Terry Gilliam appeared in Comic-Con's mammoth Hall H on Thursday afternoon to discuss his forthcoming movie The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus — "forthcoming" meaning "no specific release date yet," although one may be announced very soon. It's a Gilliamesque fantasy — grotesque, lush, Brueghelian — about an immortal doctor with an anachronistic, traveling theatrical troupe and a magic, reality-transforming mirror, who's bound to give up his daughter to the Devil on her imminent sixteenth birthday. As Gilliam joked at a press conference a little later, "This is my Fanny and Alexander, or my Amarcord. This is a compendium of all the things I used to be good at."
Unlike a lot of other filmmakers who've appeared at Comic-Con, Gilliam has a direct connection to comics — in the mid-'60s, he started his career working with the great cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman. And the clips and trailer he played, while they didn't exactly clarify the story, showed off the movie's stellar cast, including Tom Waits (the "living god" as Gilliam called plays the Devil), Christopher Plummer (as Parnassus), and Verne Troyer (yes, the Mini-Me guy), who plays Parnassus's henchman Percy and joined Gilliam at the presentation.
But, not to mince words, the biggest selling point of Dr. Parnassus is that it's Heath Ledger's final movie. Ledger, who played a slippery, masked supporting character named Tony (named after Tony Blair), died partway through filming. "Everybody is basically waiting to see Heath's last performance," Gilliam noted, "but I want you to understand that this film is basically Dr. Parnassus's film." Still, many of Ledger's key sequences hadn't been filmed yet, so friends Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law all stepped in to play transformed versions of Tony in other scenes.
"I don't think it's ever happened before that a main actor dies, and three A-list actors come in and take over his part. It tells you how much they cared about him," Gilliam said. "It was unbelievably brave and foolish. There was no time to prepare. We had Johnny for one day, three and a half hours. He just came in and did it. I'd shown them some clips of some of the stuff that Heath had done. I didn't know that it was going to work, but it did.
"There's so much luck involved with this movie. There's a magic mirror Tony goes through, and he's wearing a mask. It wasn't even in the script. It just kind of happened. Each one of the choices that were forced upon us improved the film. I've been saying Heath co-directed it — he forced me to do all these things differently, to make a better film than I was making."
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