Title: Tom Waits Is Having A Devil Of A Time
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada). December 21, 2009 by Liam Lacey
Date: published December 21, 2009
Keywords: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Terry Gilliam, acting


Tom Waits Is Having A Devil Of A Time


Tom Waits and Terry Gilliam, who worked together on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus(1), talk about the late Heath Ledger

The great American songwriter Tom Waits has just passed his 60th birthday, though his music seems to draw from the decades before his birth - the sounds of speakeasies, clanging dock yards, yelling news boys and Model-T horns. Last month, he released his latest album, Glitter & Doom. He also plays the devil in Terry Gilliam's new film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which opens on Christmas Day. We spoke during the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year.

You worked with Terry Gilliam on The Fisher King almost 20 years ago. You must have liked it. I understand you asked for a part in his new film without even seeing a script.

There's nobody out there like Terry. Every few years, it's harvest time and he takes that strange fruit that's in his head and serves it up. I wanted to be at the table.

You've described yourself as a musician who sometimes acts. Do you actively hunt for movie roles?

[Miming holding a rifle to his shoulder.] Look - there's one coming around the corner. You know, certain seasons they're just dropping out of the sky and other times you can't find them anywhere. Fortunately, I have other things to do so I don't have to do industrial films or pornos to feed my family.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus almost stopped production when Heath Ledger died, before Gilliam found a way to work around it. How did that affect you?

I met Heath once at a café in London at a cast and crew dinner and he was gone a week later. The film was stopping production for a week to move from London to Vancouver and he was going to New York to see his family. When something like that happens, show business feels very small and meaningless, a kind of a sideshow to the real show, which is living and breathing. I wasn't thinking about the film.

Terry's a strategist. That's what he does. If you throw something in his pathway, he's like a mole who starts tunnelling under a great river. One false move and the whole community will drown.

Was it intimidating for you working closely with the classically-trained star Christopher Plummer?

I was scared to death. He's like Mount Rushmore, and I'm just this piano player. He was great. A great artist - and he plays piano, too.

But, oh man, that first scene we did. It was about three in the morning and cold. There were horses and a big vacant lot and it looked like the end of the world. I'd been learning lines by myself but everything went out of my head. A hundred and sixty people standing around thinking, 'When is this [expletive] going to get it right?"

But Chris couldn't have been more generous. He said, "For God's sake, he just got off a plane. What do you expect?" They ended up writing lines on notepads and holding them off-camera for me to read. I was mortified.

Is it challenging coming onto a film that's already under way?

It can be. You feel like a plumber who's been called in the middle of a party. The party's still going on while you're under the sink fixing the pipes. Then you get back in your truck and drive home.

Do you find a connection between songwriting and making movies?

Well, I think of myself as a director of movies for the ears. I've always been aware of theatre, how I came off visually when I perform. But people hear music in all kinds of different ways. Some people experience music as colours; others just see grey water pouring out of the speakers. Some never listen to lyrics, they just fall under a spell. Some eat it whole. Some just take a bite. Some of us like to get on our backs and roll around in it like a dog.


(1) The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus: Further reading: Parnassus official siteDreams: the Terry Gilliam fanzineDoctor Parnassus support site,