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Terry Gilliam on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Published December 21, 2009 in Movie Interviews
By Fred Topel | Image property of Sony Pictures Classics
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus Poster The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Terry Gilliam has faced disaster on films before, but when Heath Ledger died, finishing a movie was the furthest thing from his mind. Ultimately, he decided to finish The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and found a way to explain why other actors could play Ledger’s part. Since the film deals with an imaginary realm, his appearance can just change in that world.

Terry Gilliam Creates The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus


“Once you decide to carry on, which is the hard part, you say, ‘Alright, he goes through the mirror three times, three actors,’” Gilliam said. “On just a totally pragmatic level, there was no way to get one actor to replace Heath. I didn’t want to do that anyway. And, there’s no way to get a great actor to turn up at the last moment. We’re making a movie. People have schedules. They’re all busy working. The fact we were able to squeeze Johnny [Depp], Colin [Farrell] and Jude [Law]’s schedule into our schedule in some way was kind of a miracle and so you needed a chance. You’ve got three possibilities out there and it was actually just more interesting as well. I thought you needed three A-list actors to replace Heath. He was that good. That was my attitude, but once you make the decision that people’s faces can change on the other side of the mirror, that was basically simple. They just came and got to work.”

Depp was the most difficult to schedule, and he has the briefest appearance in the film. “Johnny, we had one day, 3-1/2 hours, that’s all, to do everything he did. I watched it the other day and said, ‘How the f*ck did we do that?’ He came, he was totally on the ball, we just started shooting. That’s what’s wonderful because I think as actors they all got to escape from their own egos. They suddenly were doing something for Heath outside themselves and they just breathed Heath in and spewed him out.”


Ledger’s character is the only one who changes when he enters the Imaginarium. Gilliam never thought of altering anyone else. “No, because what’s going on there, you get two things happening. Let’s do the Johnny scene for a moment. Here’s my logic, my reasoning for what we do. So, you go through and you’re actually in the imagination of the woman, the Louis Vuitton woman as we call her. Shoes, the temple of shoes, giant shoes with a Buddha for shoe enlightenment ultimately, enlightenment through shopping is what we’re offering there. And suddenly this guy turns up. ‘That’s the guy. I dreamed you would look like that.’ That’s a line that I added. I added that line to explain. She has dreamed he looks like that so now he can be that. Now, okay, he looks like her dream boy but when he’s dancing around, suddenly Lily is back in there, because he still fancies Valentina and she’s wise. So now we’re in his imagination with Valentina floating in the air. It’s this idea that we’ve got two imaginations at work. First, it’s hers and she transforms Tony into that, into Johnny, and then he’s dancing around saying, ‘Whoa! Here’s this babe floating in the air’ and it’s Valentina and she’s looking really nice. That’s the idea of what’s happening there.”

Still, finishing the film was emotional for Gilliam as he sat in post-production mourning his friend. “There was a very interesting way of dealing with one’s grief because we’re dealing with Heath every day. He’s alive. What the f*ck are you doing now, mate? I’m sitting and I’m talking to him the whole time and it was an interesting thing but it was the same process. I would say, ‘Oh, that’s a great moment. That’s not so good. What do we do?’ The fact that it worked, it wasn’t until we actually got the whole film cut together that I suddenly began to believe that what we had set out to do worked. I remember showing it to the post-production sound man who hadn’t been party to all that was going on and obviously didn’t read the trades or even newspapers because he said he just felt the film was meant to be like that. And that was the moment I realized it works.”

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus opens to theatres on December 25th.

For pictures, trailers, posters and more movie info, go to the The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus Movie Page.
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Fred Topel
Sources: Image property of Sony Pictures Classics
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