Terry Gilliam: The Movieline Interview

Having a conversation with Terry Gilliam is not unlike watching one of his films: In either medium, he likes to throw a lot of ideas out there, and he'll even recreate his trademark fisheye lensing for you by leaning forward to whisper something he knows he shouldn't. In short, it's an experience, as is Gilliam's latest effort, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The onscreen story involves a mad doctor (Christopher Plummer), a devilish antagonist (Tom Waits), and a mysterious amnesiac (Heath Ledger); the offscreen story was dominated by Ledger's death midway into production, which resulted in a rewrite that finds Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell subbing in for the character in scenes Ledger had yet to shoot.

In a wide-ranging, cuss-heavy, finger-pointing discussion with Movieline, Gilliam opened up about Ledger, his problems with Hollywood, the Oscars, Fox Searchlight, The Departed...well, let's just say that there were few topics that went untouched. Enjoy!

Dr. Parnassus has this creative gift that he wants to share with the world, but the world isn't interested. It must be something you can relate to when you had Parnassus finished and secured a berth for it at Cannes, and yet it took months to find a buyer.

Funny, that, isn't it? You look at this film...I've seen it enough times with a big audience and it plays brilliantly. Yet, there was nobody willing to buy it at Cannes.

With the scale it has, the special effects, the stars...what problems were you running into?

Back in April, before Cannes, we had a screening at the DGA for the buyers and they just came out bemused. They said, "It doesn't make sense." What this film does is it tells you about the people in this town that are in the business of buying and selling and deciding what the public wants. It's pathetic -- a child could see this film! "How do we market it?" they said. What are you talking about! You've got Heath Ledger's last movie and you've got three A-list stars. What more do you want? And that's just the most crass way to say it.

Are you happy with how things turned out?

I'm glad that we went with Fox Searchlight...wait, Fox Searchlight? [Laughs] That was as Freudian as it comes. There's a long story behind that, but anyway. No, I'm glad we went with Sony Classics. There guys are good, and I actually like them. Still, where were the others? That's what I want to know. Half the people came out of that screening -- and Fox Searchlight was one of them, they had been so excited and sending emails before, like, "Oh, we want it!" I actually thought there would be a deal the night after the film was shown, but it was over at that point. "How do we market it?" Well fucking hell, learn how to do your job! That's the first thing.

You've had problems with getting your films made and distributed to your liking before. Have you seen changes in attitudes? Do new problems just replace the old ones?

The attitudes are just becoming more and more bureaucratic. The fear of making a mistake has become real bad. In corporate culture, where are the guys at the top who used to have some character? I didn't like a lot of them, but they were alive. They were actually human beings with passion for film! What happens now is that we're trying to raise the money for this thing -- and I think we only wanted $4 million from America, and we'd get the rest elsewhere -- and we couldn't get it. I was saying, "Wait. Sometime in 2008, we'll have The Dark Knight, the Joker, Heath's gonna be the biggest star on the planet, and we'll be coming out after that." They couldn't make that simple calculation. Now it seems like it takes Goldman Sachs several months to run the numbers. It's a way of avoiding responsibility, like when they do NRG screenings and say, "This is a science." It's not a science, it's bullshit!

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