Terry Gilliam’s Imaginarium, and Heath Ledger’s Trippy Ride Into the Sunset

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You’ve got to give it to Terry Gilliam: The man can roll with the punches.

By now, the Gilliam curse is legend. His movie The Man Who Killed Don Quixote fell apart in the first week of shooting, when his lead actor suffered a herniated disc and the film’s set was almost completely destroyed. Flash forward to his next project, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which opens in select theaters this Friday before expanding wider Jan. 8. Midway through shooting, lead actor Heath Ledger dies, leaving the world wondering if yet another Gilliam project would grind to a halt.

(More on Techland: The best sci-fi and fantasy novels of the decade)

A far-fetched tale of a traveling band of actors who set up impromptu performances outside bars and in mall parking lots, what sets Imaginarium apart as the wildest acid trip of a film released this year is the magic mirror that can transport spectators into an alternate reality molded around their imagination. It’s almost like Alice’s rabbit hole, but for grown-ups. As the movie slowly becomes more about imagination land versus reality, Gilliam can pretty much create any sort of absurdist landscape he desires. Mountains spring up as buildings crumble away. One guy walks on stilts that let him check out the clouds. A woman who loves shopping passes through the mirror and is surrounded by 50-foot-tall high heels. It’s trippy stuff.

So trippy, in fact, that Gilliam was able to save the project when Ledger died. He merely pushed the story further into fantasy.

Casting Jude Law, Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp as variations of Ledger’s character, the swapping works seamlessly. Out in the real world, we are always seeing Ledger. But inside this extreme, distorted, even perverse mirror world, Ledger’s character constantly changes shape, to look like whatever man his companion desires. So when a woman passes through the mirror and dreams of Jude Law, voila: Ledger transforms into Jude Law.

Techland got the chance to sit down with Gilliam – the maestro of Time Bandits, Brazil and 12 Monkeys – a few weeks back, as he came through Manhattan promoting the film. We wanted to know just how he came up with this story of a roaming imagination mirror, and how he managed to overcome something as traumatic as the death of his biggest star. As you’ll see in our discussion above, Gilliam says that, in fact, Ledger’s absence led him to make decisions that ultimately made the story tighter and more engaging. “That’s why I kept saying, he’s directing the film posthumously,” Gilliam says.

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