That shocking first glimpse of the 27-year-old actor’s last ever screen appearance in Gilliam’s The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus sent a shiver of electricity through the air when the film debuted at Cannes 2009. Of course, Ledger was very much alive when Gilliam shot the scene – as was Parnassus itself.
Ledger’s sudden, tragic exit looked to be the cruellest blow yet for a filmmaker who’s found it harder and harder to throw his wildly imaginative visions up on the screen. The actor was one of Gilliam’s closest friends. And for a painful moment in time, it seemed that would be the last we’d see of them: Ledger, Parnassus and Gilliam.
Incredibly, all three proved bigger than death. Ledger’s character was cleverly resurrected. Gilliam debuted Parnassus in Cannes to a gigantic standing ovation. Now he announces he’s reviving another old friend: embattled passion-project The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
Talk about a Lazarus-esque comeback. Maybe Gilliam’s most personal movie and certainly one of his most inventive, Parnassus is the story of an immortal magician (Christopher Plummer) whose travelling carnival has the power to take audience members through an Orpheus-mirror into a world of their wildest imaginings.
Not hard to see the parallels. Gilliam’s titanic battles with “The System” – the Orwellian moniker he instinctively uses to described a Hollywood now run by execs “who’s biggest skill is saying, ‘No'” – have been exhaustively documented.
Big questions need to be asked. Gilliam knows this. What really happened to Heath Ledger? What is the future for Terry Gilliam? Will we ever see Don Quixote? Are we up for a big meal? Um, wait…
“Are you up for a big meal?”
Gilliam stares across the table at Total Film. His eyes are as bright and mischievous as his maniacally patterned shirt. “I know what I’m doing! I’m going to get some manchego cheese, some chorizo…”
We’re sat in the quietest corner of a busy restaurant just a stone’s throw from his London office. We’re… “These are fantastic!” erupts Gilliam, waving a shrivelled green pepper in the air. “Peppers! They’re killers!” He takes a big bite. “Oh, they’re so good. You work on the cashews.”
We work on the cashews. While deciding exactly how to move the conversation away from peppers.
Do you feel okay talking about Heath?
Yeah… I’m just a bit tired of saying how much pain I was in. But other than that, no, Heath was extraordinary. And it’s hard to… You know, it’s like one of my family dying.
What do you think happened?
It’s so weird. A lot of the articles tried to turn him into the new James Dean. James Dean was a very troubled guy who ran into a tree, driving too fast. Heath was so solid. So together. So… everything. Unlimited potential.
Do you don’t think it was because he’d gone to a dark place to play The Joker?
That’s the press at work, I’m sorry.
Because it’s important to know the truth about this.
Oh, I know, I know. It’s bullshit. He was having the time of his life doing that The Joker. When we were preparing this film, he’d come back from a couple of days on The Dark Knight and say, “I can’t believe that I’m getting away with what I am! They don’t know what to do with me!”
He was happy?
He’s working with people like Gary Oldman, who he just adored and idolised. And he’s like, “I’m sitting there… And he can’t do anything to me in the scenes! He can hit me… and I don’t feel anything!” And he just was giggling like a kid the whole time! And that was why it was bullshit, the whole story, why it made me so angry.
Some people suggested that he had a drug problem…
All these stories: ‘Heath Ledger was a junkie.’ BULL. SHIT. He wasn’t like a Method actor who had to get himself into this nightmare to do a nightmare character. No, this is playing. It wasn’t a tortured artist at work. What he did was play. It was somebody who seemed so balanced and wise.
What was it like working with him on Parnassus?
Wonderful – it was a constant surprise. And he wasn’t hogging the scenes, stealing from someone else to make himself look better, which a lot of guys do.
Did he help get Parnassus off the ground?
Exactly. But even then, we couldn’t raise any money in America. I said to all these guys out in Hollywood, ‘Do you understand? The summer of 2008, the biggest star in the world will be Heath Ledger.’ It’s stupidity. It’s a lack of vision. That’s why I love going to Hollywood. Just to get my mind boggled. But if you look at movies Heath and I made before this one. I made Tideland, which made no money. He made Candy, which made even less money. So why do you wanna work with two turkeys like that?
Did you think the film was doomed when Heath died?
For the first week, yeah. Because I didn’t even want to finish it. And then everybody around kept beating me up! You can’t get away with this! This is for Heath! Now I think it’s one of the best things I’ve done. There’s something really magically about the film.
Did Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law come to you?
No. I had to go knocking. At first we didn’t know what to do. I called Johnny to being with. He said, ‘I’ll do whatever you want to help.’ The problem was, all these guys were still working. Jude and Colin were available. It’s extraordinary that we pulled this thing off. I just didn’t know if any of it was going to work. The guys had no time to prepare really. It was just go for it. It was only because Michael Mann’s film was delayed that we got Johnny.
Is it true that Tom Cruise offered to play one of Heath’s stand-ins?
Yeah. I’m not sure if it was Tom or his agent. I know there was a period where Tom’s agents were keen. The thing is, I was only interested in people who were friends of Heath. Simple as that. I wanted to keep it in the family.
How did much the film have to change from your original vision?
This was the film that Heath and I set out to make. It’s basically as written. Some scenes we couldn’t do because Heath wasn’t there. And I was like, ‘The bastard’s directing this film! He’s telling me what I can and can’t do!’ The film is better for these things. That why I said, at one point, I wanted him to be co-director on the film.
Do you believe there’s a Terry Gilliam curse?
No, not really. It’s a good story though. And I like good stories!
But didn’t you get hit by a car after you’d wrapped the film?
Yeah. Heath died. The producer died. Then they thought, we’ll go for the director. And they got me on Poland Street. I won’t mention the name of the car company. And I broke my back. I’m still not right. But… they missed! Haha! So how could it be a curse? I’m a lucky guy.
How did you find the reaction in Cannes?
The weirdest, most embarrassing thing was this standing ovation at the end. Which I think went on for 13 minutes. I just wanted to say thank you and leave. Apparently it’s a competition between producers, to see who can get the longest! What can I say? It’s not like I’ve made it so the blind can see. Thirty seconds is a good standing ovation.
But being honest, your films now don’t do as well as the ones you used to make. Why?
Because they’re more difficult films. Tideland is a difficult film. It was never meant to be a commercial movie. I didn’t give a fuck, I just wanted to make it. I think my bad luck, my curse, has to do with working with companies that are either going bust or are trying to sell themselves to a bidder and they want to balance the books.
Are you Doctor Parnassus? The parallels seem pretty clear…
Yeah. It’s probably the most transparent autobiographical character I’ve done. The more and more I started writing consciously from my own experiences. Grimm did well but not as well as it should have done. Tideland got the shit reviews. And then you think, fuck, it’s over. So the hence beginning of Parnassus, running around with your travelling theatre, saying, ‘Hey look over here! Good stuff!’ And nobody gives a shit. That’s what I was feeling.
Have you ever thought that it’s over?
No. But I just knew it was going to be harder next time. It’s never over. That’s a line in the film! Parnassus was supposd to be out by now and a huge success. Because it would make it easer to raise the money for Don Quixote. That’s the way I think!
Do you have the same appetite for filmmaking as you used to?
Well, I suppose it’s different because I’m not as ambitious now. In the sense wanting to make my name. For better or worse, a name was made. But what makes me crazy is that it’s still hard to raise the money.
John Huston used to say he’s make one for them and one for him. Why can’t you do that?
I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know what they want. I don’t know how to please them. It’s as simple as that.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about you?
I’m always accused of being self-indulgent. Which is utter bullshit. I sit at the end of a test screening and say, ‘All right folks, this is not finished. This is your chance to save my ass and my embarrassment. Were you bored? What didn’t you understand? Was it too long?’ It’s a not a scientific thing. It’s people talking. This is your chance to help me. Before I’m fucked. Publicly. When it’s finished, we’ve done it as well as we can do.
You tried to adapt Watchmen. What did you think of Zack Snyder’s film?
Visually, it was fantastic. He got it. And Rorschach was spot on. But it was too reverential to the book. He was trying so hard, I just thought, ‘Somebody needs to kick this thing in the ass. The book is like a storyboard, you couldn’t get a better storyboard.
Do you think you could have done a better job?
When me and Charles McKeown wrote the script, we had to sacrifice so much that I was almost glad we didn’t do it. It’s a tough one. But it also suffers from The Incredibles, which basically stole the premise. And The Incredibles was better! I thought, ‘You guys are outrageous.’ They just stole Watchmen and made it into a very enjoyable thing.
Would you like to do an animated film?
Well, at the premiere of WALL-E, which I thought was a work of genius, I said to the director, ‘Remember me. I may need a job in a few years! I’d love to come and work at Pixar.’
That would be an amazing return to your roots in animation, surely?
Yeah, I know, but I think the guys are better than I was. The stuff that’s coming out of Pixar is fantastic.
How about filmmakers. Which modern directors do you love?
Guillermo and Peter together with The Hobbit is going to be extraordinary. Really intelligent guys who really understand fantasy and aren’t afraid of the darkness. They get it deep down.
You look at the stuff James Cameron’s doing. I’ve seen some of Avatar. It looks fantastic. And it should for $300 million!
Do you think 3D is the future of cinema?
There’s one problem with 3D. Because you’re wearing dark glasses, you won’t get whites. You’re getting the browny-grey of the glass – so it flattens it. In regular film, you’ve got a range from pure, brilliant white to almost complete black. In 3D, it changes the contrast ratio. The next stage has to be a system where you can do it well without dark glasses.
Fancy another glass of wine?
Oh yes, I would. Do you realise that in less than a year and a half, I’ll be 70 years old. Can you believe it?
You look good on it, mind.
I know. It’s ridiculous. I was talking to Jeff Bridges about that the other day. We’re really old farts! And we don’t feel it. We don’t look it.
What’s the secret?
I don’t know. Clean living. And belief in God and Jesus! Hahaha!
Good wine is better than Jesus, surely…
That’s it. Jesus is a pretty good antioxidant, is what my born-again friends say. No. I used to want to be a missionary. But I left the church because they wouldn’t laugh at my jokes about God. I said, ‘What’s wrong with you people? What kind of God do you believe in that can’t take a joke? If he’s big enough to take one of my cheesy jokes, then what the fuck are you worshipping him for?’
Your film are wildly imaginative – trippy, even. Have you ever taken acid for inspiration?
I was actually frightened of it. Because too many of my friends were dope fiends. When Python used to be reviewed, they all thought we were druggies. Me, in particular.
So no truth in that?
Okay, dope, there’s been a few interesting time on dope, but not many. Coke, during the ’80s, when you go out to LA, you get off the plane and you’re jetlagged. But after a couple of goes, I always hated it because the hangover was worse than the high. So it’s not like I’m frightened of the stuff – except for acid.
Because I was living in Laurel Canyon in a glass house on stilts. And I just knew the glass wouldn’t exist when I took acid – and I would fly. I would just go out that window. And that would be the end of me. I said at the end of Fear & Loathing I was going to take acid. And I still haven’t done it. Just out of laziness. The occasion hasn’t arisen.
Well, there’s still time.
Yeah, I would never close doors. But I don’t have a need for it. A lot of people in the ’60s, it clearly open their minds to a lot of stuff. Which was great. But I always saw those things as normal. When people would describe things, I’d think, ‘Well, I’ve already experienced that without taking acid.’ There are obviously enough chemicals in my body!
JK Rowling wanted you to direct the Harry Potter films. Are you irked that you never got the gig?
No, again, that was one of my lucky moments. I would have gone crazy. It’s a fucking factory, working on Harry Potter. It is. The studios were staking everything on the success of those movies.
You don’t think you could have made a Terry Gilliam film?
No. No. Because it was too expensive. Too much at stake. So they interfere. It’s doing it for the right reasons. It’s serving something higher than yourself. It’s the film. The film is the god that I’m worshipping! When it’s done, fuck it! But while I’m making it, I become like a zealot. Basically, I’m a suicide bomber when it comes to my films. Haha! Because it’s not me. It’s the film.
Is Don Quixote finally going to happen now?
Well, my producer Jeremy Thomas finally got the script back. And after all those years, I read it again and I realised it wasn’t the perfection I thought it was. Tony Grisoni and I have rewritten it. It’s a much better film script. Again, lucky. It’s the other half of the glass I keep looking at. Desperately! Now, we’re out hustling actors and money.
Can’t tell you.
There were rumours about Michael Palin…
I don’t know where that came from. It created a bit of embarrassment though. Because Mike I think wants to get back into films. But it’s got to be an older guy. If that’s possible! We’re getting really old!
Will Johnny Depp be starring?
No, Johnny won’t be in it. He’d be great. We wrote it for me. But he’s just signed up for everything. As I told him, I’m going to die before he does and I’ve got to get this thing out of my system. We’re going to shoot in the Spring. And I can’t wait…
Publication: Total Film