You'd think Hollywood would love a resourceful director who can salvage a movie after the star dies in mid-production. Especially if he recruits A-listers Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law to complete it. But when Terry Gilliam rescued "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" following Heath Ledger's death, film executives saw it as another chapter of the Gilliam Curse.

His 2000 Depp film, "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote," crashed and burned among freak storms, budget woes and on-set calamities. Gilliam's 2006 fantasy "Tideland," starring Jeff Bridges as a decomposing corpse, fell into oblivion, opening in nine U.S. theaters, earning just $66,453. During that debacle, Gilliam walked the streets of New York holding a cardboard sign that read "Studio-Less Film Maker. Family to Support. Will Direct For Food."

"I think I'm doomed with the studios," Gilliam giggled in a phone interview. "If they just said, 'Look at how much money he's made and how successful his films are,' that would be OK. But it doesn't seem to be that way. I don't even have a Hollywood agent anymore."

At 69, Gilliam has created a body of work marking him as one of the most imaginative filmmakers of the past 40 years. Also one of the most pigheaded. Gilliam, who came of age in the anarchic creativity of the Monty Python writers' room, has had epic public battles with studio heads (he mounted a mocking publicity campaign that shamed Universal into releasing his classic "Brazil"). He has made movies without regard to the commercial interests of the marketplace, scoring big hits ("Time Bandits," "The Fisher King," "12 Monkeys") and epic flops ("The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," "The Brothers Grimm"). But for good or ill, they're his babies.

Gilliam's personal Imaginarium is his London library stuffed with art books and image files (feet, weird trees, mermaids, bearded ancients). There's a desk drawer full of paper scraps where Gilliam deposits interesting ideas. It must be a deep drawer.

The director as 'irritant'

"I do everything," he said. "Directing is like making a painting. There are a lot of people working with me who can do things better than I can, but ultimately I've got to have my fingers in every little bit of it -- the costumes, the sets, playing with the actors." Gilliam even runs his own special-effects house. "I'm looking over the shoulders of people, saying, 'Change this, move that, put this over there.' I'm an irritant -- I think that's my job."

The dazzling computer-generated universe of "Parnassus" is a far cry from the jumpy paper cutouts of Gilliam's early career. There are bizarre, frightening images -- an ink-black river that becomes a tongue that becomes a snake, mashed up against gently rolling Grant Wood hills.

"I wanted it to be painterly," Gilliam explained. "I didn't want it to feel like anything naturalistic or even crude and cut-out. There were models, too, and photographs of real things stuck in. It's still a mess, the way I work."

While Gilliam is the god of the film's visuals, the real fun for him is working with his actors. "We play and it becomes a game. I'm the team leader, but it's a gang of really talented people. I get an idea and somebody gets a better idea and I top their idea and they top mine. I've always played that way, probably as a result of being in Python."

Gilliam's films share the theme of imagination being suppressed by controlling, evil figures, but the director insists it's not a representation of his film career.

"I wish I could blame somebody all the time, but I can't. I don't feel repressed in that way, just limited -- less by individuals than the time and money I have available. But looking back I must say the solutions I've come up with in dealing with the limitations have often been better than my original idea."

Similarly, Ledger's death in January 2008 was a tragedy that ultimately enhanced the film, Gilliam said. When he finished mourning the loss of his friend, he found imaginative ways to work around his absence.

Heath Ledger's role

"By not showing up for work as he did, he created a set of problems," Gilliam said of Ledger. "The Johnny- Colin-Jude thing was a pretty straightforward solution to his not being able to finish it. I cut and changed several of his scenes, and they improved the film. Heath was forcing me to make the film better than it would have been if he'd been around to finish it." He credits Ledger as the film's unofficial co-director.

Gilliam doesn't like calling his creative life a career. "It's one thing after another, a series of unfortunate events," he said.

It all began in Hennepin County, at then-rural Medicine Lake, in a small summer cottage insulated for year-round living by his carpenter father. The Gilliams didn't own a TV, so young Terry grew up creating his own entertainment.

"I learned to make things. There's something about living in the country where you have to make your toys, make your own world. Nature is infinitely fascinating. There was a swamp across the street, a forest behind the house, a lake off to the right and a cornfield the other direction. They were like four potential universes."

When indoor plumbing arrived at the house, Gilliam and his father remade the old outhouse into a three-story treehouse. He would spend winter evenings leaping from the top floor, trying to catch the nearby phone lines, and landing in "10 feet of snow -- fantastic!" He also built elaborate igloos. One of his finest collapsed in an incident that could have come from his films. The neighbor's dog climbed the mound, emptied its bladder and fell in on top of the occupants.

Radio, then TV

Gilliam was raised on Grimm fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen, Hardy Boys stories and radio serials. "You were just sitting in this Antarctic place with these great voices and sound effects."

Those early influences affected his approach to moviemaking: "The illustrations in the storybooks make you get lost in the forest with Hansel and Gretel. In films I'm really trying to make a storybook with images that are very dense."

He first saw television at age 11 in a neighbor's home. "Great thing is, it was Sid Caesar's 'Show of Shows,' so I made the leap from this world of imagination to outrageous comedy. And I thought, 'I'm stuck now.'"

When he was exposed to the world of painting through school excursions to Walker Art Center, the final element was in place. After attending Occidental College in California, he worked with Mad magazine co-founder Harvey Kurtzman, "going to the Metropolitan Museum and New York Library, looking for art we could make fun of. I was always trying to look beyond the surface of things."

Much of the humor in Gilliam's movies comes from characters stubbornly committed to believing things that are patently absurd. Gilliam says he sees that all around everywhere he looks.

"The idea of Parnassus that intrigued me is that I'm not sure if he's a mystic or a traveling sideshow fake. It's a jumble of ideas that may or may not be true. It's about belief systems. Look at the last few years when we believed that we had money, the world was awash with money. Then suddenly a couple years ago, it disappeared."

Gilliam's next project is a revival of his Don Quixote project starring Robert Duvall. "I've got the star. Now I need a few more things," he said. "Since the money vanished I don't know what I'm going to do, exactly. Wait for the belief system to turn around again and the money to come back, I suppose."

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186