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Ledger's death puts last films in a bind

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  • Heath Ledger was subject of "Dark Knight" marketing campaign
  • Ledger was filming new Terry Gilliam film when he died
  • Gilliam said Ledger was going to be a fine director
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(CNN) -- Before he died, Heath Ledger had two films in production: "The Dark Knight," the latest chapter in the Batman saga, and "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," the latest film from director Terry Gilliam.

Dark Knight

Heath Ledger's Joker character, here on the "Dark Knight" poster, is the focus of the film's marketing effort.

Ledger's death has affected both of them in different ways.

The actor, who died Tuesday of unknown causes at age 28, had finished filming "The Dark Knight" late last year. It's due to be released in July. But marketing of the film, currently in post-production, has been thrown into turmoil, the trade paper Variety notes.

The early push for the film has focused on Ledger's villainous Joker character, including a poster with a shrouded Joker scrawling "Why So Serious?" in blood on misty glass.

The film's studio, Warner Bros., recently restructured its marketing department, Variety reports, after the departure of the executive who helped create the "Dark Knight" campaign. (Warner Bros., like CNN, is a unit of Time Warner.)

The trade paper speculates that the marketing campaign will be changed abruptly.

The studio put out a statement Tuesday saying it was "stunned and devastated" by the news of Ledger's death. "The entertainment community has lost an enormous talent. Heath was a brilliant actor and an exceptional person. Our hearts go out to his family and friends," the statement said. Video Watch colleagues' memories of Heath Ledger »

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With the Joker, Ledger was taking on a role that Jack Nicholson had rendered indelibly in 1989's "Batman." But "Dark Knight" director Christopher Nolan said the actor had more than measured up to Nicholson. "To be perfectly honest ... what he's doing is indescribable. He's figured it out," Nolan told the crowd at an August comic book convention in Chicago. Interactive: The life of Heath Ledger »

The role as arch villain The Joker disturbed Ledger, according to The Associated Press. He called the character a "psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy."

Although unusual, Ledger's death does not mark the first time a major star has died while a film has been in production.

Perhaps the most famous example is James Dean, who died in September 1955, before post-production on "Giant" had finished. Dean's dialogue in the film's final scene had to be re-recorded, Variety observes, because he had mumbled in the shot. (Dean and director George Stevens famously clashed during filming.)

Dean was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, his second posthumous Oscar nomination after "East of Eden."

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Brandon Lee died during filming of 1994's "The Crow," prompting director Alex Proyas to use a stunt double and special effects. Oliver Reed had a heart attack during the making of 2000's "Gladiator"; technology made it possible for director Ridley Scott to use a double as a stand-in with Reed's face computer-generated in.

Gilliam's film, which concerns prime Gilliam material such as a magic mirror, a traveling show, the devil and a rougish character played by Ledger, is more problematic.

The cast had just completed filming in London, which actor Christopher Plummer characterized as "cold as bejesus" to Entertainment Weekly. "You know how damp it gets in London. And at night the temperature drops horribly, and that little breeze gets up. You have to wear tons of stuff," he said.

Plummer said that Ledger had a "terrible, lingering bug in London, and he couldn't sleep at all. We all -- I thought he'd probably got walking pneumonia," he told EW.

Gilliam has had challenges before. During the making of his film "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote," the Monty Python troupe member coped with filming near a NATO shooting range, a flash flood and a star with a herniated disc, a final indignity that prompted financiers to pull the plug.

But nothing approaches Ledger's death. Indeed, part of the reason Gilliam was able to obtain the film's relatively paltry $30 million financing was because of Ledger's agreement to star, according to Variety.

Ledger and Gilliam had become close during the making of Gilliam's "The Brothers Grimm" and Ledger had plans to become a feature director himself, several sources have reported. The actor had directed a handful of music videos, including one for Ben Harper, with whom he formed a record company.

Last month, Gilliam told Variety, "He's going to be a much better director than I will ever be."

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Plummer told EW that "Parnassus" had "an enormous amount left to do." After a short break, the cast was going to re-convene in Vancouver, British Columbia, primarily for technical and special-effects work.

"God knows what's going to happen now," Plummer said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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