x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Life after Heath

Terry Gilliam's Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was made in the shadow of the death of its star, Heath Ledger.

The late Heath Ledger as Tony and Verne Troyer as Percy in Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Ledger died suddenly in January last year while making the film.
The late Heath Ledger as Tony and Verne Troyer as Percy in Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Ledger died suddenly in January last year while making the film.

No matter how good or bad The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, might be, Terry Gilliam's latest fantastical adventure was always going to be overshadowed by the fact that this was the film Heath Ledger was shooting when he met his untimely death. As soon as the former Monty Python decided to carry on making the picture with a trio of A-list actors - Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell - to replace the late Brokeback Mountain star, the only story was how the maverick filmmaker was going to make the trick work.

The movie sees the 68-year-old director back in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen territory after his recent, more adult-themed fare, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Tideland. The Imaginarium of the title is a Victorian-era travelling show and Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) a mysterious 1,000-year-old man who travels with his beautiful daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), herself about to celebrate her 16th birthday.

The dynamics of the Imaginarium are challenged by the arrival of the amnesiac Tony (Heath Ledger), first seen swinging from a bridge in London with a rope around his neck. Tony is a master of marketing, and soon wins the heart of Valentina, to the horror of her young colleague Anton (Andrew Garfield) and, as it turns out, the Devil, aka Mr Nick (Tom Waits). In a deal worthy of Robert Johnson and his crossroads, Doctor Parnassus has promised Mr Nick his daughter's hand on her 16th birthday in exchange for immortality.

After playing at film festivals including Cannes and Toronto, the film is to be released in the UK on October 16 and in the US on December 25. What is remarkable about the transformation of Ledger into Depp first, then Law and Farrell, is that it is seamless. As we have already seen in much of his fantastical work, Gilliam loves nothing more than shifting perspectives and altered mind states and in this tale, Tony jumps through a transportation mirror three times, on each occasion coming out of the other end reincarnated, like Doctor Who, in another body.

The bearded director explains that, remarkably, they were able to finish the film without too many changes to the script. "There were a few scenes that Heath was not going to be around to do, but what actually goes on inside the mirrors.We didn't change much. There were little changes that we made, such as when the woman pulls up Johnny's mask and says: 'I always dreamed you would look like this.' That line wasn't in the original. But the rest of the script was the same."

It all sounds too easy, but once Gilliam starts remembering back to the days surrounding the young actor's death, the strain that he must have gone through becomes apparent. January 22, 2008 is etched in his mind. He recalls: "My daughter Amy, who was producing the film, told me about his death. I was in the art department trying to save another $1,500 (Dh5,509) on the budget by doing something smaller, and I was pretty annoyed, and she came in and said: 'You have to come into the office.' And I'm complaining: 'I'm doing something here.'

"The news was just on her laptop on the BBC website, and our first thought was that it was Warner Brothers' publicity department doing a cheap trick for The Dark Knight." It didn't take too long for him to realise that a movie studio would not stoop that low to publicise a film. "It just did not seem possible that he was dead," says Gilliam. "We had left him three days earlier and it just didn't compute for a long time. Amy went flat on the floor and didn't move and we kept going back to the computer saying this is wrong."

He admits that he still hasn't quite come to terms with the actor's death. "Mentally I can't explain it. It just doesn't make sense. Most of the stories that we heard at the time were rubbish, the James Dean and River Phoenix comparisons, that the system killed him. This guy was so clean it's ridiculous. Be careful of prescription drugs is all I can say." The documentary Lost in La Mancha famously showed how Gilliam's attempt to bring the Don Quixote story to screen collapsed around him. This is a director who has experience of films unravelling through force of circumstance and for a short period there was resignation that Doctor Parnassus was going to come to a speedy end.

"For a period of four or five days it was over," he explains. "But people on the film wouldn't let me say it was over. There was no way you could not finish the film. Once I got Johnny's involvement, that kept the money men a little bit happier. When I wasn't sure what we were going to do, I called Johnny and asked if he'd help me and he was like: 'Yeah, I'm there.' There was no way that I was going to get one actor to replace Heath, and there were three mirrors, so I thought that I'd keep it that way.

"In the end I only called up people that knew Heath, and so that kept it in the family once Jude and Colin said yes. It was interesting in that with the rewriting I needed to do, there were very little choices. The irony is that the changes forced on us ended up making it a better movie. Heath, which is what I ended up saying, kind of co-directed this movie. He kind of co-wrote it too in a way." The actors were also in the dark. Lily Cole remembers: "I was in New York when all that was going on and was more preoccupied with a sense of loss and mourning and also it wasn't my place or decision to make. It was for Terry to decide. It was certainly weird, very sad and it was a tough time."

When the decision was made to return, the British model-turned-actress remembers the sense of camaraderie among the cast and crew. "It was lovely see everyone again, there was a real sense of commitment as to why people would finish it, and a collaborative sense of loss." Cole reveals that there was little sense of excitement about working with some of the top stars in Hollywood: "My friends all knew how well I got on with Heath and were more sympathetic to how sad I was. In any other circumstances, working with these actors would have been a cause for celebration. But they all knew that I'd rather have finished the film with Heath."

The fact that everyone knew this would be the last time that Ledger would appear on screen was a burden, Gilliam admits. "I went on autopilot after that. We weren't sure if any of it was going to work. We had a plan and kept shooting. It was always for Heath, and the burden we faced was: 'Are we going to make a film that is good enough to be Heath's last film?' I hated that responsibility. There were days when I was so depressed."

On a more positive note, he goes on to talk of "a great act of love that never happens in the movies". "The insurance company was only going to pay Heath's family for the work he had done and not the whole fee. The other three actors, when they came into the role, they said: 'We'll work for the rest of Heath's fee and give it to his daughter Matilda.' They didn't work for a fee and that doesn't happen."

Johnny Depp was the key to keeping the project alive and making the change in character work. "For the audience to believe in the leap, we knew that with Johnny we were half way there, and he does it so brilliantly." Part of the fascination with the films of the London-based director is that they are unlike those made by anyone else. The production values are often so high that fans are happy to indulge his idiosyncratic characters and the fact that his stories often struggle to make sense. Doctor Parnassus is more a sequence of events and happenings than a film that revolves around a plot. It's easier to compare him to Lewis Carroll than to another director.

Gilliam seems to concur with this and says of the Alice in Wonderland author: "His stories are made to entertain children, if not a real child then he tries to drag the child out of adults. In this film, the bit that is still there is the idea of going through the mirror and then when you look back on the world it is transformed. Suddenly you can comment on it, you can play with it, show it for what it is, the absurdity of things."

He also feels that in this way perhaps it's easier for younger audiences to like his films. "A 10-year-old is willing to trust a storyteller to take them on a journey. There is nothing more wonderful than when, as a kid, you're sitting by a campfire trying to tell a story and you're at one with it." He adds that he finds in many modern films that the structure is always the same. "You know the rhythms of the film and what should happen in Act II and the audience has been trained to respond to this. I respond in the same way, thinking where is it going, I'm getting bored now. I want to break down that structure and in a way get the audience into a different rhythm."

It's an uphill struggle, but one that Gilliam is determined to continue. The child inside him just won't let him do it any other way.