TORONTO — Terry Gilliam has finally gone through the looking glass.
Weeks after the debut of his long-delayed fantasy "The Brothers Grimm," the director was back with another otherworldly tale at the Toronto International Film Festival.
"Tideland" is a profoundly unnerving twist on Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and its follow-up "Through the Looking Glass." Gilliam spins an alternately blissful and hellish story of a girl in denial of reality, who concocts a rich make-believe world to escape an unbearable upbringing.
From "Grimm's Fairy Tales" to "Alice" to "Don Quixote," the basis for a notorious unfinished film by the former Monty Python, Gilliam always has been fascinated by stories that warp the world around us.
"They all sort of get mixed up in my head, to be quite honest," Gilliam told The Associated Press. "They're all dealing with similar things. It's about how you deal with reality, by ignoring it sometimes, reinventing it other times, and that's how you get through it."
Adapted by Gilliam and co-writer Tony Grisoni from Mitch Cullin's novel, "Tideland" is the story of Jeliza-Rose, played in a virtuoso performance by 10-year-old Canadian actress Jodelle Ferland.
Living at the beck and call of her heroin-addict father (Jeff Bridges, co-star of Gilliam's "The Fisher King"), for whom she matter-of-factly prepares syringes, and her chocolate-hoarding mother (Jennifer Tilly), Jeliza-Rose exists in a vivid inner world of intrigue, her adventures shared with her only friends, four small doll heads removed from their bodies.
Her mother's death sends her paranoid father into hiding at his ramshackle boyhood home on the prairies, where Jeliza-Rose's fantasy land expands to include an ominous, witchlike neighbor (Janet McTeer) and her brain-damaged brother (Brendan Fletcher).
"Tideland" is packed with the sort of surreal imagery characterizing such Gilliam films as "Brazil," "Time Bandits" and "Twelve Monkeys." Gilliam liberally applies the "Alice in Wonderland" references, including a tumble down a rabbit hole and a fanciful meal reminiscent of the Mad Hatter's tea party.
" 'Alice' is still one of the great tales. The two books, they've always astonished me. But I was actually more influenced by 'Grimm's' originally, because that's what I grew up reading. Those are the stories that really stuck," Gilliam said. " 'Alice' is like the next stage up. It's more intellectual. 'Grimm's' is more primal."
Gilliam, 64, has had many moments of absurdity in a film career marked by epic battles with studios and financial backers that did not share his vision on "Brazil," "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" and "The Brothers Grimm," starring Matt Damon and Heath Ledger as the 19th century fairy-tale siblings.
Delayed a year amid feuding between Gilliam and Bob Weinstein, who co-founded Miramax with brother Harvey, "The Brothers Grimm" finally came out in August to unenthusiastic reviews and modest box-office results.
Gilliam figured he may have gotten less interference from the Weinsteins than other directors because after Miramax fired his cinematographer, Nicola Pecorini, early in the shoot, "I said, 'I'm not speaking with these guys ever again,' and I didn't. There were a lot of the Miramax minions floating around, but you swat them away. They're like flies."
The director talks candidly about his "Grimm" experiences because he feels it's a safe bet he will not be working with the Weinsteins again.
"I think a once-in-a-lifetime experience is what we call these things," Gilliam said, chortling. "I said at the beginning of this one to Bob, 'We've both made it independently. We're both outspoken. We're both arrogant. We both think we know what we're doing. We're both used to getting our own way.' I said, 'This could be a bad marriage,' " Gilliam said, cackling again with laughter.
Gilliam now is focused on getting four long-standing projects into production, including "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote," starring Johnny Depp as a modern advertising man hurled back to the 17th century, where madman Quixote mistakes him for his squire, Sancho Panza.
The film shut down after six days of shooting in 2000, stung by a freak storm that ravaged equipment, an ailment to co-star Jean Rochefort and other misfortunes.
"He's constantly threatening to bring it back to life, resuscitate it," said Depp, who starred in Gilliam's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." "Yeah, if he wants to go back there, of course, I'd be interested. It was really going to be a good film had it not been cursed."
On "Tideland," which was at the Toronto festival in search of a distributor, Gilliam said he had a charmed production that came together quickly and flowed effortlessly, with no meddling by his British and Canadian financers.