Following the death of Heath Ledger, Terry Gilliam was grieving the loss of a close friend and couldn’t bring himself to contemplate what would happen to The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus that they had both been working on.
“It was a terrible time,” he says. “And frankly I was just devastated by the loss of such a great guy. The film didn’t really come into it at that point.”
But gradually, encouraged by his collaborators including his daughter, Amy Gilliam, who is a producer on the film, he began to accept that finishing it would be a fitting tribute to Heath even though, at first, he couldn’t see how they could do it. Ledger died in January 2008 with the British end of the production completed but with weeks of shooting still planned on sound stages in Canada.
“I just thought ‘it’s over.’ I was fatalistic about it, like ‘*** it, I don’t know what to do…’ And I didn’t seem to have the energy to want to do anything but I was surrounded by others who were determined that l carry on and make it happen,” he recalls.
“And I’ve always said that making a film is like climbing a mountain like Everest – you have a good team around you, so that when one falls, the others stay together and lift the whole thing up and you get there and it was like that. My daughter Amy just wouldn’t let go.
“Amy was a bully, that’s what she was! And (cinematographer) Nicola Pecorini was the same and they said ‘this is ridiculous, we’re going to finish this film.’ And I said ‘Amy, you don’t know what the **** you are talking about. You are a novice at this game, I don’t see how to finish it.’
“But then ideas started floating around and eventually we decided to do what we did. And also the money was running out. If we hadn’t pulled something out of the hat quickly it would have gone. And I suppose the rabbit was Johnny (Depp).”
Indeed, Depp was to prove pivotal in re-galvanising the production and getting the film finished. Gilliam and Depp have been friends since they made Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas together, back in 1998, and had planned another film, Don Quixote, which fell by the wayside after it was beset by production problems.
Depp was also close friends with Ledger and that, says Gilliam, was important. “I spoke to Johnny and said ‘if we need you, will you be around?’ And he said ‘I’m there whatever you want.’
“And I only found this out afterwards but if Johnny hadn’t said ‘yes’, the money would have gone. I actually didn’t realise that at the time. I found out a lot in retrospect about was what going on, but at the time I was in my own little world.”
A way forward began to form in Gilliam’s ever-fertile mind – he would use different actors – Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell – to portray various incarnations of Ledger’s character, Tony, in some of the spectacular fantasy sequences in the film.
“The fact that the guys – Colin, Jude and Johnny – pulled it off is what is extraordinary,” says Gilliam. “There was no rehearsal, they just dove in. And that’s why I was calling friends of Heath to get involved, because that connection was there and they all did a brilliant job.”
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a fantastical tale of good battling evil for the soul of a beautiful young girl, Valentina (Lily Cole), the daughter of Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), who leads a troupe of players, travelling through contemporary London in a 19th century caravan.
Parnassus has a dark secret – 1,000 years ago he made a pact tha,t in return for immortality, he would hand over his daughter to the devil (played by Tom Waits) on her 16th birthday, which is rapidly approaching. Now Satan, in the guise of Mr Nick, has turned up to collect.
Ledger plays Tony, a young man rescued from death, who just might prove key to saving Valentina. Parnassus makes another bargain with Mr Nick – Valentina will be spared if he can deliver five souls to his alternate world via his ‘imaginarium’ where visitors pass through a magic mirror in the caravan and enter a different reality.
Tony will act as guide and inside the imaginarium we see the different actors – Depp, Farrell and Law – whilst back in London it’s Ledger who is Tony. Gilliam knew that the conceit had worked when he was working on a rough cut of the finished film.
“In the post-production stage we got a rough cut of the film and the guy who was doing the post-sound saw it and just assumed that it was meant to be like that, that it had been written that way. And that was the first time I was aware, ‘****, the thing works!’ And then it was just a matter of tidying things up,” he says.
Ledger was a brilliant actor and Gilliam hopes, and believes, that The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a fitting tribute to his talent. There are many references to death in the film, which makes it a poignant reminder of Ledger’s tragic, early demise.
“The references to death were all in the original script, which people don’t understand. They all thought we had written this stuff after Heath had died and no, we didn’t change any of the words. And that to me is what so kind of scary and spooky – why was it so prescient? It seemed to be all about death, it’s so much of it.”
Gilliam and Ledger had worked together before, on The Brothers Grimm (2005) and, had he lived, the director is convinced that they would have teamed up many times in the future.
“Heath was a brilliant actor and he was getting better every day. And just watching him rise, was incredible. And I think that’s the thing, as well as losing a close friend, it’s just the waste of this incredible potential.
“I just think there was nothing stopping him – he was going to be the best, just the best. He was already right up there, but he had learned to play more. And the stuff that just came out of him daily on the set was incredible.
“Nicola (Pecorini) and I and the first AD, with every take we were like ‘what the **** is he doing now? Look at that!’ It was just this constant surprise. And that’s what is so awful, the loss of that talent.
“And I could see that he and I were going to be doing a lot of films together because he just got it, he got what I was about, I got what he was about. And suddenly, that’s it, he’s gone and I lost a partner.
“I think we would have done a lot together but I’m on my own again. Every day I think about what would he have done here? What about that? And I would have loved to see the film that he would have made had he lived.
“I don’t know what it would have been like, everybody is now in love with what we got, but I still think about what we were going to do.”
Gilliam, 68, was born in Minneapolis, and became the only American member of the British-based comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus, teaming up with John Cleese, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin and Terry Jones.
The Pythons produced groundbreaking, surreal comedy from the end of the ‘60s into the 1970s, for television, stage and film. Post-Python, Gilliam turned his creative talents to filmmaking and his CV includes Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys and Tideland. His next project will be The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus has its UK release on 16 October