“It’s a last chance to see one of the great actors who never got to show his greatness,” says director Terry Gilliam of the late Heath Ledger’s role in his new movie The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus. “To me, he was unlimited in his talent. We were just seeing the tip of the iceberg.”Gilliam’s previous experiences with troublesome productions are of course well documented. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote collapsed into an almost farcical array of flood and hernia related misfortune, as shown in the excellent documentary Lost In La Mancha. Similarly, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen was hindered from the beginning (Gilliam and his crew arrived for filming in Italy, only to be faced with an unexpected organisational nightmare) to the end (the film’s American release was hindered by a severe lack of prints).
The loss is a pretty big gaping hole in what should be our civilization.
A mere troublesome production and the tragic death of a friend who Gilliam describes as “gentle and sweet and intelligent and nice as anybody that I’ve ever met” are incomparable. Gilliam speaks with great passion; a hearty laugh accompanies every pun or irony that rolls from his tongue. But when discussing Ledger, Gilliam’s phrasing slows and his infectious, bombastic tones fall quiet. His departure is evidently painful. Or, as Gilliam says with the same poetic nature that informs his films, “The loss is a pretty big gaping hole in what should be our civilization.”
Soon enough the decision was reached to forge ahead with The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus. “We all just agreed that we’d try to rescue Heath’s last performance and finish the film. And we marched on, sometimes on autopilot - finish that thing, get it done and see where we were going - but everybody was so determined to get it to work, that’s why I think we pulled it off.”
The film was completed with a drastic reimagination of Ledger’s character Tony, a charming enigma who joins a travelling theatre troupe that specialises in transporting audience members to an alternate reality by way of a mirror that acts as a portal. When Tony travels to this surreal second life he’s physically transformed into another body, with Ledger’s friends Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law completing the role.
“I had no ultimate faith that it was going to work,” explains Gilliam. “The last thing we wanted was to cobble together a film that was Heath’s last performance and for it to be a shit film because we wanted to make a fitting tribute.”
Filming progressed with “real energy and hope”. Gilliam approached the three new Tonys as they’d been old friends of Ledger. “They knew him, they loved him and that’s why we all did it. There was one point Colin said he thought he was channelling Heath… he was just flying.” By this stage, the main obstacle facing the film was the challenge of working around Depp, Farrell and Law’s prior commitments. Gilliam is eager to credit each actor’s dedication to the film: “Thankfully the actors were incredibly bold to leap into this thing because there was no time for rehearsal. They just had to jump in and take over part of a character. That was really… some people would say foolish, but it worked out beautifully.”
Despite the strength of the performances, doubts lingered in Gilliam’s mind over whether the film as a whole had succeeded. “What I didn’t know was whether an audience would accept these constant changes of actors. Now people almost talk about it like they can’t imagine that we didn’t plan it like that from the very beginning.” He confesses that those doubts lingered until he returned to London for post-production where one collaborator assumed that the story he was helping piece together had emerged in exactly the same shape that it was intended to be.
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The film closes with the emotive credit A Film From Heath Ledger And Friends. “The cast and I were sitting there having dinner and I said, “I can’t put A Terry Gilliam Film on this.” We all agreed that Heath Ledger And Friends would be perfect.” His voice again flows from sombre to booming laughter. “It’s actually one of the few honest credits on the film!” The world in which the theatre troupe and the four Tonys inhabit is a dazzling battle of contradictions. The theatre, lead by the ancient Doctor Parnassus, is resolutely old-fashioned and almost anachronistic in the face of modern London’s hectic pace, capitalist concerns and populist media. Their fantastical exploits are an explosion of colour amidst the capital’s cold, greying, realistic streets.
“I was just trying to remember my life and that’s what came up,” he answers almost cryptically when asked how he imagines an ethereal otherworld that’s as immediately recognisable as our own. “All the things I liked and all the things that interested me… well, not all the things but at least the ones near home. I thought it would be nice to be free enough to play with all the things I was interested in that were halfway decent. London became a nice backdrop - a modern city, but already corrupted by the modern world.”
Those interests helped to inform the film’s introduction of Tony. The theatre members find him mysteriously hanging from Blackfriars Bridge and close to death in a scene that recalls the bizarre and unsolved 1982 murder of Italian banker Roberto Calvi. Gilliam is audibly excited at the recognition of his tribute and explains it succinctly as “a good way of introducing somebody.”
That inventive method of introducing Tony by way of an historical reference is spun around and reused with the casting of Tom Waits as the film’s devil. Although Waits looks like an atypical devil, his lyrics live in a darkly surreal world where one might shoot billiards with a midget, own a Chihuahua named Carlos or indulge in some romantically noir stalking from the safety of a downtown train. As such, there’s a certain essence of his soul that perfectly matches The Imaginarium’s leftfield stylings.
Tom is the perfect devil. To me, he encompasses the entire range of human existence.
Having previously worked together on The Fisher King, Gilliam wanted Waits to contribute to the film’s soundtrack but the growling singer-songwriter opted to contribute his talents as an actor only. Not that Gilliam is too fazed, being happy to emphasise the strength of the film’s eventual score and Waits’ role. “Tom is the perfect devil. He’s dark, his voice is so seductive, he can be so romantic. He can be anything. To me, he encompasses the entire range of human existence.”
Waits is just one of what appears to be an unconventional cast that also includes the highly acclaimed veteran actor Christopher Plummer as Doctor Parnassus, model Lily Cole as the doc’s daughter Valentina and Verne Troyer of Austin Powers fame as the theatre’s cantankerous assistant.
“Strange?!” exclaims Gilliam with mock offence to the idea that the film’s cast is somewhat unconventional. “Only in Hollywood mentality. It’s wonderful trying to create a little family group. At one stage I’m taking Christopher Plummer, one of the greatest actors of a few generations, and having him do these different double acts; one with a model with little acting experience, one with a two-foot-eight man and one with Tom Waits, America’s greatest musical poet. And it all worked out!” And that’s the story of the making of The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus. It’s been a tragic, tough and unconventional journey, but one that admirably pays respect to its departed star and that’s sure to be a rewarding to its audience.
“At times I begin to think that films make themselves,” concludes Gilliam with the return of that poetic prose of his. “This film got itself made the way it wanted to.”