How Heath Ledger's last film Parnassus nearly died with him

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

Director Terry Gilliam nearly threw in the towel on his fantasy film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus when its star, Heath Ledger, died unexpectedly in January 2008. But friends and family convinced Gilliam to complete the movie —which he did with the help of three A-list actors and Ledger pals, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. And the miracle of the Christmas Day release, Gilliam says, is that the story barely changed.

The complex tale follows a traveling theater troupe led by Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), an immortal, magical figure who struck a deal with the devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), to save his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole). Meanwhile, even as Dr. Parnassus tries to cut a new deal with Mr. Nick, Valentina falls for a mysterious stranger named Tony (Ledger). And Tony ends up going through a mystical mirror, part of the troupe's show, that sends people into a crazy-quilt world of unlimited imagination.

Ledger, by the time he died, had shot nearly all of his scenes as Tony on the real-world side of the mirror. Once filming resumed, Depp, Law and Farrell stepped in to play Tony on the other side of the mirror.

"The story didn't change, basically," Gilliam told us during an interview earlier this month with a small group of journalists. "I just got these three other guys in. What happened is we'd shot almost everything outside the mirror, but there were a couple of scenes on this side we hadn't shot. One of them I had to throw out completely, and the other I moved to the other side of the mirror. There's a scene between Jude and Anton—Andrew Garfield—when he confesses. That used to be Tony's trial, and it used to be in the wagon with all the others. By putting it on the other side of the mirror with just the two of them it's a better scene, because they're ones that are battling for Valentina. So Anton has information the others don't have. It worked out better. That's why I say this was co-directed by Heath."

As far as Depp, Law and Farrell's taking over as Tony, Gilliam considers that perfectly logical within the context of the story. Even before Ledger's passing it was inherent in the script—written by Gilliam and frequent collaborator Charles McKeown (Brazil)—that if any two people go through the mirror, one imagination may be stronger than the other.

"So it's very simple that the middle-aged shopping lady can be dreaming of Johnny Depp and not Heath Ledger," Gilliam said, referring to a particularly memorable scene. "So the only thing I changed was when the drunk goes through at the beginning, I had his face changed to establish the principle. Other than that, the dialogue, everything is exactly as it was before."

Gilliam is quick to admit that what he can't tell and will never know for sure is how the film would differ if Ledger had played Tony all the way through to—possible spoiler ahead—the character's death. For the record, it's common knowledge that The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus opens with Tony seen hanging from a tree.

"It might have been a much stronger film," Gilliam conceded. "This way, it might be a more entertaining film. It's certainly more surprising, because you don't know who you're going to see next. But it was important to me not to change anything. The scene with Princess Di and James Dean and all of that, a lot of people think it was written as a eulogy to Heath. It was exactly what was written before he died. That's the advantage of not being a studio film, because how many studios would have let me introduce Heath's character as we do and leave the dialogue in? I said, 'We're not changing anything. This is what we wrote.'"

Gilliam added, "Christopher Plummer didn't want to say the line in the monastery when he's talking about different stories. 'It could be a comedy, a romance, a tale of unforeseen death.' That was after Heath died. I said, 'You have to say it. That's the film that Heath and I were making. You don't change these things.'"

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus opens today in New York and Los Angeles and everywhere on Jan. 8.