TORONTO — Terry Gilliam has endured so many obstacles on his films, his life story could be the stuff of some cosmic filmmaker’s wild fable about a hamstrung artist, titled The Curse of Gilliam.
He fought epic battles with studio bosses on Brazil and The Brothers Grimm. His Don Quixote fantasy with Johnny Depp shut down just days into shooting.
His latest, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, seemed doomed after star Heath Ledger died midway through the shoot. Gilliam initially felt he had to scrap the film, in which Ledger plays a shady charity fundraiser who falls in with a theatrical troupe that travels modern London in a horse-drawn, medieval-looking contraption.
“Star dies in the middle of the movie. What are you doing? This doesn’t happen. What movie has carried on in that situation?” Gilliam said in an interview over lunch at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Doctor Parnassus played in advance of its theatrical release Friday.
“I thought, there is karma, and it hates me. I don’t believe in a god, but karma, whatever that is, is out there to get me.”
Resigned to letting another unfinished film go, Gilliam found his collaborators would not let him off so easily, insisting “you’re going to finish this film, and that’s it. It’s Heath’s last show. We’re not going to let that be buried,” Gilliam said.
The solution: Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell stepped in to finish Ledger’s role for three fantasy sequences as the character steps through a magic mirror. The end credits bear the loving dedication, “A film from Heath Ledger and friends.”
Gilliam’s affection for Ledger always is evident, even as he wisecracks about the strains of finishing the film without him.
“It had to be good enough to be Heath’s last movie, so I hate that kind of pressure. I was moaning about Heath all the time. (He) goes and dies and sticks me with this one,” Gilliam said, letting loose with one of his trademark piercing cackles.
“This is a lesson for all young actors. You don’t turn up for work today, you’ve got three A-list actors waiting to take your job.”
Doctor Parnassus stars Christopher Plummer in the title role, an ancient man who gained immortality and youth in deals with the devil (Tom Waits).
Ledger’s character becomes the key to a new bet Parnassus makes to keep his daughter (Lily Cole) out of the devil’s grasp.
Gilliam wrote the screenplay with longtime collaborator Charles McKeown.
The lone American among five Brits in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Gilliam, 69, was the man behind the insane animation interludes for the troupe’s TV show and movies.
His solo career started with 1977’s Lewis Carroll-inspired adventure Jabberwocky and hit an early peak with 1981’s Time Bandits, a commercial success even though it was released by a small distributor after Hollywood studios passed on it.
“That was kind of the first one. I was convinced that all my prejudices against Hollywood were confirmed, basically. And then Brazil. That was it.”
A tragedy disguised as a comic cousin to George Orwell’s 1984, Brazil came four years later and languished unreleased and unseen at Universal, which did not like Gilliam’s bleak ending.
Gilliam screened the film in secret for reviewers and ran a full-page ad in Hollywood trade paper Variety asking Universal studio boss Sid Sheinberg when he was going to release the film.
Universal finally relented and released Brazil after the Los Angeles Film Critics Association picked it as the year’s best movie.
“I rail against the system because this little village of frightened people controls what the world sees, and I don’t like that. I just hate the limitations they basically impose on the world, the mirror they impose on the world,” Gilliam said. “It makes me crazy.”