If you had just one word to describe the public reputation of director Terry Gilliam what would it be? Here are some options: Troubled; Visionary; Auteur; Delayed.
All of these could be applied to just about any of the films Gilliam has made over the last two decades. How many times have we read variations on the following: “In the pursuit of creating his latest troubled film the visionary director has been delayed yet again as reality bumps up against his auteur sensibilities.” That happens all that time, right?
But part of what we love about Gilliam is that he keeps pushing the envelope and keeps refusing to work within the studio system. He’s ornery and we kind of need him to be the crazy uncle in show business, the one who shows up in a sports car with the girlfriend 20 years younger than him and refuses to even discuss it.
The latest movie to encounter troubles on its way from the director’s head to the movie screen is The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The movie tells the story of the head of a traveling theater troupe who owes his success to constant gambling with the devil. But now the devil has come to collect his winnings – Parnassus’ teenage daughter. It then falls to Tony, part of the troupe, to save her from the devil’s clutches.
But it wouldn’t be a Gilliam production without problems on the set. This time those troubles came in the form of the death of Heath Ledger. No, The Dark Knight was not his last movie. Ledger was in the middle of shooting Parnassus when he passed away, making this the actor’s actual final appearance. Instead of recasting or using a body double for his incomplete scenes, though a trio of actors – Jude Law, Colin Farrel and Johnny Depp – have stepped in to finish the role in a move that seems both respectful and suitably deranged given the types of stories Gilliam is apt to tell. So let’s look at how it’s being sold.
Only one poster seems to have been produced for domestic U.S. audiences, though others were created and geared for international distribution.
The U.S. one-sheet makes it incredibly clear that we were entering into another world with Gilliam and his actors. The main image background is that of a curtain tent, just the kind you’d expect to see as part of a traveling circus or other show like it. Below that curtain is a wonderous landscape with hills in the background. But between those hills is a doorway that breaks the gloom of the cloudy skies and presents a bright and fanciful image with odd looking buildings looming, balloons flying through the sky with a black and white tiled road leading to it.
While the visuals evoke a sense of wonder and fancy the cast is not neglected at all. Ledger and Cole are seen at the top, in front of the curtain, and Plummer and Tom Waits are positioned flanking the doorway. At the very bottom of the poster the entire cast is featured in smaller boxes of their own, including Ledger in the middle and all three other actors who have picked up his role.
It’s a decent poster that certainly makes it clear – even without his name appearing above the title treatment – that it’s from Gilliam since anyone who’s familiar with his work will recognize this as either being from him or certainly inspired by him at the very least. And for that audience, those fans of Gilliam, it immediately transports them to the world he’s created, which is what they’re mostly looking for from the director to begin with.
The trailer was actually the first bit of domestic marketing that was released and it’s pretty cool. It certainly strikes a more epic tone than the trailers for some of Gilliam’s other recent movies.
The spot starts out by introducing Parnassus and just what the stakes are – He very literally made a deal with the devil that gave him eternal life. But in return any child of his becomes the property of the devil upon their 16th birthday, which is now approaching for Parnassus’ only daughter. But then someone appears that could help. We then get a look at the performances of Heath Ledger and the men who stood in for him after his death: Jude Law, Colin Farrel and Johnny Depp.
In addition to that we also get a good look at the film’s visuals, which appear to be outstanding. *This* is what a Gilliam film should look like. There are crazy costumes, outrageous magical landscapes and characters that are drawn so broadly they may as well be actually drawn. The music that plays combined with the quick cutting and fast paced edits make it an experience not unlike a carnival ride, which may be completely accurate for the film itself and certainly do a good job of bringing in the audience.
The movie’s official website puts the trailer in the middle of a reworking of the poster art, with a link to “Download the Press Kit” below as well as an area to find “Showtimes” near you.
There’s also a “Click Here to Find out More” area that’s pretty interesting. First in that section is Support the Site which actually takes you to a blog that’s been updated with media appearances by Gilliam, links to reviews of the movie and more. There are also links here to the movie’s Facebook profile, which is a re-purposing mostly of the same content you’ll find on the blog, a not-very-active Twitter account and a UK sit devoted to Gilliam called “Dreams.” Basically these are the ways you can connect to the movie specifically or to Gilliam and his vision more generally.
After you’ve checked all that out you can Enter the site.
“Cast & Crew” puts the major players on the Imaginarium’s stage and lets you click them to find out more about the actor, which is a good way for a movie like this to present that information.
I’d say there are about 25 stills in the “Gallery,” mostly production photos but with a couple shots of Gilliam behind the scenes thrown in for good measure.
the “Media” section says it has the Trailer (it does) as well as some Scenes and other material but I couldn’t get any of those links to work. If they weren’t there I would hope it would say “coming soon” or something but it doesn’t so I’m hoping that’s just user error on my part.
“Links & Reviews” right now just has links out to the trailer on Apple, cast interviews on various sites and such like that, with no reviews to be found. Many of those are on the above blog but here they’re labeled as still “coming soon.”
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Not much of the paid variety. I seem to think I’ve seen a handful of online ads for the movie but that’s been scarce and there’s been nothing, to my knowledge, in the way of TV commercials or other such advertising.
Media and Publicity
The film racked up a good amount of frequent flyer miles, making its initial appearance at Cannes and then later screening at the Toronto Film Festival and the Hamptons Film Festival. With a movie like this that kind of schedule is key since it needs not only the people in attendance but those following the updates from the festivals to succeed. Indeed much of the resultant buzz pegged this as a true return to form for Gilliam after a few years of misfires and unsuccessful experiments.
Gilliam also made the trip to Comic-Con – his first such appearance – to get the buzz going for the movie, an appearance that came with a bit of footage designed to show off not only Heath Ledger’s performance but also the general look and feel of the movie. Some of those clips were later released online, but they’re very much snippets that are free of much of the context that would make them clearer to the viewer.
But mostly the media coverage was of the same sort of tone as this New York Times (12/11/09) piece and talked about the tragedy of Ledger’s death coming half way through production and the way this sort of trouble seems to follow Gilliam around from film to film. It’s an unfortunate narrative but one that the filmmaker doesn’t seem to be able to shake, due largely to his insistence in working outside the system, something that gives him more freedom but also opens him up to all sorts of delays because of financing and other problems.
It’s not a bad campaign. I quite like the trailer and the poster and especially the blog that was part of the official website. And Gilliam and the rest of the crew have done their best to execute a good media push, something that’s going to be important for movies like this which need to reach their core target audience first and everyone else if it has time. It needs to get Gilliam fans out to see it, with the rest of the general public more or less written off, with the assumption that it’s not going to appeal to them in the face of so many other cinematic choices available to them.
But while it does achieve those goals, I think, it’s probably going to fall between the cracks of the general consciousness as it’s drowned out by the massive, massive campaigns for Avatar and Sherlock Holmes. It’s good, though, and I’m glad to see such a cohesive and well-constructed effort for a movie that at one point looked like it was going to languish in obscurity.