Ledger had just completed his London scenes for 'Parnassus,' playing the role of Tony, a mysterious Londoner who joins an even more mysterious troupe of magicians and conjurers, and had returned to New York to rest while the movie company relocated to Vancouver, B.C. But he never rejoined it. On Jan. 22, 2008, two days after leaving Liondon, Ledger was found dead in his New York apartment of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. Bad news has been a frequent, unwelcome guest to the sets of American expatriate Terry Gilliam throughout his post-Monty Python career as a movie director. But nothing he'd been through in the fraught productions of 'Brazil,' 'The Adventures of Baron Munchausen' and the aborted 'The Killing of Don Quixote' compared to the loss of actor Heath Ledger half-way through production of 'The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.'
Ledger had just completed his London scenes for 'Parnassus,' playing the role of Tony, a mysterious Londoner who joins an even more mysterious troupe of magicians and conjurers, and had returned to New York to rest while the movie company relocated to Vancouver, B.C. But he never rejoined it. On Jan. 22, 2008, two days after leaving Liondon, Ledger was found dead in his New York apartment of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs.
Gilliam finished the movie with Ledger's friends Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell playing Tony in fantasy sequences where he goes through a magic mirror wearing a mask. He's with another person and comes out the other side with the face that person imagined. The movie opens in U.S. theaters on Christmas Day, so you can judge for yourself if the fill-ins work.
Meanwhile, in this exclusive interview, Gilliam talks about his love of Ledger, who had starred in his earlier film 'The Brothers Grimm,' and the trio of stars who came to the film's rescue.
Where were you when you heard the news about Ledger's death?
I was in the art department in Vancouver trying to save $15,000 on something that I can't even remember now. My daughter Amy [a producer on the film] came in and said 'You'd better come into the office.' I went in and there was an Apple laptop open to the BBC news page. 'Heath Ledger Found Dead.' The rest of that day was spent lying on the floor of the office, not believing it. It was inconceivable.
When you finally accepted the reality of his death, did you think you could finish the movie?
'No, I said 'That's it. It's finished.' I didn't even want to continue. Amy said 'We're going to finish this.' I said, 'You don't know what you're talking about. There's no way.' She said 'We'll find someone else.' I said 'I don't want someone else. And pragmatically, whose going to suddenly turn up who's a great actor and can step right in?' Finally, Nicola [Pecorini, his cinematographer] said 'You should call Johnny.' So, I called him and he said 'Whatever I can do, I'm there.'
You were half-way through the movie. Didn't the investors want to collect insurance?
We had signed off on the bond, the bank and everything four days before Heath died. That prospect didn't exist for them. The funny thing was that Nicola had seen Colin [Farrell] at Heath's memorial. We didn't know they were friends. When the producers heard that, that kind of halted the whole idea of retreating. Jude Law had agreed to come on. So, now we had three of the biggest stars in the world. We had to make it work.
How do you rewrite a script half-way through production and make it with a new cast?
It was actually pretty easy to fix it. I think I spent a day and a half rewriting. In the three fantasy sequences, Tony goes through the mirror with another person whose fantasy is realized on the other side. Maybe that person's dream man is not Heath Ledger. Maybe it's Johnny Depp.
Depp is the first of the three to appear, followed by Law and Farrell. How did you come to that sequence?
That seemed obvious to me. Depp would go first because he had the best chance of dragging the audience with him. If he did that, the others would, too. It works out exactly like that. There's a moment when that mask comes off the first time, most people think it's still Heath.
You'd directed Ledger in 'The Brothers Grimm' and had signed him to do 'Parnassus' long before people saw his Oscar-fated performance as The Joker in 'The Dark Knight.' What was your relationship with him like?
I think to him I was kind of a wacky father figure. He loved to run ideas by me and see me react. When he was in London doing Joker, he'd put his daughter Matilda in his backpack, jump on the tube and come up to Highgate (where Gilliam lives) and we'd talk for hours...He had an energy level and creative intelligence that made me think 'Here's a guy who can do every film I want to make ever again.' He had plans to do everything. He was going to direct movies, he was going to make music videos. He was behind the camera all the time, asking questions and throwing out ideas.
How was he on the set of 'Parnassus' in the days before he left?
Everybody's tired on a movie and he was tired. He did his own stunts, falling down on his back and everything. And he didn't sleep well. He'd come to the set in the morning looking worse than me, but as soon as the costume went on and the work began, he'd light up and he'd have more energy than anyone else. The last scene we shot with him was of him hopping on the back of that wagon while explosions were going off around the corner.
But you didn't see any signs of him being in trouble?
I still can't make any sense of it. He was alive and then he was dead. It's one of those awful things where you want an explanation but can't get it. On the night of the day he died, when the evening approached and the sun was low, I was looking out and thinking: 'This isn't right. It's a beautiful day out there, there's traffic and people are going on as if nothing was different. It's not possible. Everything is over.'