What do Oliver Reed, Brandon Lee, Natalie Wood and Paul Walker all have in common? The answer to that rather macabre pub quiz question is that all of them are examples of actors who have died during production of a film.
Today sees the release of Furious 7, a year and a half after the death of leading man Paul Walker in a car accident. Following a delay in production whereby producers worked out what to do, it was decided that Walker’s character Brian O’Conner would be retired rather than killed off. Filming was only halfway through at the time of his death, so no fewer than four actors were brought in to help complete Walker’s scenes using his face, voice and, presumably, a large amount of CGI.
Whilst some may have been horrified by such a decision – is it disrespectful to his memory? Shouldn’t the franchise stop now? – Walker’s family and friends were supportive of the decision; indeed two of the body doubles are his brothers. Besides, this is hardly the first time filmmakers have taken on the old adage that the show must go on.
Fourteen years before Fast and Furious producer Neal H. Moritz and co. had to find a way around Paul Walker’s death, the producers of Gladiator were left reeling from the sudden passing of Oliver Reed in the crucial role of Proximo, the gladiator trainer. In this instance, Reed’s face was digitally mapped on to a double in post-production, using shots of the actor from his completed scenes. Additionally, the script was rewritten to kill off Proximo. It cost the production $3.2 million for what would be about two minutes of footage, but the decision paid off in the end.
Gladiator went on to be a huge box office success, making over $400 million and winning five Academy Awards, including Best Visual Effects. Naturally. Like Walker’s, Reed’s family had no issue with the way the producers handled his death, though they were disappointed he never got nominated for a Best Supporting Actor gong. The film was dedicated to Reed, and the finished product is a suitable tribute to one of England’s great acting talents. It would have been more insulting to his memory to cut his character entirely, or recast, or not provide the character the closure provided by the VFX-aided scenes.
The moviemaking business would not be so affected by the loss of an actor again until 2008, when the world was rocked by the untimely death of the 28-year-old Heath Ledger. The Dark Knight was about to be released and people were already raving about his portrayal of the Joker, whilst also egregiously citing his commitment to that role as the very reason for his passing. He was also in the middle of production for Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Ledger’s involvement was a key element in the film even getting the green light, so the team were left with little choice but to close down production indefinitely. Gilliam, however, desperately wanted to see the film finished and dedicated to Ledger’s memory, and eventually it was decided that three new actors would play Ledger’s role.
As with Gladiator, rewrites were made to allow for Ledger’s character Tony to change his appearance in different ‘areas’ of the titular Imaginarium. Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell stepped in – all close friends of the late actor – to play Tony and the film was, happily, released for the world to see. The three additional Tonys all donated their salaries to Ledger’s daughter Matilda. The film was not nominated for a Best Visual Effects Oscar. Now, Gilliam could have started the film from scratch, or abandoned it entirely. We should be thankful that he didn’t, otherwise Ledger’s final acting appearance would have been lost and as with Oliver Reed, Gilliam’s decision was a far better one for Ledger’s legacy. Furthermore, whilst it is perhaps in bad taste to point it out, the morbid curiosity of the cinema-going public no doubt contributed to the film’s ticket sales. Terry Gilliam wasn’t exactly a massive box office draw in 2009, especially with a film including the words Imaginarium and Parnassus.
There are many other examples of actors who have died during production and been replaced by body doubles, or special effects. In many cases, the importance of their role demands it; Philip Seymour Hoffman, for example, couldn’t have been written out of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Parts 1 & 2. Producers and studios are lucky in that sense then, that the era of VFX is such that an actor’s face can be expertly mapped on to the head of a body double, and their voice manipulated or copied by an impersonator so that the audience need never know which scenes were completed after the actor’s death. Filmmakers must walk a fine line between respecting the dead and perhaps providing that actor with some legacy, whilst also minimising any adverse effect on production.
It’s clear that such a simple thing as a dead actor shouldn’t stop a film being made. Hell, what’s to stop someone further down the line from deciding, say, that Paul Walker should be in the next inevitable Fast & Furious film? They have his digital likeness already, after all. This is of course speculation, and no doubt there are a number of very good legal reasons as to why a studio couldn’t do this. For now. It’s not without form though; 15 years after his death Laurence Olivier “starred” in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and Marlon Brando made a cameo appearance in Superman Returns despite having been cremated two years previously. The film The Congress explores this idea – of actors being digitally recreated and thus able to star in any number of films even after they have grown old and retired – and the moral dilemmas that come from it.
It’s convenient then, and in many cases crucial, that we have this technology – but is it right? Just because we can do it, does that mean we should?