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Gilliam’s Emotional ‘Parnassus’ Ride After Heath Ledger’s Death

The directorial career of Terry Gilliam provides a fascinating case study in independent artistry.


Since the ’80s, Gilliam has gone through innumerable clashes with production companies and various other parties to get his vision on the big screen.

This has resulted in alternately strong creative achievements ("Brazil") and unfortunate misfires ("The Brothers Grimm"). In all cases, there’s a great story lurking in the background.


But no previous Gilliam excursion offers quite the same remarkable history as "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," which premieres at Cannes tomorrow.


The movie, about a magical theater company and its immortal showman, halted production in January of last year when its star, Heath Ledger, died.


Eventually, Gilliam managed to complete a new version of the movie by casting Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law to play Ledger’s character at various moments along the timeline of the story. At first, however, Gilliam thought the production was unsalvageable.


"I gave up," the director said in a public conversation with film critic James Rocci at the American Pavilion today. "I said the film was over. That was it. But then I started to think about it, and I said I had to finish it for Heath."


Since money and time had already been invested in the production, Gilliam had to work quickly on writing a new version.


"The rewriting was quite simple," he said. "In casting, I said there was no way I’m going to get somebody to take care of that part. Heath goes through this mirror in ‘Imaginarium,’ through time, as these three people. That’s when I called Johnny [Depp], and Johnny said, ‘I’m in.’ I started calling people who knew Heath and were close to him. I only wanted people who were in the family involved with this film."


Gilliam added, "I don’t get into my mystical mode. The film made itself — and was co-directed by Heath Ledger."


The filmmaker also said he thought he had dodged a bullet by not adapting Alan Moore’s "Watchmen" in the late ’80s, noting that the R-rated version directed by Zack Snyder dealt with the consequences of working with such difficult material.


Overall, Gilliam seemed like he was in a positive mood and not particularly nervous about tomorrow’s premiere. He took a jovial stance about some of his previous failures, such as the notoriously ill-fated production of "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote."


This week, at Cannes, it was announced that the movie might come to life after all. That might account for his sense of humor when a wall suddenly fell down in the back of the room during today’s conversation.


"This is what happened on ‘Don Quixote,’" Gilliam quipped.


Unlike Francis Ford Coppola, Gilliam said he preferred showing his new movie in an out-of-competition slot. "It would be unbearable in competition," he said. "It’s just another day at the office for me. I wish I could get back to that — the thrill of the cinema — but I’m just too old now."