The young actor passed away midway through production, but rather than scrap the film, director Terry Gilliam pressed on, replacing the Aussie actor with three famous faces.
“I just started calling friends of Heath,” Gilliam said. “It’s as simple as that. Johnny (Depp), Colin (Farrell) and Jude (Law) turned up. It was important that they were friends, because I wanted to keep it in the family. I wanted people who were close to him because, as Colin said when he was doing his part, he was channelling Heath part of the time, so Heath was very much still alive in some sense.
“I didn’t know whether this would work until I got back to London. We were working on autopilot. Working because that’s what we decided to do and we got back to London and I showed the first cut to the post-sound guy, who hadn’t been involved in the process, and he just assumed it was written that way. I thought, ‘It works.’”
It works not because Gilliam changed the script, but because of a quirk of the original story — a mirror that acts as an entry to a magical world of imagination.
“Nothing was changed from the original script after Heath died,” he said. “It was that lucky element of a magic mirror. Once you decide that faces could change as you go through the mirror, we were free. I’m simplifying it, but that’s effectively what happened. There was some kind of movie god, and the problem with gods is that they’re both evil and wondrous. There was one that got it made and one that punished us.”
Gilliam sees the finished film as a tribute to Heath, both as an actor and a man with many friends who stepped in to complete the film. A credit where the director’s name usually sits is a tribute to the late actor and the respect he earned.
“Contractually, it was supposed to be a Terry Gilliam Film,” he said. “That’s what the lawyers said, but I said, ‘No way it’s going to be that. It’s going to be a film from Heath Ledger and friends.’ The cast sat around one night and that idea came up and I said, ‘This is it. Perfect. That’s how we do it.’”