SDCC: Director reveals how Parnassus deals with Ledger's role

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Jul 4, 2015, 2:48 PM EDT

Terry Gilliam, the writer/director of Heath Ledger's final film, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, said that the movie represents the culmination of his work so far.

Having started in animation, Gilliam was asked if this film was his way of returning to his roots. He said, "This is my Fanny and Alexander or my Amarcord," he told a panel at Comic-Con in San Diego on Saturday. "This is a compendium of all the things I used to be good at," he laughed.

Gilliam said it took a day or two to come up with the idea. "I had dug up a bunch of old ideas, and I always liked this idea of this circus or theater troupe from another time coming into a modern world. ... It's something that's juxtaposed. It's something that doesn't belong there. And that's where it started. I saw this little wagon that had a little stage on it and some strange people. ... [A] lot of it was trying to weave in these disparate ideas and see if any one would stick."

With all the reports about how Gilliam had to cast others to finish Ledger's role, someone brought up Gilliam's super-controversial Tideland. "The problem with Tideland is that the controversy didn't happen," the director said. "I mean, people got pissed off and then ignored it. That's not what I wanted." He added: "People are frightened of being challenged. We don't go to the movies for that. We go to check our brain in for a couple of hours and [want to see] nothing that's going to disturb."

Gilliam revealed that Ledger's character was based on Tony Blair, which surprised the crowd at an earlier panel on the movie in Hall H. "It was just that I was so pissed off at Blair and the Iraqi invasion and all that crap that was going on," Gilliam told us. "But he was brilliant. He was brilliant at it. I mean, Bush wouldn't have been able to pull it off if he didn't have Tony Blair there as his puppet to speak beautifully. It's like a ventriloquist. And Tony was like the dummy, but he was saying it beautifully. While the other guy was like ... and I was very angry about him and that war, so it was a start point, and that's all. Just the idea that somebody is so convincing. ... The interesting thing about Blair is that he's also religious, so he actually believes he's right. It's the self-righteousness that always intrigues me. And Heath's character is like that, and he's very chameleon-like."

Gilliam also talked about how he made the decision to use other actors to finish the late Ledger's role. "I think it works with Johnny [Depp], Colin [Farrell] and Jude [Law] taking over. It created so many ways of looking at his character, you know? His voice changed and that sort of thing, so he could be many things, and that seems to help."

How did the actors handle the unusual situation? "It's unbelievably brave and foolish, almost," Gilliam said. "Because there was no time to prepare. There wasn't anything to prepare. I mean, Johnny, one day and three and a half hours. He just came in and did it. Now, I'd shown them some clips of the stuff that Heath had done, but there was no rung to see how this character was going, ... and I didn't know if it was going to work, but it did. Colin, in some ways, had the more difficult job, and Johnny grabs it and works a treat. He just sucks you into it. He's so adept. Johnny Adept. And but Colin's got to take over the character in the end and get you through the whole finale, and that was a real tough one. But I think that was harder, too. Heath is so charming. Even when he's a s--t. You just love him. It was the one little bit that we shot twice. Colin's entrance. Because neither of us knew how to do it."

Part of the reason people know about the film is that the talented Ledger was filming it before his untimely death. That's obviously going to attract some people for reasons other than just the appeal of the story. "I don't know," Gilliam said. "I mean, obviously there will be a huge amount of interest. ... I think what's difficult in the screenings we've had, ... I've tried to push the idea that it's Parnassus' story, because the first screenings we had, people were just waiting for Heath's arrival and said, 'Oh, this takes too long,' because he doesn't turn up for about 20 minutes in the film. ... I'm trying to work to push the other story. It's hard to know what to say. ... The whole thing is sort of extraordinary, and it's never, ever happened before in the history of motion picture."

But Gilliam said that it was important for him to get friends of Ledger's to finish the role, because they knew how he moved and spoke. "There wasn't much to study," he said, when I asked him what they took from Ledger's performance. "There is so much luck involved in this movie. Not only was there a magic mirror, but Heath's wearing this mask. ... Every time he goes to the mirror, he's wearing a mask. It wasn't even in the script. It was just a kind of thing that happened."

Gilliam admitted that he considered using computers to re-create Ledger, but only for about five minutes. The scenes on the other side of the mirror had to be restructured, but it ultimately worked out. He even said he sort of felt like Ledger directed the film. "Even posthumously, he was still making this thing," Gilliam said. "And he knew he could make a better one than I was making," he added with a laugh.

A deal to distribute the film hasn't been announced yet, but Gilliam said to expect news soon.

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