In a parallel universe, where novelists get to choose who adapts their books, “The Golden Compass” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” would have been directed by Terry Gilliam.
Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling both wanted Gilliam, who was also approved by Roald Dahl’s widow to remake “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” In each case, the studio said no.
That’s the story of Gilliam’s career. He’s loved by fellow creatives, but he scares the suits to death.
Back in the real world, the 67-year-old filmmaker, originally from Minneapolis but now a naturalized Brit, has just started shooting “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” a $30 million indie movie which he describes as “a compendium of everything I’ve done.”
It’s his first wholly original screenplay, and his most personal statement, since “Brazil” in 1985.
Set and shot in contemporary London and in parallel fantasy realms, it stars Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits and Lily Cole in a characteristically convoluted tale of a travelling theater troupe led by the 1,000-year-old Parnassus (Plummer), whose magical mirror lets his audience escape into a universe of boundless imagination.
The only snag is that Parnassus has won this power by gambling with the devil (Waits), which means there’s a price to pay.
“It’s autobiographical,” laughs Gilliam. “I’m trying to bring a bit of fantasticality to London, an antidote to modern lives. I loved this idea of an ancient travelling show offering the kind of storytelling and wonder that we used to get, to people who are just into shoot-em-up action films.”
“Parnassus is trying to bring amazement to people, and not doing a very good job of it, because they aren’t paying attention to him. But if they will enter his mirror, and allow their imagination to mix with his, they enter these extraordinary worlds, and they come back transcendent — or they strangely disappear.”
Gilliam co-wrote the script with Charles McKeown, with whom he last collaborated on “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” and “Brazil.”
“It’s the first thing I’ve truly written myself since then,” Gilliam says. “I wanted to work back in England and do what I used to do in animation, free thinking. This is the first film I’ve storyboarded myself since ‘Munchausen.’ That’s what I’ve really enjoyed, just to sit there and start drawing.”
Gilliam’s flights of fancy don’t come cheap, so financing is always a struggle. After a run of hits from “Time Bandits” to “Twelve Monkeys” (with only the significant blip of “Munchausen”), his fortunes have dipped in the past decade with “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” the abandoned “Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” “Brothers Grimm” and “Tideland.”
It doesn’t help that his resume includes two notorious production disasters — “Munchausen,” which went wildly over budget, and “Quixote,” halted when its elderly star Jean Rochefort fell ill, as chronicled in the doc “Lost in La Mancha.”
Yet for all his unruly creative persona and his compulsively outspoken behavior, Gilliam is a remarkably disciplined filmmaker. “I have always stayed within budget, apart from that one glitch. But that’s not what my legend is,” he says. “I have a weird obsession to tell the truth about filmmaking, but my problems have been no greater or less than anyone else’s. I just talk too much, or there’s always a documentary crew around.”
Fortunately, there’s always talent lining up to work with him. “Nothing I do seems to be understandable to the money people at the early stage. The key is to get Johnny Depp or Heath Ledger. If big-name actors didn’t want to work with me for bad money, I wouldn’t be able to do it,” he says.
“Parnassus” is produced by Sammy Hadida, Bill Vince and Amy Gilliam (his daughter). Gilliam credits them for the “miracle” of raising the $30 million budget — a lot for an indie movie, but not for what he’s putting on screen.
“Anyone else would want $80 million to make this movie. People are going to see it and think, ‘Wow!'” Gilliam says. He’s doing the f/x work in Canada after he finishes shooting around such London landmarks as Battersea Power Station, Tower Bridge and St. Pauls Cathedral.
“You can do ‘Golden Compass’ for $250 million, or you can make ‘Parnassus’ for a tenth of that, and still make it look spectacular,” he asserts. “I don’t want to do the hugely expensive films because my creative team wouldn’t have control. Suddenly you’re surrounded by executives, by this fear, and that puts everyone off.”