Title: Doctor Parnassus: The Last Film Of Heath Ledger
Source: Times Online/ UK. October 8, 2009 by Stephen Dalton
Date: published October 8, 2009
Keywords: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,, Terry Gilliam, Heath Ledger


Doctor Parnassus: The Last Film Of Heath Ledger


Tom Waits and Terry Gilliam, who worked together on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus(1), talk about the late Heath Ledger

And now for something completely surreal. Terry Gilliam, the kindergarten Kubrick, and Tom Waits, Satan’s favourite lounge singer, are trading quips and confessions in a London hotel. The irrepressible 68-year-old director is giggling and shouting like a naughty schoolboy on the last day of term. Meanwhile, the 59-year-old voodoo bluesman provides a kind of human beatbox accompaniment of low moans, animal gurgles and guttural growls, phrasing his random interjections in a voice like a rusty steam engine.

We are here to discuss Gilliam’s latest hallucinatory fantasy, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a sprawling Faustian fable starring Christopher Plummer as the eponymous carnival showman and Waits as a wily, wisecracking Devil. Largely set in a dreamlike digital universe where Lewis Carroll, Salvador Dalí and Doctor Seuss collide, this is the uncompromising director’s most dazzling visual symphony yet. It was also, of course, Heath Ledger’s final film.

“Heath Ledger?” Gilliam grins. “We hated him. An idiot. Asshole. Good riddance. Hee hee hee!”

Waits sinks his head into his hands, wheezing with laughter. “Hurr hurr! That’s got out of that one, let’s move on. Hurr hurr!”

Gilliam is joking, of course. Clearly his sense of humour has not evolved very far since his TV breakthrough as the self-styled “token American” in Monty Python’s taboo-trashing carnival of mischief 40 years ago. But when he talks seriously about Ledger he has nothing but praise for his late friend, whose sudden death midway through shooting left the director emotionally floored and almost sank the entire film.

But then Gilliam’s daughter Amy, who produced Doctor Parnassus, picked him up and forced him to face the problem. Together they hit upon the inspired notion of using other actors to play different facets of Ledger’s slippery, shape-shifting character. It is testament to the huge goodwill enjoyed by both star and director that Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell all signed on at short notice, donating their fees to Ledger’s young daughter, Matilda Rose.

“That’s my warning to all young actors now,” Gilliam laughs. “Don’t ever not turn up for work, because there are three A-list actors ready to take your part. Hee hee!”

Born of necessity, this superstar salvage operation ended up serving the film surprisingly well. Instead of becoming yet another of Gilliam’s long list of cursed productions, Doctor Parnassus became Ledger’s screen swansong. With a little help from his friends, he went out on a high.

TG: “It was his fearlessness that I loved. I think it was just that thing of youth. There was nothing he couldn’t do. ‘Jump off the building? Don’t worry, I’ll be fine!’ He was wonderful, and as an actor you were seeing his potential growing all the time. He was playing, he was learning, he would just surprise us all the time with what he was doing. He was generous, he lifted people up when they were down. He had all this stuff going and it just stopped. It was unbelievable. No warning, nothing.”

TW: “I didn’t work with Heath, all his scenes were completed by the time I came in. But we met at a dinner and my wife sat across from him. She said he reminded her of our son, who’s 24 and impetuous and scary and skating towards the edge, completely spontaneous and highly imaginative. She had wonderful things to say about him. Just full of life and contradictions. That’s what makes people interesting to look at onscreen.”

TG: “Heath’s character was inspired by Tony Blair, let’s say that. Not based on him. But certainly Tony Blair angered me enough with his silver tongue and his ability to convince everybody that what we were doing was good and right. There’s a few dead people out there because of Tony’s rightness.”

TW: “He’s like a confidence man. Whatever is necessary, I will do it to gain your confidence for my purposes.”

TG: “The most extraordinary thing about Heath was that some wise, ancient wisdom was part of him. This was not a kid. The hardest thing was making the mental leap that we could fix the film afterwards. That ended up being fairly simple once I got my head around it. Tom was supposed to be off the film at this point but everyone said: ‘F*** it, this is for Heath. We finish this.’ ”

TW: “You have to also accept there was also something wildly ironic about the whole thing. I don’t know if you want to talk about the money, but the film probably wouldn’t have been able to be finished financially without the insurance money.”

TG: “It was chaos. I had a problem on this film, I couldn’t go over budget — and I didn’t. I must admit the insurance money helped. But there was also this sense that everybody wanted to do it for Heath. That’s a very rare thing. It’s actually the beautiful part of the whole thing.”

TW: “He had a lot of goodwill. But also there was a lot of goodwill for Terry.”

TG: “I’ve always said, with every film, I’m not making it, the film is making itself. The film gods are up there doing what they do, and this film was making itself. So Heath dies in the middle of the movie. The last roll of film goes through the camera and Bill Vince, the producer, dies. Then a few months later, I get hit by a car and break my back. The gods failed! They weren’t so lucky the third time. They tried to clear away the star, the producer and the director! Wouldn’t that have been tidy? But the world is not so tidy.”

TW: “I said yes because Terry wanted me in the movie. I didn’t care what he wanted me to do. I probably would have painted sets, honestly.”

TG: “I just couldn’t think of a better Devil than Tom. His music encompasses all the seduction, all the temptation, all the darkness, all the punishment that the Devil should be familiar with. God only works in a small area, the Devil works the big rooms. This is a man who writes songs for the angels and sings them in the voice of Beelzebub. The carny, the sideshow, the circus freakshow is a world I’ve wanted to be in. And that’s exactly what Tom is.”

TW: “Am I acting when I play music onstage? Oh God, yeah. Reality is highly overrated. Most people don’t care if you’re telling them the truth, as long as you’re amusing them. Most people are a combination of truth and fiction. We’re all inventing ourselves in some form or another.”

TG: “I’ve shown Parnassus to a lot of kids and they’ve experienced something, they’ve learnt something. It’s interesting, a certain distribution company in America, very well known, a very famous director is part of it — we showed the film to this company and they said: ‘Oh, how wonderful it is, but it’s too sophisticated for our audience.’ What is this audience they’re talking about that is so dumb when a seven-year-old child understands it? There is an impression about people’s lack of intelligence that Hollywood particularly falls for. But people are not unintelligent, they’re smart. You just have to give them something worthy of their intelligence.”

TW: “And they’re the other 50 per cent of the equation. What you bring in terms of your own memories, your own conflicts, your own experiences is the other half of it. It’s like a book. A book is really nothing without its reader.”

TG: “I’m no longer an American. I gave up my US citizenship three years ago. Why not? I’ve lived in Britain for 42 years, it’s time to cut the umbilical cord. Time to grow up. America is probably the most divided country in the world right now, and probably the most divided in its history. The Republicans are knife-wielding hyenas, they’ve got no shame, they’re just brutal. Obama has been given this poisoned chalice. He’s got four years to fix the economy, turn everything around, make the world a wonderful place — good luck. Isn’t it amazing how George Bush has just vanished? Not a peep. It’s like he disappeared.”

TW: “I think the real problem was what Bush really wanted in life was to be the Commissioner of Baseball, and the job was not available. We all have a thousand parallel lives that could have been our lives, had we made different decisions along the way. We’re at the crossroads every day. I could jump out of that window right now instead of just looking out of it.”

TG: “That’s why I didn’t take acid in the Sixties, for exactly that reason. There’s no glass there! I can fly!”

TW: “What’s next for me? I’ve got a live album coming out, Glitter and Doom. Most people won’t listen to a live album for some reason because they figure it’s just a re-imagining of material they’re already familiar with, but I think the songs are done differently enough. Plus ... now I really feel like a huckster, but there’s an extra disc in there that is just my quixotic ruminations between songs, at the piano. It’s added value, as they say. Hurr hurr!”

TG: “And I’m back in the saddle with The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. The horse has got three legs at the moment. We’ve done a big rewrite which I think is much better. The plan is to shoot it next April. It’s my fourth attempt to make it. Fourth time lucky! Also I may be doing an opera in 2011, at the ENO. A traditional opera that’s never worked before. I don’t want to tell you the name, it might jinx it.”

TW: “Make something up! It’s called Heavens to Murgatroyd, starring Alice Cooper and Dana Andrews ... like I said, the truth is highly overrated. Hurr hurr!”

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is out on Oct 16. Glitter and Doom is released by Anti on Nov 24



(1) The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus: Further reading: Parnassus official siteDreams: the Terry Gilliam fanzineDoctor Parnassus support site,