Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The empty actor’s chair

Sometimes there is a reason to live on this side of the Atlantic. Not always, but sometimes.

For example, sometimes movies open here before they open in the U.S. Not very often, but sometimes. Even British-produced movies sometimes open in the States before we get to see them over here. It’s hard to figure out sometimes. Sometimes big-budget Hollywood movies, like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Zombieland open on the very same day in both places. And other times a big-budget Hollywood, like Up, opens over here centuries later. (This past Friday to be exact.)

This general arbitrariness favors us on this side this week. Tomorrow Terry Gilliam’s latest movie The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus opens in the UK, Ireland and (of all places) Bulgaria. According to the IMDb, it doesn’t open in the US until Christmas. Go figure.

Up until now it has been playing all over the world, but only at film festivals. From Cannes to Munich to Toronto to San Sebastian to Vancouver to Mexico to Catalonia to the Hamptons, select audiences have already had a peek at this much anticipated flick.

You know the story. This was the movie that Heath Ledger was working on when he died tragically in New York 21 months ago. He subsequently received a posthumous Oscar for his performance in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, on which he had completed work. But Dr. Parnassus was still in the middle of production. It looked as though the film might have to be scrapped. It would not have been the first time that director Terry Gilliam had seen a cinematic vision of his fall apart. The sole American member of the legendary comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus had given us such visually impressive films as Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. At the turn of the century Gilliam set out to fulfill one of his visions, an adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quijote de la Mancha, which is considered to be the world’s first modern novel. Now Gilliam was not the first film auteur to set his sights on this classic. After he finished directing and starring in A Touch of Evil, Orson Welles undertook an adaptation of the Spanish classic. He began filming in Mexico in 1955 with Mischa Auer in the title role. But working in fits and starts, he didn’t get very far. Re-locating back to his self-imposed exile in Europe, he continued in Spain with Francisco Reiguera as the titular don. Akim Tamiroff continued as Sancho Panza. Welles continued fiddling with the project in between other projects but finally had to stop filming upon Reiguera’s death. Still, he continued to do editing work on the footage into the early 1970s. Apparently, Welles was not particularly driven to finish the project, which came to include his wife and daughter in roles, using it as something of a hobby or exercise. A version of the movie was pieced together by Jesus Franco and Patxi Irigoyen from the various fragments Welles left behind after his death and was released in 1992. Good things were not said about it.

Unlike Welles, Gilliam gave every indication of wanting to finish his Quixote. French actor Jean Rochefort, a physically perfect choice, was cast as Don Quixote. As recounted in Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s documentary Lost in La Mancha, the project was plagued by contractual and health issues with actors, scheduling conflicts, budget cuts, location problems and natural disasters. Ironically, Gilliam’s version was to be called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. But there are indications that Gilliam is still hoping to resurrect the project. The IMDb lists it as being in pre-production with a release date of 2011. We can only hope.

But ahead of that, Gilliam has had another major problem. He was in the middle of a movie in which his leading man had suddenly died. Normally, in that situation, insurance would have been collected and the project closed down. Gilliam has said in interviews that he didn’t see how he could continue. But then he began to see a way. Because The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was a fantasy, Gilliam had more leeway to work around the absence of a key actor. Specifically, he could cast other actors to play the same role and use magic as an explanation for the physical transformations of the character. And so American Johnny Depp, Englishman Jude Law and Irishman Colin Farrell joined the cast as different versions of Tony, Ledger’s character. The title role is played by Christopher Plummer, and the devil is played by the rumble-voiced Tom Waites.

This is by no means the first time a filmmaker has had to deal with the death of a key actor. Perhaps the most famous case is that of Brandon Lee, son of the legendary Bruce, who, like his son, also died before his time. The younger Lee was fatally wounded in an early scene of the movie The Crow. In a time and/or cost-saving measure, proper dummy cartridges were not used in a gun in the scene, and the results were deadly. Brandon Lee was only 28 and left behind a grieving mother and fiancée. He is buried next to his father in Seattle. Because scenes were not filmed in script order, most of the movie had actually been shot. Stunt doubles were used to complete the remaining scenes, and special effects were used in some cases to insert Lee’s face. When the movie was released in 1994, I remember watching for obvious signs of working around the actor’s absence, but didn’t see any.

Another tragic case of an actor dying in the course of filming was that of Vic Morrow in 1982. Featured in a segment of John Landis’s Twilight Zone: The Movie, his role required him and two children to be pursued by a helicopter. Pyrotechnic explosions (the scene was set during the Vietnam War) caused the helicopter to lose control and crash, killing Morrow as well as My-Ca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, ages 6 and 7. Landis and his fellow defendants (including producer Steven Spielberg) were ultimately acquitted of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment, and lawsuits by the victims’ families were settled by multimillion-dollar payments. The incident led to reform of child labor laws and California safety regulations on movie sets. The accident ended Morrow’s long acting career, which included movies like Blackboard Jungle, King Creole, God’s Little Acre and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, as well as the World War II TV series Combat! He was the father of actor Jennifer Jason Leigh. Because of the grisly way the actors died (Morrow and young Le were decapitated), seeing the movie has always been a creepy experience, beyond the deliberately weird subject matter.

In 1955, 24-four-year-old James Dean died in a traffic accident in central California before post-production had finished on George Stevens’s Giant. (Heading west on a road I know well, Dean met an oncoming driver who, apparently not seeing him in the dusky evening light, turned left into his path. Lesson: always turn on your headlights.) Dean had completed filming his scenes, but in his final scene, in which his character delivered a drunken speech at a banquet, he mumbled so much that it had to be re-dubbed. The picture would undergo a full year’s worth of editing before being released in 1956. Nick Adams provided the voice in a few places for the deceased Dean.

There are numerous other cases throughout film history of technicians having to work around dead actors. Another case that comes to mind is the digital trickery to get around gaps in the performance of Oliver Reed, who had a fatal heart attack while filming Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.

Premature deaths of high-profile actors always risk overshadowing movies that are released after the thespian’s demise. Oddly, Ledger’s sad fate might actually have the side effect of helping Terry Gilliam’s movie at the box office. If so, it will be a final, if involuntary, gift of sorts from an actor who was nothing if not committed to his work.

-S.L., 15 October 2009

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