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Monthly Archives: March 2011

Jean-Luc Godard was a guest at the University of Southern California in 1968, discussing his work on a panel with King Vidor, Roger Corman, Peter Bogdanovich and Sam Fuller. This was at the close of a cinematic decade that Godard had owned; now, breaking with his previous work, he was becoming more political and less accessible. One of the discussion’s most telling moments came toward the end, when an audience member asked, “Monsieur Godard, are you more interested in making films or making social commentary?” Godard coolly replied, “I see no difference between the two.”

At that moment, the role filmmakers had traditionally played in society — that of mere entertainer — was dissolving. Godard was becoming involved with the student movement in France. Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Godard and others began making “Cinétracts” — shorts shot on 16mm documenting political goings-on in a decidedly guerrilla fashion. A few years later, the “New Hollywood” of the ’70s would yoke cinema to the troubled post-hippie American youth, with reverberations that echoed throughout the culture: In April, 1971, Esquire’s cover story was Two-Lane Blacktop, and the film’s complete script was published inside. This period was the apex of filmmakers’ involvement in the cultural conversation. Understandably so — in the ’60s, cinema went from being entertainment to art as filmmakers gained an intellectual legitimacy and cultural currency they had previously been denied. Additionally filmmakers weren’t the only artists exceeding the boundaries of their work — novelist (and later filmmaker) Norman Mailer ran for mayor of New York City in ’68, and musicians’ roles in the politics of the time are well-known enough not to need description.

While artists are still regularly involved in what we term the “cultural conversation” — the exchange of ideas across a broad platform regarding the state of the country and its culture — filmmakers seem to have been left behind. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, two perceptive comedic satirists, recently held a rally in Washington that drew 200,000 people. Nationally prominent novelists such as Joyce Carol Oates and Jonathan Safran Foer voice criticisms on op-ed pages and in public forums, revealing that for these writers, a world of importance exists beyond the literary. Plenty of musicians regularly perform in order to bring attention to cultural issues, political and otherwise.

Where are filmmakers in this mix? Almost nowhere to be found. Cinema was once the country’s most popular art form, yet can you imagine even a screenplay excerpt, let alone an entire script, being published as part of a cover story in Esquire today? As it has made its way from center stage, overtaken by Internet-based entertainment and less traditional forms of media, so too have filmmakers relinquished a position in the country’s consciousness. This diminishing of filmmakers as visible public personas is in part an effect of film losing its popularity as an art form, but it is also, cyclically, expediting that decline.

In America 2010, visibility and presence breeds interest. That much is for certain. When was the last time you saw a filmmaker in the news in relation to something other than their work or the field of cinema? Certainly some actors try to be politically active, but to people reading about those exploits actors are celebrities, not artists. There are plenty of filmmakers who delve into social issues within their work — Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job and Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for “Superman are two recent examples — but few seem to have the out sized Godardian/Mailer personality needed to become a public figure causing a stir for what they feel is important. The one notable exception is Michael Moore, whose cry of “Shame on you, Mr. Bush!” at the 2003 Academy Awards ignited the sort of political firestorm the industry would do well to originate more often; in the years since, Moore has been a regular guest on various talk shows, often discussing politics rather than his own work.

The rabble-rousing personalities of giants like Mailer and Godard weren’t simply useful in creating interest in the issues they raised, or those artists’ own works; they also fostered a sense that practitioners of film and literature were interested in something larger than subjects delimited by the mediums they worked in. The formation of a project like Cinétracts sent a clear message that cinema, as an art form, had a powerful link to the goings-on in larger society; what cinema had to say didn’t occur in a vacuum. By contrast, look at the stir (or lack thereof) caused by Ferguson’s and Guggenheim’s films. The cultural reaction to these penetrating looks at major societal problems has been minimal, which is shocking, especially considering that Inside Job is the first film to take a penetrating look at the financial

crisis of 2008. Indeed, for a film to get on the op-ed pages of the New York Times, it has to be nothing short of the highest-grossing film of all time: David Brooks devoted a column to Avatar, and that film seems to be the most recent work that incited any kind of zeitgeist.

So how do filmmakers go about regaining the kind of cultural authority they once possessed? How do we arrive at a world where the latest work from Ferguson or Guggenheim (or, for that matter, Paul Thomas Anderson or David Fincher) receives the kind of serious consideration recently bestowed upon, say, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which dominated the media upon its release for its wide-reaching portrait of America during the Bush years?

To no small degree, the answer lies in filmmakers pursuing any and all extracurricular activity that suits their interests. While a grand proclamation would be satisfying, this kind of cultural engagement is too specific to different individuals for any general program to really apply. Mailer’s run for mayor was a brilliant move, but it would hardly have behooved the world of literature if John Updike or Philip Roth had a go at comptroller. Certainly, as video becomes ubiquitous on the Internet, one imagines that filmmakers armed with video cameras could make short, simple films at a fast clip, on a wide smattering of subjects as they see fit; those videos could be posted to personal websites or the sites of larger organizations, fitting into a larger effort of some sort. It could be thrilling to see politically-engaged filmmakers like Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden or Kelly Reichardt working on videos for, say,The Nation’s website.

That’s a general suggestion, a little predictable and one that recalls the aforementioned Cinétracts of 1968, but it would be a start. What really would drive this kind of cultural involvement would have to be defined by the specific passions of the individual filmmakers. For some filmmakers, the answer would be publishing in newspapers, journals, magazines or websites on any subject other than film. Sometimes all it takes is working in different formats: While he’s certainly not recognized enough to cause much of a stir, Chris Marker, in addition to compiling one of the finest bodies of work cinema has to offer, has made videos for museum installations, created and released his own CD-Rom (Immemory) and worked as an “undercover” photographer. His covert photos of persons of varying ethnicity on the Paris metro are as harrowing, given that country’s escalating xenophobia, as they are beautiful. Marker, who snapped the photos recently (at 89 years old!) published them, of all places, on The New Republic’s website.

It’s Chris Marker’s unyielding frontier spirit — that desire to push the limits of the medium, to explore various outlets for one’s work, to engage on a level that blurs the distinction between purely artistic inquiry and social commentary — that can lead cinema and its practitioners back into the spotlight, a place it once inhabited and still can. Of all people, Marker should know what it takes; he was there the first time it happened.


Article by  Zachary Wigon



As the transition from film to digital feature production ramps up before us, one thing is certain: HD is here. Still to be answered, however, is the dilemma: is HD there yet?



Sony first introduced HDTV technology in the late-1980s, initially as an analog system, but it wasn’t until the development of digital HDCAM with a pixel ratio of 1920 x 1080 in 1998 that the format achieved any legitimacy. Further status was granted the emerging medium by George Lucas in 2000 when, armed with a “Panavised” Sony CineAlta HDW-F900, he shot  Star Wars: Episode II-Attack of the Clones in 24P. While it can be argued that Lucas’ decision was based more on the practical needs of his VFX, suddenly, for the first time since the birth of cinema, celluloid had a qualified competitor.

One hundred years is a long time. But time doesn’t stand still, and neither does technology. Just three years after George Lucas made his controversial decision, the once state-of-the-art HDW-F900 had been updated and surpassed. Some of its drawbacks, including image compression, were modified for the HDW950, which was used for Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge of the Sith. By the time Episode III was released in 2005, Panavision had released its premiere HD system, Genesis, and Michael Mann used the Thompson Viper FilmStream Camera to shoot most of 2004’s Collateral. Not far behind, Arriflex unveiled its D-20, based on a Super 35mm image width. Then there was the prototype for a 4K camera called Red One, and Vision Research created the Phantom HD to handle high-speed shooting. Also, the Dalsa Origin was developed in part by Ed DiGiulio, famous for mounting the NASA Zeiss lenses on Stanley Kubrick’s BNCs.

These advances even trickled down to the prosumer level, where first 24P entered the Mini DV field; then all of the major brands began marketing a mess of competing HD formats based on HDV, DVD, hard disk and P2 cards, the flagship of Panasonic’s endeavors.

As it turns out, the professional systems are probably just as varied and competitive as the prosumer models. While they’re all working toward a standard 1920 x 1080 format, image capture can be differentiated by the number and size of the CCD chips a camera uses, whether or not it records to tape, the amount of compression required and even the size of the lenses. But amid the confusion of this unavoidable transition from celluloid to digital cinema, the fact remains that good old-fashioned film is still the standard to beat. It is this simple conclusion that colors most professionals’ views on HD and, that said, an interesting conundrum has developed around the issue of whether digital should simply be used to replicate the look of film or be allowed to develop its own attributes and idiosyncrasies.

In the past year, we’ve had some high-profile test cases for the emerging digital cinema. On one side, there were movies shot on Genesis like Superman Returns and  Apocalypto — neither of which sought to announce its digital origins, though they were undeniably synthetic looking. At the other end, and much more controversial, there was Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, shot on the Viper, and David Lynch’s Mini DV Inland Empire, shot with Sony’s PD150 — both of which intentionally displayed grainy and distorted images that inherently called attention to their formats. Comparatively, while the first two drew scant attention for their aesthetics, the latter two sharply divided both critics and audiences, with those in the pro camp hailing the films for their beauty and newness and those in the negative suggesting they resembled an old, worn-out VHS tape.

The latest evolution in HD technology will be introduced to theaters shortly in the form of David Fincher’s long-anticipated Zodiac, about the San Francisco serial killings of the late 1960s. Photographed by Harris Savides, ASC, using the Viper, it boasts of being the first major Hollywood production that will exist as pure data from beginning to end. Having developed the Viper to his own specifications, Fincher bypassed tape for an S.two hard drive, and in the process captured the movie completely as 4:4:4 uncompressed HD, an impossibility with tape.

The straight-talking Savides describes the situation bluntly: “Everybody who’s shooting this stuff is a guinea pig right now.”

“Everything is still R&D,” he elaborates. “I feel like these movies being made are just little experiments for the big conglomerate studios. They’ll see what it’s like, what’s gonna happen, see the best way to handle it down the road.”

The fluctuating nature of the technology means that most filmmakers still have to fight to shoot their films on HD. Directors like Steven Soderbergh and Robert Rodriguez can get away with HD because they keep their budgets down. But once budgets start rising to $100 million, or tent-pole status, the resistance is much fiercer. Savides says his hat is off to Fincher for making Zodiac happen in such an unconventional manner: “He’s amazing. I don’t think anybody could’ve done it this way. David had to figure it out on his own, and then present it to the studio. He had to do smaller projects, commercials. He’d been using the Viper, got really used to it. So by the time I stepped in he had gotten the Viper integrated and he’d figured out how to make the camera work. When I got there, 90 percent of the problems had been ironed out. I was just part of the creative solution.”

A distinct decision was made by Fincher and Savides to minimize any intrusion of the new technology into the storytelling. Zodiac isn’t an FX spectacular like Superman or Sin City, types of movies Savides believes are perfect for digital, but a reality-based character study. The theory was, says Savides, “when an audience is in the theater you have to present a reality, or at least lose them in that reality for those two hours.” For Zodiac, this was complicated by the ’60s and ’70s setting of the story, an era of great visual familiarity. “It’s hard enough to screen reality and make people believe that what they’re watching is real,” he continues, “so when you have a period movie like we did, and to present it with a new technology, my concern was that it was going to add one more layer of artifice on top of all the other artifice that moviemaking brings to the act of storytelling — actors, sets, props explosions —whatever other bullshit you have to present to an audience. But now we had this technology inherent on the screen, this imagery, and I just didn’t want it to look like video.”

Keeping that in mind, Savides says, “I tried hard to impart a character to the imagery that would make it feel like film, or at least older than the footage I initially saw from the Viper. I struggled with the technology to give it a look of film — and I think we were pretty successful. It’s very banal. It’s very dull. The production design is beautiful and of the period, but it’s not too overdone, it’s very subtle. Everything, [including] the colors, were chosen to that end, to work well with the Viper.”

This is an area, the aesthetic difference between film and digital, where everybody has an opinion. Though well known for her Mini DV work with Spike Lee and Rebecca Miller, d.p. Ellen Kuras, ASC, has used the Viper on commercials. “I think that digital has its own integrity,” she says. “Personally, I still prefer to shoot with film negative. I can see with digital now, it’s being made to respond to certain concerns of cinematographers, in particular about the latitude and the ratio of light and what it’s able to handle, and how we’re able to use it as a tool. I think there are two distinct feelings that come from each medium. I don’t think that one supplants the other necessarily. Whether digital supplants film in the future remains to be seen.”

Neil LaBute, whose directing career began with the five-figure In the Company of Men, which, had it been made a decade later, might’ve been a prime candidate for a digital format, says, “I think it’s important — vital, actually — that video maintains its own life and look. It seems as if most filmmakers who utilize video do so for very specific reasons, whether economic or aesthetic, and this seems valid to me. Why treat the medium as the poor cousin of film when it can have its very own, distinct personality?”

Michel Gondry, like most, still prefers film for capture, though when he has shot video, he’s followed a non-invasive philosophy: “On “Star Guitar” [a Chemical Brothers video], we went onto a train and shot days of footage. My brother was doing the special effects, and I told him, ‘I just want to have this texture, this video texture from a camera on the train, so whatever you do, I don’t want it to look clean or futuristic or perfect. You just have to repeat each element with the rhythm. But each element has to look real.’” He further warns about the aesthetic transition from film to video: “Something that looks really on the edge now, in five years is going to look very dated because the technology is evolving.” (For his current feature, Be Kind Rewind, Gondry and Kuras shot some of the footage on the lowest of low-fi video formats, VHS.)

For Savides, meanwhile, “the benchmark is still film.”

Invariably, as much as the discussion centers on aesthetics, it ultimately comes down to the technology. HD neither looks like traditional film, nor is it worked with in the same manner. So a cinematographer treading into these waters has a double duty forced upon him. It’s hard enough just trying to adapt to the look of video — but on top of that, each system operates differently and each is constantly being improved.

Shooting Zodiac with the Viper, Savides, who often likes to operate the camera, found his freedom slightly inhibited. However, he had previously photographed Fincher’s The Game, as well as his commercials and second-unit work on Se7en, so he was well accustomed to the director’s use of preplanning. In that sense, the Viper worked perfectly for Fincher’s filmmaking process.

As developed by David Fincher, the Viper setup used on Zodiac was structured around random access hard drive capture. Whereas most systems, including the CineAlta and Genesis, are solely tape-based — and even Michael Mann’s use of the Viper was tape-based — here the image was recorded as pure data. Furthermore, both the sound recording and the slate were integrated into the capture. To make this work, the camera was run through an “umbilical cord” and controlled by a technician at a computer station. It was this technician who started and stopped the recording, and the camera was so dependent on this person that if he was away from his station, Savides couldn’t even look through the viewfinder.

Beyond controlling the start and stop, the capture technician was also capable of offering the cinematographer a color-corrected demo of any given shot as it was being lit and photographed. However, this capability also led to an attempt at standardizing any given sequence; Savides was asked to create a series of templates such as Day Exterior, Night Exterior, Day Interior, Night Interior — which he refused to do. He explained, “I couldn’t look at them. I didn’t want the look-up tables to bias my eye. I wanted to work with a neutral slate, and that neutral slate had to be that RAW file. It’s the only way I could understand what I was doing everyday. The look-up table would slant you toward whatever you made that look like.” Furthermore, “there’s no way that you could generate a look-up table for every scene in a movie with the scope of Zodiac.”

Kuras relates that during one show where she used the Viper, she found herself in a battle with a capture technician. She wanted to blow out some backlight, but the technician, afraid that the light would be off the scale, rebuffed her. “You can’t do that,” he said. “Who’s gonna be the fall guy?” Savides said he had no problems on his shoot, and that a situation like that was probably the result of differing personalities. It does illustrate, though, the added difficulty that results from adding a new crew position while taking a certain freedom away from the cinematographer.

Faced with this new approach, Savides ultimately found himself working in a more intuitive manner than normal. This even affected how he dealt with one of the most traditional tools of photography, the light meter. While the Viper has a recommended ASA of 320, he admits, “You can’t rate it. I wasn’t using my meter after a while. I’d say it’s between 500 and 800. But you do it by eye.”

“When you really get down to the problems of photography and backlight — the problems that I deal with every day — if someone’s against the window and it’s four stops under in their eyes and the window it’s six stops hotter… I just threw everything away ’cause it just didn’t work. It never looked good. I would just do it by eye. Eventually I found a place where I knew that it would work. You’d learn that the highlights — you just couldn’t go there. Luckily, David had a movie that didn’t need highlights. We just didn’t shoot places that had hot backgrounds.”

One of the supposed advantages of shooting HD over film is its sensitivity to light. On this point, Savides was skeptical. “The toe [the sensitivity to dim light] of the Viper is extraordinary,” he says. “Not as good as the toe in film, though some people will say it is. But it’s not. It will get noisy. It gets very noisy in fact. You cannot do a night interior of a room like you can in film. You have to light everything up and then take it down. That’s disappointing to me, because I like to work in low levels, see things dark, instead of lighting things hot and printing them down. I’d rather see it the way it is, and the Viper doesn’t let you do that. That whole thing about shooting in practical light and not needing to light isn’t really true. Film is just as sensitive if not more so than the Viper.”

He did enjoy working with uncompressed HD and, coming from still photography, understood the importance of starting with RAW files. Strangely, a bit of a debate has developed recently over whether the uncompressed image is really any better than what’s recorded to tape.

Robert Strait, manager of digital technologies at Panavision, doesn’t think it makes much of a difference. “Part of that is a marketing game,” he says. “There’s a technical argument versus a perceptual argument. I myself can’t visually perceive the difference between an image that’s been compressed — depending on the type of compression, obviously — against something that’s uncompressed. And that’s something that’s been known inside the industry for a long time.”

On this point, perfectly illustrating the difference of opinion, Savides sharply retorts, “You can too [perceive the difference]! Compression is compression. That’s the problem with all those movies. The tearing, the artifacting you’re seeing in, say, Michael Mann’s movie — it’s all compression. It started from the compression. Once you start with compression, no matter what form it manifests itself as, it’s just a catalyst for problems down the pipeline.”

On the prosumer side, compression has been one of the major complaints holding back the HDV format, which tries to squeeze a 720P image onto a Mini DV tape and ends up looking more like high-end Mini DV than true HD. But that’s just another example of the current chaos of competing formats, as the industry slogs through the transition process.

Speaking of messy transitions and differences of opinion, the talk about HD inevitably segues to digital projection. Should it be 2K or 4K? Are celluloid movies really projected at their highest resolution of 4K anyway, or have they been degraded through multiple negatives and screenings to something just over 1K? Who pays for the transition? Who pays for the upkeep?

Strait is an advocate of digital projection, noting issues of quality control, as well as believing it will affect the front end of production. “The sky’s the limit,” he says. “What you see in the DI room is what you’re going to see in the theater. That’s the final frontier, as far as streamlining that digital pipeline. Then you’ll see a lot more digital acquisition for feature films.”

Kuras, in contrast, has reservations. “I think that not all cinemas are going to be able to afford the latest digital projectors,” she says. “That’s where the difference is going to lie. It’s going to vary widely. People are going to find the cheapest way to get it up on the screen. We all know that, ’cause that’s what winds up being the bottom line.”

Savides is unrepentantly enthusiastic about the advances in digital, arguing that current celluloid projection is a mess. “Digital projection is where it’s at,” he says. “Digital projection is great. It surpasses regular projection right now. Digital projectors are the best projectors in the world now, I think.”

He elaborates on the battle between 2K and 4K: “I think it would be great to get [digital projection] to 4K. The 4K projectors are phenomenal. I think that’s where it needs to go. Especially these tent-pole movies — that’s where this business is going to go. I don’t have a crystal ball and wouldn’t predict anything, but I think people are going to watch movies at home, and the major Hollywood business is going to rely on these big movies like The Polar Express that are going to be events. You’ll bring your family and friends and they’ll be these spectacles that will be in 3-D. They’ll be these visual treats that you’ll need to see in 4K. If the theaters are going to last, they’re going to have to draw people in with something like that. Otherwise, who goes to movies anymore?”

Perhaps it’s the theatrical expectation audiences have that’s made movies like Miami Vice and Inland Empire so controversial. It’s no secret that people receive more visual entertainment via TVs and computers than at movie theaters — and images on TV are clean and flat. Most people forget how grainy motion pictures used to be. Even a recent movie like Eyes Wide Shut, shot on film, received a mixed reaction for its degraded imagery.

“There’s certain expectations when you pay $12 now to go to a movie with your date on a Friday night. You buy your bucket of popcorn and you want to see your Michael Mann movie — there are expectations that we have,” says Savides. “But to make films and to be an artist, aren’t you allowed to be impressionistic? If you saw Miami Vice in this incarnation or Inland Empire in this incarnation at the Whitney Biennial, what would you say? You might think that you’ve seen something really extraordinary. Are there supposed to be rules? Is there a Dogma 2006 that the Academy should put out? When we make movies there must be a certain number of pixels? It must have a certain resolution? There must be a certain amount of focus? Otherwise it can’t be a movie? If you don’t like Charles Bukowski, is he not a good writer? It’s the same argument.”

For now, the transition continues. Will HD overtake film as a capture medium? And if so, will it be a system like the Genesis or one like the Viper? Most likely, some combination will triumph utilizing the former camera’s adaptation of 35mm lenses with the latter’s uncompressed hard drive acquisition.

But as the aesthetic seems inseparable from the technical, questions arise about the nature of movies and how we look at movies. Although this is a confusing era, it’s one we should be paying close attention to. When else could you pose an abstract question such as “How different would Fight Club be if it had been shot on a PD150?” — and have it truly resonate?

This transition allows filmmakers to wonder what the goals of movies are. Is it about how the audience feels? Does the new technology offer an image that captures the heart and soul of the picture? Or is it about streamlining the workflow? How easy it is to get a take? Or how quickly data can be accessed? At the end of the day, are we telling a story or talking about mechanics?

Enjoy the transition while it lasts. Once it’s over and standards have been adopted, it’s going to get pretty boring out there.

Article by  JAMIE STUART


An elderly man pulls his carriage to the curb and prepares to put on a show. Onlookers watch with a mixture of bewilderment and vague familiarity; the man’s shtick, once enjoyed by the masses, now gets passing glances. The show begins and it’s hard to tell if the crowd is entertained or simply bemused by the old-fashioned spectacle.

The above scenario befalls the titular hero of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, but in some ways it also describes the struggles of the film’s perspicacious director. For 30 years Terry Gilliam has battled to tell his fantastical stories without interference from the prying hands of Hollywood. But lately audiences have seemingly become tired of Gilliam’s madness. The Brothers Grimm, a realistic look at the 19th-century fairytale writers, received lackluster box office returns. Gilliam followed up with the low-budget Tideland, which did even worse. In fact, you could make the argument that the best of Gilliam’s recent work was contained within his biggest failure. In the award-winning documentary Lost in La Mancha, directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe filmed the disintegration of Gilliam’s 2000 The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a project bedeviled by a flash flood, NATO test flights interrupting location shoots and, finally, an injury to Gilliam’s Quixote, Jean Rochefort, which halted the project permanently.

With Doctor Parnassus, Gilliam once more seeks a multiplex audience, this time by returning to the anarchic blending of fantasy and reality that garnered him critical acclaim in the ’80s with films like Time BanditsBrazil andThe Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Christopher Plummer plays Parnassus, an immortal dream weaver who travels around modern-day London in a horse-drawn wagon with his street performers, Percy (Verne Troyer), Anton (Andrew Garfield) and his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole). Putting on shows in front of bars and strip mall parking lots, Parnassus uses his powers to lure people into his magical mirror, where the unsuspecting volunteers find themselves in a world created from their subconscious. But unbeknownst to them, they have to decide while in the Imaginarium if they will exit back into the real world or go deeper inside where the Devil is waiting. We learn this is a game Parnassus and the Prince of Darkness (played with great wit by Tom Waits) have been playing for centuries, and now Parnassus’s daughter is the prize for whoever can get the most souls by her 16th birthday. But with Valentina’s sweet 16 nearing and Parnassus’s theatrics less enticing to modern audiences, Parnassus needs a new draw. He picks up a con artist named Tony (Heath Ledger), and with his help the game suddenly changes.

The film was selected for the Cannes Film Festival and has received generally good reviews, but, as everyone knows, production catastrophes seem to plague all of Gilliam’s films. Two days after wrapping shooting in London and moving to Vancouver to do the CGI for the Imaginarium scenes, Ledger was found dead at his New York City apartment of an accidental overdose. The passing of his star and good friend sapped the energy out of Gilliam, who was prepared to terminate production. But through the coaxing of his daughter, producer Amy Gilliam, and others, he rewrote the story, with Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell all volunteering to take over Ledger’s character, giving Gilliam the rejuvenation he needed to bring his latest fantasy to life.

Gilliam sat down for lunch with Filmmaker in New York City last month to talk about why he won’t pander to the audience, the resurrection of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote and what drives him to still make movies.


Is it true that this is the first original screenplay you’ve written since Brazil? I think so. Everything else, and you can include Munchausen, there was a book that started it. This was the first one that started with nothing except hopefully whatever imagination and talent I still have left. Well [it started with] me and [screenwriter] Charles McKeown [Gilliam’s collaborator on BrazilThe Adventures of Baron Munchausen] as, literally, a blank page. I just wanted to see if I still had the stuff anymore.

What comes first for you when you write: visual images or story? Well, there was no story for quite a while. There had been a thing that I had been pondering over for years, images of something from another time ending up in our time and nobody being able to explain it. It was as simple as that. Then at one point, because I have a house in Italy, people said, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great to do the whole thing in Italy?” And I thought of images of an old wagon and then, bingo, it was pretty quick to the idea of this traveling show from another time turning up in modern London. Something wonderful, exotic, ancient and weird, and nobody ever paying attention to it.

Tell me about your collaboration with McKeown. There’s no real form. Half of the time it’s by trading e-mails — we don’t have to be together. So he’ll write a whole chunk, and I’ll write, and we’ll stick it together and see if we should change it or not. It’s a constant dialogue, I suppose, and the story develops that way. I wish I had a system but I don’t. There isn’t a system except my instinct. And what’s difficult with Charles is he’s more verbal and I’m more visual, so he has to trust that the visual bit that I’m doing is going to work.

What about the character of the street performer, which is a familiar one from much of modern cinema. Was this a starting point? Yes and no. It was actually the wagon itself. That first shot of the film is really where it began for me in my head. And then we work out who are these people, what are they doing, what are they selling? And little by little we came up with [the story]. I told Charles it would be great to do something like Bergman did in Fanny and Alexander and Fellini with Amarcord, which were both films at a certain point in their career where they relaxed, stopped dealing with hard issues and just did what was natural. This was a way to use all of the ideas in my desk that had never found a home. They all didn’t make it into the film but they were nice starting points. I think the other film that I remembered watching was The Seventh Seal. Suddenly there’s that little traveling theater and that little family in the movie, and in fact the character Joseph, the father in the movie, is who we based Anton on because he’s an innocent. Then with Parnassus having a daughter, that was me coming into the scene just like Munchausen — it’s me having two daughters. My son is really pissed off — he never turns up in my films. [Laughs]

I’ve read that Georges Méliès was an inspiration. Didn’t he do street performing at the end of his life?No, he had a little stall outside of a train station in Paris where he sold children’s toys. I mean here was the guy who was the first great fantasist, sci-fi filmmaker, magician, everything, so the end of the film is an homage to Méliès. I discovered a month ago in France that the train station outside of which Méliès was selling his toys was named Montparnasse. It’s moments like these when you think there are forces at work.

How much of Parnassus’s personality, particularly his relentless drive to tell a story, come from you?Well the part that I put in was the frustration of thinking that I have interesting things to say and to inspire and enlighten and nobody is paying attention. It’s that frustration that any artistic person feels in one form or another. No matter how successful you become that is the needling thing — you can reach more people… if only. [Laughs]

It felt to me that you were saying it was never too late for us to find that imagination, but that perhaps modern technology is leading us away from the creativity contained naturally within us. It’s like theater. Theater is artifice, it’s fake, but you, the audience, have to take those sets and make them into real things. It’s like children when they play with toys. [Gilliam begins playing with his knife] I have a train and I’m going to put it here — that’s an active imagination turning that knife into a beautiful silver train. That’s what children do. I think adults stop doing that. They learn to focus. That’s how they think you have to get through life, with structure. I think cinema and television now are becoming passive mediums because there’s so much information, you don’t have to fill in the gaps. Everything is already all there. The big films today are the same film again and again and again. You watch trailers, they’re exactly the same, just different costumes. The rhythms are the same, and that’s what bothers me.

[Most films] are naturalistic, no matter how fantastical they are. I’ve always wanted to be hyperrealistic but not naturalistic, and in this one in particular. In the Imaginarium those landscapes are obviously not naturalistic but they’re believable. And also, I just want the audience to work and then start to get involved. The more you work on something the more you get out of it. It’s like Don DeLillo’s White Noise — we’re inundated with noise, information, facts, but how much do they actually apply to our lives? The example I use is we have a house in Italy and my son will come over. It’s very basic; we have no television or phone. It’s just there. And we would go there and he’d be bored. He’s a 13-year-old kid, and he’s like, “Where are the video games?” Then by the third day suddenly he’s doing things. That tree becomes something, and he’s inventing a world, and he’s excited and having fun. But when we leave he’s back at the television. So that’s what scares me about the modern world.

You use CGI, which is a tool that most films today use. But is there a point when you even find that it becomes too much, when it fights against that “hyperrealistic” feel you are looking for? The budget. [Laughs] No, it’s not an aesthetic problem in that sense of what is real, what’s tangible, where you need weight and gravity and where you don’t. I’m pragmatic, [looking for] what will get the job done most efficiently and cheapest. I don’t want unlimited things. I want to be restrained.

When did Heath Ledger originally get involved in the project? After Brothers Grimm we were really close but he went through a very weird year after Brokeback Mountain. He hated doing all of the publicity for the Oscars. You go through all of that and you don’t win, so he said he wanted to go back and do some small films in Australia. He was going in all directions, and I offered him a couple of things. He was in London working on the editing of his Modest Mouse video — this was around the time he was playing the Joker — and while he was working on that he passed me a note asking if he could play Tony. I asked him why and he said, “Because I want to see this movie.” Ironically he’s the one person who can’t see the movie. The god of irony is the most powerful god of all.

Once you started up the project after Ledger’s death, how long did it take you to realize it could still work? Pragmatically there was no way to get one great actor to come in for a couple of weeks and take the part, nor did I think it was the right thing to do. But three actors, that would be interesting. So I just started calling friends. And we ended up with these three losers. [Laughs] They were great, but it was a real nightmare to work around all their schedules. And the difficult thing about it was I had no faith that it would work. Then we were in London to do the assembly. We showed it to the guy who was doing the postproduction sound and for some reason, I guess he hadn’t been reading the papers, [laughs] he’d just assumed it had been written to be done exactly like that. That’s when I knew it would work.

This could be my imagination at play, but when we’re introduced to the different Tonys in the Imaginarium, before seeing their faces, it almost looks like Heath’s features before Depp or Law or Farrell are revealed. Was there any CGI used to blend his facial structure into theirs? You spotted it. But it’s not CG — it’s all real. We found a double, his credit is hidden but it’s Heath’s double, Zander Gladish, an actor from New York who looks so much like Heath it’s crazy. No one has asked me about this, but that’s why the transitions work. You don’t go into the mirror and become someone else — you gradually do it. It was just spooky — there were days you’d come to work in the morning and Zander would be sitting there and I’d swear it was Heath.

How about in terms of the storyline? Was it difficult to rewrite after Heath’s death? No. We held onto certain scenes that I thought I’d be able to block, which in the end I kind of did. I changed the drunk guy’s face in the beginning, but the rest of it is as written. I added things like the women revealing Johnny and saying, “I dreamed you would always look like this” — that sells the transformation. But the rest is the original story. There is a scene were Tony and Anton fight on the other side of the mirror. Originally that was supposed to be in the wagon, but now it works better because it’s the two rivals fighting over Valentina, and that’s why I always say Heath co-directed this film posthumously.

I’ve read that some of your highest test-screening scores have come from children. Yes. I keep telling people this. All of the good, sophisticated, knowledgeable people in the business think I’m crazy, and they are absolutely wrong. The youngest are 7 year olds who’ve seen the movie — 7, 8, 9 year olds. It works right across the board, just like Time Bandits and Munchausen. I don’t know why the [executives] don’t understand — for kids this is wondrous. It’s a beautiful storybook, and you don’t have to understand all of the intellectual ideas.

Is it true that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is back in the works? After seven years in the French legal wilderness I finally read the script again. Through this whole time I’d never read it because I thought it was perfect. Then I went back and read it and thought, “This is a piece of shit.” [Laughs] We did a rewrite, only the beginning [of the script], but it has now changed the meaning of everything and it’s so much fucking better. People say it’s the curse of Gilliam. It’s the luck of Gilliam — I would have made the film and it wouldn’t have been good. So we’re out there casting and Robert Duvall let it out [that he wants to play Quixote]. I have been staying quiet. I think it would be exciting to have him do it. Now we’re just looking for money. [Laughs] But we have a script and a budget, and we’re trying to get realistic with the budget because we’re in the difficult money, the $25 to $30 million range — no one will give you that. The way you do it is through foreign money. There is money out there. That’s what we did with Parnassus; we patched it together from all over the world.

And Johnny Depp is no longer involved? Johnny and I are happily divorced. [Laughs] I love him and he’s one of my best friends, but he has to escape from Jack Sparrow. Jack has run its course, but how can you run away when they’re offering you that kind of money?

So you’re still searching for someone? I have someone but I’m not telling.

Looking back on your career there have been struggles in every project you’ve done. What is it that keeps you driven to continue making films? That’s the thing, I don’t know what it is. It’s much easier to say, “Fuck it, I don’t need this anymore.” But I do it every day. My wife wants me to stop. It’s partly out of sheer perversity. I’ve now entered my 70th year on this planet. That’s an old fart, and it’s the weariness that creeps in that I’m most worried about. Once you get working the adrenaline is pumping and the enthusiasm is there, but it’s the business of pushing something into existence, this money phase, I’m just fucking tired of. I hate it. Whenever I go out there and raise money I talk to people and they tell me how Time Bandits changed their lives and that they loved Munchausen. “But this new one, I just don’t know.” Well, nobody wanted those other ones either. [Laughs] You find the one guy in Hollywood who wants it made and then everybody thinks it was obvious.

What’s the payoff, then? People like my films. When I see an audience beaming it’s great. It’s that more than anything. It’s not so much that I have important things to say and they must be said at all costs. It’s not that. It’s that I make it and somewhere down the line somebody walks up to me and says, “Munchausen… man.” You know you actually got to somebody. It’s as simple as that.


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By Jason Guerrasio