SDCC: Parnassus footage reveals Ledger's last act

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

There are many reasons why audiences are excited to see Terry Gilliam's new movie, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, not the least of which is that it contains the final performance by the late Heath Ledger. But notwithstanding that curiosity factor, Comic-Con attendees on Thursday seemed equally interested in seeing whether Gilliam was able to pull off a proper piece of fantasy that approached the odysseys he created with Time Bandits, Brazil and other films. Gilliam, making his first appearance at Comic-Con, appeared in Hall H Thursday evening to field questions from fans and show off a few clips from Parnassus.

"Everybody is basically waiting to see Heath's last performance, and that's why we finished the film," Gilliam said after an introductory clip offered a recap of his body of work and introduced the characters and world of Parnassus. "We wanted the world to see Heath's last performance, but I want you to understand that the film is really Dr. Parnassus' film."

According to the descriptions provided by cast and crew in the prerecorded introduction, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus follows the title character (played by Christopher Plummer), a man who travels with a theater troupe that allows its audience to quite literally determine how to indulge their imagination. When he makes a wager with the Devil (Tom Waits), in return he forfeits his daughter's soul, which the Prince of Darkness intends to claim on her 16th birthday—which happens to be only three days away.

Gilliam explained that his motivations for telling the story were not merely personal, but self-indulgent. "One of the things I always have difficulty with in making films is that I've got ideas that I'm determined to get out there, and I don't want them fiddled with by studio executives," he explained. "Which always means that I don't have the kind of money that other, far more talented film directors can work with. So one of the ideas with Parnassus was it takes place in the real world, but you enter the imaginary, and each time you go in, it's a completely different world, so we can get in and get out before the audience gets too bored."

He continued, "I was feeling sorry for myself because Tideland wasn't a success, and I thought, nobody wants to see the kind of stories I'm telling anymore. So Parnassus grew out of that, a man with a travelling show trying to get people to let their imagination blossom."

"It's magical and it's touching, it's all sorts of things," Gilliam revealed. "So in many ways, it's the most mature thing I've done and the most juvenile thing I've done." Though the director was remarkably open about his own idiosyncratic creativity, he confessed that he didn't bring the best material from the film to advertise its charms. "One of the few things that happens at Comic-Con is they show all of the best bits, so that when you finally get it to the cinema, you've seen all of the best bits of the film. So what we're going to do here today is show you all of the boring bits, so that when you do spend your money, you'll get your money's worth."

Truth be told, Gilliam wasn't lying when it came to the first clip, in which Parnassus is in his ancient monastery. The imagery is amazing: combining what looked like miniatures with CGI and other elements, Parnassus' monastery rests atop a mountain fortress that looks like a herd of elements in formation, and a bird flies towards its epicenter, where the immortal himself holds court over a group of meditating, levitating monks. Though the dialogue revealed more of the plot, in particular Parnassus' introduction to the Devil, the sequence itself was pure, visual storytelling, and afterward, Gilliam sheepishly observed, "uh, that was a boring bit."

In the second clip, Gilliam showed footage featuring Heath Ledger, although he pointed out ahead of time that viewers would only see his face behind a mask. The clip was very short and really only served as an introduction to Percy (Verne Troyer), one of the members of Parnassus' oddball theatre troupe. Troyer joined the stage and offered a few words of appreciation for being able to work with Gilliam and Ledger before the director screened the final clip of the panel. Bereft of context, the clip was by far the most disturbing and Gilliam-esque, but it also boggled the mind as to how one would or could fit such material into a cohesive story.

In the scene, a young man enters Parnassus' world of imagination essentially believing that he can do as he pleases—including assaulting a young girl, who happens to be Parnassus' young daughter Valentina (Lily Cole). But he soon discovers that his behavior has dark and dangerous repercussions, and he finds himself victimized and hunted in an increasingly bizarre fashion, culminating in being hung in the sky by a weird creature who, quite frankly, defies description. After the creature drops him, he falls down toward what looks like a thumbtack, only to land on the tackhead, redefining the object's dimensions to reveal it as gigantic. (If you're confused, fret not—so were we.)

Troyer and Gilliam fielded questions from the audience, all of whom lauded his visionary style and investigated his creativity in a gratifyingly sincere way. Between the footage and the Q&A, Gilliam was successful in reintroducing himself to mainstream audiences, even if it remains to be seen whether he can hold on to them. But in the meantime, the filmmaker effectively whet appetites for what his latest film can and will be, and for a movie about the essence of imagination, one suspects Gilliam couldn't ask for more.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is slated to open Oct. 16.