Heath Ledger's Friends Complete His Last Movieby Jonathan Crow · October 7, 2009
Heath Ledger was on a break from shooting the fantasy film "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" when he tragically died in January of 2008. It was the latest and saddest unexpected turn of events for the movie's director, Terry Gilliam, who has a legendary track record of seemingly cursed film productions. In 1984, Universal Pictures refused to release the his masterpiece "Brazil" until critics dubbed it the best movie of the year. His next movie "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" was crippled by studio politics and a shiftless producer. More recently, the production of "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" suffered one disaster after another until it was shut down after only a week of filming.
So when the star of his latest effort died after only about a third of the film was completed, "Imaginarium" looked like yet another casualty to Gilliam's freakishly bad luck. Yet he pulled it off, earning raves at this year's Cannes International Film Festival.
So how did he do it? If Gilliam made quiet domestic dramas, the movie would have been completely derailed. But as it happens, Gilliam makes films that are so hallucinatory and surreal that he can even change the actor playing the lead character and still make the story work. In this case, he enlisted Ledger's friends Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to step into his role. The three A-listers not only jumped at the chance to make sure Ledger's final work made it to the screen, but they also donated their salaries to Ledger's young daughter, Matilda.
The movie tells the story of the titular Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), a thousand-year-old traveling showman who invites audience members to venture into an alternate reality through his magical mirror. He gained his unusual abilities and eternal life through a bet with the Devil (Tom Waits), and when the evil one tries to collect, a mysterious figure named Tony (Ledger and friends) comes to save the day.
The one bit of luck that Gilliam did have during the making of "Imaginarium" was that he shot all of the "real world" scenes before Ledger died. So when the character of Tony steps through the magic mirror into a fantasy world he is transformed, allowing Depp, Law and Farrell to take over the role.
It's a bold and risky way to salvage the project. The question with "Imaginarium" becomes, will these shifts between Ledger and the other actors will feel natural or they will feel forced? According to Gilliam, the transition happens so smoothly that a sound mixer who worked on the movie assumed it was always intended to be that way.
Gilliam has clearly taken out all the stops, making "Imaginarium" as visually wondrous and bizarre as anything he's put on the screen since "Baron Munchausen." To get a look at the movie's startling images, and to see how Heath Ledger's pals look in his role, watch the exclusive trailer below. "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" opens on Christmas Day.