Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Andrew Garfield, Lily Cole, Verne Troyer, and Tom Waits star in the film, though Ledger's death one-third of the way through filming caused production to be temporarily suspended. Ledger's role was recast with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell portraying transformations of Ledger's character as he travels through a dream world. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus interweaves several plot lines in a nonlinear arrangement.
The film made its world premiere during the 62nd Cannes Film Festival, out of competition. The film, which was budgeted at $30 million, grossed more than $60 million in its worldwide theatrical release.
Doctor Parnassus' theater troupe, which includes sleight of hand expert Anton, confidant Percy, and Parnassus' daughter Valentina, performs outside a London pub. The troupe's main attraction is a magical "Imaginarium", which offers whoever enters it a choice between difficult self-fulfillment or easy ignorance. After a drunkard is swayed to the latter, Parnassus says he has lost another one to Mr. Nick, a suave personification of the Devil. Mr. Nick reminds Parnassus that in three days Valentina turns 16, and her soul will be his. Hundreds of years ago Mr. Nick tricked Parnassus into gaining immortality, after making a wager similar to his current predicament.
As the troupe crosses a bridge, Anton spies someone hanging beneath it. They rescue the man, who spits out a golden pipe when revived. Claiming to have amnesia, he joins the troupe as a barker. Parnassus becomes despondent over the impending loss of his daughter. Mr. Nick visits Parnassus, revealing the hanging man is a disgraced philanthropist named "Tony". He offers Parnassus a wager: Valentina can stay with whoever wins five souls first.
Tony convinces the troupe to remodel the show into a more modern act. While performing, Tony lures a posh woman into the Imaginarium and follows her, where they enter a pastel-coloured dream-world representing the woman's imagination. The woman's imagination also changes Tony's face; upon discovering this, he dances elegantly with her, and they spy a motel run by Mr. Nick. Tony convinces the woman to take a gondola toward a pyramid alone, winning a soul for Parnassus. Tony falls back out of the Imaginarium, returning his face to normal; the woman exits shortly after and gives the troupe a vast sum of money. When three other women enter, each emerges elated; and thus Parnassus wins three more souls. Four Russian gangsters, to whom Tony owes money, are taken by Mr. Nick when they chase Tony into the Imaginarium. The score becomes four souls apiece.
With the bet nearing its end, Parnassus reveals Valentina's conception to her: after ageing from immortality, Parnassus made a new pact with Mr. Nick to be youthful again, in order to win the heart of a woman he loved. In exchange, any child he fathered would become Mr. Nick's property at age 16. Valentina attempts to run away, but Tony enters the Imaginarium to give his soul to Parnassus; in exchange, Parnassus must teach him the trance that powers the dream world. Valentina returns as he tries to enter the mirror, but Anton blocks them, having discovered that Tony is a fraudulent charity scammer.
Tony fights off Anton, pushes Valentina into the Imaginarium and joins her. Influenced by Valentina's desires, Tony's face changes again, and they float along a beautiful river in a gondola. After an impoverished child disrupts their boat trip, Tony transforms into a philanthropist speaking at a fundraiser. Anton, following the pair into the Imaginarium, appears as an outspoken child and exposes Tony as a fraud. A mob pursues Tony as the landscape disintegrates, causing Anton to fall into a void.
Distraught and angry over her father's bargain and a lifetime of hiding of the truth from her, Valentina gives her soul to Mr. Nick. Disillusioned by the easy victory, Mr. Nick offers Parnassus to trade Valentina for Tony. Chased by the mob, Tony flees to a gallows, but Parnassus confronts him, holding Tony's pipe and a copy. Parnassus challenges Tony to choose which pipe is genuine. He chooses wrongly, inserts the copy in his windpipe, and is hanged. Mr. Nick keeps his word and Valentina is freed, but Parnassus is not told where she is, and is abandoned to wander in the Imaginarium.
Parnassus emerges years later, finding Valentina is married to Anton and they have a daughter. He watches them from outside a restaurant window, but when tempted to join them, he is stopped by Percy. Teaming up once more, Parnassus and Percy sell toy theatre replicas of the Imaginarium and the troupe on a street corner. Mr. Nick invites Parnassus over to him, but Percy puts an end to the temptation.Heath Ledger as Tony, a mysterious outsider who joins the group.When Ledger died in the midst of production, the role was recast for certain scenes to show portrayals of "physically transformed versions" of the character within the eponymous Imaginarium:Johnny Depp
Christopher Plummer as Doctor Parnassus, a former monk, and the 1,000-year-old leader of a travelling theatre troupe.
Andrew Garfield as Anton: a member of Doctor Parnassus' troupe and who is in love with Valentina.
Verne Troyer as Percy, Doctor Parnassus' confidant.
Lily Cole as Valentina, Doctor Parnassus' daughter.
Tom Waits as Mr. Nick, a personification of the Devil.
Director Terry Gilliam and screenwriter Charles McKeown wrote the script for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, their first collaboration since The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). When he was approached with the basic concept by Gilliam, McKeown thought of the central character of Parnassus "as a semi-eastern medicine man evolved", and in retrospect he further said about the script's sensibilities, "[i]t is about the theme of imagination, and the importance of imagination, to how you live and how you think and so on. And that's very much a Terry theme. [...] I like the idea of storytelling being the thing that sustains the universe." Gilliam described the premise as a "fun and humorous story about the consequences of our personal choices in life", and explained his goal for the film: "It's autobiographical. I'm trying to bring a bit of fantasticality to London, an antidote to modern lives. I loved this idea of an ancient travelling show offering the kind of storytelling and wonder that we used to get, to people who are just into shoot-em-up action films." Gilliam and McKeown based the character of Tony on former British prime minister Tony Blair, who "would say the most insane things and probably he'd believe them himself".
Gilliam repeatedly said in interviews that the character of Parnassus was meant autobiographically, a tale of an aging man with a vivid imagination in a world that doesn't listen any more. Still being caught in depression over the disruption of his last self-written project, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, his constant struggle with the established studio system, as well as becoming aware of his progressing age, worried that he was going nowhere with his latest projects and that he might not have much time left, Gilliam put a number of references to sudden, tragic, and premature death into his script before the loss of Ledger became a reality. In fact, Gilliam felt compelled to emphasise time and again that upon the film's release many things might be mistaken as references to Ledger's fate but that the script wasn't changed apart from re-casting Tony with Depp, Farrell, and Law.
The film received a budget of $25 million at first, but its final budget was about $30 million. For The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Gilliam and his cinematographer Nicola Pecorini went wider than ever before on focal length with a new 8mm Zeiss lens, unusual even for a Gilliam movie which are usually trademarked by wide-angle imagery. The widest lens that had been employed before on a Gilliam film had been a 9.8mm Kinoptic. Production of the remaining computer generated imagery effects shots were carried out in Vancouver.
Production started in December 2007, beginning with various shots of the Imaginarium wagon moving about the London suburbs (to be more specific, Bounds Green, London) on the evening of 9 December. The carnival scenes were shot at Potters Field between 10–11 December; shooting then moved to the abandoned Battersea Power Station for three days, where the production had set up offices nearby. After a full day of set-up, the hanging scenes at Blackfriars Bridge were shot for three hours on the evening of 17 December.
At the same time that an intimate early scene between Andrew Garfield and Lily Cole was being shot on top of the travelling Imaginarium wagon, second unit work around London was also being done for several more nights, until 20 December; this change in schedule was to allow Heath Ledger a break to travel back to Australia to visit his family. After the entire cast returned from Christmas break, the production resumed shooting for 2008 back at Battersea for one full day; this was Tom Waits' first day on set, as he would mainly be required for the subsequent Vancouver shoot, not the London section. From 5–6 January, the production filmed scenes with the Imaginarium at Leadenhall Market; shooting on this sequence managed an average of 70 set-ups a day. The production had originally planned to shoot the Leadenhall scenes at Bond Street, but this was scrapped, due to security concerns.
After various nighttime footage at a Homebase parking lot in New Southgate, and interiors behind the stage curtain (including reaction close-ups of Heath Ledger) shot at Bray Studios in Windsor, production finally wrapped in Clerkenwell, with shooting on the night of 18 January being Heath Ledger's last footage shot for the film; he returned to his New York City apartment over the weekend while the production regrouped, and was expected to appear on set in Vancouver after a week's break for the second stage of shooting.
Production was disrupted by the death of Heath Ledger in New York City on 22 January 2008. Ledger's involvement had been a "key factor" in the film's financing. Gilliam was presiding over concept art when he was informed by a phone call that Ledger had died. His initial thought about the production was: "The film's over, it's as simple as that." Although production was suspended indefinitely by 24 January, Gilliam initially wanted to "salvage" the film by using computer-generated imagery to make Ledger's character magically change his appearance, perhaps into another character. He also wanted to dedicate the film to Ledger. The imagery would have been similar to transformation techniques seen on Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and those employed on Roy Scheider's performance in his posthumous release Iron Cross.
Eventually, actors Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law were cast to replace Heath Ledger in certain scenes, portraying the new idea of transformed versions of Ledger's character travelling through magical realms, while the footage shot with Ledger would remain in the film as his character's "real-world" appearance. Gilliam told Entertainment Weekly, "Then we made the quantum leap: What if we get three actors to replace him? [...] Johnny was the first person I called. He said, 'Done. I'm there.' Same with Jude and Colin." Depp, a friend of Gilliam's who starred in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the aborted The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, had been compared to Ledger by cinematographer Nicola Pecorini. Law was also a friend of Ledger's and had been considered for the role of Tony, and Farrell had also been friends with Ledger.
Initially, Tom Cruise expressed interest in being involved as another actor to replace Ledger, but Gilliam turned him down because Cruise had never been a close friend of Ledger. Gilliam stated, "I just wanted to keep this [in the] family—it's as simple as that [...] There were people even offering to come and help, they didn't know Heath. It had to be in the family somehow, I don't know why; it was my attitude."
One scene planned for the Vancouver shooting with the Tony character was scrapped; two others were altered to accommodate Ledger's absence, a third was added to plan for Colin Farrell's role in the film, and a fourth, already in the script, had a prop of Farrell in a magazine added. A fifth, with close-ups of Ledger already filmed, scrapped any major dialogue from Tony and used a body and voice double, as detailed below.
With the role recast, and the script restructured accordingly, filming resumed in Vancouver on 24 February 2008, a month later than originally planned; this push-back in filming also required another film produced by Samuel Hadida, an adaptation of the video game Onimusha, to be delayed indefinitely. Exteriors required for the film's ending, featuring Christopher Plummer and Verne Troyer, were shot during this time; the location work also required the presence of Tom Waits (on the first day) and Lily Cole (on the second). All of Plummer's scenes, including exterior flashbacks shown early on in the film, had to be filmed first in the Vancouver schedule, within three weeks, as he was due to leave to begin filming on The Last Station, which was to start production in Germany on 7 April.
After arriving in Vancouver on 26 February, Colin Farrell joined the cast and began practicing scenes with them for several weeks while Christopher Plummer's bluescreen and interior work was done, only beginning filming proper on 10 March. Farrell's work was the first of the Tonys to be done, as it was the only Imaginarium-based shooting that involved significant sets; the scenes at the charity ball were shot (at Vancouver's Orpheum Theatre), then the hanging scene, and finally the gondola sequence (rewritten from its original conception due to the now-compressed shooting schedule).
Johnny Depp's shooting on the film was the hardest to incorporate into any of the new actors' schedules, due to his contractual obligation on Michael Mann's Public Enemies at the time; in the end, Gilliam had access to Depp for one day and three hours. All of the shots involving him had to be completed in one take, to fit into Depp's compressed time schedule.
Finally, Jude Law arrived at the very end of shooting, on 2 April, to film the Imaginarium ladders sequence, which now required more dialogue than originally planned; a key scene in the Imaginarium wagon between Tony and the rest of the cast had been reserved for the Vancouver interior shooting, and so all of the dialogue (and, thus, narrative role of that scene) had to be funnelled into a conversation between Law and Andrew Garfield's characters in the Imaginarium. This conversation proved to be the last sequence shot for the film, and involved a set completely improvised, on the day, to look like the ground at Battersea; they did not have the budget for anything better, but the production crew came away quite impressed at how well it worked.
For the first two Imaginarium sequences, a double for Ledger, Zander Gladish, was used to ease the audience into the other actors as Tony; Gladish also doubled for Ledger in wide shots and masked close-ups for another, non-Imaginarium scene, where his character tries out various costumes. Gladish wore the character's mask for his shots, and did not speak, but is still credited for his work on the film.
Depp, Farrell, and Law opted to redirect their wages for the role to Ledger's young daughter, Matilda, who had been left out of an old version of Ledger's will, and Gilliam altered the part of the credits saying "A Terry Gilliam film" to "A film from Heath Ledger and friends."
Gilliam said in retrospect about the first transition from Ledger to Depp in the film:
Depp said of the experience:
Jude Law also commented on the film:
Colin Farrell commented on the experience:
Principal photography in Vancouver wrapped, as planned, on 15 April, but the production was soon beset by further tragedy when producer William Vince died of cancer, just two days after model shooting back in London had wrapped. Fellow producer Amy Gilliam, Terry's daughter, remembered, "[Bill Vince] always said, 'If you get your film in the can, you'll be all right.' And I kind of believe that he stayed with us to know that happened." Eventually, while on post-production, Gilliam himself was hit by a car, resulting in a cracked vertebra. Gilliam recalled: "So I thought, it was third time lucky – they just didn't get me. They got the star, the producer, and they were going for the director, and the fuckers failed on the last one. Whoever they are..." "They were going for the trinity [...] That would have been a tidy end to the whole thing. But they didn't kill me. I'm stuck here to tell the tale."
Gilliam finished editing the film by November 2008, and then work began on creating 647 computer generated imagery effects shots. As usual with his films, Gilliam found inspiration in particular painters for each CGI-generated scene inside the titular Imaginarium. According to Designing the Imaginarium published by CBSnews.com, the scene with Doctor Parnassus's attempted suicide related to the style of Odd Nerdrum, the Ladder World with Jude Law featuring "rolling hills with simple trees" was inspired by the art of Grant Wood, the kitsch landscape from the beginning of the sequence with Colin Farrell took inspiration from Maxfield Parrish, and Jose Maria Sert's mural of the Crucifixion in Rockefeller Center inspired the scene including the final minutes of Farrell's appearance in the film.
According to the official ParnassusFilm Twitter channel launched on 30 March 2009, post-production was finished on 31 March. After the production had finally come to a successful closure, Gilliam felt that "[I] didn't make this film. Forces from above and below made it. It made itself. I don't worry anymore. It's got its own relentless momentum. It just needed some human sacrifice." "It's made itself – I was just one pair of hands and there were many hands." "Don't get me into my mystical mode ... but the film made itself and it was co-directed by Heath Ledger!" "The irony is that the choices that were forced upon us improved the movie, so it was as if Heath co-directed the movie, even co-wrote it." According to Gilliam, actor Colin Farrell also went on record for saying that he hadn't been simply playing the character of Tony, but that he was rather feeling like "channeling Heath".
Gilliam also positively recalled people's commitment to Ledger's memory: "Everyone in the cast and everyone in the crew was determined that this film would be finished and everybody worked longer, harder and somehow we got through. It was really ... people's love for Heath that propelled this thing forward." "All the actors already in the film had to change their schedules, and there wasn't a moment's hesitation. [...] They all said, 'We'll do what's necessary.' It's really a love letter to Heath by everybody involved. He was beloved by so many."
The film opens with St Paul's Cathedral in the background (by the north bank of the Thames), and the first show is performed under the rail tracks at Green Dragon Court, directly next to Borough Market, with Southwark Cathedral in the background (in Borough, London, on the south bank of the Thames), where the drunken lout molests the performers and then enters the mirror. The next scene, with Tower Bridge in the background, is just east along the riverbank, by City Hall. Tony is found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge, and the very large disused building in which the following scene (and several later ones) occurs is the interior of Battersea power station, farther west along the south bank of the river.
The following scenes occur north of the Thames: the Homebase, DIY store at 3 Station Road, south of New Southgate railway station, in New Southgate, followed by the Horseshoe pub in Clerkenwell Close in Clerkenwell from which the wagon flees. The restyled show makes its debut in Leadenhall Market, where the stylish women gather to watch. Bray Studios near Windsor was used for model shooting and additional photography.
The remaining scenes were filmed in Vancouver. The fantasy scenes were filmed at Bridge Studios in Burnaby, while the charity gala occurs at the Orpheum Theatre, and the glass-walled "mall" is the Central Branch of the Vancouver Public Library, the curved arcade being the library's entrance foyer.
The original motion picture soundtrack of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was composed by Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna who had previously worked on Gilliam's Tideland (2005). Gilliam wrote lyrics for the two songs "We Love Violence" and "We Are The Children of the World", the latter of which spoofed Michael Jackson's famous "We Are the World" and was nominated for a 2009 Satellite Award in the category "Best Original Song".
The song "We Love Violence", performed in the film by policemen in drag, was sung by Gilliam, Mick Audsley (who edited the film), the musician Ray Cooper, Ed Hall (who was also the Visual Effects Editor), and Andre Jacquemin (who was Supervising Sound & Design on the film).Track listing
Before The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was finished, the film had already received healthy interest from worldwide distributors and the film sold out across the world. However, the film received lukewarm response from many distributors in the United States. Gilliam said that Fox Searchlight Pictures and other distributors had declined to release the film in the US. Eventually, the film's US distribution rights were acquired by Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group, which released the film in the US through Sony Pictures Classics. In fact, the US was the last territory in which the film was sold.
According to Reuters, the film debuted at No. 3 on its first weekend at the UK box office. The film debuted at No. 2 in both France and Italy, generating the year's third-best box office return on an opening weekend in Italy. Said Roberto Proia, distribution chief of the film's Italian distributor Moviemax, about its surprisingly warm reception, "Almost two years after his death, Ledger has a huge fanbase which, along with the rest of the stellar cast, certainly contributed hugely. [...] We also found out that teenagers massively love Gilliam, and we did not expect this. He really has rock star status." Eventually, the film had earned about $54,119,168 theatrically in the countries outside North America.
For the first two weeks of its theatrical run in the US, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus only played in four theaters and topped box office charts in per-screen average gross, taking c. $31,000 per location on each of the weekends, and beating even its direct competitor, James Cameron's Avatar, thereby. The film earned $415,233 on its North American limited opening Christmas weekend (25–27 December 2009), being presented in 48 theatres with an average of $8,651. The second weekend of Parnassus (1–3 January 2010) set an average of $7,684 with a gross of $368,836 which made for a total of $1,029,821 domestically. Releasing in 607 North American theatres, Parnassus took eleventh place on its opening wide release box office weekend (8–10 January 2010) with earnings of $1,762,637, an average of only $2,904 and a total of $2,989,290. Eventually, the film had earned $7,689,607 theatrically in North America.
According to the working partner of William Vince, the film had already made its budget back even before it opened in North America.
The film was released on DVD and Blu-ray in the United Kingdom (Region 2) on 29 March 2010, by Lionsgate Home Entertainment. Supplementary material includes an audio commentary and an introduction by Gilliam, deleted scenes, wardrobe test for Heath Ledger, visual FX feature, and three featurettes titled "Behind the Mirror", "Building the Temple", and "UK Premiere".
The DVD and Blu-ray were released in the US on 27 April 2010.
Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 64% of 186 critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 6 out of 10. The site's general consensus is that "Terry Gilliam remains as indulgent as ever, but The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus represents a return to the intoxicatingly imaginative, darkly beautiful power of his earlier work, with fine performances to match all the visual spectacle." Metacritic, which assigns a normalised rating out of 100 to reviews from film critics, has a rating score of 65 based on 30 reviews.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was nominated for two Academy Awards, in the categories Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction.
The Costume Designers Guild of America named The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus for Best Fantasy Film of the year with costume designer Monique Prudhomme receiving the award. In addition, it was also nominated for two BAFTA awards, including Best Production Design (Dave Warren, Anastasia Masaro and Caroline Smith) and Best Make Up & Hair (Sarah Monzani), but lost both to Avatar and The Young Victoria respectively. It holds two nominations at the 2010 Jameson Empire Awards (Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy and Best British Film) voted by the public and was nominated for two Saturn Awards, in the categories Best International Film and Best Make-up (Sarah Monzani).
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was nominated for Best Achievement in Production at the British Independent Film Awards, but lost to Bunny and the Bull. It was further nominated for three International Press Academy Satellite Awards, in the categories Best Visual Effects, Best Art Direction & Production Design, and Best Original Song, and Monique Prudhomme won the award for Best Costume Design. The film was also voted Best Fantasy Film of the Year by readers of the Total Sci-Fi Online magazine.