The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a flight of fancy that was very nearly grounded in mid production. The untimely death of star Heath Ledger in January 2008 almost put the brakes on the film until Terry Gilliam had an idea: Why not continue filming with three of the late actor’s friends taking his place?
“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.’”
Co-star Christopher Plummer says he thinks it works better than the original script.
“The audience needs to be rejuvenated at the eleventh hour and they are by the presence of the three guys,” he said. “I think Heath would have thoroughly approved of that and probably have been relieved not to go, ‘OK fellas, it’s time I had a break.’”
One of Heath’s co-stars, however, had a harder time accepting the loss and the replacements. Lily Cole says she cried on the first day of shooting without Ledger, but soon realized that by stepping in Depp, Farrell and Law were doing a “brave and lovely thing” to honor the late actor.
Gilliam agrees, viewing the finished film as homage to Ledger. 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.’”