It’s nine in the morning, and I am in a cab threading its way through a tangle of narrow country lanes toward Pinewood Studios, in Iver Heath, about 20 miles west of London, where I am to see Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, or, as it is more popularly known, “Heath Ledger’s last movie.” As everyone who hasn’t been hiding under a rock is well aware, Ledger died in January 2008, after accidentally taking a toxic combination of prescription drugs, while Doctor Parnassus was still in production. After a mad scramble to pick up the pieces, the film was finished with a little help from his friends Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell.
Built in 1935 on the grounds of a historic country home, Heatherden Hall, Pinewood is a storied production facility that has hosted a sparkling array of pictures, from early Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean to the James Bond series, not to mention recent blockbusters such as The Da Vinci Code (2006), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), and The Dark Knight (2008). But I’ve never had the pleasure and am eager to see the studio.
As the hedgerows bounce past, I glimpse solitary cows grazing in absurdly green meadows, and look in vain for the kind of garish movie billboards that herald arrival at a Hollywood lot. There are none, not even a signpost, and just as I begin to suspect that I’m being taken for a different kind of ride than I anticipated, we heave to at the front gate, a modern affair of steel girders and glass that replaced an old, Tudor-style gatehouse when the studio changed hands, in 2001.
Behind the gate lies the back lot, looking like any other back lot, save for the magnificent Victorian gardens that surround it. I make my way to the Technicolor Screening Room, where I meet Gilliam; his director of photography, Nicola Pecorini; Samuel Hadida, the film’s French producer; and a few others. I have always been interested in Gilliam. He is one of the few true auteurs left to us, with an unmistakable personal voice and style, as well as the scars to show for his epic campaigns against the studios, the most notorious being his tussle with Universal over the final cut of Brazil, in the mid-1980s. But I have to confess that I haven’t followed his later career as assiduously as I might have, and so I am extremely eager to see where his quirky sensibility has taken him.
The film is fresh from the lab, and we are seeing it at this facility because the production cannot afford to rent a screening room in London. (The filmmakers are so cash-strapped that at one point during postproduction Gilliam had to take the bus to work.) This is the first opportunity the director and his colleagues have had to see the picture with the special-effects shots in place, melded with the live action, so there is a palpable air of expectancy in the room. I am alarmed when Gilliam sits down one seat away; I have just arrived at Heathrow after a sleepless night flight from New York, during which I was squeezed into my slot in coach like a herring, and am afraid I will doze off or, worse, snore. He’s anticipating all the film’s shortcomings, muttering under his breath, “Piece of shit movie.” But when the lights go down and a funereal horse-drawn wagon thunders down a dark London street, the thing lurching precariously from side to side, the director falls silent and I’m jolted awake. The story is set in the present, but through Gilliam’s lens the locale looks more like Dickens’s London than Gordon Brown’s.
Despite the revolution in special effects that has transpired since the director wowed audiences with his 1981 fantasy, Time Bandits, Gilliam, a master of cinematic prestidigitation, retains a fondness for old-fashioned models, though he’s happy to play with today’s digital effects. Here he is in top form, opening with a display of outlandish visual pyrotechnics, an eye-popping mélange of imagery appropriated from everyone and everywhere—Salvador Dalí to Tex Avery—all given his own peculiar spin. 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, fleeting references to Gilliam’s previous pictures as well as classics such as The Seventh Seal and La Strada, 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 without becoming boluses that stick in the throat of the story. Or, to change metaphors in midstream, Doctor Parnassus is like a piñata exploding with brightly colored gewgaws, 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, “God’s banker,” 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. Before Ledger died, the image of him swinging in space popped up on the Internet under jokey headlines such as heath ledger hangs himself. )
Ledger’s fans—a category that now embraces almost everyone who goes to the movies, thanks to his Oscar-nominated performance in 2005 as the emotionally closeted Ennis Del Mar in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and his Oscar-winning re-invention of the Joker last year in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight—will not be disappointed. There is a lot of Ledger in this picture, which has the added advantage of showing him reloaded or, better, unplugged: without the slathered layers of white goo that were de rigueur for Batman’s clownish nemesis but obscured the actor’s features. 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, who looks chicly grizzled with close-cropped gray hair and a shadow of a beard, 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 created the group’s memorable animated titles and transitions and 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 Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), The Fisher King (1991), Twelve Monkeys (1995), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), and The Brothers Grimm (2005).
Given the swing-for-the-fences ambition of his movies and his consequent dependence on capricious financing, along with his manic disposition, most of Gilliam’s productions have been high-wire acts. In 2000 he suffered an ignominious fall when his The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, with Johnny Depp, collapsed six days into production after storms destroyed the sets, and Jean Rochefort, the actor who played Quixote, had to be hospitalized—events all lovingly detailed in the documentary Lost in La Mancha. In fact, the director has been so unlucky in so many ways that people speak of a “Gilliam curse.” But, although his work is uneven, he is incapable of making a boring movie.
Gilliam met Pecorini when he hired the D.P. to work on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Pecorini had been the great Vittorio Storaro’s Steadicam operator for many years, and first encountered Ledger in 2002 on the set of The Order (or “The Ordure,” as the D.P. refers to it), 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.
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, his first big Hollywood vehicle, 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 in the new film, 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 has its charms. It’s full of screeching ravens, dark forests, and all manner of witchery, but it’s not exactly an actor’s showcase. That Ledger’s performance was eclipsed by Gilliam’s mise en scène isn’t surprising.)
Between The Brothers Grimm and Doctor Parnassus, actor and director followed very different paths. Ledger went on to make Brokeback Mountain, a critical and box-office success that 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 of Ennis Del Mar,” 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 (who was himself nominated for an Oscar in 1985 for co-writing Brazil). “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.
Gilliam’s follow-up to The Brothers Grimm was Tideland, with Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Tilly. It features an obliging little girl who cooks heroin for her parents, who both die, and the story only gets weirder from there. Perhaps not surprisingly, according to Gilliam, the distributor, ThinkFilm, dumped it. Unhappy, he took to the streets of New York to hawk Tideland himself. Like the Ancient Mariner, with a square of cardboard hanging around his neck on which was scrawled studioless filmmaker … will direct for food, he buttonholed passersby, broadcasting the date of the opening as he collected coins and small bills, and muttering, “Independent filmmaker on the brink … God bless you and help a filmmaker out … You’ve made an old man happy … ” Addressing one startled young man, he said, “I hope you’re not trying to get into films, are you? This is how it all ends up.” He raised $25.
Gilliam’s career seemed to have hit a wall. Doctor Parnassus was born in the latter half of 2006, when the director hooked up with Charles McKeown, with whom he had written The Adventures of Baron Munchausen two decades earlier. “I was literally digging things out of my desk drawer—old ideas—and we just started throwing things around,” Gilliam says. “I was thinking of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, with Joseph and Mary’s little traveling theater. So we hit upon the Parnassus traveling theater going through London.”
The picture is an ensemble piece, revolving around a trio of characters: Doctor Parnassus, a God-like figure, pitted against his nemesis, the antically Mephistophelian Mr. Nick, who tricks him into incautiously trading his daughter for eternal life; Ledger plays a con man referred to as “Tony Liar,” the joker in the pack, if you will, who further complicates a convoluted plot. Explains Gilliam, “Both Charles and I were obsessed with Tony Blair at the time, and that’s why he’s called Tony. It’s about all of the hypocrisy that’s out there.” To the extent that the film has a central locale, it’s Doctor Parnassus’s traveling show, the distinguishing feature of which is a delightfully tacky mirror, resembling nothing more magical than a silvery Mylar curtain hanging inside an old picture frame, which nevertheless conveys people, when they plunge through it, into a fantasy world that reveals their true selves—or something like that. Rarely, it seems, is the journey a happy experience.
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 of Tony, 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 in the first of his Batman films, 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.”
Gilliam hired his daughter Amy and her producing partner, Bill Vince, who made Capote, to raise money. “He was wonderfully devious, like a good producer,” Gilliam says. “Lied to everybody.” The pair called producer and former CAA agent John Ptak and asked him to put together the financing. He in turn introduced Gilliam to Samuel Hadida, the French producer, who paid for the production out of his own pocket until a bank was found to secure financing.
Gilliam also gathered a support group of people he’d worked with before, among them production designer Dave Warren, who had just done Sweeney Todd. When the director called him, Warren remembers, “It was like the strange old friend you never want to phone you. Why do we quake in fear at the phone call offering us work? It was like, Oh, my God! We’re going to be dragged into this fucking madhouse again.”
Gilliam proceeded to put together an unconventional cast to fill the remaining parts: a dapper Tom Waits as Mr. Nick; model Lily Cole, who had virtually no acting experience, as Valentina, Parnassus’s daughter; and another near novice, Andrew Garfield, a young actor who had had small roles in Lions for Lambs and The Other Boleyn Girl, as Mercury the barker, complete with winged helmet. Verne Troyer (Mini-Me in the Austin Powers films) plays a dwarf gussied up as a medieval demon. Gilliam rounded out the cast with Plummer, whose ageless Doctor Parnassus first appears suitably guru-ish—brittle as parchment, a dried insect under glass—with chalky makeup and a wisp of a beard.
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 in Brokeback Mountain, 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.”