By Dave Campbell | May 26, 2009
Set in the present day, director Terry Gilliam’s fantastical morality tale follows the traveling show of the mysterious Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) — a man who once won a bet with the Devil himself, and possesses the unique ability to guide the imagination of others. Many centuries ago, Dr. Parnassus won immortality in a bet that found the malevolent Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) coming up short. While few would be foolish enough to try their luck against the powers of darkness a second time, Dr. Parnassus did precisely that — this time trading his mortality for youth on the understanding that his firstborn would become the property of Mr. Nick when the child reaches his or her 16th birthday. Flash-forward to the present day, and Dr. Parnassus’ daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), is about to celebrate her sweet sixteen. Dr. Parnassus is desperate to save his little girl from her fiery fate, and when Mr. Nick arrives to collect, the good doctor presents the Prince of Darkness with a wager too enticing to refuse: Dr. Parnassus and Mr. Nick will each compete to seduce five souls, with possession of Valentina going to whomever manages to complete the task first. As the competition begins to heat up, Dr. Parnassus promises his daughter’s hand in marriage to any man who can help him successfully navigate the surreal obstacle course that lies ahead and finally help him undue the many mistakes of his past.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus had its world premiere at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival last week, but is still waiting on it’s dates for theatrical release around the world. The film was the last for fallen star Heath Ledger (Tony), who died almost midway through the films production. Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell took on the variations of the Tony character through the parallel worlds to complete the film and pay honor to their friend and colleague. Even with the enormous weight this brings, Gilliam is running into challenges releasing the film.
Terry Gilliam is a trooper when it comes to fighting for his films. He has had to overcome major hurdles over the years just to see the release of his films. Gilliam fought battles with studio execs. over Brazil (1985) and previous Ledger collaboration The Brothers Grimm (2005). In 2000, Gilliam saw his fantasy epic The Man Who Killed Don Quixote shut down due to a plague of mishaps. Last week Gilliam said he would soon restart production on Don Quixote, which will star Johnny Depp reprising his role from the original production.
Ledger’s character, Tony, is a slick-tongued fundraiser for children’s charities who crosses Russian mobsters and is left for dead, hanging under a London bridge. He’s rescued by a small theater troupe run by Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), an immortal monk who made a deal with the devil (Tom Waits) and now must find a way to keep the wily demon from taking the soul of his teenage daughter (Lily Cole).
Here’s Gilliam in his own words about Ledger and the film, “Heath was enjoying himself so much, and he was ad-libbing a lot, which I don’t normally allow … but Heath was just brilliant at it, and he got everybody else going,” Gilliam said. “Everybody was just energized by Heath. He was extraordinary. He was almost exhausting because he had so much energy.
“That just passed on to everyone else. Everyone’s part grew because they were full of Heath’s energy,” Gilliam said. “What I thought was interesting was to watch people filling the void that Heath left. Everybody was just growing to make sure that there was no void left in the space that Heath had left us.”
“Fortunately, I was surrounded by really good people who insisted that I couldn’t be such a lazy bastard and that we had to go out and find a way of finishing the film for Heath. The real credit has got to go to Johnny, Colin and Jude, which was an extraordinary thing, to come in. They’re all doing other films, they’re involved in other projects, and they came to the rescue of this thing. They did it solely, basically, for nothing. The money they would have been paid went to Matilda, Heath’s daughter. To me, they’re the real heroes.”