One day after Heath Ledger’s death, Hollywood was still figuring out how to proceed on the two projects most immediately affected.
Production on Terry Gilliam’s indie “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” has temporarily shut down, while Warner execs are still determining how to adjust their marketing campaign on “The Dark Knight,” which is keyed to Ledger’s Joker character in its early stages.
“Parnassus” has three options: Replace Ledger in the role, shoot around him or shut down the production entirely. The insurance company will likely determine which option the producers take.
Samuel Hadida, Bill Vince and Amy Gilliam are producing the $30 million indie, which is largely financed through Hadida’s Paris-based Davis Film. Ledger’s involvement was a key factor in raising the coin.
Over the years other productions have employed a variety of techniques to work around the death of the actors portraying major characters. For better or worse, advancements in CGI and digital effects made it easier for producers to finish “Gladiator” and an episode of “The Sopranos” after the deaths of Oliver Reed and Nancy Marchand, respectively.
In other instances they have used stunt doubles to finish projects or reworked scenes after the star’s death. James Dean’s final scene in “Giant,” for example, had to be looped after his death in a car crash because he mumbled so much in the shot. When Brandon Lee died during an accident on set during production of “The Crow,” director Alex Proyas used a stunt double to complete scenes; Lee’s face was added using special effects. That film was days away from completion, however. Similarly, a look-alike for Natalie Wood was used after her drowning death during production of “Brainstorm.”
The producers used several techniques to finish “Wagons East” after John Candy died of heart failure, rewriting scenes or using a body double.
Further back, Louis B. Mayer threatened to scrap “Saratoga,” when Jean Harlow died suddenly, but relented after fans demanded he release it; a body double finished the remaining scenes with her back to the camera.
River Phoenix was supposed to co-star in “Interview With the Vampire,” but when he died, they recast Christian Slater in the role. He was working on another film called “Dark Blood” which was scuttled entirely.
And Chris Farley was working on “Shrek” for DreamWorks when he died; Mike Myers took over the lead voice role after his “Saturday Night Live” cohort overdosed in 1997.
Warners has a different predicament with “The Dark Knight.” Production on Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” sequel is believed to largely completed — principal photography concluded in the fall — but the initial marketing campaign focuses on the ghoulish Joker character.
To complicate matters further, the studio has just restructured its marketing operation. International marketing topper Sue Kroll now oversees all marketing for the studio in the wake of the exit of former domestic marketing president Dawn Taubin, who developed the “Dark Knight” campaign.
Kroll will likely have to move quickly to rejigger the studio’s current phase of the marketing campaign for “Dark Knight,” focusing on Ledger’s Joker character. This phase of the campaign had been set to run until March.
Ledger’s death is just the latest production snafu to afflict Gilliam. He started shooting “Parnassus” in early December and was due to wrap in March. Production segued from London to Vancouver this week.
Ledger was the biggest name in an ensemble cast including Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole and Tom Waits. Story concerns an ancient traveling show that arrives in modern London with a magic mirror that can transport its audience into fantastical realms of the imagination. Plummer plays the impresario Dr. Parnassus, and Ledger took the role of a mysterious outsider who joins the troupe on a quest through parallel worlds to save the doctor’s daughter (Cole) from the clutches of the devil (Waits).
Gilliam previously weathered a problem that plagued shoot of “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” dealing with flash floods and the injury of star Jean Rochefort before ultimately scrapping the production.
Ledger’s death also came as he was working on what would have been his feature directing debut, an adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel “The Queen’s Gambit,” with British writer-producer Allan Scott.
The leading role of a young female chess prodigy had been offered to Oscar nominee Ellen Page. Ledger, a skilled chess player, was due to play a supporting role.
In an interview last month, a few days after shooting started on “Parnassus,” Gilliam said, “Heath is extraordinary. He’s just so good, and he’s going to be a film director. He’s watching everything, and he’s going to be a much better director than I will ever be.”
(Adam Dawtrey, Tatiana Siegel and Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.)