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(Credit: The Hollywood Archive / Alamy)

Film

Terry Gilliam remembers the "sweet and wise" Heath Ledger

The American director Terry Gilliam has created a host of iconic films over his long career, such as Brazil and 12 Monkeys, and whilst it often gets overlooked, one of the most significant remains his brilliant 2009 picture The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. 

Telling the story of a travelling theatre troupe’s leader who makes a bet with the Devil, this surreal, time-bending masterpiece is also the last title to feature Australian actor Heath Ledger, who passed away in January 2008, whilst the movie was still shooting.

Devastated by the loss of such a brilliant actor and an even better human, Gilliam was also left with the question of what to do with the unfinished film. He eventually elected to carry on and added a segment in which Ledger’s role was recast with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell all playing different versions of his character, Tony, as he travels through a dream world. 

Recently, during a candid discussion with The TalksGilliam spoke about his relationship with Ledger and explained his emotions upon hearing of his death. Asked where he was when he received the tragic news and if he thought he’d be able to complete the film, Gilliam’s response was as lucid as could be when recalling such an event.

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He recalled: “We had just finished in London. I went to Vancouver and Heath went to New York, and two days later, he was dead. I am sitting, working in Vancouver, and Amy, my daughter, who was producing the film, said, ‘You’ve got to come into this room’. And I said, ‘What’s up?’ And there it was it on her laptop, on the BBC website: ‘Heath Ledger found dead’. It’s impossible to believe, there’s no way he could be dead. It seemed it took all day before it began to really sink in that he was dead. Then I just didn’t know what to do, so I said that he had shot about 40% of what was supposed to be done – we can’t finish the film, it’s over.”

Revealing what changed his mind and convinced him to plough on, Gilliam said: “Amy and the others wouldn’t let me quit. It took us a week and a half before I began to think that maybe there was a way of fixing it. But I was never sure. Even when we started shooting again there were certain scenes I’d thought we were going to do one way and we couldn’t do it, so it was constantly adjusting to reality.”

The attention then turned to the media’s cynical attempts to turn Ledger into a myth, a sort of tragic hero in the same vein as Hollywood icon James Dean. Gilliam wasted no time in dispelling the stories that abounded about the actor following his death, presenting a figure who was always fun to be around and one who made an indelible mark on everyone he came across.

The director asserted: “All the stories were bullshit. They were trying to turn him into this… that playing the Joker had made him crazy. Absolute nonsense! Heath was so solid. His feet were on the ground and he was the least neurotic person I’ve ever met. Heath was just great and that’s why it became so impossible to understand. But for the outside world they had to sort of invent a reason. But it wasn’t drugs. It was prescription drugs – but even that doesn’t make sense completely.”

While describing Ledger’s character and energy, discussing how his death still doesn’t make sense to him, Gilliam expressed: “Nothing makes sense about it except that Heath was not what the public thought he was. He was incredibly intelligent, generous, sweet, wise, solid as a rock, and unbelievably playful. So when he acted, it was like playing, but wherever that playing went he followed it fearlessly. But then I would say ‘cut’ and we’d be talking about football. So there was none of this twisted neurosis that a lot of actors suffer from.”

Caveating his memory of Heath Ledger and his death, elsewhere, the Brazil mastermind put forward a succinct account of how the world works: “None of it is planned, none of it is hoped for – things happen.”

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