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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 February 2008, 10:36 GMT
How do you replace a film star?
Heath Ledger

By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

Heath Ledger is being replaced by three A-list actors in the film he was mid-way through making when he died. It's a new solution to an age-old problem in the movie business.

The location work in London was in the can and filming for Terry Gilliam's latest production had been about to move to Vancouver in Canada. Then came the untimely death of actor Heath Ledger.

Ledger, 28, had been the biggest name on the cast list of Gilliam's work in progress, the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and, according to co-star Christopher Plummer, the American-born director had been a "very good friend" of Ledger's.

If you are a filmmaker you have a responsibility to try to get the film made
Bob McCabe

As tributes poured in for the actor, the future of the $30m (15.4m) film lay in doubt. "'Parnassus' is shut down," said the Hollywood Reporter. But while Plummer speculated to the press that Ledger could be digitally recreated to finish the film, Gilliam seems to have been hatching a more creative solution - enlisting three big name actors to play incarnations of Ledger's character.

According to Jude Law's spokeswoman, Law, Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp will play the role of Ledger's character, Tony, in the film, subject to negotiation. It is thought that original footage of Ledger will remain.

Bottom line

The plan lends a new twist to a problem that has dogged filmmakers since the early days of cinema - how to complete a movie when one of the headliners dies before it's a wrap.

While Gilliam's close friendship with Ledger appears to be an important motivator in his wish to complete Parnassus, the bottom line is often a more compelling reason to keep rolling.

As casting director Carol Dudley recalls being on the MGM lot during the aftershock of Natalie Wood's death, while making Brainstorm in 1981.

Oliver Reed
Oliver Reed's performance was fleshed out with CGI

"People wanted to get their money back. They had to find a way to make it work."

The film was completed with a stand-in and clever camera angles designed to obscure the fact that the screen siren in the frame was not the same as the name which graced the posters for the film.

The body double approach to making up for a death in service has been around at least since 1937 when Jean Harlow died, aged 26, during the making of Saratoga. With filming 90% complete, a lookalike and two Harlow sound-a-likes (voice doubles) took up where the star left off.

But in those days before computer-generated imagery (CGI), pulling off the body double trick convincingly was a tall order - never more so than in the notorious B-movie Plan 9 From Outer Space. Director Ed Wood had only bagged about two minutes of footage of lead actor Bela Lugosi for the film when the actor died of a heart attack.

Wobbly gravestones

Undeterred, Wood rewrote the script and enlisted chiropractor Tom Mason, who stood a foot taller than Lugosi, for the role. Wood tried to conceal the stark difference in height between the two men by having the stand-in stoop. As for the lack of facial similarity, Mason cloaked his face with a Dracula-like cape.

The film was panned, but Dan Jolin, features editor of Empire magazine, says it was all part of Wood's charm.

"Ed Wood was a singular filmmaker and wouldn't let anything stop him from making the film he wanted to make. It's so obvious the guy standing in for him is a different height. But in a film with wobbly gravestones and flying saucers hanging from bits of string it actually works."

Natalie Wood
Stand-ins and camera angles disguised Wood's absence

The advent of CGI lent a more professional edge to filling in for newly deceased actors. Probably the first film to use computers to this effect, says Jolin, was John Candy's last movie, Wagons East.

"They finished the film without him and used footage of him that was tweaked but it was weird and uneven and it felt like Candy wasn't really in it."

By the time of Oliver Reed's death, on the set of Gladiator, in 1999, computer effects had progressed to such an extent that Reed's living, breathing absence was barely noticeable. If there was a crack, says Jolin, it was more in the continuity.

"The only slightly jarring thing was [Reed] was going to live in the film. There was a line he said to Russell Crowe in the film and that was used as the final line and it felt clunky."

By comparison, Gilliam's novel solution to Ledger's death is consciously low-tech. But the director's biographer, Bob McCabe, says he believes the solution is a "brilliant idea" and characteristic of Gilliam's "fantastic imagination".

"If you are a filmmaker you have a responsibility to try to get the film made, but it has to be true to itself."

Carol Dudley notes Gilliam's idea would be unthinkable in a "straight thriller. [But] filmmakers like Terry Gilliam are walking a line between hyper-reality and fantasy and so can get away with this sort of idea."

"It's something his films can rise to," says Dudley. "Why not make lemonade from the lemon rather than sweep it under the carpet."

Below is a selection of your comments.

I have seen Brainstorm countless times and, being unaware of the fact that Wood died during filming, have never noticed her absence.
Nancy Bang, Esbjerg, Denmark

Bruce Lee's last film, Game Of Death, features stand-in doubles, cardboard cutouts, and an actor wearing a paper mask with Bruce's photograph printed on it!
Andy, London

It's worth mentioning the first effective use of CGI to complete a film where one of the leads has "died in service" was The Crow. After Brandon Lee's tragic death, the film was completed using digital composites from existing footage of Lee.
Dermot Canniffe, Galway, Ireland

I find it amazing what can be achieved these days. I recall watching The Crow - where Brandon Lee died mid-way through filming - and being totally unable to see what is 'genuine' Brandon and the late fill-ins. I'm sure Gilliams fix will be most effective. I just continue to find it very sad that events have occurred which means he has to do this.
Merson Tuffers, Staffs, UK

The notion that Gilliam's solution is novel though, I find hard to believe. Its seems very similar to the idea of 'I'm Not There' - the film in which Heath Ledger himself was just one of the actors playing the character of Bob Dylan along with the likes of Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett.
Charlie, Cambridge

Gilliam's idea is nothing new - David Lynch did it purposely in 'Lost Highway', when Bill Pullman's character is incarcerated, and the next morning has transformed into Balthazar Getty, playing a completely different character - baffling both the police and the audience in typical Lynch fashion.
Martin Conaghan, Glasgow

It's nice to see the film industry using an idea first introduced in Doctor Who. But I bet they won't acknowledge it!
Mick Clarke, Elland West Yorkshire

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