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The making of 'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus'

By Andrea Mineo, CNN
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Heath Ledger's last film
  • Heath Ledger died while filming "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus"
  • Director Terry Gilliam used three actors, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, to complete the film
  • Gilliam says Ledger's death was "the most devastating moment I've experienced"

New York (CNN) -- When you meet Terry Gilliam you get the feeling that you have known him all your life. Perhaps it's his easy way of communicating or his ever present laughter. When he arrived at CNN for our interview he confessed quite freely that he had consumed a few margaritas beforehand. That pleased me, since I figured Mr. Gilliam would be open to discuss anything in a more relaxed state.

Our interview wouldn't be covering the silliness of Gilliam's time with his Monty Python cohorts. The topic was Gilliam's lastest film, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." The film is a tour de force of sorts, through the director's imagination.

The 1,000-year-old Doctor Parnassus (played by veteran actor Christopher Plummer), finds himself on a journey to undo a deal he has made with the devil.

Parnassus is a mystic, or maybe he's a charlatan traveling through modern-day London, England, with his antiquated sideshow, replete with a band of misfits and a magical mirror. He might hold the key to people's imaginations or it may all be an illusion.

The film is layered and complex. But nothing in this script could have prepared Gilliam for the the real-life plot turn that presented itself while making "Parnassus."

Video: Depp, others complete Ledger's work

Nearly midway through production, one of the film's stars, Heath Ledger, died, leaving Gilliam shattered over the loss of his friend and ready to give up on the film. What took place is a Hollywood story that even Gilliam himself finds magical.

Seen "Parnassus?" Share your review

CNN was given exclusive footage from the set during the filming of "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." Clips include all three actors who stepped in to complete Heath Ledger's role; Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell.

CNN: Who is Dr. Parnassus?

Terry Gilliam: Who is Dr. Parnassus? He's actually quite complicated. I just love the idea of somebody, some guy claiming to be ancient, that he's there to enlighten the world nobody's paying attention to. When we're working on the film and Plummer plays it and he's very dignified, his secret suspicion was that I was a con man, a fraud, and maybe the movie was a big lie. But he represents almost any artist, somebody who tries to enlighten people, have them look at the world with fresh eyes. And nobody's paying attention. That's the fate of most artists.

Everybody thinks I'm Parnassus. Let's be honest. In moments of self-pity, I feel like that.

CNN: Do you think you achieved your original vision of the film?

Gilliam: Yeah. It's not exactly what we set out to make, because of circumstances: Heath didn't last the course. Johnny, Colin and Jude came to the rescue. But the story, ideas, essence, tale are exactly what we had set up. The tale is just a little bit more bouncy.

CNN: The movie was quite an undertaking.

Gilliam: I know how to do it. I'm really good at fooling myself into thinking I can do it. That's the key. The key is self-deception and also lack of memory. If you forget about the hard time that preceded. That's rather a hubristic attitude, so I was punished. There was Heath's death. I thought "uh oh." The film gods reminded you that it's not like that. Films are difficult. Films are complicated. Films are usually worth the sacrifice, but this film wasn't worth the sacrifice [of] somebody as special as Heath. No film is worth that. Once Heath passed away from us, then the job was, "Can we make a film worthy of Heath's last movie? Can we make sure that his last works are there to be seen and enjoyed?"

I always get quite mystical about the film, a platonic ideal of the film that's up there, making itself and we are merely the hands that write. This one, it wasn't just the film, a whole gang of film gods up there involved in this one.

CNN: How did Heath come to be part of the film?

Gilliam: We were really close. After "Brothers Grimm," we were buddies. He just had all the qualities being an actor and friend. So after "Brokeback Mountain," he went through a bad year. I think the experience, the publicity for the Academy Awards was too much for him and not who he wanted to be. And he went through a strange year.

I'd thrown some scripts at him and was getting confused answers. So I'd stayed back. He was always interested in whatever I was doing, so he read Parnassus, and I had never asked him to do it. And he was in London working on the Joker, and at the same time he was working on a music video that he had written.

They were designing animation and they needed a place to work, so I put him to work in my effects company. We had a space there and they were happily working. One day, I was showing my special effect boys and talking through the scenes, and Heath slips me this little note saying, "Can I play Tony?" And I said, "Are you serious?" He said, "Yes, I want to see this movie." And the irony is that the only person who doesn't have the chance to watch this movie is Heath Ledger.

CNN: I didn't want him to stop being in the film. Talk to me about that quality.

Gilliam: Some people have seen the film, even though they know the circumstances. They said they were transported by the film, and they forgot the story of how it was made and Heath's death. Some people say, "He's just an actor. We're just watching a movie." Other people, they think about Heath and the tale of the making of the film. The entrance of Tony is a difficult scene if you're thinking of the tragedy of Heath Ledger. On the other hand, Heath's energy and spirit infuses the thing. He was playful. He's never not in the film. Colin swore he was channeling Heath at a certain point. His presence was there. He created such a chameleon character in the scenes he had done. He can be anything. The transition from Johnny, Colin and Jude work well because you think that's another aspect of his character. He can be anything you'd want him to be.

CNN: Why did you quickly become his friend?

Gilliam: I was attracted to his talent. Talent is a special thing, and when somebody has got so much, you're just fascinated. How does he do it? He just could do it. He did it effortlessly. As a human being, he was utterly generous. He was inquisitive, he was learning. He was a guy who was improving his craft as an actor. He wanted to be a film director. He wanted to write a screenplay. He had this endless energy, taking in the world and learning. Smart as a whip. Great fun and everybody recognized an old soul there. He had an experience way beyond his years. It was impossible. My joke is "He didn't die young at all, he was a couple hundred years old when he died."

CNN: Can you tell me how you felt when you heard Heath had died?

Gilliam: I don't want to talk about it too much. It was the most devastating moment I've experienced. I was a finished guy. I surrounded myself with people who don't like me, who don't respect me and who don't listen to my every word. And they kicked me until I got up off my back. I imagined we could finish the film.

I've worked with a lot of great people and luckily we remained friends. So one of the people I called was Johnny Depp, because I introduced him to Heath and they had become very close. I was commiserating with Johnny and said, "I think the film's over. I'm going home." And he said "Whatever you decide to do, I'll be there." And that's a heartening statement. That is the beginning of the process of re-imagining the film. It was quite easy to rewrite it. All the premises were there. The ideas were all there. The first scene when Johnny goes through the mirror and his face changes.That establishes the principle very clearly and the rest fell well into place.

CNN: Was it a delicate dance to get Johnny Depp?

Gilliam: No, it was the easiest thing on the planet. I was calling on friends of Heath. Several actors were tied up because they were shooting. But Colin Farrell and Jude Law were available, and Johnny said he'd be there.

The difficulty with Johnny was he was preparing Michael Mann's film, "Public Enemy." It was only the 11th hour when Michael's film was delayed by one week and Johnny was there. He was there for a day and 3½ hours. The guy's a genius. He just did it. No rehearsal. Jude and Colin, same thing. They just got in there and got to work. They're brilliant.

CNN: Was this the most pressure you have felt in your career as a director?

Gilliam: The pressure was a simple one: Are we able to make the film worthy of Heath's last film? That was a terrible pressure. This was a really heavy responsibility. And the great joy is we did it. It was such a great relief when we finally cut the film together and showed it to a couple of people. They assumed it had been written to be done as [it has] been done. Now the film is seamless.

CNN: Do you think this was fitting as Heath's last film, opposed to "The Dark Knight"?

Gilliam: I don't know. I can't quantify that. There's no fitting to be the last film of anybody. People go on about Joker because it was a wonderful performance. It was a spectacular performance. It's a showstopper. What you're seeing here is more Heath than in any other film. The real Heath.

CNN: When this was completed, were you completely drained?

Gilliam: No, I was just relieved. I couldn't wait to get the film out of my system. It's still stuck inside. Now I'm dealing with the afterbirth. This is the placenta and what do you do with it? There are still chords around my neck. I thought I had given birth and can now walk away. Now I have to go around and tell the world to treat my child kindly. Learn to love it. It's yours.

CNN: The fact that these three actors came to finish the role that Heath began, there's a beauty to it.

Gilliam: It's a testament to how much Heath was loved and respected. To get three great actors to come in, take over and finish a movie for Heath. It just doesn't happen in the movies. It's beyond these movie things. Both the tragedy and the magical solution. This isn't what movie is all about. To me, it's what life should be about. The dreamers should be dreaming. It's about love and all these things.

In a way, I'm delighted that this is more than a movie. On the other hand, I don't want people to go and feel they have to experience it as something more than a movie. It's what the acting community is all about. The business we're in is a wonderful world. Most of them are not wonderful. Most of them are miserable and difficult. And occasionally, something like this comes along. Everybody responds in the most wondrous ways to the tragedy of this scale. It almost gives me hope for humanity for a week or two.

CNN: Do you think there will always be heartbreak tied to this film for you?

Gilliam: I don't know. Some things you grow out of, some things you don't. It is what it is.

CNN: Sitting here with you, I think that you are an optimistic person?

Gilliam: You're given a choice: Do you give in and despair or not? Depression is one thing. I'm depressed most of the time. Despair is a whole different animal. So I'm not sure if I'm optimistic, but you keep doing things you're here to do. I'm pretty good at making films, and if I wasn't making films, what should I do? I think the film is beautiful and I think it's wonderful. I'm proud to be involved in it. If I hadn't been in a lot of difficult times before, I might have not been able to do it. It's a combination of a lot of people responding to tragedy and not letting the tragedy win. That's pretty extraordinary, so once in a lifetime you do one of these films. Maybe once in many people's lifetime.