The Imagination of Mr. Gilliam
An Interview with Mick Audsley
By Garrett Gilchrist
For The Editor's Guild Magazine
From his long history with Steven Frears to his work with directors like Mike Newell, Neil Jordan, and John Madden, Mick Audsley has, over thirty years, proven himself to be one of the finest editors in Britain. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is his second collaboration with Terry Gilliam, the mad genius who started out in Monty Python, and went on to create some of the most original, unforgettable and visually inventive films of the 80s and 90s, from Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But even as he's dazzled critics and fans, he's been too quirky to succeed at the box office, and his films have often been plagued by behind the scenes drama, such as his unfinished film The Man Who Shot Don Quixote, which shut down after just a week of filming. His new film, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, starring Christopher Plummer, could be a return to form for Gilliam. It's a stunning, immersive feast for the senses, taking us into a world of imagination of the kind only Gilliam can create. But the film nearly shut down completely, due to the death of Heath Ledger. Gilliam and the crew were devastated by the loss of their friend. But they were determined to salvage his final performance, and with the help of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, they were able to raise a phoenix from the ashes and complete the film. It will be released around the world in September and October, and will be released in the United States at an unknown date, perhaps around Christmas.
GG: The 12 Monkeys documentary, the Hamster Factor, shows Terry Gilliam as a very driven, very brilliant man, but also a wounded man who seems to be waiting for something to go terribly wrong, almost willing it to, just because it's happened on so many of his films.
MA: It's extraordinary- his misfortunes have been at a level beyond belief. 12 Monkeys went very very smoothly. I had a great time. It was the last time I did film, not non-linear editing. It's the end of an era, for me. But the struggle is often to do with money. It was always ironic to me that Terry somehow was given this legacy of being- not difficult, but irresponsible with money.
GG: When he can actually make magic out of less money than most filmmakers.
MA: Exactly. I always found that very upsetting because in my experience the opposite is true. He's enormously responsible about what to do and where to put his efforts financially, to make the film happen. He has got such an enormously succinct and precise vision of what he wants to get, that makes it an efficient process. Filmmaking is precarious. You can't control weather and all the rest of it. But it's unfair that whatever happened on Munchausen all those years ago was a legacy that would prevent him going forward all these years later.
GG: On Munchausen, the producer Thomas Schuhly had left him this great mess to clean up- they were over budget before they started shooting. The production was being stolen from left and right. And yet still he turned in one of the most beautiful films of that era.
MA: I know- extraordinary, isn't it? It's always a struggle to get funding, get financial solidity. If Terry struggles, imagine younger filmmakers who are less well known starting out, people who are exploding with ideas. That paints a rather bleak picture of our situation as filmmakers. But, as with this film, Terry was still able to spring back and be inventive to an incredible degree and come out on top.
GG: This, like all of Terry Gilliam's films, is a visual feast. It's also his fifth collaboration with cinematographer Nicola Pecorini, who's worked with Terry since 1998.
MA: I think there is nobody better, between Terry and Nicola. They're so confident with the visual language of cinema. Exquisitely good with angles, lenses, lighting- I'm a huge fan of it. And one can't always say that. Because circumstances on a film set are difficult and you don't always get there. But Terry is the master of that language and he appears to do that effortlessly. We never have ridiculous amounts of material searching for the right angle. He gives me what I need and it's always very strong. They're good friends. They understand each other and can be flippant, with this enormous respect underneath. They enjoy the process very much. Very nice guys to hang out with. And Nicola cooks fine Italian food.
GG: It's impossible to talk about this film without talking about the tragic death of Heath Ledger. Much has been said about the pain of his custody battle over his daughter. The stress and the drugs and just not sleeping and being so worked up and...
MA: I never met Heath, and it was such a shock to know that there was anything- even if he hadn't been sleeping well- there was no evidence of him being tired or under-energized in the work that I received on the movie, of him being anything other than absolutely well prepared for every day, working very hard. You can always tell in my job if somebody's connected to the piece.
GG: Terry Gilliam has said the work was really fueling him, that he got an energy from working that overwhelmed any personal problems he was having.
MA: That's very plausible. Work can be so all consuming that it blocks everything else out. He was very involved in the whole project, not just as a fine actor.
GG: He wanted to direct, and probably could have been a fine filmmaker.
MA: I'm sure he would've been. I was packing up to leave for Vancouver. The others had gone ahead. My daughter came in with a laptop- I thought it was a hoax at first. We switched on the television. This was half of ten at night in London. It suddenly dawned on me that this was all real. I phoned Terry immediately and I think we both said, how are we ever gonna finish this? It's not possible to finish the film.
GG: But [producer] Amy Gilliam and Nicola became very tenacious, saying this must be finished, this will not become another Don Quixote.
MA: That's right. They also had a stronger personal relationship with Heath, a personal reason as well as a professional reason to want to represent him as best we could. None of us wanted this material to go the way of an extra on a DVD. It just didn't seem right. But it took us a while. We were all in shock for a couple of weeks. It was unthinkable what had happened. And with Terry's reputation for disaster, I thought, why are the gods being so unkind to him? It's hard enough getting through these things- you're very reliant on friendship. Heath and Terry got on well together. They were looking ahead to what was next.
GG: Gilliam has said, the money to finish the film just vanished.
MA: The wrangling went on for six months. We had to start making a different film. The insurers said, obviously, you can't. But it is a different film. It has to be rewritten and rethought. As it turned out, to have abandoned the project would've cost more than completing it the best we could. And so eventually that's what happened, thank god.
GG: You've said that you hid the film footage, so that no one could take it away.
MA: We didn't want it to get into the wrong hands. It was personal to us as filmmakers, and it was owned by the producers of the film. Maybe it was silly of us. I made jokes about it and said, look, I literally have hidden it under the sofa in the cutting room and taken the name off the door so that nobody knows who we are, and can't see the film. Of course anybody could have found us. But Terry and I share the same agent, and they were trying to get to him and me in those few days after Heath's death, and he protected us from all that. Perhaps a little overreacting but...
GG: Probably not, considering the world's reaction.
MA: We got everything off the Air Canada flight and returned it to London. We were shut down at that point. Then the insurers paid for a week, for Terry and I to go into the cutting room, when he got back from L.A., to figure out what we could do. I just carried on doing the work, polishing up Heath's scenes, blocking out how we could reconceive the transformations. He had filmed one side of the mirror, in the real world. The other side, the Imaginarium, Heath was going to shoot those on a stage in Vancouver. So we had to figure out whether we were going to use a double, or write him out of the scene... Nicola and Amy put their shoulders to the wind, to figure out the availabilities for Johnny, then Jude and Colin. When we saw their willingness to help, we finally thought, we're gonna carry on and make this happen. Let's pull together and see what we can do.
GG: How was this different from 12 Monkeys for you?
MA: Parnassus, the writing was changing as we went along. Twelve Monkeys, I was familiar with that screenplay before Terry got involved- David and Janet Peoples, who I knew personally. It's a very subjectively conceived story, which is why it's so much fun. The relationship with La Jette. It's a jigsaw puzzle where the audience needs to make connections, fragments of evidence that tie the story together. We had to be sure that information was placed where it needed to be, and was communicating clearly. Slowly it comes into focus and you can draw all the strands together in his frame of mind. An exciting project.
GG: Terry Gilliam is particularly good at point of view films where you're seeing the world through an unreliable narrator.
MA: He has a very strong visual inventive eye, and it's his subjective world that he's placing in the eyes of the character. A surreal world.
GG: Christopher Plummer plays Dr. Parnassus in the film.
MA: A wonderful actor. His voice is fantastic. From his years and years of filmmaking, he's got all the practical skills that as an editor you admire so much. He's very clear and precise about he's going to do, not wasting any time with practical problems, hitting marks, all that stuff that filmmaking involves. And a delightful gentleman, very social. We'd worked together on 12 Monkeys, and it was a great pleasure working with him again.
GG: Tom Waits is an interesting choice as the devil, Mr. Nick.
MA: Such an vastly intelligent creative mind. He is in my view one of the great contemporary American poets. His voice is such a great instrument musically, as well as from an actor's point of view. He was a joy. Very committed, very helpful, very willing to come with us on whatever we asked him to do. Absolutely solid artistically, and I think he's marvelous in the film. It's one of those things that struck me, how well he comes through. I liked all the cast, particularly Andrew Garfield, a very exciting young actor. I've become a great fan. And Verne Troyer. Lily Cole. Because of what happened, their commitment to the project was tested, and revealed. In the end, it was Terry's generosity, his command of the production, and his love of filmmaking. All of us benefit from that enthusiasm. It rubs off on us. I think we all felt the same. Under the circumstances that were so extreme, we all had a good ride.
GG: In the final film, Heath Ledger's Tony steps through the mirror and becomes first Johnny Depp, then Jude Law, then Colin Farrell.
MA: The order was dictated to a certain degree by the time they could offer. We had Johnny only for two days, and half of one of those days he wasn't very well. Very fine actors, whose natural personas help represent different aspects of Tony's personality. Johnny we used as the elegant charmer. There's a seduction involved. Colin was the last, this duplicitous character- by then the cards were on the table so it was just, run with it. It's out now. Jude, all three of them came and had access to what Heath had done. I don't know whether they asked for it. Terry offered it, so they would have a relationship with what he had done, and solve it in their own way. They were very generous about it, and it was their support of the whole project that made it work.
GG: Since 1982, you've made over a dozen films with Stephen Frears, including Dirty Pretty Things, High Fidelity, Hero, The Grifters, and My Beautiful Laundrette.
MA: Yes, and probably another in late September. We're close friends, and I've met a lot of the filmmakers I've worked with through Steven. He's been a sort of mentor for me and somebody who I've learned a great deal from over those 25 years of making films. If you have that trust with somebody, that's the great joy, of being let loose with their material, and being given the freedom to manipulate it and offer it back to them in its new form. It's a bit like family. You know each other so well. It makes it very efficient, that you know what he likes. You have a likeness of view for the material and hopefully what to get out of it.
GG: You've worked frequently with Mike Newell.
MA: I've known Mike since 1984. He's involved in a big Bruckheimer film at the moment, Prince of Persia, which I was working on up to fairly recently. They wanted two editors, and I was only available to do a part of it. We did Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in '04, and before that Mona Lisa Smile. We've had a good time together, making quite different films. Mike's great strength is his empathy for actors. It makes him very popular. There's a certain theatricality to Mike, and he's rooted in theater as well as films.
GG: You worked with Neil Jordan on Interview with a Vampire and We're No Angels.
MA: Gosh, I haven't seen Neil for years actually. If I see him we have a good time together. He's always very involved in, or has written, the screenplay. A bit like Terry. Dare I use that word- an auteur. You have to acknowledge that they've already done perhaps two, three, four years work before you even start shooting the movie itself. That requires a sensitivity to the diplomatic process of cutting a film.
GG: They could become attached to the material, but they could also know which of their babies to cut, hopefully.
MA: Exactly. I'll emphasize to student editors that the relationship between screenwriting and editing is extremely close. The rebirth of the movie in the cutting room. Working with somebody like Neil, who is a writer and novelist, can be very gratifying because they have so internalized the material in that way. I was always thinking this should go, so let's get rid of it. Or, you need a scene to do this job here. That's very much an intimate process. Directors like Steven or Mike Newell or John Madden, they can take on board other people's work and turn it inside out to invent it for themselves. But they come with perhaps a degree more objectivity.
GG: You've worked on very low and very high budget films.
MA: There's always time constraints, money constraints. It seems crazy when you spend a year on a film, but you still feel like a passenger ready to jump on a bus the whole way! Bigger budget films leave you more room, but there are more people who, quite rightly, have input into the final film. Cutting on film 10-15 years ago, we had a much more regimented process of completion. Now people can take it home and look at it. We can work perhaps twice the speed. But it takes longer, because people want all these different versions created, which have to be fought over, and presented sometimes against your own better judgement. Most of my friends and colleagues have, at one stage, been under the gun to produce cuts which we didn't believe in.
GG: On Terry's film Brazil (editor Julian Doyle), the studio prepared an edit so terrible it's become legendary.
MA: Oh, I've blocked that out of my head! It's just the nature of the job, and hopefully it doesn't happen too often. Occasionally I've thought, we've just kind of slid off the rails near the end. We had a better film a month ago. I've been lucky with most of the projects I've worked on. You can cut a film forever, til the cows come home. The skill for us all is to be able to step away at a certain point and say that's it. Done. And recognizing that is quite tricky after the fatigue of endless different permutations of the material. It's changed quite a lot, but how I work is much like I always did, taking a lot of notes and being very careful about how I first see it and respond to it.
GG: How do you approach editing a film? What is your personal style?
MA: I like to think that there isn't a style that you carry around like a bag of tricks and plaster over a film. What you bring is a response and a reaction. First, what you imagine the film to be when it's still a screenplay. Then as the material comes in, you respond to that. You must be the first audience, and try and make the film you'd like to see. But they're all very different animals, that need to be taken on their own terms, rather than forcing your own viewpoint upon them. The process of shooting and editing that first stage is crucial because we're responding on a daily basis to what's being given us. We're constructing it as a sketch, how the actors are playing as they come on board, how the film is growing in its kind of jigsaw-like way. You discover these hidden secrets, this power. We've got to be frank when shooting a film because time is short. Not to be overbearing, but that you can say look, I don't think that's quite right. Can we do something about that? When that's something that we all engage in without feeling threatened. I've been lucky to have that with all the directors you've mentioned. You need to have a voice which is supportive but also critical, when there's still time to do something about it.
GG: I'd imagine that Terry is someone who really pushes when something's needed.
MA: Certainly. He'll say okay, that didn't work, we'll have to find another day and do it again. On 12 Monkeys, Brad Pitt said, look, I had an off day. He genuinely offered to pay for that day again, himself. We did shoot it again- as far as I know they didn't make him pay for it! It's trusting each others' viewpoints during this funny little window which is the shoot, in order that the growth of the film is going to be as fluid and as expansive and interesting as is possible within those constraints.
GG: Are you able to rewatch the films?
MA: It usually takes me about three to five years. I can still do bits of dialogue from all the films over 20 years. You've been running it backwards and forwards...
GG: You're credited as "Special Thanks" on John Madden's Oscar winner...
MA: I helped John finish Shakespeare in Love. The editor, David Gamble, who was a friend of mine, was very seriously ill. I didn't want to tread too much on his work, since the film was very healthy when I saw it, apart from the last reel. I put back together a lot of his work over a couple months and we remade the ending, which was rewritten and reshot. We then did Captain Corelli's Mandolin, and Proof, which I enjoyed a great deal. Then Killshot, which I didn't actually complete. It was rewritten and reshot completely in the middle of production as it didn't preview terribly well. They wanted a change of tone. Six months went by, by which time I wasn't free to complete it. It did get released in the end, but I haven't completely seen it finished. It was an Elmore Leonard story, and I think the audience at that time wanted it to be a more conventional sort of thriller, rather than a noir thriller, or a film like The Grifters. Audiences are fickle things and movies are expensive and they need to get their money back. I don't think the audience we got that film to was the right one. Mickey Rourke was in it, before The Wrestler. He was in his coming back phase. But John was very tenacious and hung in there, and also had an obligation to satisfy his producers.
GG: That can be the most painful part of filmmaking, being subjected to that dreaded test screening.
MA: Oh, indeed! We've done hundreds of them in our time! I completely understood the need to satisfy that audience and perhaps that was the right way to turn it round.
GG: But it wasn't a film that set the box office afire either.
MA: No. The climate between one year and another can change for one particular project and maybe John was just unlucky with that particular project. 12 Monkeys did not preview particularly well. We got very average responses. Fortunately Universal were absolutely immensely supportive of us, and god bless em. They said, we're really happy. Carry on doing what you're doing, don't be put off. We expected better responses than we got. But people would go and see the film again- the complexity of it needed two viewings, and audiences enjoyed that. So it all had a happy ending, but that's not always the case.
GG: Difficult material almost never tests well.
MA: Exactly. At the same time, it's easy just to say, oh, a bad preview, oh, it's all their fault. They don't get it.
GG: You have to please an audience regardless.
MA: You don't necessarily have to literally please them. But you need to know what's coming across, what's clear, what's unclear. Even if you know the information that comes back, we as filmmakers should take it very seriously. Up to a certain point, and then saying, well, is that the film we're making or not? If you want to make a film that's challenging. If it isn't just fireworks display filmmaking- swizz bang noisy and running around a lot.
GG: Not that a Terry Gilliam film doesn't involve fireworks!
MA: They're all hard to make. Each time you get involved in one of these things, you're thinking, I don't know how this is going to work. How the audience will respond.
GG: And, can I live with this for a year and put my life and soul into it...
MA: Yes, and I'm a person of a certain age. I think it would be very hard to make 12 Monkeys now. People's feelings change, literally over a couple years. Audiences change. You can't assume anything until it's onscreen. We try to listen to everything, at least. What you do after is the tricky thing.
GG: And make the best version of the movie you set out to make rather than...
MA: Well, you try. In the end it's the director's movie, and we have obligations to the people who have employed us. There's a complexity of people to satisfy, quite rightly so. We're cogs in a bigger machine. You believe in the film and want to make as much of a contribution as you can. But in the end you've got to step aside. It's a tightrope to walk.
GG: Dr. Parnassus is a timeless fellow who tells very old fashioned stories, and his audience has moved on and no longer cares about what he's saying. He's been compared to Terry himself.
MA: There's certainly a parallel to be drawn if you want to. Imagination, the love of old fashioned storytelling, once upon a time, and taking you on a journey, as all storytelling should and has traditionally done. It's Terry's world, and he's been true to himself for three decades of filmmaking. He's an uncompromising artist, and in a way he's timeless. We never said, we have to do this for this contemporary audience. We never really previewed that film with an audience, because it just wasn't possible to do it. Quite rightly Terry said, this is the film I want to make. If you're going to make a low budget film with all these problems, it should have his signature on it competely. To ask an audience to be filmmakers under these circumstances, that's a dangerous place to go.
GG: It was impossible to reshoot at that point. The film hung by a thread, in some ways. A mall audience might not...
MA: No- I think we'd have got a really wide range of responses. Maybe it still will. We did show it to friends, and took those reactions very seriously. "I don't understand that bit. Why are you doing that?" But it's for Terry ultimately to decide. I'd say, "Do you think this is playing slow here?" He'd say, "No, I like it, it's fine, leave it alone. Don't take any more out." If he's happy, I'm happy. There's a certain point where we have to push all the responses away. Your own responses are in the end all you've got to go on. But there were two very chilling moments which we always worried about. One is that you meet Heath as he's dead! Hanging by his neck, having apparently committed suicide.
GG: It's a hell of a way to start his last film though.
MA: I know- it's completely bizarre. Similarly, when the first switch comes, the mask of revealing faces, and it turns out to be Johnny Depp. This was all written in before Heath's death. We had no way of understanding how those moments were going to play. Terry had a screening for the Directors Guild in L.A., which was the biggest audience I'd seen the film with, 500 people. It was electrifying when Heath came up there, and when Johnny first appeared. The impact- I could feel it in the room. I thought, it's bigger than I ever imagined.
GG: When you first started editing, that's something you could never have known- that people would be waiting for Tony.
MA: Exactly! I had always worried about his arrival in the film being a little late, in terms of kicking the story forward. It's 20 minutes in maybe. But that's good showmanship. They know Heath's coming and we're gonna make them wait! Then when we deliver, it'll be very strong, and it was. My responses are jaded by everything that happened making the film, and my familiarity with the material, so other viewers must be the judge of that.
GG: It might take you more than three to five years to watch this one again.
MA: This one might. [laughs]
GG: Terry Gilliam often says that he never gets it all onscreen. He gets as much of it as he can.
MA: He has more ideas than all of us put together.
GG: He'll try to reuse concepts that went unfilmed. For many years there was talk about a script with Charles McKeown again, The Defective Detective.
MA: Oh yes. I did read it. I was asking the other day what happened to it. He said it's in the top drawer somewhere.
GG: Has he spoken about Don Quixote?
MA: Yes. I never read the original, but I've read this new draft he's done and it's very very exciting. I believe he's trying to raise money to make that in the spring next year.
GG: You mentioned another project...
MA: I'm involved in starting up an online film editing education course. It's called 16x9. It's in the early stages. Steven [Frears] is involved. You'll download information and conversations and eventually we'll be doing online film tutorials with filmmakers around the world.
GG: These days anyone can make a film and put it on the internet, but it's unlikely that film will be seen by anyone. What's labeled as independent films these days are really just smaller studio films. Even many of Terry's films have not gotten the audience they deserved.
MA: Because exhibition and advertising is so expensive, you have this huge gap between the blockbusters, the big studio films, and independent films. The more that we could provide outlets for the exhibition of low budget films, they would get recognition. Maybe I'm just more aware of it now, but as the costs of filmmaking spiral ever upwards I'm reminded more and more of how precarious the process of getting started and getting to the end really is. We used to say, oh, well, if the first clapperboard goes I guess the film is gonna get made. But it's not always true. You may have five different sources of funding. If you get to the end of filming, but sometimes films get stuck in post production. It's always a struggle. We did think on every friday, this is the last week. It could all collapse tomorrow.
GG: Because of Heath really, I think this is something that people are going to watch and actually pay attention to.
MA: I suspect that's the case. I hope that's true for the right reasons, rather than just idle curiosity of how we wriggled out of the rather extreme situation. I hope they go and see it because it's Heath, and because it's a Terry Gilliam film.
Garrett Gilchrist is a freelance writer, filmmaker and film editor. He can be reached at orangecow.org.