Gilliam's PARNASSUS Overcomes Tragedy to Reach Theaters

Terry Gilliam is rather surprised to be here. "Here" being a Manhattan hotel suite, where he's promoting his new film "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus." When star Heath Ledger died of an accidental prescription drug overdose 23 months ago, the director never imagined ever being able to complete the movie, which opens in limited release on Christmas Day.

"When your star dies in the middle of the film, you don't finish films," Gilliam said. "It doesn't happen."

Distraught upon hearing the tragic news, Gilliam at first decided to shut down the project. He credits the persistence of his daughter Amy, a producer on the film, and Director of Photography Nicola Pecorini, for changing his mind. But there still remained the bigger problem. How do you finish a movie without your lead actor?

Gilliam is no stranger to adversity. He's had films upended by natural disasters and had bare-knuckle brawls with studios over the final cut. But dealing with Ledger's death was something else entirely.

Other movies have had to deal with the unexpected loss of a cast member in mid-production. Ridley Scott used CGI and a stand-in to complete Oliver Reed's final scenes in "Gladiator" after the actor died. Director Alex Proyas used similar tactics to complete "The Crow" after star Brandon Lee was killed in an on-set accident. But River Phoenix's untimely death while shooting "Dark Blood" forced that film to shut down, never to be completed.

For Gilliam, the answer to saving the movie turned out to be inside the movie itself.

Tough choices

A dark fantasy tale about imagination, "Dr. Parnassus" is a typically dense and surreal Terry Gilliam picture. The title character (Christopher Plummer) leads a troupe of gypsy performance artists who travel from town to town. They carry with them a magical mirror that transports people to a world of incredible fantasy and danger. A degenerate gambler himself with an ever-increasing debt to a devilish fellow named Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), Dr. Parnassus offers his customers the opportunity to make the ultimate bet. Step through the mirror and choose between the light and the happy, and the darkness and gloom.

"That's what it's about. Parnassus, the choices he offers, are always the difficult choice," Gilliam explains. "Parnassus is there to inspire, and hopefully, enlighten. He might be a charlatan, he might be lying, but… that's ultimately what he's about."

Ledger plays Tony, a swindler hiding out in Parnassus' wandering fantasyland whose life is turned upside down when he steps through the mirror. The screenplay called for Tony to make three trips through the mirror.

Those scenes on the 'other side' were vivid dream sequences that would involve heavy post-production visual effects work. As such, they were scheduled last in the production schedule, so they were all that was left to film at the time of Ledger's death.

Gilliam reworked the script so that, whenever someone stepped through the mirror, they appeared different. Since the film tackles the subject of imagination and how one sees themselves in the context of their lives, the adjustment to the story, Gilliam surmised, actually fit quite well.

"The script is exactly the same," Gilliam said. "There were little tweaks along the way to make it happen. But the principal was there."

"They really didn't change the script very much at all," says co-star Lilly Cole, who portrays Parnassus' daughter Valentina. "They made smaller changes within the movie to have that make sense."

Replacement trio

The fact that Tony usually wore a mask during his performances at the Imaginarium also aided the transition from Ledger to whoever would replace him in the role. But the decision to find three actors to complete Ledger's part was done, Gilliam says, largely to ease the inevitable burden of comparison.

"It just seemed…ridiculous. It would be a direct comparison," Gilliam says. "That's just a bad thing to do. And I didn't think it would be right. Then there's the practical side within me that says, 'How am I going to find a great actor who's free and who's right for the part?'"

Gilliam found three who fit the bill perfectly. Johnny Depp, Colin Ferrell and Jude Law, who all considered Ledger a friend, quickly agreed to come onboard.

Gilliam decided not to re-do or edit certain scenes and dialogue. Because the film deals with death on various levels, there are several unsettling moments in the film that echo the real-life tragedy.

The first time the audience meets Tony, he's hanging by a noose off a bridge. In a later sequence inside the mirror with Depp portraying Tony, the character sees a parade of famous faces – James Dean, Princess Diana – who faced untimely deaths.

"They are beyond fear," Tony says, "because they are forever young."

Ledger's impact

As Ledger's final onscreen love interest, Cole praises the actor for pushing his cast mates to experiment and improvise with their characters. "Heath really set the precedent for that from the get-go. From the first read through, he would tear through the script. 'I won't say this, I'll change this' and when he was on set, we'd adlib a lot. And that kind of set the tone for everyone, especially younger actors such as me and Andrew Garfield (Anton) to be able to change our lines somewhat."

"It was really Heath that triggered that because he was trying so many different things," according to Gilliam, who says he allowed more adlibbing on "Dr. Parnassus" than any of his other films. "He'll suddenly say lines in a different way, or want to do this [a different way]…it was keeping it alive. It was nice and surprising."

Cole admits she was surprised Gilliam was able to finish the film at all. After seeing it, she says it is a fitting tribute to her co-star.

"I think that the fact they could even finish the film that logically and creatively makes some kind of sense…is a huge achievement," says Cole. "I felt very proud when I watched it that it did work and that we did manage to honor Heath's performance and honor the film and finish it."

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