Arts, Culture & Media

'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus'

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(Image: sonyclassics.com)

Director and writer Terry Gilliam is a rare thing in today's film world: An artist with a vision; even though he cringes at that word. But Gilliam is also an artist who knows setbacks, and the events surrounding his latest film, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," had been some of the most difficult of his career.

About halfway into shooting, Gilliam's lead star and good friend, Heath Ledger, was found dead in his New York City apartment. Dealing with the personal grief of losing a friend, Gilliam also had to make some hard decisions about his film. But help came in the form of three actors: Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, who all agreed to take over Ledger's role.

"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," is a fantastical morality tale set in the present, and also stars Christopher Plummer as the title character, and musician Tom Waits as the devil.

"I just decided to try to do something original for once in my life," said Gilliam. "I hadn't actually written a completely original script since "Brazil," so let's start with a blank page. I didn't have a story in mind, I didn't have anything in mind, just an ego that was trying to scream out to the world, 'I'm still talented!'

"I suppose very quickly, the very first shot of the film came to mind: This idea of this strange traveling theater, horse-drawn, making its way through modern London.  And from there, the next stage was let the theater open up, and have something extraordinary, wonderful, magical inside -- and nobody paying any attention to it -- that's really where we took off from."

The film asks the audience to give up some of the structure they're used to and be fearless, says Gilliam, and "follow it like children."

"I find adults get very frightened in a lot of my films. Even going back to "Time Bandits" -- at the time the kids just went a long for the ride, had a wonderful time. Adults were just like, 'wait, where are we going next? We're in the 19th century; no we're in the 18th century; that's ancient Greece, oh my god, slow down.' And I thought: Come on, relax."

In "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," Doctor Parnassus and his troop has a different challenge for the audience: To make a choice. "If you're going to go into an 'Imaginarium' where your imagination can go anywhere it wants, and all your dreams can come true, at some point you're going to make a choice," said Gilliam.

Gilliam didn't have Heath Ledger in mind when casting for the role of Tony in the film. Ledger was working in London and happened to be in attendance when Gilliam was showing his storyboards for the film.

"Heath was sitting there and halfway through, he slipped me this little piece of paper that said, 'can I play Tony?' And I said, are you serious? And he says, 'yep, I really want to see this movie.' And here's where the God of Irony enters the scene, because Heath of course is the one person who won't get to see the movie."

With news of Ledger's tragic death, Gilliam struggled with whether or not to shut down the film. He called Johnny Depp to commiserate about pulling the plug. Depp offered to help however he could and for Gilliam, this was the turning point.

"Especially for the money people, because they were in fast retreat," said Gilliam. "Because they knew there was no way to finish the movie. And somebody told them I had spoken to Johnny and that apparently stopped the retreat. It gave me time to get my head around the possibility that there was a way of salvaging the film."

After that, Jude Law and Colin Farrell joined the roster to play the part of Tony. Fortunately, a device in the script allowed this to work: A magical mirror in the 'Imaginarium' that changed the appearance of Tony whenever he went through it.

At the beginning of the film, Johnny Depp as Tony says the line: "Nothing is permanent, not even death." Gilliam says the line was written in advance of Ledger's death.

"A lot of people when they see the film, they think it was written as a eulogy to Heath dying young, and living forever beautiful and perfect; but it wasn't. It was written in advance. Because the film is very much about mortality and then to have Heath's death was just terrifying. It actually makes me careful about what one writes about. There's a lot of things said in the film that are quite beautiful, and I don't know if I believe any of them."

"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" is scheduled for nationwide release January 8, 2010.

Watch a trailer for "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus":

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