How did The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus come about?
I had to write something original again. I hadn’t worked with Charles McKeown, who I wrote Baron Munchausen and Brazil with, for a long while so I just thought: let’s have a go and start simply from the beginning, with a strange horse-drawn theatre arriving in modern London. The whole thing grew from there. It didn’t have a story to start with – it slowly built through combining fairytale elements. A play on the idea of expanding your imagination, and the choices we make between good and evil, right and wrong, God and the Devil.
The film covers one of your pet themes, imagination vs reality…
Imagination is central – the idea of trying to expand your imagination as opposed to just paying money to enter my imagination. But it’s also very much about mortality, I think, which is what’s so interesting, or odd, or prescient, or disturbing about it.
What was it like trying to put the film back together after Heath Ledger died?
Unlikely. The first step was to actually decide to continue, which was maybe the hardest thing. But once we’d said, ‘Okay, we’re going to try and keep this thing alive,’ the hardest thing was trying to continue working and believing that we could make a film that was worthy of Heath’s last performance. I wasn’t sure we could do it. We started shooting again, having not resolved a lot of problems. There were certain scenes that I thought I could fake with a double sitting in for Heath, but then decided I couldn’t. And some scenes worked much better. Heath was kind of forcing us to do certain things. That’s why I wanted the credit to be ‘co-directed by Heath Ledger’, because he created a situation that made me do certain things, some of them against my will, but almost all of them better than we had originally planned.
How did he come on board?
He and I were really close after The Brothers Grimm, so I was sending him everything. And he was over here working on an animated music video for Modest Mouse, and I put him to work in my special effects company, in the conference room. I had to present my storyboards to the guys at the effects company. So I’m doing this little show, and Heath’s just sitting there, and in the middle of the presentation he slips me a note saying, ‘Can I play Tony?’ And I wrote back saying, ‘You serious?!’
Did you discuss future projects?
Oh, we were meant to be doing a lot of stuff together. I’d found a guy who could do just about everything I’d ever wanted of an actor. He was extraordinary, and he was just getting better and better, there was no limit. He could be incredibly funny and his timing was perfect, but he was always grounded. A lot of the things I’m doing are on the edge of the absurd and you’ve got to have an actor that will just hold it all together. And that was one of the great qualities that Heath had.
Did you write with the actors in mind? Tom Waits as the Devil is perfect.
I never do, I never have. You write and then you start hunting. Tom wrote to me saying, ‘You got anything for me?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve just written this thing where we need a devil.’ And he says, ‘I’m in’, without reading the script. He’s just perfect. His music has always been a wonderful combination: he writes songs for the angels and sings with the voice of Beelzebub.
The main character, played by Heath Ledger, is called Tony Liar, and you’ve admitted to a fascination with former UK prime minister Tony Blair when you were writing…
It’s very loose, but he was an inspiration. People who can do and say anything and make you believe that it’s for the good – they’re intriguing people, and Tony Blair was very good at it. And he could do some of the most awful things and probably feel righteous about them.
Any idea about what you’re going to do next?
Yeah, it’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. I never learn. This will be the fourth attempt. But hopefully it will be the last!
The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus is in cinemas now.