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Terry Nice to Meet You

David Light
Filed on December 14, 2008

Off the wall director and ex-Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam gives an in-depth account of his latest projects, including directing Heath Ledger’s last film during which he tragically passed away and what receiving the lifetime achievement here in Dubai award means to him

THE DUBAI INTERNATIONAL Film Festival honours three individuals for their lifetime contribution to the art of cinema every year. This year’s Honouree from the west is director Terry Gilliam, one time Monty Python star and since then a hugely successful director famed for creating a rich visual tapestry in his regularly unconventional movies. He comes to Dubai on the back of completing his latest work ‘The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus,’ the last film to star the late Heath Ledger. As well as collecting the award fans and industry professionals had the rare opportunity to engage in a discussion with Gilliam on Friday evening discussing the life and work of this remarkable man.

Film writer and DIFF programmer Sheila Whitaker has said on honouring Terry, “It is an honour to host Terry Gilliam at DIFF this year, since he has contributed so much to cinema as a director, providing audiences with wonderlands of imagination and creativity. Everyone at the One on One evening heard lively stories about working with some of today’s biggest stars, as well as a candid look at the business of film and the struggles of being a maverick filmmaker.”

Gilliam’s films are highly imaginative fantasies, often with a dark, paranoid atmosphere and a healthy dose of black comedy. After moving to the UK from the United States Gilliam started his career as an animator and strip cartoonist with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, his highly surreal, distinctive cartoons linking the show’s sketches together. His ‘Brazil’ (1985), set in a colourful, Kafka-esque world where characters battle with a senseless bureaucracy that aims to control every aspect of their lives, met with large cult success, and ‘The Fisher King’ (1991), starring Robin Williams, was nominated for five Academy Awards. ‘Twelve Monkeys’ (1995) starring Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis grossed over $168 million worldwide.

Gilliam’s current project is ‘The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,’ now in post-production. Filming was temporarily halted following the death of star Heath Ledger in New York City in January 2008 but Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp and Jude Law volunteered to continue as three different versions of Ledger’s character furthering the ‘magical’ world of the film.

“Basically the movie (Dr Parnassus) is finished apart from about 600 special effects shots which are not quite finished,” Gilliam told City Times. “We’re in the final stages of development. Some of the effects have to be reshot because of Heath’s passing. He’s never computer generated in the film, but certain other things have to be changed. We had to change the script in certain ways. It was also partly due to the schedules of Johnny, Colin and Jude because they were all involved in other projects and we had to shoot very fast and not as controlled as I would like to be just to get them done. We literally had Johnny for a day and a half and I had a lot of work to do. Trying to work the transitions out from Heath’s character to the others took longer in some instances so everything just started growing.”

Gilliam used everything he had already shot of Ledger despite the rewrites that occurred. “I used every inch of film. I managed to do it in a couple of days (the rewrite). It was a matter of making a few key decisions and just going for it. A few scenes Heath would have been in I tried to do them with some clever tricks but in the end decided not to. Things just got rearranged. I didn’t come here prepared to deal with the details of the film so I’m still trying to work out what I did.”

As with all director/ actor relationships during filming Gilliam and Heath got very close. Terry remembers the time he got the tragic news that Ledger had been found dead. “I was in the art department arguing over the set trying to save five thousand dollars. My daughter Amy who’s one of the producers of the film came in and said you better come into the office. I said I was busy trying to save five thousand dollars. But I went in the office and it was there on the BBC website that Heath had been found dead. My first reaction was that it was Warner Brothers, it was a publicity stunt. Of course it wasn’t. We were so close to Heath, he was like family, it was terrible so we just lay on the ground for the rest of the day and that was it. I still can’t believe it and there are days where I’m not quite sure he is dead because I work with him every day in the editing room.”

“I didn’t expect what happened in this film so I’m not giving anything away. You’ll have to go and see it. My original thought when we got the news about Heath was to close the movie down. Everybody around me said that would betray Heath and his work so there were suggestions of getting another actor to do the rest of the film. There is no way one actor can replace Heath so I made the leap to get several actors. Johnny was the first guy I called and he said, ‘I’m there when you need me.’ It was the same with Jude and Colin. They all knew Heath well and they all loved him and told me that whatever was necessary they would do.”

The three actors that replaced Ledger essentially worked for free as they donated all the earnings they made to Heath’s daughter.

In regards to rumours in the press that Heath was unhappy with his life in his final days Gilliam completely disagrees. “People have tried really hard to turn him into James Dean and said it was the system that killed him. That’s B*******! We were working the Saturday night in London and then I went to Vancouver and he went to New York. The Tuesday morning he was dead. He was so full of life and energy and was having fun doing this film. He did his own stunts, leaping and crashing to the ground, there was nothing he couldn’t do-he was so full of life.” There have also been reports that Ledger sank so far into his dark roles that it was difficult for him to resurface. Again Gilliam debunks those statements. “Heath would do a take and the minute it was over he would be telling jokes. He was never dominated with his character. He told me that the character of the Joker freed him up and he was enjoying it, doing things that he never normally got to do. The system has worked very hard to turn him into the new James Dean and he is not.

Gilliam’s other films whilst being visually stunning notoriously hit many snags along the way. One of his pictures, which he has recently returned to, ‘Quixote,’ has been on hold for seven years. “The problem is that it has been tied up in legal. We have finally managed to unravel it and have got the script back and we are in the process of rewriting it because having not seen it for seven years, what we thought was perfect I realise it isn’t and it’s time to go back. I think this film has had the most publicity of any film before its release.”

Gilliam is not one who usually goes in for awards. When asked whether he cares about the Oscars the answer was firmly in the negative. Success for him is making a film he enjoys and hearing stories of people that have been moved by his films. On his lifetime achievement award being presented to him at this year’s DIFF Terry was unusually enthusiastic, “Last night I said it was the most extreme honour anybody in the history of civilisation could ever receive. It is greater than being world emperor. It is the most important thing not only in my life but in your life as well, in all of our lives.”

On Dubai in general Gilliam told us, “I’m torn by this place. When I see the sun setting over it I think it’s beautiful but then of course you get close and see it’s fake. It’s a strange thing but I haven’t really seen the real Dubai yet because I haven’t escaped the resort. They are trying to get films made here which is good and may consider it one day for my projects. It is a work of someone’s imagination and it is very nice.”

DIFF 2008 will screen Twelve Monkeys on December 14 at 13:00, at Cinestar Mall of the Emirates.

david@khaleejtimes.com





 
 
 
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