| Heath Ledger died before finishing the surreal 'Parnassus.' Three stars helped complete the movie. But who will release it? |
When Heath Ledger's family stepped on stage to accept his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Dark Knight, the emotional outpouring from the audience at the Kodak Theatre seemed to bring closure to the story of Ledger's tragically curtailed career. But the story does not actually end there. There is one last Ledger film almost no one, including his closest friends, has seen, and which may never come to a theater near you. Like the Joker in the last act of The Dark Knight twisting upside down at the end of Batman's rope, the actor's final performance is hanging in midair.
Ledger was in the middle of filming on director Terry Gilliam's latest movie, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, when he died on Jan. 22, 2008. His sudden death threatened to derail the project, a surrealistic fantasy about a traveling theater troupe. But Gilliam pressed on, recruiting Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to play different incarnations of Ledger's character, a charismatic con man named Tony. Now, in the wake of Ledger's Oscar win, interest in the film has spiked. Backstage at the ceremony, his sister, Kate, told reporters that the family had seen some footage and that "it's going to be amazing." But the fate of the $30 million production remains uncertain. Parnassus still has not landed a domestic distribution deal, fostering speculation that it may be too unusual to find a wide audience. (It does have an international distributor and is set to open in the U.K. in June.) "The script isn't a slam dunk," says one acquisitions executive. "Having Heath in it is appealing. But I'm waiting to see the movie." As it happens, the filmmakers won't screen the movie anyway at least not until April, when postproduction is complete. "The producers felt that it was better to wait for Terry's vision to be fully realized on screen so that the distributors can see exactly what they're acquiring," says film rep Dennis Davidson, via e-mail.
Speaking to EW late last year, Gilliam didn't sound at all worried about the future of Parnassus. A director who has long locked horns with Hollywood just three years ago he walked around New York with a sandwich board that read "Studioless Filmmaker...Will Direct for Food" he now finds himself in a pretty interesting spot. "I think people are going to be astonished when they see the film, and there will be a rush to want it," he said. "So I'm happy to wait. Nobody came forward at the right time and now it's going to cost them."
Gilliam's career has been so fraught that, depending on how you look at it, he is either the unluckiest man in Hollywood or one of its great survivors. The tales of his filmmaking travails are legendary: not just his epic battles with studios (see 1985's dystopian sci-fi opus Brazil), but also the ambitious projects he couldn't get off the ground (including Watchmen, which Gilliam tried to make not once, but twice) and the films that collapsed under the weight of almost biblical calamities (like The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a 2000 project with Depp that fell apart six days into shooting). Despite the success of films like Time Bandits, The Fisher King, and 12 Monkeys and the cult acclaim for his early work as a member of Monty Python Gilliam's reputation for attracting disaster is so well established, it even inspired a satirical story in The Onion: TERRY GILLIAM BARBECUE PLAGUED BY PRODUCTION DELAYS. When Ledger died, Parnassus, fairly or not, was seen by many as the latest example of the Gilliam Curse.
From the start, Ledger and Gilliam regarded each other as kindred spirits. The two first met when the director cast Ledger opposite Matt Damon in the 2005 film The Brothers Grimm. Struggling against Hollywood's efforts to brand him as a hunky leading man, Ledger was drawn to Gilliam's skewed creative vision. "Heath felt encouraged by Terry, and Terry found in Heath somebody else who was fighting the system," cinematographer Nicola Pecorini told EW in January. "Heath was Sancho Panza to Terry's Quixote." Following Grimm, the two discussed collaborating on other projects, including a documentary about gypsy music and an adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's fantasy novel Good Omens. In 2007, following the success of Brokeback Mountain, Ledger was in London directing an as-yet-unreleased video for Modest Mouse when he dropped by Gilliam's offices and saw some early storyboards for Parnassus. Though he'd previously been noncommittal about the project, he decided on the spot he wanted to be a part of it. "It was a lovely surprise," Gilliam said.
The Parnassus shoot took place during a period of turmoil in Ledger's personal life, as his relationship with actress Michelle Williams, with whom he had a 2-year-old daughter, Matilda, was falling apart. Though Ledger was plagued by stress and insomnia, the film provided a refuge. As Pecorini put it, "Parnassus helped him not become obsessive about what he was going through." Ledger threw himself with abandon into each day's work. "We would just sit back and say, 'Jesus, look at what he's doing!'" Gilliam said. "Normally I don't encourage much ad-libbing, but with Heath, I just let him run. He was coming up with lines that were astonishing bing, bang, bong! He was an extraordinary force. That's why when he suddenly turned up dead, nothing made sense."
When the news of Ledger's death broke, Gilliam who was in Vancouver, prepping for the next phase of the shoot initially assumed Parnassus would have to be shut down. "We were in deep s---," he said. "For me, it was like, 'Let's just close up shop here, because without Heath I don't want to continue.' He was so central. But everyone just kept beating me up, saying, 'No, you have to keep going for Heath.'" The notion arose of taking advantage of the film's already dreamlike nature and hiring a different actor to play another physical incarnation of Ledger's character. "Then we made the quantum leap: What if we get three actors to replace him?" Gilliam remembered. "Johnny was the first person I called. He said, 'Done. I'm there.' Same with Jude and Colin." Still, the decision to continue represented an enormous creative and financial gamble. "I had no confidence that this would work," Gilliam said. "It was just that I didn't know what else to do."
Until Parnassus lands a U.S. distribution deal, it's unclear what will become of Gilliam's effort to salvage Ledger's final performance. The film is rumored to be in the running for a slot at this year's Cannes Film Festival in May. One source close to Gilliam speculates that the director an American expatriate who has often found a welcoming audience for his work in Europe may be hoping that a buzz-filled Cannes debut will lead to a distribution deal and a domestic release in the fall.
If Parnassus proves difficult to sell, it may, in a way, be a fitting end to the career of an actor who thrived on risk. "It was in Heath's nature to push boundaries," Pecorini said. Gilliam has promised that whatever happens with its release, Parnassus will pack surprises, some of them potentially uncomfortable. "There's a prescience about the film that's quite interesting. There are lines you can't believe were written before Heath died." He paused and laughed darkly. "There are going to be a few gasps," he said. "I can guarantee gasps."
Uniting to Complete Ledger's Role
By Jeff Labrecque and Josh Rottenberg
After the actor's death, three stars stepped up to finish his part. They play various versions of a con man named Tony — and they reportedly all donated their wages to Ledger's daughter, Matilda.
Depp , whose work Ledger admired, had collaborated with Gilliam before — on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and an aborted Don Quixote project.
Before Ledger was even attached to Parnassus, Law, a friend of Ledger's, had talked to Gilliam about possibly playing the role of Tony.
Farrell told an Australian newspaper last year that standing in for Ledger was "an incredibly painful honor.... It's about getting Heath's work out there."