TORONTO - Even though nearly 20 months have passed since Heath Ledger's sudden death from an accidental prescription drug overdose, Terry Gilliam says he still can't quite believe that the star is gone.
Gilliam directed Ledger in the actor's final film, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this week.
The Oscar-nominated director said he had no idea Ledger was having problems.
"The shock was unbelievable," Gilliam told The Canadian Press in an interview Thursday in his Toronto hotel room. "We ended shooting in London, and it was: 'Eh, great!' (Ledger) had done his own stunts, it was fantastic, it was a good night."
"I go to Vancouver to set up for a week later when we were going to start shooting, and he goes to New York, and two days later he doesn't wake up. It was like: 'What?' For us, it was just impossible to imagine because this is a man so full of life and energy and just spirit - and just suddenly, it stops."
Ledger's death also posed a practical problem for a director who has persevered through an unusually trouble-plagued career.
Gilliam endured prolonged battles with studio executives over both "Brazil" (1985) and his first Ledger collaboration, "The Brothers Grimm" (2005).
His fantasy "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" has also been notoriously difficult. Production was initially shut down after a few days of shooting because of a string of mishaps, yet Gilliam still plans eventually to revive the film.
But while the "Monty Python" veteran worked around a litany of problems on those films, he said that Ledger's death left him feeling as though "Parnassus" could not be salvaged.
"What do you do when your star dies? The movie's over, as far as I was concerned," Gilliam recalled.
In the film, Ledger plays Tony, a slithery fundraiser for children's charities who is left for dead, hanging from a London bridge (this haunting image shockingly marks Ledger's first appearance in the film).
Tony is rescued by a travelling theatre troupe, run by Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), a boozing former monk who made a deal with the devil (Tom Waits) for immortality in exchange for his daughter's soul, a decision he now desperately regrets.
Ledger's role required the actor to be simultaneously charming and shifty. At one point in the film, his mischievous smile is enough to persuade a series of swooning women to dive into Parnassus's magic mirror, the gateway to a world of imagination.
Ledger died with only about half of his performance for "Parnassus" filmed, but ultimately Gilliam found a way to work around it.
Jude Law, Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp helped complete the movie by playing Ledger's character in the scenes he was never able to shoot - all of which take place within the mirror's fantasyland, which, the film establishes, can occasionally warp a person's physical appearance.
Gilliam said working with Ledger was "brilliant."
"He was as good as they get - they don't get better," Gilliam said. "He was just a phenomenal actor and we only saw the tip of the iceberg. "
"And he was just a great human being, that was the other thing. He was just a joy. He was just laughing all the time."
Gilliam said that Ledger aspired to become a director, "so he was behind the camera half the time." Ledger reportedly suffered from insomnia while the film was shooting, but Gilliam said that no one would have known it from watching the actor on set.
"He was incredibly generous as an actor with all the others, he just lifted our spirits," Gilliam said. "I was holding on for dear life - he had so much energy - trying to keep up with him."
Which is part of why he's had such trouble processing Ledger's death.
"When you get something that's so like a shooting star, and then suddenly it's dead, it's just a terrible thing," Gilliam said. "None of us still quite believe it, I'd say, is more to the point."
"But the great thing is, you know, cutting the movie (made it feel) like Heath was still alive. He's on the screen. My editor Mick Audsley was like: 'Why is he doing that in that shot? Damn him!"'
"So Heath was still there every day."
"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" opens in theatres on Dec. 25.
Director and writer Terry Gilliam poses for a photo as he promotes his new film "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" at the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday September 17, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young