Gilliam’s ‘Parnassus’: Truth vs. Legend

“I don’t want to end up like Stanley Kubrick. You can’t control it all. At a certain point, the thing’s gotta survive on its own.”

When Terry Gilliam attended the Cannes Film Festival with "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" in May, he had to deal with an onslaught of chaos. The movie became overshadowed by the death of its star, Heath Ledger. (You probably already knew that.)

Gilliam eventually reached the finish line by rejiggling the fantasy plot to include different permutations of Ledger’s character that were played by Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp and Jude Law. The combination of tragedy and celebrity turned "Parnassus" into an object of media fascination that seemed to detract from its creative merits.

Now, with "Parnassus" set to hit theaters later this year courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, Gilliam is making a considerable effort — reasonably enough — to talk about the actual movie. At TIFF, he requested that journalists preface their interviews with him by reading Peter Biskind’s detailed story from the June issue of Vanity Fair about the way Ledger’s untimely demise affected the movie.

The director has his reasons. "I’ve forgotten the true story because I’ve simplified it for interviews," he told me. "So much of it has been forgotten along the way. I start doing interviews about the legend as opposed to the movie."

Although the 68-year-old Gilliam sounded less than enthusiastic about the three months of U.S. publicity in store for him, he expressed optimism over the end in sight. He’s ready to unload the movie and do other things.

"I’ve given up getting neurotic about it," he said. "I don’t want to end up like Stanley Kubrick. You can’t control it all. At a certain point, the thing’s gotta survive on its own."

He’s already embroiled in a new project, his fourth attempt at making "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote," a long dormant project that had its initial downfall chronicled in the 2002 documentary "Lost in La Mancha" when Johnny Depp and Jean Rouchefort were attached. "We did a major rewrite," Gilliam said. "Johnny and Jean aren’t in it. I would say that two thirds are exactly the same, but the final third completely changes everything. The eight years that I’ve waited for this have been well worth it."

Meanwhile, he found a lesson applicable to his own recent experiences in "Parnassus," which focuses on a magical showman (Christopher Plummer) whose two-way mirror helps people understand themselves.

"Parnassus doesn’t want to control the world," Gilliam explained. "He wants the world to control itself. That’s what I think. We’re in the age of the victim; we’ve all been abused. People have to get on with their lives."