Charles McKeown on writing the
Dr Parnassus script
by Phil Stubbs
Charles McKeown is a British writer and actor who, along with director
Terry Gilliam, put together the script for The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus.
I spoke with McKeown in January 2008, as the UK shoot drew to a close, just
a few days before Heath Ledger died.
McKeown has worked with Gilliam before - on the scripts for both Brazil
(1985) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989). He also contributed
to some of Gilliam's projects that never made it to screen, and these were
discussed in the interview.
McKeown acted in Brazil and Munchausen, with significant supporting
roles. In Dr Parnassus, McKeown has a small role as a fairground
Phil Stubbs: When did you start work on The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus?
Charles McKeown: My work started in 2006 - probably the beginning of November.
What did Terry bring with him when you started work?
He certainly had the idea of the travelling theatre, and the central character
of Dr Parnassus as a man who is a bit lost and out of his time, and is
out of gear with his audience. They don't want to listen to his stories
that he tells anymore. It's Dr Parnassus's adventure. It wasn't absolutely
fixed but that was fairly clear in Terry's mind.
Were any visual flourishes in his mind or did that all come from both
of you writing the script?
It's difficult for me to tell really. As I said, he certainly had the
idea of the travelling theatre, and I'm sure that evolved as we got into
it more, and it became clearer in his mind than it had been to start with.
I think the idea of Dr Parnassus as a semi-eastern medicine man evolved.
I don't think he started quite like that.
When you worked together, who did what?
We started off by talking around the subject for a couple of weeks, very
broadly. We spent the days talking about the whole range of subjects,
and then finally we started talking about the thing itself, and how it
related to current events. It was a mixture of a whole medley of stuff
for a couple of weeks and then we started to write a treatment.
In fact I insisted that Terry write the treatment because he had a better
grip of what it is he wanted than I did at that stage. I didn't really
quite get it at that point, I don't think. Although it was fun, I could
see the story, but I thought that Terry had a clearer view of what he
wanted than I did at that point. So he wrote the treatment.
After the treatment was done, I started writing scenes, dialogue, characters,
settings and so on, clarifying it a bit. I would send Terry, by email,
six or seven pages at a time. He would then work on that, change it, embellish
it, take what he wanted and add what he wanted. He would send that back
and show me what he'd done for my comments. Meanwhile, I'd be working
on another lot of pages
It was a rolling process, going back and forth. We created the structure
just from what seemed to be right at the time, and what followed organically
from the discussions, and the way the things flowed. At the time, we weren't
living very far apart. I think we saw each other a few times in that period
as well. We exchanged notes and chatted on the phone. I can't remember
if we'd got to the end of the first draft before we sat down and spent
another week together or whether we decided we needed to do that before
we got to the end of it. What we'd got was going in the right direction.
We stopped when we got right to the end of the first draft, and discussed
where we were going, and where we were so far. We did get together periodically
after the first draft was complete, as well. It wasn't all on exchanges
of email after that
but a lot of it was.
Heath Ledger and Verne Troyer in The Imaginarium
of Dr Parnassus
During the initial two week meeting, is that when the characters were
formed and the structure was defined?
Yes, they evolved during that period. I don't think what we ended up with
was what we started out with in every respect though. I think maybe Dr
Parnassus is fairly close to what we started out with. The other characters
changed a bit as we went along. Certainly the character of Valentina,
Parnassus's daughter, changed a lot as we went along. And the other characters
too shifted, when they weren't quite working as well as they might do.
When we got to the end, Terry showed it to a few people and got some feedback.
As a result we made changes in the structure, brought things forward,
moved things back and changed things somewhat. We didn't work to any particular
scheme, just what felt what was working.
I thought the script was very strong. I liked the ensemble nature and
how believable those characters were, and the dialogue was.
That's reassuring to hear, it's always nice to know that. There's always
a worry that those things won't work, if you work with a tiny close knit
bunch of characters. That was the stuff that evolved to start with. They
weren't quite as much fun as they are now. They were a bit more tentative
to start with, until we knew where we are going
and then they were
able to abuse each other a bit more.
No character really dominates the story
In that sense we break the rules really, you are supposed to focus on a
central character, that's one of the recipes for success, to have a central
character with whom the audience can identify. But this is a group piece
and although it's called Dr Parnassus, and he's very much the centre
of it, and everything goes around him, nevertheless you are caught up in
everybody else's story as well.
All of Terry's films involve a protagonist who is a dreamer or is using
the power of his imagination
It is also about the storytelling and this is one of Terry's themes, and
this is in that mould.
Which of the themes running through the script do you find particular
satisfying, or resonate with you?
I like the travelling theatre, and the lives those people are leading
and the mysteriousness of that. If that comes through in the picture,
it will be interesting. I also like the fact that not everything is nailed
down, there are areas that remain mysterious. I like the idea of storytelling
being the thing that sustains the universe. Plus the bet with devil and
all that. I think that's evocative and fruitful, and it makes you think
and pulls you into the story.
How do you think it fits in with the rest of Terry's work?
It is about the theme of imagination, and the importance of imagination,
to how you live and how you think and so on. And that's very much a Terry
theme. For some time, Terry has taken other scripts and taken books and
things and made them his own, such that they are identifiably Terry Gilliam
movies. Yet with this one, I think it goes further than things that he's
done more recently.
He's had more of an input, this is more his thing. This is more a Terry
Gilliam film than we have had for some time. Terry always throws himself
into what he does with such tremendous energy and vigour, that it has
to be worth his while. It has to be worth knocking yourself out for, and
I think Brazil was like that, and to some extent Munchausen. It has this
visceral quality, and Terry doesn't hold himself back when he commits
himself. And I think this is something which he has committed himself
to 120%, and it has all the possibilities of delivering more of him than
what he has been doing recently.
Now the location shooting is almost finished, so if something was to
have gone wrong it would have been at that point.
I'd like to think so too. It's always been a difficult period and fortunately
the weather has held up. It could have been disastrous. It's always strenuous
working at night. Yet some of the stuff coming up in Canada is very tricky.
All that fantasy stuff they are shooting there, the blue screen stuff
is very tricky. But most of it is in the studio so it's kind of more controlled.
You haven't got the random element, it's all within the filmmakers' hands.
But it's very complex stuff, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed for that.
Heath Ledger clings onto the back of the wagon
I popped down to London both before and after Christmas. I saw the Blackfriars
Bridge scene, and that was absolutely freezing. There was a rain machine
on top of Heath and Andrew. Any thoughts that actors have an easy life
well they certainly don't on Terry's films anyway.
I went on a recce it was just so cold, terrible.
At Battersea Power Station, everyone was hard at work for 10 hours solid.
I've never seen people work as hard as that throughout the day on a film
People knock themselves out for Terry, in a way that they won't for other
people. It's been a very hard grind. I look forward to seeing it. I spoke
to Terry the other day and he was saying it was looking very beautiful.
I don't know if you have seen any of the stuff.
I saw the opening bit of the fairground scene, and also where Tony comes
out of the trunk at the back of the Imaginarium. I also visited one of the
days in Leadenhall Market that was an absolutely outrageous scene - the
camera pulls back revealing all of the characters on the stage. Watching
it once will not be enough to capture everything, it will be one for the
DVD to watch it again and again.
That's very much a characteristic of Gilliam, you've got to watch it more
Now... after your work with Gilliam on Brazil and Munchausen,
there have been other projects that you have worked on with Terry. Did you
work on a Watchmen script?
Yes, we did a Watchmen script. I don't really know what happened
to it. I gather that the producer and the person who owned the rights to
that fell out at some point, that's what I heard and that's why it didn't
move forward. Joel Silver and somebody else
that was a script we worked
on. There was a pre-existing script incidentally, but we changed it, we
moved it about a bit. But that fell by the wayside.
Terry has often talked about the problems of making it as a feature length
move, squeezing it down. How did you go about solving that?
We cut stuff out. Part of the problem is people assume that if you've
got an illustrated novel like that you're three quarters of the way of
getting a movie, but it just isn't so. It's such a different commodity
really, the book is in your hands, and you are going back and forwards,
the movie is just a different thing. It was always going to present problems,
I think we just had to rather painfully take stuff out. It was always
going to be less, it was always a bit frustrating. It's such a great graphic
novel, and we were aware of the possibility of doing damage to it. I don't
know what it is going to look like, this one that's coming up.
You were involved with a Time Bandits project?
Yes, I've been involved with Time Bandits projects twice. Paragon
bought the rights to the Handmade pictures, when George Harrison sold them.
In the whole portfolio of pictures, a few movies in there that were good.
There was Life of Brian, and a few other money makers, good pictures.
Paragon wanted to realise this investment and make a sequel to Time Bandits.
At the same time, Paragon was selling the whole platform of pictures, using
Life of Brian and other pictures as loss leaders to sell the lot.
Now Python felt they weren't getting the value that they should have been
getting from their pictures. There was a lawsuit and Paragon lost, and this
was all happening while I was writing the first draft of the Time Bandits
sequel. So I only got to do the first draft and naturally there wasn't really
much hope of Paragon working with any of the Pythons, so that all collapsed.
Subsequently a few years later, Terry met up with the guy who runs Hallmark.
And they talked about doing two TV specials of Time Bandits, which
I put together with Terry. Hallmark then wanted to sell to ABC, but ABC
didn't go for it. I think they liked the script, but that foundered.
Was there anything else with Terry?
I began working with Terry on Don Quixote. We did a draft of that
and Terry wasn't terribly pleased with it. He wanted to go in another direction
and I wasn't sure about it so we parted company amicably. Terry went on
to move ahead with the project some years later so that was a project that
didn't work out, we just quit. That was before the Time Bandits TV
There has been news on the Internet about a project you are working on
with Michele Soavi
I met Michele on Munchausen when he was Terry's 2nd Unit Director. He asked
me last year if I could work on a script with him - The Katakomb Klub
- so that's what I have been doing. I finished the second draft not long
ago, so I'm waiting to see what response I get from that. They saw the early
stuff and seemed to like it, it's a comedy love story, with a bit of horror.
Michele is talking about it as a horror movie, but I'm not sure it's a real
There was a pre-existing script that was owned by the producer Carlo Degli
Esposti. He had taken it to Conchita Airoldi who has been Michele's producer
for some years. Michele liked it and so did I and we have been working on
it, but I don't know if it has been green lit.
It's a very nice idea. About a group of Christians who get entombed by
a group of Roman soldiers who are persecuting them, in the 2nd century
AD, in Britain in the Thames Valley. A leisure centre is being built on
the same spot later, and somebody falls down a hole and finds all these
people who have been living down there for 2000 years. They all speak
Latin and they've grown little horns, and they've got funny pointy translucent
ears and filed teeth and they eat rats. It's comedy basically as you can
probably tell, that's the intention.
I read something about a music teacher
Yes the central character writes music, he has had a few albums, and has
been quite successful, but he's not really happy in the music business.
He's hiring himself out, prostituting himself to whoever will hire him
as a songwriter and music teacher. A Russian oligarch is building this
leisure centre and his wife wants to be a pop star, but she can't sing
unfortunately. Our central character is being employed to coach her, and
write songs for her. He's in a difficult position. I think it could be
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