▶ He Dreams of Giants, a new documentary following The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’s production, is streaming on BFI Player and other digital platforms from 29 March.
▶ The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is available on Now TV.
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When a freak hailstorm and flash flood struck the set of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in September 2000, the actors ran for cover, the crew scrambled to secure the cameras, and the embattled director Terry Gilliam walked out into the storm. He raised his fists to the skies and shouted at the top of his lungs, and then he stood and watched as much of their equipment was washed away on a torrent of mud.
The indelible image of Gilliam staggering against the elements was captured in the tragicomic documentary Lost in La Mancha (2002) and – having already endured the disruptive presence of Nato bombers flying over their location – it seemed to mark the point when he knew that his dream project, which he had first conceived in 1989, was falling apart. When they attempted to resume shooting, a double herniated disc incapacitated his septuagenarian lead actor Jean Rochefort and removed all doubt. Five days into production, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was doomed.
Seventeen years later, I arrive in Portugal to observe Gilliam’s latest attempt to resurrect The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, and the prevailing mood is calm. There have been no illnesses, no mishaps and no acts of God; in fact, the company has experienced just two days of inclement weather so far, which happened to coincide with days scheduled for shooting interiors. Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, the directors of Lost in La Mancha, have been documenting the film’s progress again, but so far their sequel is shaping up to be considerably less dramatic.
Everyone is quietly moving forward with a production that has already come through five weeks in Spain unscathed and has now descended on Tomar, a small Portuguese city founded by Knights Templar in the 12th century, with the spectacular Convento de Cristo offering a perfect backdrop for Gilliam’s tale of a knight-errant.
One section of the convent has been commandeered for today’s shoot, while tourists continue to roam around the rest of the building, some of them confusedly snapping pictures of a giant wooden pyre that production designer Benjamín Fernández is constructing for a later scene.
He gets tired a bit quicker than he used to, which is natural, but his energy and enthusiasm for making this film is undimmed.Jonathan Pryce on Terry Gilliam
When I reach the set I find Gilliam busy preparing for a shot that will involve a long camera movement and 20 actors on horses, and the animal factor is giving him a headache. The horses have to be lined up two-by-two in the same order for each take, and some of them are more compliant than others. “I’ve always avoided horses and now they’re here, it’s a nightmare. You have this idea that you’re going to be like John Ford and everybody else, but no,” Gilliam complains, pining for his Monty Python days. “We were really smart when we were young: we just used coconuts.” Still, if the biggest issue currently facing the director is a few uncooperative horses, then perhaps the cinema gods are smiling on Gilliam at last.
Since the collapse of Gilliam’s film in 2000 he has mounted eight attempts to produce The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, with a number of distinguished actors passing through the project’s revolving door. Robert Duvall, John Hurt and Michael Palin have all been lined up to play Quixote at various points, while Ewan McGregor and Jack O’Connell came close to replacing Johnny Depp as Toby, the character who becomes the mad knight’s Sancho Panza-like companion. He has finally ended up with Adam Driver playing Toby and Jonathan Pryce as Quixote, and Pryce certainly looks the part, emerging from make-up this morning with unruly hair, an impressive prosthetic nose and his ramshackle knight’s garb liberally spattered with blood. “We went out for dinner last night and there was a big argument over who should pay the bill,” he explains with a smile. “It’s mostly Adam’s blood and he ended up paying.”
This is Pryce’s fourth film with Gilliam, and he says little about how the experience has changed since Brazil (1985), aside from the fact that they’re all a little older now. “He gets tired a bit quicker than he used to, which is natural, but his energy and enthusiasm for making this film is undimmed,” he says. “It has been frustrating for him because he’s made this film a hundred times in his head already. But while he knows what he wants he’s also excited when it goes off in a direction he hasn’t seen, and I think that has happened now with me playing Quixote. It will be my Quixote, and Adam’s obviously a very different creature to Johnny Depp, and he’s very excited about it.”
I think films can – to use a technical term – fuck up people’s lives, and that is very much at the core of this one.Terry Gilliam
The film that Gilliam has made and remade in his head has evolved in a new direction over the years too. His original conception of the story had Toby time-travelling from the 21st century to the 17th, where he was mistaken for Sancho Panza by Quixote. Since then, Gilliam and his co-writer Tony Grisoni have reworked the script, ditching the time-travel angle and making their Quixote a humble shoemaker named Javier who played the role in a short film Toby directed when he was a student, and subsequently became convinced that he really was Don Quixote. When Toby returns to Javier’s tiny Spanish village after a decade, having made his fortune in advertising, he discovers that the deluded old man isn’t the only person whose life was adversely affected by his youthful filmmaking endeavours.
“In a sense, Quixote in this film is Toby’s Frankenstein’s monster,” Gilliam explains. “This little cobbler played a part in a little film, and he went mad. Our hero Toby goes back to his past thinking it’s going to be great and everyone will love him, and of course they all hate him because he destroyed many lives along the way.”
Not only is it a very different story to the one Gilliam was shooting 17 years ago, but he believes it’s a much richer one. In part, the film is a contemplation of the dangers and responsibilities of filmmaking, and these ideas have their roots in an experience Gilliam had when he made his first feature film more than 40 years ago.
“A lot of this is what happened when we did Monty Python and the Holy Grail . We went to a little village in Scotland and that little village was changed by our being there; marriages fell apart, pregnancies occurred and people’s lives got very confused. I think films can – to use a technical term – fuck up people’s lives, and that is very much at the core of this one.”
With all actors and horses in position, we are finally ready for the first take. The shot begins on two guards keeping watch above the entrance to ‘Mishkin Palace’, with one giving an order to open the gate. The camera glides downwards as the huge doors are hauled open, and then it runs along the line of trotting horses until Driver and Olga Kurylenko are framed in a two-shot to exchange a few quick lines of dialogue.
The shot is easily described and will appear on screen for less than a minute, but the business of executing Gilliam’s vision eats up many hours in the hot Portuguese sun, with the coordination of gate, camera, actors and horses working better in theory than in practice. Just before calling for action, Gilliam darts into a nearby tent to watch the playback, and a few moments later we hear an exasperated cry: “That was fucking terrible!” Instructions are relayed to the various participants and everyone prepares for take two, which means lining up the horses again.
The next set-up seems even more straightforward on paper, with the production moving to the other end of the courtyard to film an encounter between Driver and the Spanish actor Oscar Jaenada, who is playing a mysterious gypsy, but once again its simplicity proves to be deceptive. Jaenada is required to remove his hat and perform an elaborate bow, causing Driver to do a double-take as he passes by on his horse, but something is off about the timing.
After a couple of attempts, Driver jumps from his steed and runs across to the video village to discuss the shot with his director, and there is an increasingly frantic air about everyone’s activity as they try to nail this scene with the available daylight rapidly diminishing.
Two more actors, Jordi Mollà and Joana Ribeiro, have arrived to shoot their planned scene, but as the company has fallen behind schedule it looks increasingly like they will have to come back in the morning instead. Between takes, Ribeiro demonstrates the knife-throwing technique she has been practising for a later encounter with Driver. “Wow! That was great,” Gilliam yelps as she unsheathes and hurls the blade in a single fluid movement.
There’s no doubt that working with actors is the part of the process that Gilliam is most passionate about, or that actors love working with him. He’s a fantastically animated figure whenever he is directing any member of his cast, giggling with delight every time their conversations yield a fresh idea. It’s the larger machinery of filmmaking that grinds him down. Making a movie is a slow and piecemeal process, and one that is always going to be difficult for somebody as restless and energetic as Gilliam to endure.
“I hate making movies, that’s a simple fact,” he says as he sits down in a shaded area for lunch. “It’s so easy to imagine something, but just look at the shot we were doing this morning. It’s easy – ride along, say a couple of words – and we’ve just spent hours doing that simple shot. My problem is that it’s been four years since I directed a film and so I began to believe that movies are simple things to do. Orson Welles always said it’s the best toy anybody could ever have, but no, it’s just painful.”
The mention of Welles reminds us that Gilliam is not the first director to be bitten by the Don Quixote bug. Welles began shooting footage for his adaptation of Cervantes’s novel in 1955 and spent much of the next three decades trying to finish it. But all those bits and pieces never added up to a movie, and the film became Welles’s own quixotic obsession; a vision he had to pursue even as he knew it was a mirage. He just couldn’t let go of the film he always referred to as ‘il mio bambino’, and as late as June 1985 he was still discussing ideas for it with editor Mauro Bonanni. He died four months later.
For many years, it seemed as if Gilliam might be bound for a similar fate; another iconoclastic director cursed to chase his white whale for the rest of his days, with it always remaining agonisingly beyond his reach. So it does seem almost miraculous that we are actually standing here, watching him film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, with the end finally creeping into view.
Gilliam was 58 when he began shooting this film and by the time it reaches UK cinemas he will be 79, and after almost 30 years of frustrations, setbacks and compromises, he knows the time has come to draw a line under this particularly protracted and eventful chapter in his life. “I’ve just got to get this done, I’ve been thinking about it for too long,” he admits. “When we began shooting it was frustrating because we didn’t have the money and the time to do it the way I would like to, but we’re halfway through now and I’ve gotten used to the fact that it’ll be what it is. It may not be the film I set out to make but it is the film that’s being made, and that’s enough.”
As Gilliam stands to go back to work, a commotion in the courtyard catches his eye. It’s those horses, once again failing to play along as crew members attempt to wrangle them into formation for the next take. “Oh coconuts, give me coconuts!” the director groans as he marches towards them. “These things are a fucking nightmare.”
I left Portugal sharing Gilliam’s relief that his long-held dream was becoming a reality, but of course it was never going to be so straightforward. Just before the Cannes premiere in 2018, another obstacle emerged in the shape of producer Paulo Branco, who staked a claim of ownership over the script following an abandoned 2016 production. Although the case was ultimately settled with a payment of €10,000 to Branco, the threat of legal action had already led to Amazon Studios dropping its option on US and UK distribution, and Gilliam’s producers have spent much of the past two years trying to find a home for it in multiple territories. Now at last this rambunctious, charming and moving film is reaching cinemas, and Gilliam’s saga has finally come to an end. Don Quixote lives.
Sight & Sound Summer 2021
In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy