Every so often tragedy strikes and an actor passes away during the filming of a movie. When this happens the filmmakers are left with the choice of scrapping the whole movie, as director George Sluzier did when River Phoenix died during the filming of Dark Blood, or trying to find a way around it. The latter was the option Terry Gilliam chose when Heath Ledger died halfway through filming of the The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, instead casting Jude Law, Johnny Depp, and Colin Farrell to each play Ledger’s character when he goes into a fantasy world within the movie. Other times though, the actor will die leaving enough footage for the movie to be completed—or with investors who want to see something for their money. When this happens, filmmakers need to find ways to resurrect their stars, with some methods being more successful or tasteful than others.
Bruce Lee died in 1973 at the height of his fame. Shortly before his death, he had begun filming scenes for his starring role in Game of Death. The filmmakers, faced with the prospect of finishing the movie with only 30 minutes of new Lee footage, decided to complete the movie using two body doubles, some old Lee footage, a cardboard cut-out taped to a mirror, and, because the film has a plot in which Lee’s character fakes his death, actual footage of Lee’s funeral. Let that sink in for a moment. Game of Death is a Frankenstein’s monster of a movie, cobbled together from whatever the filmmakers could get their hands on like a YouTube fan trailer. Oddly enough, the movie gets pretty good reviews and is currently at 75% on Rotten Tomatoes. The shoddy ways in which the movie covers up the lack of Lee and the bad taste of the whole thing is mentioned in reviews, but mostly they focus upon the fight scenes and the iconic imagery of Lee in the yellow tracksuit. Seems even a little bit of Bruce Lee goes a long, long way
The advances in computer-generated imagery technology and special effects have removed the need for some of the earlier and shakier methods of completing a movie once an actor dies. One of the first times that CGI was used to resurrect an actor was actually for Bruce Lee’s son Brandon when he was killed on the set of The Crow in 1993. An accident involving a prop gun led to Brandon Lee’s death just three days before he was due to complete filming. Paramount was ready to scrap the movie and dropped out with Miramax coming on board with a cash injection and the intent to release the movie once the filmmakers worked around the death of their lead. They achieved this through filming rewritten scenes, with Lee’s stunt double standing, and a bit of then-revolutionary CGI that superimposed Lee’s face onto his stunt double’s. They were also very lucky to have a lead who wears make up that renders him unrecognisable in a movie that takes place mostly in shadows. To this day, I have yet to work out which scenes are Lee and which are altered.
During the filming of 2001’s Gladiator, legendary actor Oliver Reed died of a heart attack before completing all of his scenes. This led to the creation of a CGI Reed to give his character an ending. The original intention was for Reed’s Proximo character to wheel and deal his way to a happy ending, but Reed’s death changed his plot to give him a final act of heroism before the centurions dispatch him. CGI Reed appears for two minutes at a cost of three million dollars, and is a great example of doing this kind of thing well. He is kept in the shadows for most of his scenes and his dialogue is recycled from earlier footage/unused takes rather than an impersonator coming in. The whole thing feels like a tribute to Reed instead of something exploitative or tasteless. The filmmakers give him a heroic send-off instead of him being killed off-screen or simply not appearing again, and it works incredibly well.
More recently, the tragic death of Paul Walker in 2013 led to heavy reshoots and rewrites of Fast & Furious 7 in order to reduce his scenes and give him a send-off. CGI, deleted scenes from previous installments, and Walker’s brothers as stand-ins were used to fill in the blanks of scenes that required Walker’s presence; the final scenes of the movie involve a fully CGI Walker smiling at the camera before driving off into the sunset. Unlike the other movies mentioned above, this resurrection wasn’t simply a subtle bit of trickery to complete an actor’s final movie but more of a stirring tribute to the actor who was the star of a majority of these movies and close friends with the cast. The movie doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a farewell to Paul Walker, and it succeeds admirably in that regard, even if some of the CGI is a little shaky.
Naturally, filmmakers are forced to make decisions about actors’ roles when they pass in the midst of filming. But what if you’re making a prequel to a 40-year old movie and you want to include the same villains as the original? In one case the villain is a man in a suit that covers him from head to toe and the most iconic thing about him is his voice, which was provided by an actor who is still alive, so that’s sorted. The other villain, however, is an actor who died in 1994. Before the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story there were rumours flying around that a CGI Peter Cushing would be used to reprise his role as Grand Moff Tarkin from 1977’s Star Wars. In my naivety, I expected this would mean that Ben Mendelsohn’s new villain character would perhaps interact with a hologram of Tarkin or he would appear on a video screen. Nope. For Rogue One, ILM created a complete CGI Tarkin who features in a few scenes, interacts with characters, and is a major part of the plot. Reactions were mixed to say the least. Personally, I was happy with it. I thought it looked good and added more story to a character who has been fleshed out through other Star Wars media (the TV show, Rebels and the novel, Tarkin) but only got one movie to be a fantastic villain. On the other hand, I worry about the precedent this creates. This isn’t taking an actor’s final performance and adding some trickery to complete it. This is creating whole cloth something brand new without the original actor’s consent or involvement.
Of course, no sooner had we begun to worry about where this technology would take us, Carrie Fisher died. From what we can gather, while her scenes for Episode VIII were complete, Episode IX has yet to begin filming, and General Leia Organa was meant to have a massive part in the movie. Almost instantly people began to debate whether or not the character should be killed off between movies, appear through as a purely CGI creation à la Tarkin, or should be recast. Disney have since come out and said they have no intention of CGI-ing her and that they are still in discussions as to where to go next. As I’m sure Kathleen Kennedy is reading this article let me throw my two cents in and say recast. Carrie Fisher, the wonderful, incredible Carrie Fisher, would have wanted to see another 60-year-old actress get work in a huge motion picture. Don’t open the movie with her funeral or an opening crawl that announces her death. Don’t give us a ghoulish CGI depiction of her that would have her face but none of her immense charm. Look at the list of actresses who auditioned for Leia back in ’77 and see if Geena Davis, Stockard Channing, Sigourney Weaver, Sissy Spacek, Glenn Close, Jessica Lange, or Meryl Streep (my personal choice) want to have some adventures a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
The movies above are just a few examples and ones with critical acclaim in some cases and critical approval in others. There are movies like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow which brought back Lawrence Olivier as a floating hologram head or Iron Cross which briefly resurrected Roy Scheider with CGI and a full face mask, which have gone unremembered in the history of cinematic flops. On TV, deceased actors have been brought back in countless ads, with some working better than others. The success of Rogue One and the fact that Cushing’s posthumous appearance wasn’t utterly derided could mean that technology bringing back dead actors for whole new performances could become the norm, or perhaps it’s an aberration and we won’t see it to the extent of Tarkin ever again. Either way, actors will die and films will need to be completed. It is up to the skills and the ethics of the filmmaker how well this process is achieved and how good a send off it is for the actors we’ve lost.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures