The Imaginarium Of Dr Parnassus: 10 Years On. More than any other active filmmaker, trouble seems to have a way of finding Terry Gilliam. He had lengthy battles with studios to save his cuts of Brazil and 12 Monkeys and saw the production of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen spiral out of control.
Most famously, the disastrous 1998 production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote saw his first attempt at the film cancelled. (A second attempt proved more successful.) This unlucky streak continued into the late noughts when tragedy struck the production of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.
The Imaginarium was a more filmmaker-driven and independent effort, possibly in reaction to all the in-fighting Gilliam had seen while making The Brothers Grimm. It began filming in winter of 2007, and was going smoothly to start. However, during a break in production where it relocated from London to Vancouver, the film’s star, Heath Ledger, died suddenly at the age of 28.
It remains a sad and unfortunate event, and one that left Gilliam and co. with an unfinished film and no leading actor to finish it with, as all of Parnassus‘s interior scenes and effects shots had yet to be filmed. While normally a problem like this would spell the end, the team were determined to finish the Imaginarium one way or another.
At first they considered using digital effects to fill in the gaps, before the decision was made to hire three new actors to play alternate versions of Ledger’s character. With the film’s biggest issue resolved, production re-started and fortunately saw no further tragedy or set-backs.
The fact that Imaginarium of Parnassus was Heath Ledger’s last film saw what would normally be a niche, specialised effort gain wider attention and was a big selling point for when the film finally opened to the world on October 16th, 2009:
All that effort paid off in the end – the film doubled its money at the box office, though was met with a mixed reception. A decade on and removed from the hype, though, is there more to this film than just the last chance to see Heath Ledger?
As it goes, Dr. Parnassus is standard Terry Gilliam fable of an unappreciated visionary who tries to convince the world the secrets they hold are true. In this case, Christopher Plummer uses a magic mirror to show people the true power of imagination – in an effort to win a battle with the devil (Tom Waits).
Ledger comes into the picture as a man on the run who joins up with Plummer’s travelling show, his absence solved by casting new actors to play alternate reality versions of the character.
The replacements would eventually be friends of Ledger, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, and Gilliam regular Johnny Depp. Depp’s schedule at the time allowed him only one day to shoot his scenes – and given the constraints, it’s all the more impressive how well his performance turned out:
Gilliam obviously commands a lot of trust and faith in his cast and crew, as everyone here gives their all for him – the standouts being Plummer in a highly dignified but believable role and Tom Waits, who steals every scene he is in. On a technical side, it’s wonderfully photographed by Nicola Pecorini and, as in all of Gilliam’s films, the visual effects are first-rate.
The rest of the film is, in a way, a quintessential Terry Gilliam film, but feels a little too straightforward and forced to be truly inspiring in the way Brazil was. That being said, the fact that the production persevered despite the tragedy that befell it is a testament to the determination and resourcefulness of Gilliam and his crew, to give Heath Ledger the send off he deserved and to make the film they wanted to make.