Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus: Terry Gilliam and the Film’s World

Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” is Heath Ledger’s last film shot before his death. With actors Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude law stepping in to take over Ledger’s unfinished performance, the film is being released December 25 by Sony Pictures Classics.

Bringing the director’s vision to the screen became a labour of love for his prodigiously talented production team. Gilliam’s close collaborator, cinematographer Nicola Pecorini, was involved from the beginning of the project. “It’s the level of poetry that is present in the script that appealed to me the most. Having shared Terry’s last ten years of passions and frustrations, I totally understand where ‘Parnassus’ comes from. A tired man, who has been trying to enlighten his fellow humans, to teach them to let their imagination fly and flourish, to consider the power of dreams as a richness and not as a burden. Parnassus is Terry. The script is the product of years of battle against the system, of frustrations accumulated trying to give shape to sublime ideas.

“I read the story as a fantastic sum of Terry’s entire artistic career: you
can find in it all the elements that were present, in one way or another, in a veiled or blatant manner, in all his previous works. It’s definitely a very mature script and I firmly believe that all those out there (and luckily there are a lot of them) that love and appreciate Terry’s previous works will find that ‘Parnassus’ is the apotheosis of Gilliam’s art.

“We tried to plan every single detail in advance. The Imaginarium
sequences, especially, are broken down shot by shot, frame by frame. But even the most careful planning cannot avoid the unexpected, nor human failures, in delivering what’s needed in a timely and precise manner. Terry and I share a common vision of the ‘cinematic stage’, namely a 360-degree approach to framing. We reached a total symbiosis. Without talking, we always reach the same conclusions and adopt the same solutions. I find it very easy to work with Terry, even if technically it’s very difficult. Lighting for a 360-degree field of view is certainly more complicated than sticking to long lenses. The major difficulty is to have other people understanding our approach.

“It is true that he uses wide-angle lenses, but the reality is that the world
is made of wide angles. The human vision is wide-angle, so the reality is that you want to offer choices to the spectator and that’s Terry’s approach. With wide-angle you have the choice of what to look at and you must use your brain to look at things. When you start going tight and have little depth of field you are deciding for the audience what they get to look at. Terry doesn’t have that approach in filmmaking and I’m totally with him.

“Every day you learn something new. The moment I finish learning I will
change my job. Hopefully that will never come. If you don’t learn something new, you must change jobs, because it means you know how to do it.”

Mick Audsley, Terry’s film editor on “Twelve Monkeys”, a decade previously, has been waiting for the opportunity to work with the director again. Like Nicola, he also gets involved at a very early stage. “First of all, I start by taking on board the screenplay. I do quite a lot of work early on, because I can perhaps see issues which I’m concerned about, before the film is shot. In conjunction with the director, I have a big say, but I don’t have a final say in what ends up on the screen, so my goal is to piece together what I see as the route of the story and orchestrate that story for the audience – a bit like a conductor for an orchestra. So what we do in putting the film together, and the way in which we pace it, is crucial to the audience’s journey as they sit and watch it. Notions of speed and comprehension, and performance and selection of performance are all wrapped up in that.

“I think the particular challenges in this film are in the blue screen world,
or the artificial world that we’re creating behind the mirror. The material, when I receive it, is only partially realised, in fact it’s only one fragment of the information that’s required. So we have to start the process and make editorial decisions with the pieces that come in, even though a lot of the visual information isn’t there. So that’s quite challenging.

“Of course, the main thing is always whether the performances are
working and then, secondly, that the construction of those particular scenes allows the digital work and the digital information to be told in the right order. But I’ve only got a vague understanding of it – Terry’s probably got it all in his head and so it’s a liaison with him and with the visual effects team to present it as coherently as possible.”

Costume designer Monique Prudhomme is also delighted by her close
collaboration with the director. “Terry is open to everything that is interesting, everything that catches his fancy, and he is very generous in his approach. If you have an idea he will always listen. He is really interested in the process – there’s nothing that is set. If you get into that flowy mode and you stay fluid then you go with it. It’s an adventure.

“You start with what I call hunting and gathering. You have ideas of
what would be good. You start in books and looking at images. Terry also has his favourite images that he wants to bring in and from there you hunt and gather. You gather clothes, and you gather pieces – hats and coats and scarves – and suddenly, when the actor comes, you create the character by moulding it, it’s like a sculpture.

“I always see my job as being a facilitator for the actors to find their
characters. So, by being open to a process, instead of thinking that the actor is a coat hanger, you create a character with the stature, and the body, and the expressions. Then you mould it and invent things. This film has really enhanced that process.

“I think that costumes are there to support the character, or really to
create the image that will be remembered of the character. So the actor has to feel comfortable with that image. For Doctor Parnassus, for example, who is an immortal man, I figured he would always be cold living in London, always wet, always humid because they live in these derelict areas. So I dressed him in layers, undershirts, and shirts and sweaters and linings and then coats on top, and scarves. So that layered look could be used for actions – taking things off, putting things on – but also to create this character who is grumpy and wants to get on with life.

“It is a privilege and an honour to work with Terry. He has so many
ideas. His world is so eclectic and it really connects to my sensibility as well. If I have two ideas, he has twenty. To work with him is to exchange ideas and interest. As long as I can keep him interested and we can keep fluid, the fluidity means that, if one day we have an idea and the next day a better one, we always go for the better idea. So it’s in constant flux, which is a fabulous way of working.”

Hair and makeup designer Sarah Monzani found the two different worlds in which the film is set to be an interesting challenge for her and her team. “I’ve known Terry for a long time. I absolutely know the way he works. He’s very hands on and whatever he’s written, it’s all inside his head. The biggest task is to drag it out of there. He’s very generous because he allows you to get inside, and drag a bit out at a time, because it’s not possible with something like this to take it all in at once. You read the script and that’s one thing… and then you read it again and something else appears and it goes like that all the time.

“We have two main stories here. One is the people involved in the film,
the players if you like, or the people in Doctor Parnassus’ life as we see it. They’re normal people who are basically grubby and live in a kind of grungy world – they’ve got hardly any water in their wagon. And then you go into this magical world of these little, mini-performances on stage and each show has a different look, which is mostly marked by Valentina. Because Doctor P is obviously thousands of years old, he’s able to bring to each stage performance something he’s learnt from his previous years, so anything from mediaeval times to the modern day.

“All the different looks I created for Valentina are based on that: either
things she would want to do as a young girl, or things that she found in the dressing up box that Doctor Parnassus had from years ago. I
imagined all the costumes as having come out of an old dressing up box that Monique Prudhomme has presented me with. I’ve developed the characters’ looks from what she’s given me. So it’s a madness. It’s a complete madness!”

Keeping the madness under control is Terry’s daughter, producer Amy Gilliam. “I feel as though I am responsible for everything and I’m a control freak and I’m very protective of the project and especially the director because he is my father. This is my second film as producer and the first one that I am properly and deeply involved in. It’s a UK/Canada co-production and very complex for me, a steep learning curve.

“It’s incredible that it all came together so quickly. There was something
very special when I read the script. The parallel between Dr Parnassus and my father, which a number of people have suggested, is very real to me as his eldest daughter. That is what intrigued me – that was the beginning of a long and sometimes painful commitment for me.

“Being able to do it with my dad – there’s just no-one better – has been a
great experience. Everyone tells me that it was probably one of the hardest films I could have done, with all of the ups and downs and nightmares and dramas that we’ve been through, so to have achieved it and come through with something that’s so magical and spectacular, that we are all so proud of being involved in – all the heartache, blood, sweat and tears – has been extraordinary and enjoyable.

“I love working with my father, I wouldn’t do it otherwise. Maybe the
worst thing is making a difference and drawing a line between work and family life. There are times when I have to say ‘No’ as he tries to talk over a family meal about issues with work. ‘That’s tomorrow, send me an e-mail’ and he runs straight away to his study and sends me an e-mail!”

She pays fond tribute to her Oscar-nominated Canadian fellow producer
William Vince who lost his battle with cancer shortly after the film wrapped in Vancouver. “It was amazing to be a co-producer with Bill and to find someone who wanted to make this dream come true. To have someone who supported and believed in me, to have someone to work with and learn from, that was amazing. I miss him very much.”