Two deaths, one broken vertebra – but still Gilliam makes it to Cannes

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A dead A-lister, a dwarf, a trio of male cuties and a former Python with a wacky cackle drew the world's paparazzi to the Cannes Croisette last night for the first showing of Heath Ledger's final performance – but Terry Gilliam's fantasy tale The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus still lacks a distributor.

The director was in Canada last year when his daughter told him to look at the BBC news website: his lead actor, Heath Ledger, 28, had joined a select elite of actors, including James Dean and Oliver Reed, by dying during film production. Gilliam had shot about 45 per cent of the movie.

"The choice I made was to close the film down," he said yesterday in Cannes. "I couldn't see how we could finish it without Heath because we were in the middle of production.

"Fortunately, I was surrounded by really good people who insisted that I shouldn't be such a lazy bastard and I'd better go out and find a way of finishing the film for Heath. That's what we did." But not before the producer, Bill Vince, also suddenly died, requiring Gilliam's 30-year-old daughter Amy to step in. Then Gilliam (who memorably had to abandon The Man Who Killed Don Quixote after a series of misfortunes) was hit by a car in Soho, breaking a vertebra.

He rewrote the script and installed three stand-ins for Ledger: Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. (Gilliam signed the latter in an impromptu deal at Ledger's funeral.) The actors donated their fees to a fund for Ledger's three-year-old daughter, Matilda.

"I basically was just calling people who knew and loved Heath," Gilliam said yesterday. "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."

Ledger played the head of a children's charity who is found hanging from a London bridge and auspiciously saved by a travelling circus. He becomes part of the act. The show, led by the aging Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), allows audience members to slip through a magical mirror and enter a dream world of their own imagination.

Tom Waits appears as the devil, a bowler-hatted Lucifer with designs on Parnassus's teenage daughter, played by the model and Cambridge history of art student Lily Cole, 21. "I just know that the restructuring of the world through stories is vital," Gilliam added. "What I'm talking about is using one's imagination to expand the possibilities and the view of the world people have."

Gilliam arrived in Cannes this week still searching for a distributor, after a screening for Los Angeles film execs left them "dazzled but puzzled". His last two films, Tideland and The Brothers Grimm, tanked four years ago. Many end-of-festival distribution deals will be sealed in Riviera hotel rooms. Gilliam is no friend of Hollywood bean counters – he describes them as "hollow, desperate people" – but a good reception for Doctor Parnassus will propel reticent American buyers towards a deal, particularly given the cast and Ledger's enduring appeal (The Dark Knight surpassed $1bn in ticket sales in March).

However, the early murmurs from sympathetic critics are that the picture, while startling, may eventually be remembered merely as "Heath Ledger's last movie".

Ledger's family have yet to see the film, which they supported. "What was important for me was just to make a film with Heath's last performance up there alive and well," said Gilliam.

"I think they are going to be delighted by it."