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Terry Gilliam: ‘Parnassus was star Heath Ledger’s film even after he died’

27 September 2009

The first time we see Heath Ledger, the star of Terry Gilliam's forthcoming film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, he is hanging under Blackfriars Bridge in London with a noose around his neck; he is subsequently brought, coughing and choking, back to life. Given that, in January 2008, Ledger himself died during the making of Parnassus, from a probably accidental combination of sleeping tablets, it is an unnervingly shocking moment.

It is also a pointed reminder that film routinely deals in immortality: Ledger, who won a posthumous Oscar last year for his performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight, has never looked as alive as he does in what follows.

When he first heard of Ledger's death, Gilliam didn't know how he could go on with the film. Ledger, who had worked with him on The Brothers Grimm in 2005, had become like a son and a muse rolled into one. Over a late-morning margarita in a Soho hotel, Gilliam tells me that while making Parnassus "Heath had been running full pelt, carrying the whole film on his shoulders. Telling me what to do; insatiable, exhausting."

Full of grief and despair, Gilliam's first instinct was that it would be impossible to finish what Ledger had started; only two-thirds of his role had been filmed. Moreover, on the morning after the news of his death emerged investors began pulling out. "You can't believe how quickly the money ran away from this thing," he says.

It was Gilliam's 31-year-old daughter, Amy, working for the first time as a producer, who persuaded him that it could be done. "She turned out to be really fantastically pig-headed and good," Gilliam says. "It was like a mother instinct took over." They turned off the phones and locked themselves in a room with "some red wine and prosciutto and parmesan" and, along with Gilliam's cinematographer Nicola Pecorini, worked out a plan. This involved finding someone who could complete Ledger's role, because as Amy Gilliam put it at the time, "a dead star wasn't big enough. Now we needed a bigger star to continue the movie."

Gilliam called Johnny Depp, who had been Ledger's friend, and when Depp immediately said he would do whatever was needed they felt they might just be able to go on. In the event, Depp's schedule allowed him to fill only some of Ledger's remaining scenes, so Gilliam persuaded Jude Law and Colin Farrell to cover the rest and then rewrote the script to add an almost seamless capacity for shape-shifting to Ledger's already mercurial character.

If that solved the logistical problem, however, there was also the emotional fallout to negotiate. Though he knew Ledger had been suffering after the breakdown of his relationship with the actress Michelle Williams and a custody battle over their two-year-old daughter Matilda, there had been no particular reason for Gilliam to fear for his friend. "He was so strong," he says. "That's why none of it makes sense. The last night before he died we were shooting in Clerkenwell in London, this scene where Dr Parnassus's wagon collapses. The last piece of film of Heath is of him holding on for dear life to the back of a runaway travelling theatre. What a way to go! He was doing everything that night, all his own stunts. You really felt as a director there was nothing he wasn't capable of."

The only worry that Gilliam had for Ledger at the time was his insomnia, which seemed to leave him strung out on occasion. "In real life, the one thing he could not do, it seemed, was sleep. He would arrive in the morning and look awful, but then after an hour he would be – bam! – full on. It was like he was going wooooooooooo, and then stopped for no reason."

Gilliam talked to Ledger's family about his plans to continue with the film. "It was the following weekend, I think," he recalls. "Everything was spinning. We all wept, it was one of those awful lunches when it seemed like there would be nothing to say, but then about halfway through we just started telling stories about Heath and we couldn't stop; we were all giggling and laughing by the end."

Gilliam managed to carry some of that spirit back to the film set with him. "The thing about Heath was that he was all positive," he says. "There wasn't a darkness about him, and we had to hold on to that. It eased the grief, in a way. Because even after he died we were still working with him every day. It was still his movie. We'd be like: 'Fuck, that bastard Ledger hasn't shown up again, he better have a good excuse this time.' That's how you deal with it. It was only when the film was finally finished that it hit me."

All of Gilliam's films, particularly the imaginative epics like Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, have seemed on one level to be running commentaries on the creative nightmare of the film industry and the near impossibility of making anything other than formulaic movies. This film takes that impulse further. Gilliam can certainly see himself in Dr Parnassus, played by Christopher Plummer, who is in eternal combat with the Devil (Tom Waits) for human souls, and is armed only with his clapped-out theatre and some half-forgotten tricks. "Parnassus is a transparent kind of self-portrait," Gilliam says, laughing at the idea. "Man with imagination wants to share it with the world, and the world doesn't want to listen. And he is getting really old before our eyes."

Gilliam is 69 now, though you'd never guess. He recently attended the latest reunion of the Monty Python team, their 40th anniversary – "a good one because we just spent hours talking about John Cleese's divorce settlement, and privately asking ourselves, where does he get that kind of money?" If his career has had anything as grown-up as a purpose, he suggests, it is to bring some Python-like surprise to films. "Because the world is such a complete mess," he says, "people increasingly go to the cinema for tidiness. They want to exist for an hour or two in a world where everything is explained, and everything is logical.

"I, however, am inherently messy, and have a feeling that is what a lot of being human is about. I seem to have a perverse side to myself that I have to make it as difficult as possible both for me and the audience, but still try to entertain."

Sometimes, as almost happened with Parnassus, the chaos of the world simply overwhelms Gilliam's best-laid plans. Almost 20 years ago now he set out to make what might have been his defining film, a reimagining of Don Quixote, to be filmed in La Mancha, in Spain. It took him a decade to raise funding, and a couple of years to engage the perfect Don (Jean Rochefort, a Frenchman). In the first week of filming Rochefort suffered a herniated disc and was hospitalised, then a freak mudslide carried away all of the cameras and equipment and the film itself was buried under insurance claims. A documentary of the events, Lost in La Mancha, preserves Gilliam's anguish.

A less hopeful man than Gilliam, I say, might consider himself to be jinxed. "I don't think I would even describe it as hope any more," he says. "I'm just a fatalist. I try to do my best to make things happen, and then they either do or they don't."

Gilliam is planning to start shooting The Man who Killed Don Quixote again next year, believing the script has been improved by returning to it after a long hiatus. Johnny Depp is still promising to be in it. Does Gilliam believe it will happen this time? "I'm very confident that it will," he says, "but then as I've got older I've become more Sisyphean in my thinking: I believe a lot of it is all about pushing a rock up a hill and endlessly watching the fucking thing roll down again."

To that extent, I suggest, each time he finishes a film it must feel like a little act of defiance against the prevailing forces of the world. Given the tragic circumstances, in the case of the new film, Parnassus, I guess that feeling has been magnified?

"I think it is important that we got it done," he says. "Heath would have wanted to see it finished. I mean, there is this feeling that in the face of death we have to do something appropriate, we have to be polite or something, but that wasn't Heath at all." Gilliam grins. "My attitude is that the only way we keep death away from us is to keep giggling. Death really hates laughter, it just has no sense of humour at all."


The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus will be released on 16 October

Source: Guardian Online