What would you do if one of your primary actors suddenly died during principal photography of a film you wrote and were directing? Terry Gilliam (Monty Python, 12 Monkeys) has had a handful of unforeseeable problems directing in the past, so when Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight) died in the middle of shooting The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, Gilliam was faced with this question. What did he do? He submerged himself in his story and found a way to make it work – the most perfect and suitable way. But we have to discuss the story before the explanation.
Thousands of years ago, Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer, Up) made a deal with the devil over the fate of the souls of mankind. Parnassus was granted with immortality in an attempt to do God’s work in saving mankind. In return, Parnassus has to turn over any children he conceives to the devil on their 16th birthday. With only days left before his only daughter’s 16th birthday, Parnassus makes another deal with the devil in an attempt to save her. The “first to five” deal they make forces Parnassus to try to save five before the devil can destroy five. Being set in modern day London, Parnassus has a hard task in front of him.
Doctor Parnassus has an odd tool that he uses to save souls. On the outside it appears as a cheap-looking fake metallic paper mirror with a slit down the middle. In reality, that slit – when passed through – becomes a portal into the mind of Doctor Parnassus, known as the imaginarium. The world on the other side initially appears as a magical place, conformed from the fantasy of the mind of the person in the imaginarium. But shortly after entering, the person within is faced with a moral decision. Make the correct decision and your soul is saved; make the incorrect decision and you’re destroyed by the devil.
After Doctor Parnassus and the devil make their side bet, the devil throws a wildcard into the game – Heath Ledger’s character Tony. When Parnassus and company first find Tony, he’s lifelessly swinging from a noose above the River Thames. After resuscitating him, Tony The Amnesiac has no choice but to join them, assisting Parnassus with the side bet until he regains his memory.
When Ledger died, they’d completed the filming of everything outside the imaginarium, leaving the green screen-created fantasy work of the imaginarium until the end. Gilliam’s brilliant way to finish the film without Ledger was to shoot the remaining scenes with other actors in his role. Johnny Depp (Pirates Of The Caribbean), Jude Law (Sherlock Holmes) and Colin Farrell (Phone Booth) each play Tony the three different times he enters the imaginarium, dressed-up, made-up and mimicking Ledger’s portrayal of the character. When Tony asks why he doesn’t look the same in the imaginarium, Parnassus gives him an answer that fits perfectly in the story – an answer that I won’t tell you for the sake of not ruining a major plot point. The reasoning works so well that you’d think it was originally written that way.
As I’m sure you’ve gathered, The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus is an extremely odd film, but I promise you that after seeing it and putting more thought into it, you’ll agree that it is a perfectly brilliant final film from Ledger as well as Terry Gilliam’s best work since 12 Monkeys. Being in such limited release, if Doctor Parnassus appeals to you, see it as soon as you can.
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics