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Q&A – Terry Gilliam Credits “Heroic” Cast for Keeping Parnassus Alive

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Heath Ledger’s last movie, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, almost didn’t happen when financing became difficult to secure. But when the actor died mid-shoot, it nearly killed the production as well. That is, until director Terry Gilliam came up with the idea to have not one, but three actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell) play fantasy versions of Ledger’s character, one for each time he steps through a magic mirror. Gilliam discusses the situation with

Q: How far into shooting were you when Heath died?

A: We had shot for a month even though not all the contracts were signed, just based on trust. The contracts were signed on a Friday, but the final signature was the day before he died. That’s how close we came. Imagine, they had just signed the papers, the ink is still wet, and he dies. We were very lucky. The film is one of the luckiest films on the planet, ever.

Q: It probably didn’t feel that way at the time. You were facing what must have seemed an impossible situation.

A: I wanted to quit. I didn’t know if anything we were doing was
going to work. Would this be good enough to be Heath’s last movie? But
it was both tragic and lucky at the same time. I called Johnny to
commiserate, because he was close to Heath as well, and he said,
“Whatever you need, I’ll be there.” But it didn’t solve the problem. I
still had to figure out what I was going to do. I needed three actors.
There was never going to be just one actor who could replace Heath, but
there was a likelihood that the schedule could fit around three. So I
started calling Heath’s friends. The ironic part was that I had been
talking to Jude about the part before Heath was involved, so that
worked out. And Johnny was preparing for Public Enemies, and at the last moment it was delayed by a week. So we had him for one day, and it was like, “Go!”

Q: When you watch the movie, it doesn’t feel like a fix but the original plan. 

A: It looks like it’s occurring because of the material. And some
people say it’s more clever this way, “What a genius Gilliam is.”
[Laughs] I thought Johnny had to be first, because if it worked, that
was the best chance to take the audience with us and carry out the rest
of them. And all the guys were amazing. They had no time to rehearse.

Colin has said that at times he thought he was channeling Heath while
he was shooting. But they came, they did heroic things, and we have not
asked them to promote the movie in any way. They all agreed, unless
they all talk, they won’t talk, because they don’t want to distract
from Heath in any way. And that’s driving everybody crazy, but these
guys did something extraordinary — isn’t that enough? Shouldn’t the
world just recognize that for what it is? This has never happened in
the history of motion pictures, as far as I can see, this situation. A
star dies in the middle and is replaced by three A-list actors? Who
work for nothing? It’s too generous. And I think that’s the key,
because Heath was generous, and everyone is acting in the same spirit
as Heath for this movie. It’s so weird, this whole film. Clearly it was
making itself.

Q: You’ve said your films come in sets of threes. Your Trilogy of the Imagination (Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), your Trilogy of Americana (The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)… Where does Parnassus fit in?

A: I think the trilogy now is Time Bandits, Munchausen,
and this. It wasn’t planned that way, but they’re related more closely
than all the others. And all of them have a little theater in them! I
could invent a structure, given enough time. That’s what we do, that’s
what our brains do. We try to make sense out of nonsense. So we create
stories, and we define what the world is.

Q: Isn’t that what The Brothers Grimm is about?

A: Yes, and you can also look at it like they were con men. And
maybe Parnassus is as well. Maybe everything he’s telling them is a
lie. Everything about him could be a lie. When I make a movie, it’s
like I’m trying to make sense of whatever state my life is at that
moment, and I work out a solution. And then the film becomes an aspect
of me. What really happens when they go through the mirror? I don’t
know, I just know the result, and that’s the important thing. I really
like raising more questions than providing answers.

Q: It seems like The Imaginarium could be a not-so-veiled commentary on movies then?

A: It is, possibly. I never know until afterward!

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