When Heath Ledger died a year and a half ago from an accidental mix of prescription drugs, he was deep into filming The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus with his friend and mentor, director Terry Gilliam. From Gilliam, the crew, and other insiders, the author gets an exclusive account of Ledger’s final months—a pressure cooker of arduous filmmaking, personal turmoil, and chronic insomnia—and of how the 28-year-old star’s last movie was rescued by a trio of friends: Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a wildly ambitious movie, stuffed as it is with political satire, philosophical musing, puns and jokes, throwaway allusions both arcane and mundane, not to mention a handful of Big Ideas—including the nature of narrative, the relation of the artist to audience, artifice to truth—all of which get turned over and ruminated upon. Or, to change metaphors in midstream, as if Gilliam were afraid the movie police would lift his license and this would be his last shoot, so he decided to cram it with everything in his head, downloading his entire mental hard drive into a two-hour hallucination.
One element is conspicuously absent, however, over the film’s first 15 or so minutes: there is not a trace of Heath Ledger, and I find myself wondering in my sleep-deprived daze if I’ve traveled all the way to London on the basis of some misunderstanding. But then, finally, he appears, abruptly, dangling from Blackfriars Bridge at the end of a rope, a scene so shocking, in light of his subsequent death, it takes your breath away. (Gilliam is referencing the mysterious demise of Roberto Calvi, a figure at the center of the Vatican bank scandal of 1982—alluded to in The Godfather Part III—who was found hanging from the same bridge.)
Ledger’s fans will not be disappointed. There is a lot of Ledger in this picture. This final performance, while not the tour de force of weirdness that was the Joker, is good enough—more than good enough—to remind us that Ledger’s death has deprived the movies of one of their most accomplished, and promising, talents.
When he signed up for Doctor Parnassus, Ledger was coming home, in a manner of speaking. Gilliam and his partner in crime, Nicola Pecorini, the cinematographer, were among the actor’s closest friends. The two filmmakers “come as a package,” observes Nathan Holmes, Ledger’s former assistant. They are so close they finish each other’s sentences.
Gilliam, is a self-exiled American who took refuge in England during the Vietnam era and stumbled upon John Cleese and his Monty Python pals, becoming the sixth Python, which was sort of like being the fifth Beatle but better: Gilliam co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail in 1975. He went on to fashion a singular, if checkered, career for himself as the director of, among other films, The Fisher King (1991), Twelve Monkeys (1995), and The Brothers Grimm (2005).
Gilliam met Pecorini when he hired the D.P. to work on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Pecorini first encountered Ledger in 2002 on the set of The Order, a sort of low-rent Angels & Demons. A large, bearish man with a head of tangled dark hair beginning to go gray, Pecorini says he was mesmerized by Ledger. “He was like a young Richard Burton,” he recalls. “Burton was one of the most intriguing faces ever to be on-screen. And I’m sure that, if Heath would have aged, he would have aged that way—like scars, but carried with pride.”
Pecorini recommended Ledger to his friend for The Brothers Grimm, saying, “I think he’s fantastic. His name is Heath Ledger. You should meet him.” At that time, though Ledger had shone in films such as The Patriot (2000), his name meant nothing, at least to Gilliam, and the director replied, “Heath who?” But, says Pecorini, “Terry fell in love with Heath.” As Holmes, who became Johnny Depp’s assistant after Ledger’s death, puts it, “Terry was to Heath what Tim Burton is to Johnny. They struck up a fantastic friendship.”
Ledger was more than ready for what Gilliam had to offer. As his career had taken off, he had grown increasingly uneasy with the trappings of success. In 2001, as A Knight’s Tale was nearing release, he famously jumped up in the middle of a meeting with top Sony executives who were grooming him to be a teenage heartthrob and ran into the men’s room, sequestering himself in a stall while he had a panic attack. His friend and agent, Steve Alexander, chased after him and engaged him in conversation through the door. “He was ready to bust out of the gate, but he didn’t want to step on the gas and become something that he didn’t want to become: a matinee idol,” says Alexander. “He was a private person, and he didn’t want to share his personal history with the press. It just wasn’t up for sale. That’s part of the reason he initially tore down his career. He wasn’t motivated by money or stardom, but by the respect of his peers, and for people to walk out of a movie theater after they’d seen something that he’d worked on and say, ‘Wow, he really disappeared into that character.’ He was striving to become an ‘illusionist,’ as he called it, able to create characters that weren’t there.”
The Brothers Grimm was shot during the summer of 2003, with Matt Damon playing Wilhelm Grimm to Ledger’s Jacob Grimm. In the outspoken director, Ledger found a mentor, a role model. As Christopher Plummer, who plays Doctor Parnassus puts it, “Terry loved Heath and treated him like a son.” Adds Alexander, “The relationship with Terry was quite wonderful, in that Terry is a very free, creative spirit.” Gilliam, not disinterestedly, thinks that The Brothers Grimm marked a turning point for Ledger. “He was liberated,” he says. “He suddenly felt free. He was ad-libbing. Nobody noticed his performance”—the film was dissed by critics and ignored by audiences—”but it was extraordinary.” (The film (is) not exactly an actor’s showcase.)
Ledger went on to make Brokeback Mountain (which)put him in the front rank of young actors. But, for Ledger, shooting the film had been difficult. “There was nothing fun about the process of creating the character,” Alexander recalls. “Heath worked really hard at it, and it was exhausting. He thought Ang Lee was an incredible director, but Ang is a taskmaster, and he doesn’t coddle his actors. He pushes them until they give him what he’s after. It wasn’t what Heath was used to, but it obviously worked.” Gilliam explains, “He was looking for a father figure, and I think that’s why it was difficult with Ang Lee, because Ang Lee is not a father figure. That’s why he felt very isolated there.”
The subsequent awards season, in which Ledger was nominated for a Golden Globe as well as the best-actor Oscar, ate away at him. “You have to whore yourself around,” says Gilliam. “And on Brokeback he really did whore himself around, doing all the things he hated. He felt angry with himself for going along with the way the system worked. He felt dirty. And then he didn’t win,” losing the Oscar to Philip Seymour Hoffman, nominated for Capote.
After The Brothers Grimm, even as Ledger’s star ascended, the actor had kept tabs on Gilliam, hanging out with him whenever he was in London, always wanting to know what his friend was up to. Gilliam showed him the Doctor Parnassus script, and they discussed the role, but Ledger kept backing away. “The first thing he would do was pass on almost everything that came to him,” says Alexander. “Or he would commit to things and then walk away from them. As much as he wanted to work, there was a part of him that was always looking for a reason not to work. He was always afraid, insecure about could he nail it. Then finally he would come around and embrace the challenge.”
But after Brokeback Mountain and Casanova, released the same year, in which he had unhappily starred for director Lasse Hallström, Ledger was so distressed he wanted to stop working. (He did stop for a year and a half after his daughter, Matilda, was born, on October 28, 2005.) He told his friends that one of the reasons he had taken The Dark Knight was that it would be such a long shoot it would give him an excuse to turn down other offers. In fact, a few years earlier he had met with director Christopher Nolan regarding the title role of Batman Begins, but the actor was reluctant to become involved in a franchise. Says Alexander, “He was always hesitant to be in a summer blockbuster, with the dolls and action figures and everything else that comes with one of those movies. He was afraid it would define him and limit his choices.” But on The Dark Knight, he had a pay-or-play deal, so he felt he had the freedom to do whatever he wanted as the Joker, no matter how crazy. “We talked about Johnny Depp’s episode on Pirates of the Caribbean,” says Pecorini. “The very first day, Johnny showed up with 40 gold teeth. [Producer Jerry] Bruckheimer wanted to get rid of him. Finally, they said, ‘O.K., keep six.’ And that’s what he wanted, six.” According to Pecorini, Ledger went Depp one better, hoping his performance would be so far-out he’d be fired, and thus become the beneficiary of a lengthy, paid vacation.
Alexander, who now works with Charles Roven, producer of the Batman franchise, insists Ledger was eager to take the part, but wanted to follow up The Dark Knight with something less conventional. Among other projects he was considering was The Tree of Life, a coming-of-age story set in the 1950s to be directed by Terrence Malick (and now starring Brad Pitt).
And then there was the Doctor Parnassus script. One day in 2007, as Gilliam was going over his storyboards with his effects crew, the actor, who was working on a music video in the same facility, slipped him a note. It said, “Can I play Tony?” Evidently, he’d overcome his anxiety about the role. Or, as he explained in a 2007 interview, “I’d cut carrots and serve catering on a Gilliam film. I really love the guy.” Gilliam was thrilled. Says Alexander, “Heath felt like Terry had given him the nod on Grimm when it might not have been the most popular decision”—given Ledger’s relative lack of fame at the time. But now his name meant something. Says a source, “Everyone is terrific in the movie, but none of them could get a movie financed. Heath gave it wings.”
Not to hear Gilliam tell it. “We couldn’t raise anything,” he says. By his account, he flew to L.A. to graze the indie pastures for financing but was met with variations on the theme of: “No, we don’t get the idea.”
“But you get Heath Ledger,” Gilliam would counter. “Do you understand what’s going to happen in the summer of 2008? The Dark Knight is going to come out. Heath is going to be the biggest star in the world.” But still the answer would be no.
“Not one of them rose to the occasion,” Gilliam recalls. “They couldn’t see it. Live or dead, Heath would have stolen [The Dark Knight].”
The only way the director has been able to keep working, given his uneven track record at the box office, is to keep his budgets down to a fraction of what effects-laden films generally cost. Doctor Parnassus had been budgeted at an already skimpy $28 million, but Gilliam eventually launched production with no guarantee that he’d ever reach that goal. Says editor Mick Audsley, “There was always an uncertainty about whether we were going to have enough funds to make the film that was in Terry’s head. Every week we’d be thinking, Oh, is this our last Friday? But that’s true of more and more independent films. We start and see where we get to.”
The start date of Doctor Parnassus had been put off to accommodate The Dark Knight, which was still shooting into the middle of November 2007. There would be no more than a narrow window between the end of the one and the start of the other—a very brief respite for Ledger after a long and exhausting shoot. Moreover, the Joker was a dark, twisted character, and Gilliam was worried about the effect it might have on the actor’s state of mind, especially in light of his chronic insomnia and the pressure he was under due to the end of his relationship with the actress Michelle Williams and an increasingly fractious custody dispute over their then two-year-old daughter, Matilda.
Ledger and Williams had met in the summer of 2004 on the set of Brokeback Mountain, where she played his character’s wife. He had recently broken up with Naomi Watts, and he and Williams (who declined to be interviewed for this article) established a strong physical connection. As Ledger revealingly described it in a 2006 interview, “We just fell very deeply into one another’s arms, our bodies definitely made those decisions for us.” Which is not to say that there wasn’t a genuine emotional bond between the two. Says Alexander, “Heath fell deeply in love with Michelle. Their relationship was extremely special to him. They have a daughter who is an incredible product of their love, and an incredible sign of how much they cared for each other.” Adds Nathan Holmes, who was Ledger’s assistant during the Casanova shoot, “On that film, they were totally devoted to each other. They were like young kids.” Ledger himself was quoted as saying, “When you’re this happy everything seems to fall into place.”
But fault lines soon made themselves evident. When A Knight’s Tale opened in 2001, Sony had flown in 14 of Ledger’s old friends from his birthplace, Perth, Australia, at his request. They stayed at his home, a sprawling house with five or six bedrooms in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles. Some of the friends never left, while others—newer friends and acquaintances—joined them, and the house became familiarly known as “the Aussie artists’ colony.” Says Alexander, “It seemed like anytime someone would be new in town, and was from Australia, it was ‘Just call Heath.’ He was so welcoming.” In Gilliam’s words, the house was “a place where you could hang out. It just felt good.” Says Pecorini, “Probably 50 people had the keys. It was like open house. ‘You’re a friend of a friend? Of course you can stay here. Of course you can show up without calling first.'”
But when Ledger and Williams moved in together in a new place in L.A., the open-house policy ended. “He had to cut that,” Pecorini says. “It was totally against his nature. He was a social animal.” Williams had been living in Brooklyn, near her parents, and the couple eventually bought a new house there.
According to Gilliam and Pecorini, the pair were too different for the romance to last. “My impression was that they had nothing in common,” says Pecorini. “They didn’t fit. They kept two separate lives. She never mingled with his friends—he never mingled with her friends.” The two men say the couple’s relationship mimicked the marriage between the characters they played, with hers, lonely and resentful, watching his go off on his mysterious fishing trips. But another source says that to this day Williams remains tight with some of Ledger’s best friends. During the early days of the relationship, the couple vacationed with each other’s closest companions, and Ledger even threw a birthday party for Williams’s best friend. It was only as the relationship faltered that these bonds dissolved.
Gilliam and Pecorini agree that the romance began to unravel during the Oscar campaign for Brokeback Mountain, when Williams was nominated for best supporting actress alongside Ledger’s nomination for best actor. For him, they say, the Oscars were a kind of game that he went along with grudgingly, whereas Williams took the hoopla more seriously. “The whole machinery started growing up around them,” Gilliam says. “That was the moment when it changed, when he realized, Uh-oh. We perceive the world differently. He didn’t care about things like those awards.”
It should be said that Gilliam and Pecorini’s version of Ledger and Williams’s relationship seems, at the very least, incomplete, perhaps reflecting the couple’s adversarial separation, which coincided with the shooting of Doctor Parnassus, when the filmmakers were seeing Ledger every day. They sound a little like the boys complaining when the wife-to-be comes along and breaks up the old gang. As for the Oscars, Alexander, for one, claims that Ledger was for the most part happy with the Oscar campaign: “Doing press terrified him, and the campaign was really grueling. There were a lot of red-carpet events, which he didn’t win, so he found himself watching Philip Seymour Hoffman accept award after award. Still, he loved Philip, and he thought Focus Features [which made Brokeback Mountain] treated him very well. He knew it brought him a lot of opportunity.”
In any event, Ledger and Williams separated for good in the summer of 2007, while he was making The Dark Knight. Some press accounts blamed Ledger, citing heavy drinking and hard-drug use, including cocaine and heroin. A video clip even surfaced purportedly showing him snorting what looks like coke and saying, “My girlfriend is going to f**ing kill me.”
According to Pecorini, “Heath was always blaming himself, asking, What did I do wrong?” Adds Gilliam, “Because he’s a much nicer person than I am, he really thought he could do the right thing. He was trying to be decent and graceful, give her whatever she wanted—the house, every f**ing thing. But once it started going south, it went very quickly. He was overwhelmed by lawyers, and there were more and more of them. You’ve got to just walk away from it.’ The stakes kept going up. He wouldn’t listen to any of us.”
Above all else, Ledger was devoted to his young daughter and feared he might lose custody. “He was absolutely obsessed about Matilda,” Gilliam continues. “Before we started shooting [Doctor Parnassus], he literally put her in a backpack, got on the tube, and would come up to my house. It was wonderful.” According to the director, “The thing that really made Heath snap” was legal wrangling over Matilda. “He said, ‘Just f** all of you! I’m not giving Michelle anything.'” Recalls another source, when it came to Matilda’s care, “there were definitely heated conversations, and emotions were high.”
Pecorini says Ledger’s drug use—”He used to smoke marijuana on a regular basis”—became an issue. “From that moment, he went clean as a whistle. He was so bloody clean that he didn’t drink a glass of wine anymore.” Adds Gerry Grennell, who was Ledger’s voice coach and shared houses, meals, and downtime with the actor, “Heath loved good food and good wine. From the rehearsal period on Dark Knight, right up to the last days in London, when we worked and lived together and went out for dinner, Heath would happily go to the bar, buy a round of drinks for friends, and come back and have a soda or juice, never once drinking alcohol.”
Principal photography on Doctor Parnassus began on December 9, 2007, a few weeks after Ledger had wrapped The Dark Knight. The actor had always been passionate about his work. He once said, “The only time that I’m alive and loving and expressing and feeling and relating is when I’m on set during the time between ‘action’ and ‘cut.’ That’s the only thing that’s really important.” According to Mick Audsley, who edited Doctor Parnassus, “In our job, we get to tell if somebody’s rolling their eyes when they’re asked to do another take. But he gave us 150 percent and was devoted to Terry and the project. He was physically moving props around himself, to save time.”
“There were certain days, I thought, I’m not up to doing this thing,” recalls Gilliam. “Heath is better than I am. He’s quicker, he’s cleverer. He had very clear ideas of what he liked and what he didn’t like, and he just went there. There was no telling him anything, really. I just followed along.”
Recalls production designer Dave Warren, “I was dragging Terry all over to look at locations, and Heath would come with him. There was this sort of constant dialogue between the two on the structure of his part, but he was just as interested in all of those other bits of the filmmaking process, in addition to character and acting, which quite surprised me. He wasn’t the kind of guy that would just sort of disappear into his trailer for a whole day.”
Gilliam and Pecorini are of the opinion that the turmoil in Ledger’s personal life, rather than distracting him from his performance, helped him concentrate on the task at hand. “It actually made him more focused,” says Pecorini. “For him, work was a shield against everything else.” Gilliam recalls, “One day, he showed up with a terrible cough, shivering. He was clearly bloody sick. And completely soaked in sweat. We called a doctor, who said, ‘This is the beginning of pneumonia. You need antibiotics. Go home and rest.’ He said, ‘No way. I’m not going to go home, because I can’t sleep, and I’ll be just thinking about the situation. I’d rather stay here and work.’ But he would arrive in the morning completely knackered. He looked awful, because of lack of sleep and just the sh* he was going through with the lawyers. By the end of the day he was beaming, glowing with energy. It was like everything was put into the work, because that was the joy; that’s what he loved to do. The words were just pouring out. It was like he was channeling.”
[Christopher] Plummer was impressed by Ledger. “Heath was an extraordinary actor, abundantly talented,” he says. “He was really something, this kid. He was wonderfully versatile. Look at the difference between his roles in The Dark Knight and Brokeback Mountain. It’s staggering. He was so quick to learn everything. I could see him actually develop during the making of the movie. If anything, he was driving himself too fast and too hard. He wanted to do everything. He hung himself over the river Thames in January, wanted to freeze to death. But there were moments when he relaxed, and I thought, He’s learnt to stop and let the audience come to him rather than forcing himself on the audience.”
Ledger was generous with the other actors, especially the ones with less experience, such as Lily Cole and Andrew Garfield. “Heath gave her constant tips,” says Pecorini. “He was the first one to realize that you have to keep her busy. You can’t leave her standing there, saying something, without doing anything with her hands, because she still doesn’t know exactly how to carry around this amazing body she has. You can see the results. She was a model; now she’s an actress.”
Garfield was intimidated by Ledger: “It was like stepping into an arena with Goliath. I was really scared, scared of failing. Because I was a genuine fan boy. Heath really f**ed with me at first, because his character f**s with my character. Like we’d be improvising around a scene, and he’d intentionally step on my lines or change my lines. He’d give me advice where I wasn’t asking for advice. He knew he was needling me, and it really, really worked. There was nothing malicious in it. It was all to assist me. Like there was one day where we were shooting a scene. I was struggling. It was kind of underwritten, and I was nervous because I was scared that I couldn’t make it work on all the different levels. He went to Terry and said, ‘Do my close-up first. We’ll do a sh*load of takes—Andrew will get knackered. Then, by the time we turn around on him, he’ll just be relaxed, he won’t give a sh* anymore, and he’ll give something purer.’ And that worked. He was constantly looking out for the people who he thought needed a bit looking out for.”
Ledger was a gifted chess player, and he approached acting as if he were playing a match. Once, in rehearsals, he advised Garfield, “Don’t do what you’re going to do in front of the camera. Do something ridiculous and terrify Terry, so that he’s scared he’s hired the wrong guy. And then later, when the camera’s rolling, do what your instinct tells you.” Explains Pecorini, “He was very, very clever, and he knew how most directors work. If you give them the time to digest what you’re about to deliver, then they’ll want something else.”
The London portion of the shoot, which consisted mostly of the part of the film set in the “real” world, wrapped on Saturday, January 19, 2008. The plan was to take a week’s break and then resume production in Vancouver, where the special-effects scenes that take place on the other side of the mirror were to be shot.
The next morning, Ledger got on a flight to New York, while Gilliam flew to Vancouver. The actor was to meet with Steven Spielberg to discuss a role in an upcoming project, The Chicago Seven. At the time, Matilda was with her mother in Sweden, where Williams was on location shooting a picture. According to a source close to both Williams and Ledger, Matilda and her nanny had been scheduled to visit Ledger in London—a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Stockholm—just before he left for New York, but because he was fighting off pneumonia, Williams decided against sending the two-year-old. Ledger then hoped to spend a few days with Matilda in New York, but Williams balked at sending her on the much longer, nine-hour flight because the actress wasn’t free to accompany her herself. According to Gilliam, the separation from Matilda “was really destroying Heath, just ripping at his heart.” But the source close to both performers, who emphasizes Williams’s devotion as a mother, points out that the long trip across six time zones would have been disruptive to a young child, and that Ledger could have himself flown to Sweden to see his daughter.
With his chronic insomnia, Ledger would typically spend night after night awake, diverting himself with time killers like re-arranging the furniture in whatever space he happened to be living in at the moment. Now, physically run-down by the arduous shoot, unable to sleep, and distraught over his differences with Williams, Ledger found some measure of relief in massages and prescription drugs.
He also sought help from Gerry Grennell, his vocal coach, who practices the Alexander Technique, a therapeutic discipline that focuses on posture and musculature. Recalls Grennell, “I would say, ‘C’mon, let’s do some Alexander Technique,’ and then he’d get maybe a couple of hours’ sleep, and then he’d be up again. I’d wake up and say, ‘Let’s do a little bit more,’ and he’d get a little more sleep, but it was exhausting. The last few days before he went to New York, we did discuss how much the medication was affecting him. I’d say, ‘If you can possibly bear it to stop taking the medications, do, because they don’t seem to be doing you any good.’ He agreed. It is very difficult for me to imagine how close he came to not taking them.”
On Tuesday, January 22, sometime between 3 and 3:30 a.m., a masseuse found Ledger dead in his loft, on Broome Street in New York’s SoHo. An autopsy would find that his death was accidental, resulting from “the abuse of prescription medications,” according to a spokeswoman for the New York City medical examiner. Among the drugs found in his body were a stew of painkillers, anti-anxiety medication, and sleeping pills. “It’s the combination of the drugs that caused the problem,” said the spokeswoman, “not necessarily too much of any particular drug.”
That explanation notwithstanding, many of Ledger’s friends continue to puzzle over his death, almost as if they can’t quite let him go. “Everyone has a different view of how he passed away,” says Grennell. “From my perspective, and knowing him as well as I did, and being around him as much as I was, it was a combination of exhaustion, sleeping medication, which was doing less good than it was harm, and perhaps the aftereffects of the flu. I guess his body just stopped breathing.”
Says Gilliam, “He desperately wanted to sleep. And he finally got the big sleep. I don’t know if it was the combination of his tiredness with his emotional state. I wish I had the answer. It really bothers me that I can’t make sense out of it. There was nothing grand or dramatic about it. It just happened. It’s still a big mystery.”
Ledger’s death threw everyone into shock.
Pecorini told Gilliam, “O.K., Heath is no longer with us, but let’s not have two casualties, him and the movie. Let’s have only one casualty and preserve what is done so far that was brilliant. Let’s move on.”
The question was: How? One of the options would have been to start over and package Ledger’s material as an “extra” on a DVD. But no one wanted to do that.
At four o’clock on that first afternoon, Gilliam had called Depp. The actor was in pre-production on Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, in which he was to play John Dillinger, but told Gilliam he would do anything he could to help.
The director had also huddled with Audsley, the editor, whose first move had been to secure the footage. “We were terrified that somebody would find out about the material and misuse it,” Audsley recalls. “We literally hid the digital masters under the sofa in my cutting room.” Now they needed to figure out if it was possible to continue the shoot. In Audsley’s words, “We started to talk about the possibility of using the Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole idea, re-inventing things on the other side of the mirror,” which would make it feasible to use other actors to play Ledger’s remaining scenes. At that time, the director hoped that he would need only one, Depp, to replace Ledger.
Two days after Ledger’s death, Gilliam and Pecorini flew to Los Angeles to see Depp. Pecorini had hectored his friend: “You tell Johnny, ‘Look at the work that Heath did. There is someone who was better than you. Can you match it? Do you have the guts to be as good as him?'” Pecorini explains, “For my part, there was a bit of rage. Because I never thought it was right that Heath’s last role would have been the Joker, with all the respect for the movie. Because having lived close to him while he was shooting it, I know it wasn’t something he believed in. It was just for fun.” (Alexander insists that Ledger was excited by the role, and proud of the job he had done with it.)
According to Garfield, “Nicola just became like a f**ing beast when Heath died. He was like, ‘No f**ing way we’re giving up.'” Gilliam and Pecorini showed Depp a tape of Ledger’s performance. “Johnny, we’re f**ed,” Gilliam told him. “Can you help?” As the director recalls, “He loved Heath, and he liked me, and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m there.’ That’s the great thing about Johnny—he’s a real mensch.” Adds Pecorini, “Johnny was really impressed by the footage of Heath.”
With Depp on board, Gilliam returned to London and dumped the logistics of making the performance happen into the lap of his daughter, who, he says, “got stuck with dealing with the complexities of what it really means to get Johnny, post-Pirates, anywhere.” Adds Amy, “He was e-mailing back, to say, ‘Yes, yes, I’ll do it.’ But everyone around him—from agents to lawyers to sisters [who run his company]—none of them was giving us the ‘yes,’ and without it we didn’t have Johnny Depp.”
“I don’t think a lot of his handlers were happy,” says Gilliam. “Our friend is an empire now. In the heart of these layers and layers of people around him is still Johnny. But the layers are there. That’s the sad thing about success.” Explains Pecorini—who introduced Gilliam to Depp after the D.P. first met the actor, in 1997, working on The Brave. “We were friends. We used to go to his house and play pool. [But now] it’s very hard to get into Johnny’s house. A lot of people in his entourage saw coming to Vancouver as a burden. They were coming up with stupid excuses.”
But the filmmakers were faced with a ticking clock: they needed to resume shooting in three weeks, or they would eventually lose Plummer, who had a commitment to another picture.
It quickly became clear that Depp’s other commitments would make it impossible for him alone to replace Ledger. Other actors, including Tom Cruise, offered their services. Gilliam decided to use Jude Law and Colin Farrell, both friends of Ledger’s. All three substitutes worked for scale, and the rest of Ledger’s salary went to Matilda. But, like Plummer, they too had other commitments, so making all three actors’ schedules mesh along with the rest of the cast’s was like solving a Rubik’s Cube.
One thing was relatively easy: Gilliam discovered he had to make only minor adjustments to the script to accommodate the new actors. He sat down with Depp, Law, and Farrell to decide how much they should carry on in the vein established by Ledger’s performance, or depart from it. According to Audsley, “Every visit through the mirror was intended to reveal more of the duplicitous nature of Tony. Johnny had the sort of charming-seduction thing going. Colin has a dark side, so as Tony was exposed, we thought he had to be the one at the end. And Jude fitted in between the two.”
Gilliam resumed production on February 25. “It was awful shooting after Heath died,” he says. “It was madness.” According to Gilliam, Christopher Plummer didn’t want to say a line that mentioned “an unforeseen death.” Gilliam told him, “Chris, that’s the script we were doing. That’s the script Heath wanted to do, so we do it.” Adds Grennell, “It was difficult to see the costumes that Heath was wearing being worn by the other actors. But knowing how much Heath would have wanted it to be completed, and how strongly he felt about Terry’s work, made it tolerable.” Says Gilliam, “Each day, it was really hard to keep going. It was: What are we doing? At times it felt like we were just going through the motions, because we just had to keep moving forward, looking to see where it went, hoping it would shape itself.”
At one point, it looked like Depp would be unavailable after all because of his commitment to Public Enemies, but producer John Ptak discovered that the actor had no contractual obligation to the Michael Mann picture until the first day of shooting. In the end, Doctor Parnassus had Depp for only a day and a half. Gilliam worried that it would be hard for the actor to get into the part, because he was so immersed in preparing to play Dillinger. “But because he’s so good,” Gilliam says, “because he was so prepared, he was utterly brilliant.”
Says Garfield, “The only reason we got to finish it was because of Heath, and the relationships that he had made in his life. And the people that he had inspired, given something to. I mean, how incredible that those people that stepped in stepped in.”
And then there is Heath Ledger. With his hoarse, smoky voice, his smile halfway to a grimace, parenthesized by parallel creases on either side of his mouth, Ledger is a highly physical actor; you can almost feel his performance before you see or hear it, like a bass line throbbing beneath the melody. In a complex and difficult part, he gives us everything we have learned to expect from him, and then some. A puzzle at the heart of a puzzle, his character gives him license to essay a blizzard of guises, calls upon him to be appealing, vulnerable, and frightening, all at the same time; he provides a whole new definition of identity theft. And in all these versions of Tony, the actor is wholly present, entirely in the moment, investing them with an almost uncanny immediacy. As Audsley says, “With all due respect to the other actors in the piece, who are all terrific, the film really only leaps into life when Heath appears.”
Adds Gilliam, “He was always evolving. Whatever it took, he would go down that road. Here was the guy who could do anything. There was just no limit. He was working on a script about chess with Allan Scott which he was going to direct. He was directing Doctor Parnassus, in some way. We were planning our future with Heath. We were going to make a million films. Nothing would have stopped him. Except death.”
And perhaps not even death. As Plummer puts it, “Anybody in this business who enjoys themselves as much as Heath did is unusual, and valuable, and what it’s all about. I like to think of Heath as not having disappeared. Because the one thing the screen does, that the theater does not, is to make you immortal. He was a joy and he’ll go on being a joy. Heath will be with us forever.”