When Heath Ledger died in January 2008, almost every iota of attention concerning his career was on the final fate of his performance in The Dark Knight. Of course, Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker went on to garner tremendous acclaim and awards, up to and including the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. But when he died, Ledger was on break from making his follow-up to The Dark Knight, a film by Terry Gilliam called The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. When Ledger unexpectedly passed away, the fate of Imaginarium was up in the air. After all, how can a film finish principal photography when its star is no longer available to play his part?
Well this is where things get interesting, and for filmmaker and former Monty Python player Terry Gilliam, that’s really saying something. After all, this was the man that once famously mounted a doomed production of The Man of La Mancha called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, the tumultuous three day shoot of which was chronicled in the documentary Lost in La Mancha. In the case of Imaginarium, Gilliam would sit down and rewrite his script to account for the absence of his lead actor by allowing three of his contemporaries to sub in. Now, on the eve of the film’s national release, actors Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell are talking openly about filling Ledger’s shoes and their experience finishing Imaginarium for a dear friend.
“When I got the call, it was a double tug,” recalls Law. “I liked Heath very much as a man and admired him as an actor. To help finish his final piece of work was a tribute I felt compelled to make. To help Terry finish his film was an honour paid to a man I adore. I had a great time on the job.”
Depp agrees saying, “Though the circumstances of my involvement are extremely heart-rending and unbelievably sad, I feel privileged to have been asked aboard to stand in on behalf of dear Heath.”
The film’s title character is a 1,000-year-old mage played by Christopher Plummer whose been playing a millennia long game of one-upmanship with The Devil who’s portrayed here by Tom Waits. The wager this time is that the first one to five souls either liberates or enslaves the soul of Dr. Parnassus’ mortal daughter played by Lily Cole. Set in modern London, Parnassus and a band of cohorts operate a travelling show where people pass through a magical mirror to either confront their demons or learn some deeper meaning in their lives. Ledger plays Tony, a mysterious stranger with amnesia that has some role to play in this final battle of wits between Parnassus and the Devil. Through the conceit of the magic mirror, Depp, Law and Farrell were able to finish Ledger’s work on the film.
But as much as this plot element allowed the film to be completed without Ledger, Depp believes that its part and parcel with Gilliam’s gifts as a filmmaker. “Maestro Gilliam has made a sublime film. Wonderfully enchanting and beautiful, The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus is a uniquely ingenious, captivating creation; by turns wild, thrilling and hilarious in all its crazed, dilapidated majesty.”
“I have always loved Terry Gilliam’s films,’ adds Law, “Their heart, their soul, their mind, always inventive, touching, funny and relevant.”
“It’s not hard for me to imagine that if I ever look back on the films I’ve been a part of, and the stories I’ve had a hand in telling, one will stand out as so unique an experience, as to be incomparable,” explains Farrell. “This experience was the shooting of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The reasons for its uniqueness, sadly, are probably obvious to anyone who reads this.”
But despite the notoriety that surrounded their involvement in the film, what the three actors will take away from the experience is the sense of family coming together so that Ledger’s final work would not go uncompleted. “More than anything though – more than the sadness and shock, the vulnerability and un-suredness as to whether it was right to complete the film or not – was an incredible sense of love,” says Farrell. “A community of people, caterers and actors, electricians and make up artists had been brought together in a recognized sense of love and obligation, for and to, one of cinemas finest actors and most generous of men. [It was] such a gift and an honour, from Heath, to be a part of the trail that he left behind.”
Depp agrees. “It was an honour to represent Heath. He was the only player out there breathing heavy down the back of every established actors neck with a thundering and ungovernable talent that came up on you quick, hissing rather mischievously with that cheeky grin.” He also handed out praise for the rest of the Imaginarium cast. “Heath is a marvel, Christopher Plummer beyond anything he’s ever done, Waits as the Devil is a God, Lily Cole and Andrew Garfield, the very foundation, are spectacular, Verne Troyer simply kicks ass and as for my other cohorts, Colin Farrell and Jude Law, they most certainly did Master Ledger very proud, I salute them.”
*The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus opens in limited release Christmas Day and nationwide January 8th
**Statements from Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell courtesy of E1 Entertainment.