Terry Gilliam Didn’t Know ‘How To Deal’ With Heath Ledger’s Death

Director of the actor's final film, 'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,' remembers the actor's talent.

“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” will forever be known as Heath Ledger’s final film. In January of 2008, with less than half of the shoot complete, the 28-year-old actor died in his New York apartment . Refusing to recast Ledger’s part, director Terry Gilliam enlisted the help of three A-list actors: Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law. Together they stepped into the role of Tony, a mysterious man who joins a fantastical theater troupe led by the immortal Parnassus and his mirror, which allows audience members to travel into a psychedelic realm of their own thoughts.

The film opens on Christmas Day. In a wide-ranging interview with our own Kurt Loder, Gilliam spoke about his earliest memories of Ledger, the agonizing days following his death and the difficulties of making movies in Hollywood.

MTV: In trying to make movies, these works of real imagination, do you have a lot of trouble getting them financed? Let me guess …

Terry Gilliam: I’ve been running to Hollywood for a million years and every time I go, the story gets longer each time. “Oh Terry, we love all your films, and the last one, and the one before that, and the list gets longer and longer, they are all fantastic, we’ve been fans since we were kids. But this new project, it doesn’t quite seem to work for me.” And I’m like, “Jesus!”

MTV: How different is the finished “Imaginarium” than when you first started pitching it. Is it radically different?

Gilliam: No, I mean, it’s exactly what is there. That’s what I keep having to reassure people. We didn’t rewrite the film. We added little bits and pieces. What you see in the final film was all there at the beginning.

MTV: There were always three other Tonys?

Gilliam: No, there was only one person playing all the characters, but when Heath died, we hadn’t got the stuff on the other side of the mirror done. But the principle was already there: If you go through the mirror with somebody else — their imagination being stronger than yours — then you might start looking different. I just took that to an extreme. It’s Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, Jude Law replacing Heath, but as far as the ideas, the dialogues — it was all there from the start. There is a scene that Johnny has where he’s talking about Princess Diana and Valentino and James Dean dying young. People think it’s a eulogy for Heath written after he died and it wasn’t. It was always there.

MTV: When did you first become aware of Heath as an actor?

Gilliam: I think I just saw him in “The Patriot” and couldn’t remember. But the way that it came about was by a film called “Sin Eater.” I think when it finally came out it was called ["The Order"] — Brian Helgaland wrote and directed — and it was the film Heath did before “The Brothers Grimm.” My cinematographer, Nicola Pecorini, was working on ["Order"], and he calls me up and said, “There’s this kid. He is fantastic, he’s like Johnny [Depp]. He’s fearless. He can do anything.” And then I met Heath when we were casting “Brothers Grimm,” and I just loved him, and that was it.

MTV: And when did you hear how he had died?

Gilliam: Well, we had finished shooting in London on a Saturday night, and that morning Heath goes to New York and I was in Vancouver and then two days later he was dead, which makes no sense. It’s not possible. When you hear that you just don’t know how to deal with it. He was so full of life and vitality and energy, and — it stops. I laid down on the floor for a couple days and didn’t move, and my immediate reaction is, “The film is over.” The middle of the film, the star dies, you don’t finish. I didn’t want to finish. My daughter was one of the producers and also Nicola and they kept kicking me on the floor until I got up. They said, “You cannot let Heath’s last work disappear. You have to find a solution.”

MTV: Did you think it was going to be difficult to pull this off?

Gilliam: I thought it was going to be impossible. And we did all the shooting with Johnny and Colin and Jude with no real confidence that this was going to work. It was only when we got back to London and did a rough assembly and showed it to people and they just assumed that it had been written like that — to have four people playing the same character. I mean, it works brilliantly. It’s seamless, everybody says. When I try to think what would it have been like to have Heath playing all the way through, we’ll never know. There are so many possibilities.

MTV: How did you come to cast Lily Cole as Parnassus’ daughter Valentina in this movie?

Gilliam: Well, I wanted an extraordinary daughter for Parnassus. She looks exactly like a 19th-century porcelain doll. The shape of her head, her huge eyes — on this body that is incredibly long and tall, with bumps in all the right places. The casting director had done little things in a film with her and thought she had real talent. She has a real sense of herself. I did her a screen test, and she wasn’t terrible, so I said, “Let’s gamble,” and that’s what I did. When we first started shooting I was terrified. And she slowly gained confidence, and I think everyone was really supportive of her, Heath in particular. He just brought it out of her, he drew it out of her, and she was just fabulous.

MTV: How’s the situation with getting distribution for a movie like this — do you have to battle tooth and claw for it?

Gilliam: We couldn’t get money out of America when we started this process. You’re dealing with studio people, and this was in 2007. We talked about how in the summer of 2008, there’d be the Joker, “The Dark Knight,” Heath is going to be the biggest actor on the planet, and then “Imaginarium” will come out a couple months later. This concept they couldn’t even begin to leap towards. We made the film with no American money. It was all U.K., Canadian, French, German. Then we get it all done, we show it to the buyers, and they are, “It’s not like anything before.” Luckily in the end Sony Classics got it. They are smart. It’s frightening how frightened Hollywood is, how close-minded. What’s happening now, especially with the credit crunch, is that all the talented people who have some sense of movies, they are just being laid off, and what is left are the bureaucrats and the accountants all trying to hold on to the last minute. As the ship goes down they will be the last ones.

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.”

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