Ledger's death no death sentence for 'Parnassus'

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Of the many things that can go wrong for a filmmaker, nothing's worse than having your star die halfway through production.

That's typically a death sentence for a film. But not always.

Case in point: Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" starring Heath Ledger, who died mid-shoot from an accidental drug overdose in January '08.

How Gilliam managed to save the film with help from three of Ledger's pals -- Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law -- while preserving Ledger's final onscreen performance is a textbook example of how filmmakers can triumph over adversity.

"Parnassus," an official selection at Cannes and Toronto, opens Dec. 25 in New York and L.A. via Sony Pictures Classics. Christopher Plummer plays Parnassus, whose traveling show gives audiences an irresistible opportunity to choose between light and joy or darkness and gloom.

When Ledger died he'd finished shooting in London and was about to film scenes in Vancouver that would have him going through Parnassus' looking glass as different aspects of his character, experiencing visually intensive adventures.

In talking about making "Parnassus," the director told me how in 2000 his dream project "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" had been shut down during its first week in production. It was surviving that experience that enabled him to get past the initial shock of Ledger's death.

"If I hadn't been through that I probably would have completely and utterly given up this time around," he said. "In fact, I only gave up for a day or two. Then I was sort of beaten into thinking seriously about if we could salvage the film in some way."

Ledger's passing hit Gilliam hard because not only had they worked together just three days earlier, but they'd been close friends since Ledger starred in his 2005 fantasy "The Brothers Grimm."

"Stars don't die in the middle of the film and the film gets finished," he noted. "But there was a lot of talking, fighting, pushing, shoving and trying to make me use my imagination."

Gilliam rejected using digital effects to let someone else double Ledger. His solution came when he realized Ledger's character "goes through this mirror three times, so why I don't see if I can get three friends of Heath's to come in and finish it?"

Most helmers would have tried to find one actor to take over the role, but Gilliam didn't think that was the answer.

"My attitude was there was no way one person was going to do that on an artistic level or even on a pragmatic level because we had to continue to keep shooting. I thought by spreading the load to three we might be able to find three people who were available while we were still shooting."

The principle behind using three different actors was already there in the screenplay by Gilliam and Charles McKeown, with whom he'd written "Brazil" and "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen." That's because if you go through the mirror with someone else their imagination could be stronger than yours and change how you look.

To make it clear, he adjusted an earlier scene where a drunk watching Parnassus's show stumbles through the looking glass and we see his face change.

"I called Johnny Depp not to get him to take over the part," Gilliam explained, but "just to commiserate because he was a close friend and a close friend of Heath's."

Depp (to Gilliam): "Whatever you decide to do, I'll be there."

That's what kept the money people from bailing out on the film. Gilliam got some help from Lady Luck in having Depp, Farrell and Law available to work on such short notice.

"Colin and Jude were finishing projects and there was a gap in their schedules," he recalled. "We got Johnny because of a fluke. Michael Mann's film 'Public Enemies' was delayed by one week and Johnny popped in and that was it."

There was no time to rehearse. "We shot on Johnny for one day. The second day it was basically just three and a half hours and he was out."

It wasn't ideal, but it was Gilliam's only choice.

Reflecting on Ledger's death and what might have been on his mind then, Gilliam observed, "All the stories you read in the press about The Joker affecting him, that was utter nonsense. I get very angry at the things they were writing. Just bullshit!"

While Ledger was shooting "The Dark Knight" he made some untroubled visits to London to see Gilliam who was prepping "Parnassus."

"He'd come back after a couple of days as The Joker just giggling like a kid. He said he was having so much fun getting away with murder. He said nobody knew how to control this character, which was what was making it fun for him."
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