An interview with Terry Gilliam

When Tideland came out, you mentioned that it felt a lot like another take on Time Bandits. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, on the other hand, explores a lot of the same ground as Munchhausen. Is that from collaborating with Charles MacEown again, or is there more to it than that?
No, it’s just that I don’t have any other ideas. [Laughs] It’s this borderland between reality and fantasy seems to be, I could just play the rest of my life in it, trying to make sense of it, trying to work it out. Try to sort out why you need them both and where they get you in trouble, and where they don’t.

What is it about that area that appeals to you so much?
Well, I think that’s what life is about. How do you define what life is without imagination? Because, it’s kind of what we say in Parnassus. Stories keep the world turning. That’s all it is. Everything you talk about or read, or when you look at the world, it’s a story formed. And it may be true, or it may not be true, but it’s a way to try to define what’s out there. I don’t ever limit things to just sort of material facts. I think life is as much lived in your imagination as it is in the world that you touch and eat and get run over by.

Do the elements of fantasy and magic help comment on reality better than straightforward realism would?
I don’t know how to do straightforward. To be honest, I think we’re probably talking about materialism, the material world, but I’m not sure that that’s necessarily any more real than an imaginative world. Because we create structures all the time that we believe in. Look what happened recently, when everybody seemed to believe there was a lot of money in the world, and then suddenly there wasn’t money. That was about a belief system. There was a fantasy going on, a story going on in people’s minds that we could keep gambling with derivatives and — I could go on for ages on this — and it was a story. It was all a lie. And now there’s no money. So where was the money before and why is there no money now? I find it’s all just this weird fantasy world that people treat as if it were real.

When you say it that way, it seems to tie in with the scene where Mr. Nick takes away the voices of the monks, and the fear is that the world would collapse.
There’s something — people seem to kind of miss what’s going on in that scene. Because it’s really about the fact that Parnassus is saying, he and that little group there which he’s running are telling the only story that keeps the world turning. In fact, there’s a billion of them out there, and it’s actually a moment in the film which is about him having to admit his ego is not everything.

One of the things I quite liked about the film is that the characters are ambiguous in a lot of ways. Mr. Nick is supposed to be the devil, but he’s portrayed more like a gambling buddy. Tony has the role that’s typically the hero’s role, but he was essentially selling the organs of third world children…
He’s a bad person…

He seems almost super-villain-level evil. Was there ever a worry that Tony’d be too unlikeable?
No, with Heath Ledger, you could not dislike him. That’s what’s extraordinary about Heath. I mean, we don’t get to actually see what it was going to be like with Heath playing the character all the way through.
These guys, the Tonys of this world seem to be out there in millions, and they’re all charming, and they’re all living nice lives, pretending to be generous and good people, and they’re doing rather nasty things. I think it’s a very particularly modern kind of character. So, Heath playing it, it’s wonderful. What’s really interesting to me, with Colin taking over the part — that was in fact the difficult transition, because he is immediately a darker looking guy than Heath. He looks like a bad guy. He has a widow’s peak, he’s got beetle brows. And that was a hard transition, because Heath, in the previous scene when he’s trying to get Lily into the mirror, we know he’s a bad guy at this point but you still don’t want to believe it. You want to like him, because he’s so convincing, and that’s his power, and it’s why he’s dangerous.

The ending to the movie — everyone seems to get a happy ending, but they’re also having much more practical, less colourful lives. Do you see it as a happy ending?
I don’t think it’s an ending. I think it’s just, OK, that chapter’s over, what’s gonna happen to Parnassus? He’s going to work back to being whatever he was, or what he thought he was, or what he was capable of. The character of Valentina, she is the one that got what she wanted. She wanted a normal life. And that’s what intrigues me about that character — that she’s rejecting this extraordinary existence for something rather banal and normal. Three piece suite, husband and a kid. And yet, that’s what most people do want out of life. And for Parnasus to have his daughter submit to that is a pretty rough thing; and that’s why I think that it’s wonderful the way Chris plays that he’s accepted that what she wants isn’t necessarily what he wants, and that’s OK.

Has that normal life ever tempted you? You’ve had times where your movies seemed to be conspiring against you; did you ever want to go back to something more normal?
That’s kind of boring, it seems to me. There’s enough people out there that do that. I sort of fight to try and do what I do that nobody else does. That’s the important thing, it seems. I used to get scripts all the time from Hollywood, and thought, well I can name 10 other directors who’d make an equally good job, or maybe a better job, so I don’t see any reason to do those. I always look for the ones that nobody else would touch.

One of the first scenes in the movie, where the Imaginarium is set up and the only people who aren’t ignoring it are jeering it for looking out of date and cheap — is that a comment on Hollywood?
[Laughs] It’s not just Hollywood. I think it’s really the idea that something wonderful and strange and beautiful and almost inexplicable is there, and nobody, people aren’t paying any attention to it, and those that do just want to make fun of it or destroy it. That seems fairly common. There’s this wonderousness in the world that most people aren’t paying attention to, is what that’s about.

Why do you think that is?
I think people are too distracted with the need to get a job, make money, get three-ply toilet paper, all the things that are supposed to bring supposed happiness and fulfillment to them, and they’re missing all the things that are right there that are free, if they only just concentrated a bit more. Oh, that’s beautiful. We’re on such a treadmill that gets faster and faster, and I think people are so frightened of slipping off it that they’d just rather close down their aspirations or avoid looking at things that might distract for fear of falling off and the world passing them by. I don’t know. People I like are the ones that sort of just step out of it, step out of the rat race and find that there’s a whole wonderful way of living your life and still feeding yourself, but you don’t have to worry about success or keeping up with the next guys.

With all of your movies, the media focus is more on the making of the film rather than the actual film. Is that something you’d like to see change?
Uh, yeah, that would be nice. On the other hand, I kind of want the movie to speak for itself. If I have to explain it, I feel, then I’ve failed. So on the one hand, I would be quite happy if the movies came out and they attracted people on their own merit. It doesn’t work that way, so I end up doing interviews, and I’ll talk about anything. So if it’s about the failure of something, or it’s a tragedy, that’s all part of it. Because the films, the making of my films seem to be so much interlocked and about the ideas of the film. It’s really frightening. When you think, Parnassus is very much about mortality, and… bingo.

What was it about that subject matter, about mortality, that initially appealed to you?
I don’t know. I’ve always been intrigued by it. Death is something that seems to be swept under the carpet in most of our society, in Western societies, and I just think it’s very much a part of life and shouldn’t be ignored. On the other hand, it’s also about immortality, and the idea that an artist, movie star can live forever, which is something I guess everyone aspires to in one way or another, to leave their mark. That they will always be remembered. And those are things that are out there to be talked about and played with.

Is there another filmmaker out there that you feel is doing the same thing as you, do you think? Either stylistically or even in spirit?
Ah yeah, because those are two different things. Because Tim Burton and I get compared a lot, but I think we do something very different. We just both have a visual style that’s fantastical and eye-catching. The Coen brothers, I actually think in some strange way, visually and esthetically and attitude-wise and humor-wise, I think we’re quite close. Except they tend to stay within a more realistic world. Guillermo Del Toro I like a lot. So there’s a few of us out there.

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