The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is unmistakably the work of Terry Gilliam, the wide-eyed auteur behind such classics as Time Bandits, Brazil, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The movie, which opens Friday, tells the story of the wizened Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and his extraordinary Imaginarium, a traveling show where members of the audience pay to pass through a magic mirror and enter a world of their own imagination. But times are tough for Parnassus and his troupe when the film begins (the public is more interested in iPods than imagination), and it only gets tougher with the appearance of Tom Waits, who's perfectly cast as the devil to whom Parnassus wagered his daughter's life, centuries ago.

Like Parnassus, Gilliam's troubles making the film were even more extraordinary than usual: His star, Heath Ledger, died halfway through production. But instead of leaving Ledger's last film on the cutting room floor, Gilliam devised an elegant solution, enlisting the help of Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to portray Ledger's character within the fantastical world of the Imaginarium. It actually works within the context of the story, and while it's impossible to watch the film without thinking of Ledger's untimely end, the game-saving participation of Depp, Law, and Farrell brings a surprising poignancy to the final act. We recently spoke with Gilliam about Ledger, and his struggle to make the Imaginarium movie a reality.

There's something in the film about how stories sustain the universe. A group of monks are reciting a story under the belief that if they stop, the universe will stop. Does that dovetail at all with your personal beliefs? Yes, I do think stories are what keep the world turning. Parnassus's problem is the ego-maniacal notion that his story is the one that counts. Stories are what define or describe the world we're living in, whether it's the Fox network telling you what they're telling you, or CNN, or whether it's a movie or a book. And which one is true, I'm not sure... I don't think there's news anymore. Facts aren't even facts anymore, they're all parts of stories, they immediately become part of some kind of narrative. So yeah, that's what goes on. That's not to say all stories are good, either. I think we live most of our lives trying to get to something that is more honestly representative of the truth of the world, and yet you're constantly confused by all the other versions that are being thrown at you.

You were saying in some interview that it wasn't until you finished shooting that you understood what the film was about. That's probably a misquote. I wasn't sure if the film was going to work at all until we finished the whole thing. We were shooting it and when Johnny, and Colin and Jude were coming, everything we were doing... We were trying to work on a kind of autopilot, with no real honest belief or conviction that we were gonna pull this baby off. And the second we got back to London and did the assembly and showed it to some people who had no real knowledge of what had gone on, and they assumed it was written to be done this way, with four people playing the same character. And that moment I realized it works. I've always kind of known what the film was. On the other hand, you finish the film, and you start talking to other people about it, and reading things about it, you realize, "Well, maybe what I thought I was doing isn't exactly what I did."

And what would that be with this film? What are you hearing that has surprised you and given you a new perspective on the film? Oh God, here's where reading is the dangerous thing because I've heard so much so long I assume everything is what I always thought it would be. It's like when I make a movie, it changes a lot in the course of it, by the end of it, I think this is what I intended. I'm very easily fooled by other people's versions of it. The movie is what it is. I honestly play with it while we're doing it, so I keep saying, maybe the movie is a lie. Maybe the opening shot with the wagon coming into town and seeing Bob lying there asleep, maybe that's Parnassus, and the whole thing is a dream. Maybe Parnassus is not a thousand years old. I don't trust this guy necessarily.

That Imaginarium wagon you mentioned is so fascinating, and it seems so real. Was that actually functional? Oh yeah, and I thought by doing that we were going to save a fortune, because we would have this little set we could take anywhere with us. It didn't work out like that because it had to perform different things; it had to be open, which required the stage to be more solid. When it was closed it had to be a light-weight version there, when it was being pulled by horses we had to strip everything out inside to make it light enough. When we had people up top we had to strengthen it. It became a nightmare. And then when it actually opens up at the beginning of the film we had to add and take off different elements. It was constantly changing every little thing. So my theory was completely wrong, that it was going to be easy and cheap.

Does some version of it still exist somewhere? No, when we moved it from London to Vancouver, in London it was so cold and wet when they packed it, it came to Vancouver and it was rotting already. So it got us through all the things we had to shoot in Vancouver. By the end of it, it just rotted to pieces, it doesn't exist, it was only in our imaginations for a brief moment.

I was really startled by the first frame of the film that Heath appears in, in the context of knowing about his tragic death, and also having seen The Dark Knight; his last frame in The Dark Knight has an eerie symmetry to this film. Do you worry about that taking viewers out of the world of the film? It's funny; I've talked to a lot of people, I always knew there was going to be a reaction, it's very hard for there not to be one. But I talked to enough people that it didn't take them out. The weirdest thing, I was thinking, only a few months ago I noticed this, the tarot card that Parnassus has of the hanged man, he's hanging upside-down by his feet, and that's the last image of Heath in The Dark Knight. There's a lot of that kind of stuff, I could go on for a very long time about these strange coincidences. I don't draw conclusions from them, but they're just facts.

What was another one? Strangely enough, Heath was obsessed with Nick Drake and he was working on a film about Nick Drake. And I discovered, a couple weeks after Heath had died, that the editor of my film, Mick Audsley, had been Nick Drake's roommate. And Heath never got a chance to talk to Mick about Nick Drake.

It seems like these things happen to you a lot. Do you start to feel like there's some sort of supernatural thing going on? Because it feels like you're opening up Pandora's box with your movies, which are so fantastical, do you think these things are happening to you more than somebody else? [Laughs] I don't know. I really don't. I think it's interesting that in this script, which is so much about mortality, and there's the speech Johnny does about Princess Di, James Dean, and Valentino dying young, never growing old. A lot of people thought that was written after Heath died as a eulogy. It wasn't. Everything that was in the film was in the script before he died. But those are the things that worry me. Be careful what you write.

So at what point after his death did you realize you could proceed with the film? I wasn't allowed not to feel that we could proceed. My daughter Nicola Pecorini, who was DP, and Amy Gilliam, who was producing, wouldn't let me stop and give up. Because my initial reaction was, "It's over, it's finished, we go home." And they said no, Heath's last work is not going to be left on a cutting room floor somewhere, we gotta do something. It took me a few days before I began to believe we could salvage and make a movie. And it was once I made that leap, it was very easy to figure out what to do.

Do you think, looking back, perhaps the situation forced you to make choices that may have led to a better film? Well, there's one side of me that kind of thinks that Heath was co-directing it after he died; certain scenes couldn't be done because he wasn't there and we cut them out, and because they weren't necessary. It was a fact that Johnny, Colin and Jude worked so beautifully, so seamlessly, most people say it feels like this is what was always intended. I'll never know whether Heath continuing the character, through all the transformations, which were not as extreme as they are now, whether it'd be a stronger film, a more dramatic film, I don't know. In my heart, I think it might be. i think this is maybe a more entertaining film, this way.

Besides losing Heath, and I don't want to trivialize that, but I'm just wondering what other challenges you faced in making the movie? The hardest thing was getting the money. We got no Hollywood money at all. We ended up making this completely outside of Hollywood, outside of American money, which just astonished me with Heath Ledger playing the lead. Once Heath died, it was just hard all the time because everything was so complicated trying to get the other three guys here, they had schedules, they were working too. We had a huge insurance problem, we were dealing with money, on the effects side we doubled the number of effects shots, everything just became difficult. So it was more of a compilation of difficulties that made it so hard.

You know I saw Lost in La Mancha, which was so fascinating, and what I walked away with was this idea that you have these great visions and you're also somehow cursed when you try to make movies. Why is it so hard for you to make movies? Do you ever think there's a curse to blame or something? Well, the perception of me in Hollywood is trouble, but they don't look at the facts: The three movies I made in Hollywood, The Fisher King, Twelves Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas were the easiest films I ever made, they went very smoothly, they were very successful. But the reputation hangs on that has nothing to do with reality. There's that, and it's just that I don't want to do what other people want me to do, that's the other thing. I want to do what I want to do. And I find each time I come to Hollywood, they say, "Oh, Terry we love your work, we're huge fans, Time Bandits when I was a kid it changed my life, Brazil, blah blah blah" and I show them the new project, and they say, "This one, I don't know, I just don't see it working."

And I've been hearing that same line of dialogue for 20 some years now, and nothing changes, and it's like, oh this is crazy. And I also think, I try to do movies that make you think, and Hollywood doesn't want to make movies like that, because they want to reassure you, they want people leaving the cinema reassured, the world is fine, come back next week, buy some more popcorn. I don't know, I don't think I try to make it difficult for myself. I'm lucky enough to have really great actors happy to work with me, and that's usually the reason I'm able to get films off the ground: because of the actors, not me. And it's just, I don't know. It's always difficult. It's all about having a successful movie I suppose. The Brothers Grimm ended up making $140 million but it was still deemed not successful because it wasn't successful in America; in the rest of the world it was a big success. Tideland was a movie that was never meant to be a commercial movie, it was always going to be a small difficult film. You do a couple of those, and you're in trouble, that's just the way the system works.

Now to promote that one, you were filmed on the streets of New York carrying a sign reading "will direct for food." Do you have anything like that planned to promote this one? What's interesting is there's a website, "ImaginariumofDrParnassus.com," and it's run by this woman in LA. It's completely unofficial, we don't have any connection to it. This 50-some year old woman runs this website, and she has been extraordinary. I think next weekend she's doing a big demonstration on Hollywood and Highland in LA with people carrying placards to get people to see the movie. She saw it in February when we didn't have an American distributor, and she was getting people all over the world to send in photographs of themselves holding hand-made signs that they made, saying "I'm Maria from Brazil, I want to see Dr. Parnassus." And she had people from all over the world sending these things in. She's extraordinary. I met her when I was out in LA a month ago and she's just doing her own work, it's a really good website that's renewed everyday. I actually go on it now to find out what I'm doing!

And she's not affiliated with you in any way? Not at all. She's a secretary for a lawyer or something, she I guess goes home at night, then does this stuff. And literally now she's got people all over the world, so when I went to Germany for the Munich film festival, and several people turned up, they had driven down from Frankfurt, to say "we represent the support site." It's great that, this idea of people really trying to feel like they're doing something to help, because most people feel dis-empowered on every level in life now.

Yeah, I get it, because your films are very personal, and they resonate with people in a unique way. I could see people wanting to rally their support behind you, especially since you have challenging times getting your films made. It's that thing. OK, I don't have as many followers as other people, but the ones I've got are just so dedicated, and to me that's what's important. I want to make movies that deeply effect people, not just entertainment, but to effect them. And I seem to be reasonably successful at that.

Is Don Quixote next? That's the plan. I just read online that Robert Duvall is doing it.

Yeah, I read that too, about an hour ago. It's true, I was trying to keep it secret.