Imaginarium: How Terry Gilliam Finished the Troubled Film

Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown co-wrote “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” Heath Ledger’s last film shot before his death. Gilliam also directed the film. With actors Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude law stepping in to take over Ledger’s unfinished performance, the film will be released December 25 by Sony Classics.

In November 2006, Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown started on the script, the third of their written collaborations, following “Brazil” and “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.”

Gilliam had decided to write something original again, after a number of
projects based on finished scripts or adapted from books. “It was nice to see whether we could still do it ourselves from scratch,” he explains. He set himself to exploring his store of unused materials – various ideas, some from unmade films, which had been lying around in a drawer – and started dragging them all out to see what could be used. He wanted to explore the idea of a troupe of travelling theatre people, based in modern-day London, who entered into a variety of exotic and fantastical worlds.

Gilliam also devised the central character of a man who is a bit lost, out of his time, and out of gear with his audience, who don’t want to listen to the stories that he tells any more, while it was McKeown who came up with the name Parnassus. “It’s his adventure, really, I suppose. It wasn’t absolutely fixed, but that was fairly clear in Terry’s mind. I think the idea of Dr Parnassus as a semi-Eastern medicine man just evolved. I don’t think he started quite like that.”

The next stage involved them sitting down and throwing ideas around, although as Gilliam admits, there was no real plan to it. McKeown felt that choice was very important in their movie – entering this extraordinary world involves a series of choices which rule the lives of the characters. The two writers worked on computers, e-mailing back and forth. “Then we’d have another sit down,” says Gilliam. “We’d go through it and, little by little, something was worked out. There is no form as such, it was just sitting down and hammering away at this big block of marble until something beautiful was carved from it.”

“We talked for a couple of weeks around the subject, very broadly,” says
McKeown. “We spent a day talking about the whole range of subjects and then, finally, we started talking about the thing itself, and how it related to current events. It was a mixture of a whole medley of stuff for a couple of weeks and then we started to write a treatment.

“In fact, I insisted that Terry write the treatment because he had a better grip of what it was he wanted than I did at that stage. I didn’t really quite get it at that point, I don’t think. Although it was fun and I could see the story, I thought that Terry had a clearer view. Then I started writing scenes and dialogue and characters and settings and so on, clarifying it a bit. I would send him by e-mail six or seven pages, and he would work on that. He’d change it and embellish it and take what he wanted and add what he wanted, and so on. Meanwhile, I’d send him another lot of pages and he would send that back and show me what he’d done.

“It was a rolling process, going back and forth and, at one point, we’d
stop when we got right to the end of the script, and discuss where we were going, and where we were so far.”

According to Gilliam, “It was like a tennis match, throwing things back
and forth, and slowly things kept developing. You 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’.”

“I don’t think what we ended up with was what we started out with, in every respect,” admits McKeown. “Maybe Doctor Parnassus is fairly close to how he started, but the other characters changed a bit as we went along. Certainly, the character of Valentina, Parnassus’s daughter, changed a lot and the other characters shifted too, when they weren’t quite working as well as they might do.

“We break the rules really. You are supposed to focus on a central
character. That’s one of the recipes for success, to have a central character with whom the audience can identify. But this is a group piece and although it’s called Doctor Parnassus, and he’s very much the centre of it, and everything goes on around him, nevertheless, you are caught up in everybody else’s story as well.

“The theme of imagination is central – the importance of imagination to
how you live and how you think and so on – and that’s very much a Terry theme. For some time, he’s taken other scripts and books and made them his own, in the sense that they are identifiably Terry Gilliam movies. But I think this goes further than what he’s done more recently. He’s had more of an input, this is more his thing. This is more a Terry Gilliam film than there has been for some time. Terry always throws himself into what he does with such tremendous energy and vigour, that it has to be wort
h his while. It has to be worth knocking himself out for, and I think
‘Brazil’ was like that, and to some extent ‘Munchausen’. It has this visceral quality, and Terry doesn’t hold back when he commits himself. This is something to which he has committed himself 120%, and it has all the possibilities of delivering more of him than the other work he has been doing recently.”

“I’m not sure whose autobiography it is,” confesses Gilliam. “I mean, I thought it was vaguely related to mine, but I’m not sure any more! It’s about the struggle of creative people…artists… They try to inspire others, encourage them to open their eyes, to appreciate the truth of the world, but most are not successful – that’s the reality.

“It’s a tragical/magical idea – a group of extraordinary people in an
amazing theatre, travelling round London, but nobody’s paying attention to them. I am convinced that in the modern world people don’t see what is really important any more. Everybody’s trapped in their IPods or their video games or playing the stock market – all interesting and timeconsuming – but there are really extraordinary and important things happening out there and nobody is paying attention.”