Resurrecting Heath Ledger's final film

Heath Ledger in "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," a fantasy film by Terry Gilliam. Sony Pictures Classics

(CBS News) Director Terry Gilliam is no stranger to difficulties on his films.

He's suffered the slings and arrows of such outrageous fortune as broken cameras (on the first day of shooting "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"), budget shortfalls (his epic "Adventures of Baron Munchausen" was taken over by the insurance company), and distributor intransigence (he fought Universal when the studio refused to release "Brazil" without a "happy" ending).

He has battled (and lost) against freak weather (storms destroyed the Spanish sets of "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" two days into filming), and sick actors (his Don Quixote, Jean Rochefort, required surgery for a double herniated disc, leading to the film's suspension).

If Nietzsche's correct, Gilliam must be the strongest filmmaker in the world.

But even he doubted the ability to complete his latest film, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," when star Heath Ledger died midway through production, with several of his key scenes still to go before the cameras.

"The day Heath died, we did nothing," Gilliam recalled. "We were just out, lying on the floor of the office, nobody moved: It's not true! "

Luckily, the film's fantastical premise offered a way out - or rather, a way in - to completing the project. Clever solutions and a few tiny rewrites allowed "Imaginarium" to be finished in a seamless fashion.

If audiences didn't know the horrific backstory which led three major stars to join the cast and complete Ledger's unfilmed scenes, they wouldn't suspect that the appearances of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell in the modestly budgeted picture weren't planned from the beginning.

And the backstory is horrific.

Devil in a Bowler

"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" is a tale of an Eastern mystic (Christopher Plummer) whose bargain with the Devil, Mr. Nick (played by Tom Waits), has granted him immortality but at a terrible cost - the soul of his daughter once she reaches her 16th birthday. Parnassus wagers with Mr. Nick for a chance to save his offspring, betting he can capture five souls. As those who have bet with the Devil can tell you, such wagers are not easily won.

As Parnassus travels gypsy-like with a small band of companions, his only hope to save his daughter is a stranger whose near-lifeless body is found hanging under a London bridge. Though some of Parnassus' party doubt the reliability or usefulness of Tony (Heath Ledger), the man they rescue happily joins in the task of finding five souls - as a means, perhaps, to redeem (or obscure) his own secret vice.

How those souls are captured is by inviting people through the "magic mirror" of Parnassus' Imaginarium. Once inside, they inhabit a world that is an embodiment of their greatest desires, or fears, brought to vivid life through Parnassus' trance-induced imagination.

As in many of Gilliam's films, the imagination is a source of power - heroes wield it against less creative foes. Here, it is also a test of will: If those who enter the Imaginarium "fail" their test, bye bye soul.

Heath Ledger and Lily Cole in "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus."
Heath Ledger and Lily Cole in "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus."
Sony Pictures Classics

Aiding Parnassus is his merry band - comprised of daughter Valentina (Lily Cole); Anton (Andrew Garfield), a barker who is less-than-successful at drawing unwitting victims; and diminutive driver Percy (Verne Troyer) - who journey into London aboard a horse-drawn wagon that unfurls into a small stage, inviting "customers."

Gilliam, who co-wrote the screenplay with Charles McKeown (with whom he collaborated on "Brazil" and "Munchausen"), said the film was partly inspired by the reception to his last film, "Tideland," and the notion of a storyteller whose stories didn't have an audience. The film, a British-Canadian co-production, was first budgeted at $25 million, to be shot in London and on stages in Vancouver.

Sharing producer's chores with Canadian William Vince was Gilliam's daughter, Amy, who had worked in various production capacities on her father's and others' films, and had produced the independent feature "Push."

"I like the fact that I know him very well and I know how he works, and I'm not scared to tell him he can't have something - You can't have this, you can't afford it," said Amy.

Ledger, who starred in Gilliam's "The Brothers Grimm," was attending a meeting where Gilliam was showing storyboards for his film when he slipped the director a note asking, "Can I play Tony?"

"At that moment, because all of the other actors were in place, I thought, 'Oh, cool! We've got our star! We're going get our financing from Hollywood!'" said Amy Gilliam.

But Ledger's popularity and critical acceptance (he'd received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for 2005's "Brokeback Mountain") still didn't ensure the filmmakers an easy time getting money, as Terry Gilliam recalled:

"We were out there in L.A. at the end of 2007, saying, 'Okay, Summer of 2008, 'Dark Knight,' Joker, Heath Ledger will be the big star in the planet, and we'll be coming out a couple of months later.' This very complex idea they couldn't grasp.

"Everybody, even the smaller independent operations, they want Big Names in there. And there's only a few Big Names. An A-list isn't quite the same anymore - there's the A-list, and then there's the A-Prime-List, and they're really only interested in A-Prime."

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.

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