Terry Gilliam and Heath Ledger
The entertainment world came to a standstill when news of Heath Ledger’s accidental death hit the airwaves over a year ago. He played an outstanding Joker in The Dark Knight and warmed our hearts in Brokeback Mountain, but The Ledger, as many called him, has one more performance to share in Terry Gilliams’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus . In this modern-day fantasy adventure, he stars as a charming outsider who gets involved with the daughter of the mysterious Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), who has the extraordinary gift of guiding the imaginations of others.
Ledger tragically died during the production of Parnassus, but Gilliam, his ensemble cast and crew worked tirelessly together to complete the journey. Here Gilliam discusses the magic that Ledger brought to the screen and how he was able to save the film with the help of Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law.
Q: It’s mind-blowing how you can visualize things so clearly and then get a production team and actors to share your vision.
Terry Gilliam: There are a lot of fools out there, aren’t there? I think I’ve been lucky. I like working with people that can share a vision, whether they can see what I see is something else. My films, especially this one, are incredibly collaborative. I start the ball rolling and people come up with better ideas and I leapfrog from their ideas.
Q: How did you get Heath Ledger to be a part of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus?
Gilliam: Heath was in England working on The Dark Knight and he had brought over a mutual friend, who had done the storyboards for Brothers Grimm. They were doing an animated musical video and they needed a place to work. I offered them space in the projection/boardroom [area]. One day, I was in there to show my storyboards to the people who were doing some pre-visualization work and Heath and Daniele were sitting there.
I start the show and begin explaining the sequences and Heath slips me a little note which says, “Can I play Tony?” He had seen the script, but I had never asked him to be involved. “Are you serious?” I said. He replied “Yes.” It was as simple as that.
Q: What approach did you take with the cast?
Gilliam: I allowed more ad-libbing on this film than on anything I have ever done and it started because of Heath…he was just so full of ideas and fresh dialogue. He was still in some sense, speeding from playing The Joker. He was always telling me “I am doing things in scenes that I didn’t know was inside me.” I always say I’m not the director, I’m just the filter.
Q: After Heath died, how did your investors react?
Gilliam: Any reasonable, responsible person, the bankers, and insurance companies thought it was over. It takes unreasonable people to continue a film and luckily I was surrounded by unreasonable people. The turning point was day two after [Heath] had died. I called Johnny just to commiserate, nothing more. He was equally close to Heath and I said I don’t know what I’m going to do, I will probably go home and close it down. And he said, well whatever you decide to do, I’m there. Three weeks after Heath died we were up and running, which is absolutely extraordinary.
Q: How did you solve the problem of your lead actor not being able to finish the film?
Gilliam: Necessity is the mother of invention or imagination. Once we decided, “yes we are going to finish this” (which was not the first attitude I had) it was actually amazingly easy. I said, “We are not going to have one actor replacing him.” [Heath’s] character goes through the mirror three times so--three guys.
And so the three heroes, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law, came to Vancouver to play these various aspects of Tony, the character which Heath began. Their willingness to help rescue the film and Heath’s last performance was an incredible act of generosity and love. A beautiful and rare moment in our industry and, as a result of their involvement, the film is even more special; it’s more surprising; it’s become funnier. All in all, it’s a bit more magical.
Q: How fortunate was this love fest between you and Johnny, Colin and Jude Law?
Gilliam: It was a joy working on this film. It was more fun than I had in a long time, but then that’s tempered with tragedy, so then it’s the worst experience I’ve ever had so it’s a very sweet and sour affair, very Chinese. [Laughs] The whole film is rather miraculous, the lead actor dies halfway through, three others take over, and it works. I just want people to go see it and see that it’s joyous, wonderful, and full of life, and it’s seamless.
Q: There is an interesting scene in Parnassus where Valentina and the Devil are dancing a tango. In the filmmaking industry is there such a thing as the Dance with the Devil?
Gilliam: There always is. If you’re a painter or a musician you don’t need a bunch of money, all you need is a guitar or a pen and a paper. In film you need millions of dollars, so it’s a very interesting dance. The trick is when are you selling out and when are you not selling out and you never know, it’s a daily occurrence.
Q: You’re considered a veteran in the film industry. How would you describe your mantra?
Gilliam: My philosophy is, show the truth of filmmaking. I’m so tired of looking at these puff pieces of the joy of filmmaking, how we are all happy together and it’s so beautiful …filmmaking is really hard and anybody who makes films knows that.
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