Sixteen months have passed since Heath Ledger died of an accidental drug overdose. But seeing his final screen role unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival last week still came as a brutal shock. In The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Terry Gilliam’s surreal tale of a travelling theatre company, Ledger is cast as Tony, a slick hustler who joins the ragtag troupe after making a dramatic entrance. Our first glimpse of the actor, foreshadowed by a tarot card of the Hanged Man, shows him dangling off a bridge in London with a noose around his neck, presumed dead. And that’s just the first of several scenes in Gilliam’s film that, in hindsight, serve as macabre premonitions of the actor’s fate. “Could we get any darker?” asks Gilliam, during an interview with Maclean’s in Cannes. “I’ve become fatalistic about everything. It’s very weird about this movie. The ideas, the dialogue were very prescient.”
Gilliam was midway through shooting Parnassus when Ledger died. He had just completed the London portion of the Canada-U.K. co-production, and was preparing to film the remaining scenes in a Vancouver studio. After the news hit, he was ready to abandon the movie. “But so many people around me said, ‘You can’t do that.’ They just kept hammering me.” And within five weeks, Gilliam had recruited a tag team of loyal friends—Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell—to complete Ledger’s role. The sleight of hand made surreal sense: conveniently, most of Ledger’s unfinished scenes take place behind a magic mirror, in a fantasy world conjured by Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer).
“The convenience of Heath’s death is the most shocking, frightening thing,” says Gilliam, only half-joking. “Almost all the choices that were forced upon us improved the film. It’s as if Heath was still working on the film. We all felt his presence constantly.” But then he adds, “The thing that bothers me is I wanted to know what Heath was going to do with those parts that Johnny, Colin and Jude did. He had so much stuff under his sleeves. I like to say he didn’t die young. He was a very old soul. Ancient and wise.”
The director recalls an exchange with Ledger on the set. “I said, ‘I know what you’re doing.’ He said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘You’re doing Johnny Depp, aren’t you?’ He copped to it totally. And there’s Johnny taking it over. It’s spooky.” Even spookier, in a scene scripted for Ledger but played by Depp, Tony invites a woman to join James Dean, Rudolph Valentino and Princess Di in a river of immortality. “They’re all dead,” he says, as their images float by on little boats. “They won’t get sick. They are forever young.”
Although Gilliam considers this “terrifying stuff,” he says he insisted on keeping it in the movie. “That’s where it’s interesting not having studio executives fluttering around you. They would have all been going crazy—‘You can’t do that! It’s in bad taste!’ It’s not in bad taste. It’s respectful to what we set out to do and what Heath wanted to do.”
In discussing Ledger and all the strange coincidences, Gilliam often breaks into giddy laughter, which might seem inappropriate, but he’s been living with Ledger’s death for a while. “The whole process has been so long and emotionally draining,” he says. “We all cared so much about him. And you learn to deal with it through black humour. We were making jokes all the time. Mine was—‘It’s a warning to actors. You don’t turn up for work and there are three stars waiting to take over your part.’ ”
Gilliam has quite a record of calamitous productions. He battled studio executives over The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which was buried, and Brazil, which was butchered. (Brazil was the favourite film of River Phoenix, who died of a drug overdose the day he was due to finally meet Gilliam, his hero.) Later, an entire documentary, Lost in La Mancha, was made about the havoc that scuttled a Gilliam movie starring Depp as Don Quixote. But when asked if his films are cursed, Gilliam replies, “Not in that sense. There are forces at work I can’t explain.”
Gilliam is resigned to the fact that Ledger’s death has upstaged his film—and Plummer’s performance in the title role. “It’s actually not Heath’s movie,” he says. “But people come out of it, and they’re just wrapped up in the whole business of Heath dying.” But then it is a movie about death. “I’ve always been obsessed with mortality,” says Gilliam. “That’s one of the things that Heath and I shared in common. Neither of us had any fear of death. We’d just laugh at it.”