Gilliam Talks About Heath Ledger’s Final Movie

Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is a gorgeous, mind-bending rumination about death, aging, and creation. The movie, which opens this week, won much praise at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival and is easily the strongest film that the visionary director has produced in years. Yet “Parnassus” is probably best known for being the final work of Heath Ledger who tragically died halfway through production.

Gilliam has a legendary track record for being utterly cursed during productions: Universal initially refused to release his masterpiece “Brazil” until critics dubbed it the best movie of the year; his next movie “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” was crippled by studio politics and a shiftless producer; and another project, the aborted movie “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” which suffered one disaster after another until it was shut down after only a week of production, was immortalized in the documentary “Lost in La Mancha.”

So when the star to his latest effort died after only a third or so through the shoot, “Parnassus” looked like yet another casualty to Gilliam’s freakishly bad luck. Yet he not only managed to pull it together and finish the movie, he managed to make it work.

The movie’s story is about the titular Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), a thousand-year-old traveling showman who invites audience members to venture into an alternate reality through his magical mirror. He got these unusual abilities through a bet with the devil (Tom Waits) and when he tries to collect, a mysterious figure named Tony comes to save the day. Tony is, of course, played by Heath Ledger. He’s also played by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell.

As Gilliam describes below during my interview with him two weeks ago, the director conquered these seemingly insurmountable problems with a combination of luck, ingenuity, and with a little help from Heath’s friends.

Gilliam one stroke of luck was that he shot all of the “real world” scenes before Ledger died. His second stroke of luck was that the three A-list stars, all friends of the late actor, stepped up to help save Ledger’s final film. Thus, with some quick rejiggering of the script, Heath plays the real-world version of Tony while Depp and the gang play transformed dream-world versions of him.

Also in my interview, Gilliam talks about how he developed the film’s story and put together what he calls “One of the finest casts I’ve ever assembled.” He also expounds on the cravenness of Hollywood studios, the nature of God, and his time working with the legendary UK comedy troupe Monty Python.

Q: Movies like Imaginarium, with this level of creativity and invention, don’t usually get made unless they’re from adaptations of other works. Why do you think this is?

Q: How did you finance it?

TG: It was a UK /Canadian co-production. And then there was pre-sales to France, Germany, Italy, Japan — places like that. We were there in Hollywood trying to get their money but nobody came forward with any cash. So we went on and did it without them.

Q: You reunited with your former writing partner Charles McKeown for this project. Could you describe the process of how you developed the script?

TG: It’s very hard to actually remember, because the whole thing was so organic. I mean, we didn’t even have a plan at the beginning. I just wanted to write something original. Maybe…a compendium of the kind of things I’d played with before. And that was about it. The only image we started with was this ancient traveling theater arriving in modern London. And nobody pays any attention to it. And little by little we started throwing things at it. And some things stuck, and some didn’t, and little by little we discovered a plot, and story, and characters. It was a very organic process, and I’ve forgotten almost everything about how we did it. [laughs]

Q: One way to read this movie is as an extended metaphor of the power and the cost of creating. Parnassus is an immortal story teller. Tom Waits character feels more like the kind of devil that tempts artists away from creating, instead of the “Evil One.”

TG: It’s a funny relationship the two of them. They’re obviously opposing forces. And yet they’re probably the only friends they have in the world –the two of them. And their weakness for gambling is what intrigues me. It’s not so much winning, but it’s the game. I kind of like that as a construct for the way the world really works, rather than the nice, simple, monotheistic Judeo-Christian God.

Q: But do you see this movie as a metaphor of creativity?

TG: I think any creative person, any artist, will identify with Parnassus. You’re trying to say something, you’re trying to inspire the world, you’re trying to open their eyes to things and nobody’s paying attention. Nobody cares. But usually you’ve got to chop your ear off and die before they notice.

Q: What about the character of Tony? On the one hand, he helps Parnassus but on the other he comes at a terrific cost. How did you envision Tony?

TG: We were quite inspired by Tony Blair. Here’s somebody who seemed to believe everything he said, who felt he was doing God’s work, good work. And basically he conned himself as much as he conned the British public, and ended up probably doing far worse things than the good work that he did. I thought he was really “modern man” — very chameleon-like — basically an ego in action who will charm, seduce, do whatever and then justify it. And that’s why I like the fact that Mr. Nick, the devil, was unable to deal with this “new man” who is even more slippery than he himself. The devil had certain principles.

Q: What was the process you went about to cast the film?

TG: Once you’ve got something written you just start looking. Parnassus — that’s the essential. Where do you start? You look around and there are not that many great actors at that age who I think could handle the breadth of this character. And I’d worked with Chris Plummer before, and I just sent it to him, and he liked it immediately. So that was very easy.

Tom was interesting because he never even saw the script. I was being the middle man for a Dutch animator friend of mine who wanted to get to Tom. And I sent Tom his material, and Tom wasn’t interested. And he said, “Got anything for me?” And I said, “Well, we’ve just written the part of the devil.” And he said, “I’m in!” He didn’t bother to read the script. And we’d worked together on Fisher King, and I love Tom — I love his music. I keep saying he writes songs for the angels, and sings them with the voice of Beelzebub. [chuckle] So that was easy.

Heath came to the project. I was working in my special effects company’s office, working on a music video, when he was only part-time being the Joker. And I was showing my storyboards to the effects guys, and talking through these sequences. And he slipped me a note saying, “Can I play Tony?” And I said, “Are you serious?” And that was as simple as that.

I find that the films become their own magnets. Vern Troyer I’d work with briefly on “Fear and Loathing,” and on a traveling show you’ve gotta have the tallest and the shortest. And there was Vern. I showed him one page of the script where Parnassus says, “What would I ever do without you. Percy?” And Percy’s line is, “Get a midget.” And Vern says, “I’m in!”

And then Lily Cole. I wanted an extraordinary girl to be the daughter. I was introduced to her. I’d seen her face. It’s this extraordinary nineteenth century porcelain doll head, on this very tall body with bumps in all the right places. And I liked her. And she had next to no experience. But I thought as a character she was great. I thought she was smart rounded. And so I said, “Yeah, that’s Lily.” She was the biggest gamble of all, and she played it brilliantly. I remember Andrew Garfield sent a tape in of three different scenes we had sent him. And he did each scene three different ways, in three different characters. And I thought, “My god! The guy is just incredible, unlimited in what he can do.” And there it is. One of the finest casts I’ve ever assembled.

Q: Let me ask you my obligatory Heath Ledger question. When you learned that he died, how did you decide to continue with the movie? Under most circumstances, wouldn’t that have derailed the film?

TG: My initial response to his death was, “It’s over.” I didn’t see any way to continue the film. I didn’t want to continue the film. He was too close a friend, too central to the thing. I just basically wanted to abandon the whole project. But I was surrounded by people like my daughter, who’s one of the producers, and Nicola Pecorini, the cinematographer, and they just said, “You’re gonna have to do this. You’re going to have to find a solution to this thing.” And I said, “Well, I don’t know how.” And they kept beating me up, until I finally got my head into some kind of shape. And I decided to move forward. Decided that I’d try three actors to carry on the part. The script kind of rewrote itself very quickly. Because there was very little one could do. And certain scenes had to be cut out. And a few little twists and turns we put in. And it just played.

Then it was just a matter of calling friends of Health until I had three people that were ready and right for the job. And off we went.

Q: So getting Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell and all those guys, you just called and said, “This is Heath’s final film”?

TG: Yeah. I know they were all close friends of Heath, which is why I was calling them, because I wanted to keep this thing very much in the family. And they all just were there. And basically it’s a credit to how much people loved and respected Heath. How important he was. And this just doesn’t happen. I think was extraordinary. And it’s really all about Heath.

Q: So getting Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell and all those guys, you just called and said “this is Heath’s final film”?

TG: I’ve gotten more and more a feeling that films make themselves. There’s some kind of film god up there that decided they’re going to make a movie. And we just work for them. And this one kind of felt like that. This is a film very much about mortality. I mean some of those speeches — Johnny’s speech about “you will die young instead of old and fat.” All that stuff was in the script. And then Heath dies in the midst of this thing. So much that was written seemed to be what was happening around us. It was terrifying.

Q: How much of this movie do you think is based in autobiography?

TG: It’s easy to become self-pitying. Figure yourself as an old guy that nobody’s bothering to go see your movies anymore. [laughs] So, it’s a trap you can fall into. There’s all of that. There’s father-daughter relationship, and strange enough there we are with my daughter one of the producers of the film and me. There’s just a lot of stuff… I mean partly, when you sit down and write something that’s quote “original,” you’re gonna be feeding off your own thoughts, and your own view of the world. So, yeah, all of that’s in there.

Q: This year is marks the 40th anniversary of Monty Python. How do you view its legacy in relation to your career?

TG: You wouldn’t be talking to me if it hadn’t been around. It’s as simple as that! [laughs]Python was critical. It was a great time. We had freedom that people seldom get. We learned our craft. And then we went on to start making movies. And that’s extraordinary. On one hand it seems like it was only yesterday. And then you look and it was forty years ago we started. Certainly gave me confidence that what we did was more interesting than all the people who, later on in life, start advising you about what you should and shouldn’t do. So you learn to ignore all those people.

But I think it was extraordinary that it continues to find new audiences. There’s some kind of magic age, which is about eleven, for smart kids, and that’s when they discover Python. And it just seems to be a continuation of new generations falling for that crap.

Q: What’s next for you?

TG: That would be Don Quixote. We’re going again. That’s the plan for next year.

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