Rightly or wrongly, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus will forever be known as the last film Heath Ledger made before he passed away. When news first broke of Ledger’s tragic death, in January of 2008, Parnassus director Terry Gilliam — himself no stranger to troubled projects — immediately halted production on the film, mere weeks before principal photography was scheduled to conclude.
Initially inclined to abandon the film entirely, Gilliam was persuaded by friends to finish it as a tribute of sorts to Ledger, and he brought in three of his friends, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, to help pitch in. The resulting film, which finally arrives in theaters this Friday, exists both as a distinctly Gilliam-esque work and a moving requiem for a talented actor who left the world all too soon.
We talked with Gilliam recently about the tragedy and triumph of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
After Heath died, how did you figure out how to finish the film?
Terry Gilliam: Once you decide to carry on, which is the hard part, you say “All right, (his character) goes through the mirror three times. Three actors.” On a totally pragmatic level, there was no way to get one actor to replace Heath. I didn’t want to do that anyway, and there’s no way to get a great actor to turn up at the last moment. We’re making a movie. People have schedules. They’re all busy working. The fact we were able to squeeze Johnny, Colin and Jude’s schedule into our schedule in some way was kind of a miracle...So I thought you needed three A-list actors to replace Heath — he was that good. That was my attitude.
I didn’t rewrite much. There’s a lot of little things I’ve done, but nothing of any substance. The dialogue was all written before. That speech that Johnny gives about the young dying, some people think is a eulogy to Heath. No. That was written. This film was about mortality. That’s the great irony of the whole thing — mortality being a central part of the story — and look what happens. I supposed one’s got to be careful of what one writes.
It’s obvious at times that the three actors are mimicking aspects of Heath’s performance. How much did you want them to play Heath?
TG: What we did is, number one, I chose people who were close friends of Heath’s. So they know Heath. That’s where we started. And then we gave them all DVDs of what we’d been able to assemble of what Heath had done so they could see what he was doing, how he was moving, how he was talking and everything. And then they arrived. No time to rehearse — Do it. It’s really brave of them. It’s extraordinarily brave. They could have just fallen flat on their faces. But I kind of thought out that maybe this was the way we could pull this thing off. I wasn’t certain. And they just came in and got to work. Johnny, we had one day, 3-1/2 hours, that’s all. Everything he did. I watched it the other day and thought, “How the f**k did we do that?” [Laughs] He came, he was totally on the ball, and we just started shooting. That’s what’s wonderful, because I think as actors they all got to escape from their own egos. They suddenly were doing something for Heath — outside themselves — and they just breathed Heath in and spewed him out. [Laughs]
How different was the editing process on this film? How much did Heath’s passing affect the process?
TG: What was interesting, in this case, was there was a very interesting way of dealing with one’s grief, because we’re dealing with Heath every day. He’s alive. “How the f**k are you doing now, mate?” I’m sitting there talking to him the whole time. It was an interesting thing, but it was the same process. You say, “Oh, that’s a great moment. That’s not so good. What do we do?” It wasn’t until we actually got the whole film cut together that I suddenly began to believe that what we had set out to do worked. I remember showing it to the post-production sound man, who hadn’t been party to all that was going on and obviously didn’t read the trades or even newspapers, because he said he just felt the film was meant to be like that. And that was the moment I realized it works.
The power of imagination is a major theme in this movie. As technology advances at an ever increasing pace, are we losing touch with our imaginations?
TG: Well, the biggest thing I find is we are so overwhelmed by information now and the media pours in, the internet pours in. I don’t know how people maintain their own individual identity anymore and how you imagine your own world because it’s that. I don’t know. I was lucky. I grew up living in a country with only radio, so I’d imagine a lot of things and that’s, I think, where it comes from...I’m really just trying to get people to kind of switch off. My biggest thing now -- because everything is about networking and connections and blah, blah, blah — is about aloneless. I’m trying to get people to learn to be alone, turn it all off, just be with yourself and see what’s there. See if there’s anybody home or whether you’re just a neuron or a synaptic gap is what you may be.
The visual style that you pioneered is considered by some to be obsolete in the age of CGI. How do you feel about the emergence of digital animation?
TG: I think what’s happening with so much CG work, especially in the live action films, is that it’s trying to be naturalistic. The world might be fantastical. It might be extraordinary. But it’s naturalistic, and that doesn’t interest me. I thought what we can do here is to do more of a painterly world; I suppose it’s live action with Pixar backgrounds. It’s a bit more like that. I just want that freedom.
Do you see yourself working with Johnny Depp again?
TG: Anytime he’s available, I’m ready to work with him. He’s a very busy boy, though. His dance card is full. He’s gotta swash and buckle for another couple of years. [Laughs]
As a filmmaker, does anything surprise you anymore?
TG: Actors surprise me. I’m always begging for surprises and, well, Heath did the big one. And that was the kind of surprise I don’t need. But he surprised me.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus opens December 25, 2009.