When Heath Ledger passed away in January 2008, he was in the midst of shooting his second collaboration with famed filmmaker and former Monty Python member Terry Gilliam. His death should have doomed “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.” But Gilliam, who’d already had “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” fall apart, as famously documented in 2002’s “Lost in La Mancha,” is no stranger to on-set calamities. After some soul-searching and prodding from supportive colleagues, the show went on, this time with the help of Gilliam’s pals Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, all of whom play fantasy versions of Ledger’s charlatan, Tony, when he passes through traveling showman Dr. Parnassus’ magical Imaginarium mirror.
Given the film’s conceit about a portal to a world in which dreams come true, the role swapping is a device that’s not only clever but that seems like a natural outgrowth of the story, which wrestles with issues of mortality in a way that dovetails creepily with what went on behind the scenes. In New York in October for Monty Python’s 40th anniversary reunion, Gilliam sat down with me to discuss his struggles to finish “Parnassus,” the film’s unnerving real-life parallels and the habit of revisiting the same themes.
How was the Monty Python reunion?
It’s over! That’s the great thing. I don’t have to be a Python for the next ten years.
Was there any contentiousness in the air?
No, we all like each other now. If it looks contentious, we’re just playing. Being that distant from having to work together makes such a difference.
And now there’ll be another long hiatus…
Yeah, no one has any intention of working together as such. Eric [Idle]’s been busy ripping us off for a couple of years with “Spamalot” and other things. Mike, Terry [Jones] and I live five minutes from each other in North London. But all five of us together at the same time is a rare event.
Moving on to “Parnassus” — when Heath died, was there an immediate concern that the film would go the way of “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”?
That was the first clear thought: it’s over! Fuck! We spent a lot of time, and he goes and doesn’t turn up for work.
It was actually a hard time, and so confusing. You’ve just lost a very close friend, and your movie is stopped. I actually gave up, said, “It’s over. Fuck it. I don’t care.” Luckily, I’m surrounded by people who pay no attention to my whims or my needs. And they kicked me as I lay on the ground until I got up and started coming up with some solutions.
At what point did you realize you couldn’t let it lie?
A crucial part was calling Johnny [Depp]. I basically just called to commiserate. He said, “Well, whatever you decide to do, I’ll be there.” That stopped the money running away. And these few people around me, my daughter, the DP, they just wouldn’t leave me alone. I was so pissed off at them. [laughs]
So the moneybags just up and ran?
I wasn’t dealing with them directly, but it was clear that the movie was over. When your star dies halfway through, you don’t finish the movie. But it was the conversation with Johnny, which was then passed on without my knowing to the reasonable people, that slowed down the retreat and gave us some time to start thinking.
For me, the hard part was trying to get my head around the idea of it. I wanted to salvage it. Once I decided that, the rewriting went very quickly. It was clear, because suddenly you couldn’t do that, you couldn’t do that, oh I could do that, well if I did that, and dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-BING.
The premise presents a natural way to work around Heath’s absence. Was that structure there from the get-go?
Yeah, it was all there. It was small things — if the first guy who goes through the mirror has his face change, we’ve established that you don’t have to look like yourself when you go through. That was already inherent in the script. I had to drop certain scenes, which in retrospect was actually good. That’s why, at one point, I wanted “Parnassus” to be co-directed by Heath Ledger and Terry Gilliam, because he was forcing me to do things posthumously!
For instance, where Jude Law turns up, when the woman says “reach for the clouds,” she wasn’t originally holding a brochure with Jude’s face on it. By establishing him as the person that Tony aspires to be like — successful, etc. — that generates the idea that, oh, even Tony changes his face when he goes through, because he wants to be like that guy. [But] the dialogue, like Johnny’s about dying young, it was all there.