MOVIES: Terry Gilliam honours Heath Ledger’s final performance in ‘Imaginarium’
The journey from storyboard to celluloid is fraught with complications for most filmmakers. But few have experienced the sort of kick-to-the-chest heartbreak that writer-director Terry Gilliam did when Heath Ledger accidentally overdosed and died January 22, 2008, in the midst of filming Gilliam’s grandly dark new fantasy, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
“I was lying on the floor in grief,” Gilliam admits, upon finding out that the star, who was also his long-time friend, had passed at just 28. “But then my daughter started kicking me and making me get up again. It was a different kind of pain, but it helped me keep going.”
Shortly before Imaginarium’s North American opening (the much-coveted Christmas Day slot), Gilliam is giving back-to-back phone interviews. Despite the sombre aspects of the film, the former Monty Python member is in good spirits. He jokingly introduces himself as Mr. Repetitive — after all, he’s been fielding the same questions about Ledger for almost three years, and he’ll now forever have the dubious distinction of being the director of Ledger’s last film.
Imaginarium was the pair’s second collaboration, Gilliam having first cast Ledger opposite Matt Damon in his 2005 fantasy-comedy The Brothers Grimm. By the time they reunited, Ledger had evolved as both an actor (his roles in Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight had catapulted him to a new level of stardom) and as a person — with a two-year-old daughter, and a dependency on a cocktail of prescription pills to help with sleeping, depression, and anxiety. But he was also more sure of his gifts, and was starting to show an interest in expanding them.
“Even the Joker — you know, he’d just play it and enjoy it and leap fearlessly into whatever the part was,” Gilliam says. “He was ad-libbing a lot on this film, and coming up with lines that were a lot better that what we had written. It was his way of showing he could write as well. This is a pretty extraordinary talent that was only just developing.”
Imaginarium could have shut down production following Ledger’s death — it’s been alleged that financial backers who’d put up money on the strength of the actor’s marquee appeal wanted to pull out. But Gilliam and his cast and crew persevered. The finished product reveals how almost eerily prescient Gilliam’s script proved.
Ledger’s character, Tony, is rescued by a down-on-their-luck band of travellers, led by the immortal Dr. Parnassus, an increasingly decrepit and drunk mystic who performs nightly, showcasing his mind-expanding abilities through a faux-mirror that leads to the Imaginarium, an alternate reality of the entrants’ making. His daughter, Valentina, is about to turn 16, but has been promised to the devil in a bargain made years ago. Tony, on the run from some shady mobsters, and attempting to escape his innately evil nature, keeps ducking inside the Imaginarium. Ledger hadn’t filmed these scenes yet, so Gilliam appealed to a few famous faces — Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell — to take turns playing the alternate-reality versions of Tony.
“Heath’s death didn’t really change my vision at all,” Gilliam says. “Except, of course, having to work with the three hacks who replaced Heath. [Laughs] You know, going down to the actor’s depot in Hollywood, they’re just hanging around, all desperate for work. It’s still the same movie I storyboarded in the beginning.”
Gilliam momentarily ditches his trademark gallows humour when he reflects on what it’s taken to adjust to a post-Imaginarium life. He admits that sometimes even he can’t quite believe he finished it.
“We had a film that really works, basically, because so many people loved Heath and came to the rescue,” he says. “That’s what it’s about. It’s like an ocean voyage where part of the crew died, and other people came to the rescue and we got there. That kind of outpouring of affection for Heath — Johnny, Colin, Jude, everybody involved in the process and the project — is what’s magical about it.”
As for the film’s critical reception, Gilliam confesses that the biggest weight on him has been honouring Ledger legacy. The morbid humour creeps back in, though, and one realizes how crucial it’s been for the filmmaker to keep himself laughing through what’s been one of the darkest periods of his life.
“[Imaginarium] is certainly more emotional for me, and dragged me in more... The biggest sense of responsibility while we were shooting was, ‘Is it going to be worthy of his last work?’ And some critics think it is, and others don’t, because they’re awful people that should die,” he says, beginning to laugh loudly. “But that’s alright; they can have their opinions. But they must also understand that death is swiftly coming their way. Vengeance will be ours!”