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Gilliam Debuts Ledger’s Last Performance at Cannes

Terry Giliam
Terry Gilliam poses during the photocall of the movie “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” presented out of competition at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival on May 22, 2009.
Photograph by: VALERY HACHE, AFP/Getty Images

The spirit of Heath Ledger was in the air Friday as the world’s press gathered to see his final film, a fantasy called The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Ledger died in January, 2008, halfway into making the film; director Terry Gilliam completed it by getting three other actors – Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell – to play Ledger’s character in separate sequences.

“I didn’t see how we could finish the film,” Gilliam recalled. “He did half the role.” But the people involved in Imaginarium told him he couldn’t be “a lazy bastard” and give up. Gilliam said he thought it would not have been respectful to get just one actor to take over the role, so he got three of them – “people who know and love Heath” – to play scenes. Depp, Law and Farrell all donated their salaries to a fund for Matilda, Ledger’s daughter.

“They came to the rescue of this thing,” Gilliam said. “To me, they’re the real heroes.”

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (which is a Canadian co-production) received enthusiastic applause after Friday’s press screening, and several journalists expressed their fondness for it at a post-screening press conference, but in fact, it is a mess: whimsy gone wrong, with a silly storyline scattered across a mishmash of clockwork production design that is garish and fake-looking as often as it is ingenious. The story concerns the owner of a travelling show (played by Christopher Plummer) who years earlier made a pact with the devil (Tom Waits) that could mean his teenage daughter is given over to Mr. Nick, as he’s called. People go in and out of a magic mirror where they meet the events of their imagination, presented as clunky fantasy; Ledger plays Tony, a disreputable businessman discovered hanging by his neck under a bridge and who is saved and added to the circus. It’s a macabre entrance under the circumstances.

Gilliam said that Tony was named after former British prime minister Tony Blair, “and I couldn’t imagine a more fitting end for that character than to be hanging from a bridge.”

The director, who was born in America but is now a British citizen, added, “I think Tony believes everything that comes out of his mouth, even though he’s never thought of it until the moment he said it.”

Gilliam is a highly inventive director – he was the animator for the Monty Python troupe and his visionary ideas for movies like Brazil and 12 Monkeys show a unique visual sense – and he said the ideas for Imaginarium came from everything he has done before. Together with Charles McKeown, who co-wrote Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, they made what he called “a compendium of all the things I was interested in, from Python cartooning to 12 Monkeys.”

Gilliam is also an unlucky one: he has been trying for years to make a movie about Don Quixote, and his movie about that movie, called Lost in La Mancha, is a fascinating account of things going wrong in a project, from on-set mishaps to a serious injury to his leading actor.

In the case of Imaginarium, the death of the leading man in the middle of shooting the movie brought the cast and crew closer together.

Gilliam said that as painful as it was, “it was not as bad as some other situations I’ve been involved in,” when people have tried to interfere with his movies.

“What was important to me was how to get Heath’s performances up there, alive and well,” Gilliam said. “Everybody was just going to make sure there was no void left when Heath left us.”

In the film, there are three sequences when Tony, the Ledger character, goes through Dr. Parnassus’ magic mirror: Gilliam uses each of the three new actors in those scenes and although there appear to be some references to the Ledger tragedy – people talking about staying forever young, for instance, or a reference to “a tale of unforeseen death” – Gilliam said those were all part of the original script.

French producer Samuel Hadida called Imaginarium a case of Gilliam going back to his fantasy roots with a bigger budget.

For his next project, he’s going back again: he said he’s going to take another crack at Don Quixote. Shooting is scheduled to start next spring.

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