Director Terry Gilliam's upcoming fantasy film The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus had completed only half of its filming when its star, Heath Ledger, died unexpectedly. Gilliam was able to complete the movie eventually—employing Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell to play Ledger's character at different points—but Parnassus marked the third Gilliam film in a row that found itself in dire trouble midway through production.
Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was aborted due to production difficulties and ill actors. He had to revamp the visual effects of The Brothers Grimm when his animatronic effects didn't work. Does Gilliam feel that he's cursed?
"There were moments of that," Gilliam admitted in an exclusive interview last month in Beverly Hills, Calif. "'It's just never going to end, this.' Then it's 'All right, time to just call it a day, move on, get another job, do something else.' That lasts for a bit. None of these things last that long. A lot of thoughts go through your head. That's why it's important to have the right people around you who don't allow you to sink into that particular abyss."
Giliam added: "It's actually a better story than the reality. That's why I'm happy to let the Curse of Gilliam go on. Most of the things that I find written about me have so little to do with reality, but they're more interesting. We're storytellers, so we might as well be the victim of storytelling."
In the film, Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) runs a traveling street show where a mirror sucks audience members into his Imaginarium. The fantasy land of the Imaginarium is filled with imagery resembling Gilliam's abstract animation. The acting troupe rescues Tony (Ledger) from a precarious situation and adds him to their show. In the final film, when Tony steps into the Imaginarium, he appears as a different actor in the fantasy realm.
"London was where we shot all the exterior work," Gilliam explained. "Then we hopped on a plane for Vancouver. He went to New York, and two days later he's dead. So basically the stuff in Vancouver was going to be blue screen, everything on the other side of the mirror."
Fortunately, Gilliam had enough footage of Ledger in the real world to finish the film. "There were three main scenes, let's put it that way, that hadn't been shot on this side of the mirror," Gilliam said. "We dealt with them in different ways: Just losing it, moving to the other side of the mirror, and changing it."
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus opens on Christmas Day.