Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Script Review: The Imaginarium Of Dr Parnassus By Terry Gilliam And Charles McKeown

Don't ask me how, because I'm not entirely sure myself but through a confusing series of clandestine exchanges, film ick have managed to get ahold of Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown's script, The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus. I don't even know when the script wound up here, but here it is, in the virtual pile. Keep reading - because you'll want to know all about this one. There will be spoilers ahead, but nothing from the latter parts of the story.

The script opens with a typically Gilliam juxtaposition of the banal and the wondrous, as 'four big horses' pull a 'hulking great wagon' - windowless and apparently driverless - down an urban terrace, then on past a couple snogging in a parked car and into a 'dingy backstreet'. This is where the wagon first astonishes us, opening 'like a dark menacing flower unfolding its petals', transforming into 'an old fashioned and very shabby travelling theatre' - the titular Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus.

We now meet the players of this eccentric show: Percy, the dwarf (yes, of course) ; Anton the clowning, sleight-of-hand expert; the beautiful young Valentina; and her father, Dr Parnassus. Their audience at this first engagement proves to be a rabble of drunks piling out of a nightclub to the rather unexpected sight of the Imaginarium and cast.

While Parnassus meditates atop a glass plinth - to give a cheap, cheesy illusion of levitation - Valentina, Percy and Anton play out a scene and make the audience an offer. As Anton puts it:

Ladies and Gentlemen... Step up! Step up!... I, Mercury, the messenger of the gods, invite you... tonight, for one night only... at this very venue... to enter the mind, the very great mind, of Doctor Parnassus!

And he means that literally. When a young chap called Martin storms the stage in a booze-haze, he swifly finds himself whisked away through a naff-looking prop mirror and into the landscape of Parnassus' imagination.

Martin lustfully chases Valentina through a living forest, but she slips away, back out of the mirror set-piece and onto the stage. Left behind in Parnassus' dreamscape, Martin is lost, confused and vomiting drunkenly. The script goes on:

He falls into a pit. It’s full of spiders. Terrified, he scrambles out only to collide with a giant web. He breaks free and falls into another pit. This one’s bottomless. He continues falling until he reaches... A vast moonlit desert. Nothing. MARTIN crumples to the ground sobbing.

Here he is presented with a fork in the path, a clear choice to be made definitively. On the one hand, Martin might chose to head into a beautiful vista where 'in the distance a light is glowing. It’s the sun, rising above a rocky cactus strewn landscape. The music is beautiful. Ethereal' - or turn instead towards 'a roadside bar/nightclub with flashing neon lights has appeared. It looks like a stage set. Not real'.

Martin choses the nightclub, where he is welcomed by 'a mechanical fairground figure of a jolly smiling man distinguished by a bowler hat and a red waistcoat.' This is Mr. Nick, the devil himself, the villain of the piece. Much more from him later.

Back in the 'real world', the show is disturbed by the arrival of police, so Parnassus and company pack up for the night. The Dr is disappointed in Martin's choice of the nightclub over the serene sunrise, and chastises Anton and Valentina for letting a drunk through the mirror, explaining that "People must be in their right minds when they make a choice."

And so ends our first encounter with the Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus. As expected, the various scenes we'll enter through the mirror are imaginative and immersive, like the best, most vivid dreams, and the scenes in the waking world, outside of Parnassus' skull, are genuinely original, idiosyncratic and colourful. Of Gilliam's other works, this compares to Brazil in particular, I suppose, with the non-dream scenes being every bit as inventive and striking as the dream-scenes.

The next night, the travelling theatre unfolds at a fairground and a nine year old boy gets to go beyond the mirror. His final choice is between a violent battle-field rendered like a video game, pumped up with agressive music and offering unlimited ammo; and a mountain pathway made of piano keys on which ballerinas dance and piano teachers offer lessons. He makes his choice rather easily - but I won't reveal which way here, for fear of runing the moment in the movie.

At the show's end, there's more trouble with the police, of course - and then the story takes an important step forward. Mr Nick appears to see Parnassus and we learn that the two of them have an old score to settle. It seems that Parnassus is in debt to the devilish fellow, but the price to pay is far too terrible to contemplate...

Plucking a magical snowglobe out of the air, Parnassus begins to show the story to Valentina, to explain their terrible circumstances to her. The camera pushes into the snowglobe, to show us:

A HOODED RIDER moves slowly through the snowstorm, the horse picking its way carefully across a field of virgin snow. In the distance, on a hill, is a monastery. Dim light comes from a couple of windows. Entering via a window and looking down into the monastery dining hall, we see DOZENS OF MONKS sitting at a long refectory table. They are eating their supper and listening to a young DR. PARNASSUS who is sitting on a dais at the far end of the hall, his eyes closed, in a trance, telling a story. The door to the refectory swings open with a crash.
The MONKS look up. Standing on the thresh-hold is the hooded figure, covered with snow. He throws off his hood. It's MR NICK.

According to the young Parnassus in this flashback, the world is kept turning by storytellers, and should the stories end, everything will be over. Mr Nick doesn't agree of course - calling this a 'weak hypothesis'. A fairly typical argument to be found at the centre of a Gilliam film, I'm sure you'll agree.

A wager was made between Parnassus and Nick, back then. Parnassus would offer a quintessential choice to undecided souls, as we have seen in the Imaginarium, and as the Dr explains:

Whichever of us won ten converts first, would win the bet... My argument was the importance of the story, the power of the imagination... His, the power of material things, the supremacy of stuff... Naturally... I won.

His prize? Eternal life.

We skip forward to the late 20th century, where a tramped-down Parnassus and Percy perform on a street corner. None of the passers by show any interest, unsurprisingly - but this is also when Parnassus first spots his bride-to-be, the unnamed 'beautiful woman'. We're nearing an explanation of his debt to Mr Nick - 'I won my bride. I was in love. But at what price?' - but before he can get any deeper into his confession to Valentina, Parnassus is interrupted.

The wagon has stopped in the middle of Blackfriar's Bridge, during a thunderstorm. Valentina steps out to see why...

Here she finds ANTON pointing excitedly down into the Thames.

Incredible! I saw somebody dancing in the air.. under the bridge..

VALENTINA looks doubtfully at PERCY who peers morosely out from under his sou-wester and shakes his head.

It’s true! There was a shadow on the water, when the lightning flashed...

Lightning flashes again. We see what ANTON and VALENTINA see. A shadow, on the water, of someone ‘dancing’, hung by his neck with a rope attached to the underside of the bridge.

One rope-swinging rescue later (think: Time Bandits), the hanged man is onboard the wagon. He appears to have lost his memory, and has no idea why he was hanging there; moreover, he has strange symbols written on his forehead, odd weights in his pockets and a little metal tube in his mouth...

Of course, all of this is explained later, but not here. You'll have to wait until the money men of the world come to their senses and give Gilliam the relatively modest budget this film would require.

I'm wondering, in fact, if Gilliam and McKeown haven't deliberately cut prospective costs as much as possible here. By Gilliam standards, this is essentially a chamber piece. Over half of the scenes take place on the wagon or fold-out stage, and those in the other portion that do take place inside the Doctor's imagination seem designed specifically to work well if shot on a small green screen set - as per Mirrrormask, I would say.

When all is said and done, we essentially have a simple fable that dramatises some of Gilliam's long standing concerns really rather well. Much of it might seem a little familiar, particularly if you have also read the script for Gilliam's long-in-limbo The Defective Detective but this is the better script in many ways, however, if certainly far smaller in scale. The satire here feels less dated, more directly relevant, than in the Defective script I read (it has an excuse: it was written in the mid-90s) and there are more, and better, jokes.

As you probably would expect from how things were going, there's a final scene inside the Imaginarium that runs much longer than the earlier ones and is considerably more complex. It gives us a rather dynamic, far-reaching climax without compromising the modest scale of the rest of the narrative. A few brief bits and pieces, like this final Imaginarium episode, seem like Gilliam's reinvention of Being John Malkovich - but only in relation to the pieces of Malkovich that were rather Gilliam-indebted in the first place.

With Kaufman and Gondry also releasing and working on several high profile reality-vs-fantasy stories, this subgenre is no longer so clearly owned by Gilliam. He has competition now, and in some ways, he may appear to have fallen behind. For example: none of the character writing in Imaginarium matches the calibre of Kaufman's best work - but then again, that may hardly be the point in a fable like this; none of the technique behind the fantasy is as joyously idiosyncratic as Gondry's sticky-back-plastic approach - but that's got little to do with quality and more to do with aestehtic taste.

The bottom line is that this script promises a very good film indeed: a simple, clean story with imagination, eccentricity and wit; with clear opinions and the confidence to argue for them; with some very funny gags, astonishing imagery and brilliantly inventive set-pieces. The key roles seem to be crying out for star players, and it might be easy to imagine some of Gilliam's previous collaborators in the parts.

Robin Williams as Mr Nick, maybe? Jonathan Pryce as Dr Parnassus? Or John Hurt, if we're going older? There must be a short queue of dwarves in line for Percy. The small role of Beautiful Woman could be filled by either Uma Thurman or Monica Bellucci (first choice for and eventual player of The Queen in Brothers Grimm) I'm sure.

Cast just a little against type, Hugh Grant would make a great Hanged Man - which might give you a clue as to how his character develops. I'm not sure about Anton or Valentina, personally - Valentina is 15 years old, so we're probably looking at an unknown, Anton needs to be just a few years older and be quite a strong physical performer. A couple of circus kids, maybe?

There are only a smattering of other parts in the film, at least parts that last more than a few seconds, and virtually none that get more than one scene. This is small stuff for Gilliam, but that is by no means a criticism - Tideland was smaller still.

I'm probably looking at what amounts to a first draft here. I dare say some of the minor issues will be resolved in the next pass. If I had a say, I'd certainly bank roll this one. My only reservation is that Nick and Parnassus' relationship feels a little awkward. I think we need to see them spend more time together, probably during the snowglobe flashback, to root their rather arcane wagers and agreements in something more identifiable and relatable. It makes sense as it is, but that doesn't mean it feels entirely believable on any emotional level.

Gilliam and McKeown are clearly a very good writing team; Gilliam and Grisoni are clearly much, much better. This didn't read like a film as strong as Tideland, Fear and Loathing or maybe even The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, but it did compare very favourably to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Time Bandits or Jabberwocky.

More on The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus later. Much more - particularly if and when the film gets funding.

No comments: