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Dreams: Shooting Dr Parnassus

by Phil Stubbs

Details emerge about the studio work of Terry Gilliam's upcoming fantasy picture. Minor spoilers about some fantasy sequences.

Terry Gilliam's latest film project, The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, which was thrown into turmoil after the unexpected death of Heath Ledger, completed principal photography in April. The director is presently busy on postproduction in London. Now details of its studio work in Vancouver have come to light.

Speaking to Dreams, a source close to the production was very enthusiastic, "This is everything Terry can imagine, and he's just poured it into this one film. He'll get away with it, because as you enter the Imaginarium, anything can happen. It's going to be incredible, I'm sure it will touch on everyone's imagination."

The story takes place in contemporary London, and follows an aging Dr Parnassus (played by veteran actor Christopher Plummer), and his extraordinary Imaginarium - a travelling theatre where audience members can enter through a magical mirror into a world that can bring either ecstatic dreams or dark nightmares. Parnassus, with the help of friends both old and new, must save his daughter, placed in peril following his wagers with the devil (Tom Waits). Heath Ledger joined the cast as Tony, a mysterious character whose true identity is initially unknown. Also in the film are model Lily Cole, Verne Troyer ('Mini-Me' from the Austin Powers series), and recent BAFTA-winner Andrew Garfield.


Production began in December 2007. Five weeks were spent on location in London, shooting through the night those scenes that take place outside the Imaginarium. Dreams visited the shoot several times, witnessing scenes at Blackfriars Bridge, Battersea Power Station and Leadenhall Market. It was bitterly cold, which made life uncomfortable for cast, crew and your correspondent. Yet the London shoot was completed without major problem or delay.

The filmmakers were keen to restart the planned studio work in Vancouver, to shoot the fantasy sequences taking place within the Imaginarium. However, news of the most terrible kind was reported on January 22 - Ledger had died in his Manhattan apartment. The production released a statement stating that Gilliam and his producers were assessing how best to proceed. They paid tribute to Ledger, calling him "a great actor, a great friend and a great spirit." The statement continued, "We are still in a state of deep shock, saddened and numb with grief."

Three weeks later, Gilliam and producers put an end to speculation about the project. The remaining scenes in which Ledger would have featured were now to be performed by Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law. These scenes take place within the Imaginarium, and so the script was revised to allow for Tony's appearance to be different each time he goes through the magic mirror and into the Imaginarium.

"I am grateful to Johnny, Colin and Jude for coming on board and to everyone else who has made it possible for us to finish the film," said Gilliam in a further press release. "I am delighted that Heath's brilliant performance can be shared with the world. We are looking forward to finishing the movie and, through the film, with a modicum of humility, being able to touch people's hearts and souls as Heath was able to do."

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The Vancouver shoot started at the end of February, with Colin Farrell the first of the trio to appear. Then Johnny Depp arrived for his contribution. Finally, Jude Law brought a new energy to the set at the end of shooting, just as everyone was winding down. All three actors showed a great commitment to the project, having found time in their schedules to be a part of the project.

The memory of Ledger was with cast and crew throughout the studio shoot. Some crew said they were taken aback on seeing Jude, Johnny and Colin arrive on set mimicking Heath's look. Yet the mood on set from the beginning was positive and professional. A significant number of the Canadian crew had worked with the director before on Tideland, and they had been keenly anticipating the opportunity. And the small number of crew that had come over from London were relieved that the rest of the project was actually going to go ahead.

The Vancouver work proved to be as challenging and demanding as the London shoot. Cast and crew were working six-day weeks - yet this was more bearable since they were working in a controlled environment, neither freezing cold nor outside.

Three soundstages of varying sizes were used. Those arriving at the main stage each day would find a whole new, outlandish set in place. On one day there was a bridge and a gondola, and on another day there was a huge cliff face, covered in snow. Then there was a whole forest landscape. The wagon was shipped in from London and set up on a baby stage, where interior scenes were filmed.

In one sequence, Lily Cole was rigged up against a bluescreen background. She wore flowing dresses to suggest her floating through a Water World. Another sequence, one of the most ambitious sequences shot in Vancouver, was the Ladder World. Gilliam had Jude Law climbing up different ladders, reaching for the sky to the things tempting him up there. He had to climb up one of these suspended ladders, it would then break apart, and he would fall. Much time was spent getting the rigs correct so that when the ladders broke apart, they fell the right way.

Lily Cole and Andrew Garfield, both relatively new to screen acting, developed a great deal during the making of Dr Parnassus. Gilliam threw them in at the deep end, telling them to do what they wanted with their characters; it was left to them to figure things out. Tom Waits, not having much to do for the London shoot, joined the cast in Vancouver. The gravel-voiced bluesman turned out to be one of the friendliest people on set, enjoying his role considerably. Gilliam had given him as much creative freedom as he needed to create his vision of the devil.

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Following the end of principal photography in April, Gilliam and his Director of Photography Nicola Pecorini spent four weeks on a model shoot, in London. At the time of writing (September 2008), the editing is nearly complete and work is well underway on the computer generated worlds, to form the backgrounds and landscapes that we are to see inside the Imaginarium.

The script, an ensemble piece with engaging characters, is hugely inventive. The project has allowed Gilliam to express his vision freely, without interference. Admirers of the director's work will identify themes and ideas from previous works, plus autobiographical subject matter. Indeed, he has declared this project to be a compendium movie. Yet despite some familiar territory, there is much evidence of new creative ground. That the Vancouver studio work is now successfully complete is a welcome piece of news, a milestone which ultimately confirms this once-threatened project will reach the cinema screens.

Dreams's source concluded by saying how rewarding everyone had found the production. "Whenever I spoke to anyone, they said how much they enjoyed it. It developed them. It might have been hard but it didn't matter, the challenge and opportunity to bring magical ideas alive is why they went into movie-making."

This eagerly-awaited picture, which promises to be the most eccentric and original that Gilliam has made, will be released in 2009. Dreams will offer exclusive interviews, location reports and more coverage of The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus over forthcoming months.

There's plenty more on Dr Parnassus at Dreams


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