, so they knew Heath. So that's to start. And then we gave them all DVDs of what we'd been able to assemble of what Heath had done so they can see what he was doing, how he was moving and how he was talking and everything. And then, they arrived. No time to rehearse. Do it. I know, it's really brave of them. It's extraordinarily brave because they could have just fallen flat on their faces. I thought maybe this was the way we could pull this thing off. I wasn't certain. And they just came in and got to work. Johnny, we had one day and three and a half hours -- that's all -- to do everything he did. I watched it the other day and said, "How the fuck did we do that?" But it's that way kind of because he came, he was totally on the ball, we just started shooting. That's what's wonderful because I think as actors, they all got to escape from their own egos. They suddenly were doing something for Heath outside themselves, and they just breathed Heath in and spewed him out.

CH: You've got such an amazing, especially diverse catalogue of films behind you now. I'm curious how things have changed for you as a filmmaker over the years?

TG: Oh, I wish they had changed. It feels exactly the same as when I started. Every one is the first film I've ever made. Every one is hard to get off the ground. For instance, with this film, when I come out to Hollywood to try to beg for money, and I go into the offices and they say, "Oh Terry! We've loved every film you've done. Oh God, we're huge fans. But this one, I'm not sure about." I've heard that for 25 years. The list gets longer of films they've loved, but the word after "but" is always the same. It doesn't change. I mean, Nietzsche was wrong. What doesn't kill you doesn't make you stronger. It just makes you more tired. That's my problem.

CH: You're always the director that surprises us. What surprises you?

TG: Oh, actors surprise me. I'm always begging for surprises. Well, Heath did the big one. That was the kind of surprise I don't need, but he surprised me.