We all live in stories, the ones we tell ourselves and the ones that are told about us. The Irish know this in our bones. Our nation’s story of invasion, conflict, emigration and renewal has helped to make each of us who we are.
And nothing interests director Terry Gilliam like a good story, well told, as his latest film 'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus' makes clear.
Famous for his mind-bending explorations of love, life and all that goes with it, Gilliam’s films have always been more ambitious, more complex and more revered than all others for good reason -- he’s one of a kind, a true original.
The late Heath Ledger, one of the finest actors of his generation, said that he would be willing to cut carrots and make dinner for the crew on a Gilliam set if that’s all that was on offer.
After Ledger’s unforgettable turn as the Joker in 'The Dark Knight' which won him an Oscar, and his Oscar nominated performance in 'Brokeback Mountain,' the Australian star was on his way to becoming one of the biggest in the world.
After those two triumphs, though, Ledger jumped straight into Gilliam’s low budget epic 'Parnassus' rather than the flashier big studio productions that were lining up for him. The reason was simple. Ledger cared about the work, not about stardom or its trappings.
When he passed away in 2008 due to an accidental overdose of prescribed medication (he suffered from chronic insomnia), Ledger had already filmed all the main outdoor shots for the film in London, which make up four-fifths of its running time. All that remained were the indoor shots, which were scheduled to film in Vancouver, Canada.
Gilliam was already on location when the breaking news report about Ledger’s death was broadcast on ABC. He was devastated, having lost not just his star but also his close friend.
Initially he wanted to abandon Parnassus, but that’s when his daughter and his friend Johnny Depp stepped in. “Whatever you need from me,” Depp told Gilliam, “I’m there.” This turned out to be the lifeline that saved the entire film.
The plot of 'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus' reads like it has been ripped from one of Shakespeare’s late tragicomedies. That’s not to say its pretentious, because it’s not. It’s just that it defies easy categorization.
Centuries ago, we are told, Dr. Parnassus won immortality in a bet. Then one day centuries later he meets and falls in love with a young woman.
Against his better judgment he then makes another wager with the devil, this time to have his youth restored so that he can woo the woman. In payment he has to swear that his firstborn will become the property of the devil when the child reaches his or her 16th birthday.
But when the day finally arrives he’s filled with dread for his daughter Valentina. It’s the kind of set up that any student of Irish myth will instantly recognize.
“Thank God for Gaelic sensibilities,” Gilliam tells the Irish Voice, laughing. “Anglo Saxons have much more trouble figuring out what a myth is. I think I’m more Irish than I think.”
There are some genuinely Irish sensibilities on display in the film courtesy of Colin Farrell. Perhaps it was the inspiration of matching Ledger’s performance in the film, or perhaps this material really gave free reign to his talents, but in Gilliam’s film Farrell is outstanding, right from the moment he appears.
As an actor who has not always chosen roles that display his talent, in 'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus' Farrell gets his mojo back in a major way. Playing a character that’s half way between Jesus and Lucifer, it takes every one of Farrell’s abilities to create this guy and sell him to the audience.
“I had been keen to work with him for a long time,” says Gilliam. “Colin Farrell is an extraordinary actor. He had just gone down some roads that I don’t think showed the true Colin or what he’s capable of. I think he’s brilliant. Those tough American guys roles that they end up sticking him in, that’s not who he is.
“He’s much more magical and twinkly and he spins on a dime. I really loved the energy he brings to his scenes. It was an interesting and difficult thing to take over from Ledger, but Colin already looks like a Victorian melodramatic villain, which was perfect. With his widows peak and beetle brows and all of it.
“We know he’s a rotter but we still love him because he’s so sweet and charming and he’s got depth. In the end it worked because Colin has all that magic if he chooses to use it.”
Dr. Parnassus’ daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole) has great chemistry with Farrell, who matches her scene for scene in intensity and purpose. “There’s a great warmth and an Irish playfulness about Colin and I think that Lily got to lie back and enjoy it. He’s a joy to work with because he’s a generous actor, and that’s why they work so well together.”
As Valentina is about to celebrate her sweet 16th birthday Dr. Parnassus is desperate to save her from her fiery fate. When the devil arrives to collect his wager, the doctor presents him with yet another bet too enticing to refuse.
He and the devil will each compete to seduce five souls, with possession of Valentina going to whomever manages to complete the task first. Jude Law’s short sequence underlines this plot point, but it’s Farrell’s performance that brings it to life.
Stories and bets and wagers and risks define the film, and Gilliam says that that’s just a reflection of the times we are living in.
“Isn’t that the age we live in now?” he says laughing. “It’s nothing but story telling now. Whether it’s journalism or news or reality television or movies.
“They’re all telling stories. It’s all just versions of whatever is supposed to be reality and I think most of them are not very truthful, that’s the problem. Stories are things you step into like dog s***.
“I think Colin Farrell is a victim of the stories that are told about him. Everyone says to me you’re a great fan of stories, but I’m not because I know how many stories they are, and of how many get twisted in the telling.”
With regard to Farrell, the tales of wild nights, drug taking and general debauchery don’t square with the young man that Gilliam knows.
“He’s one of the sweetest, most sensitive people I know. He has a sense of honor and decency. It doesn’t take much for some paparazzi to cross that line and that sets off the spark that gets him trouble. But it’s always for the right reasons, for the good reasons,” Gilliam says.
Gilliam is certain that the Irish have remained deeply in touch with the stories that created their heritage and society, but he sees fracture and forgetfulness elsewhere.
“It’s so funny that the Irish have such a close tie to their own story. There is this ancient stuff there in the film too and no one’s paying attention to it,” he says.
“The critics see all the surface dazzle. They’re missing life. Living in London, I find a nation lulling in confusion because it doesn’t remember what it was. America’s gone the same way. I love fables and fairytales. And I feel like I’m talking in a language that less and less people understand.”
'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus' opens nationwide on Christmas Day.