Terry Gilliam recalls his impossible quest to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
See Jonathan Pryce’s Don Quixote battle windmills in an exclusive clip from the film
“Whether you think [Terry] Gilliam’s a genuine hero or a self-aggrandizing Don Quixote, there’s no denying his go-for-broke originality,” it read in the pages of EW, in the review of the VHS (yes) of Gilliam’sThe Fisher King, in March 1992.
That was over a quarter-century ago, but the name Quixote is one that the filmmaker hasn’t been able to shake — in more ways than one. Since 1989 Gilliam has been trying to make a film about the iconic character, only for the project to fall apart, in spectacular fashion, time and time again. Until now. The three-decades-in-the-making The Man Who Killed Don Quixote finally shot in the spring of 2017, premiered at Cannes last year, and will hit theaters for a one-night theatrical Fathom event on April 10. Check out an exclusive clip from the film — in which Jonathan Pryce’s Quixote battles windmills, naturally — above.
“I’ve always been drawn to madmen, to fantasists, to people who refuse to accept the world for what it really is,” Gilliam tells EW. “Once [Quixote] got the hook into me I couldn’t escape. He just reeled me in. I fought. But he got me in the end… And you become Quixote-esque as you get hooked into that man. I’m sure it’s happened to everybody who’s tried to make it. The character takes you over at a certain point.”
Gilliam decided he wanted to make Quixote 30 years ago, after finishing 1988’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (a somewhat fraught production itself). “I called Jake Eberts up, who was the executive producer on [Munchausen]. I said, ‘I need $20 million, Jake. I’ve got two names: One is Gilliam the other is Quixote,’” the filmmaker recalls. “And he says, ‘You’ve got the money.’ We actually had the money at the start!”
But oh, they lost it. Gilliam got a better offer, which Eberts encouraged him to take — it was better, after all — and then “they kept me captive for a while, and then failed,” says Gilliam, whose energy and cheer never falter, even when recalling these decades-old frustrations. “And it’s been, [since] that moment, up and down.”
At the time of that first attempt, the script “was about old men sitting around a little plaza in a village in Spain, and they were all saying, ‘if only,’” Gilliam says. “‘If only I had done this,’ or ‘if only I hadn’t done that.’ And it was just one guy who said, ‘Ah, forget about this, all this moaning is ridiculous.’ And he decided to go out and behave like Quixote.” That’s not the shape that the plot ultimately took, but it speaks to the director’s own disposition: “I don’t spend much time looking at all my mistakes,” he says. “I try to learn from them, but I don’t [look back].”
The narrative evolved when Gilliam and co-writer Tony Grisoni developed it further for the next attempt, beginning in the late ‘90s. In this new version, a modern man meets Don Quixote when he travels back in time. Johnny Depp was set to star as Toby, the time-traveler, with Jean Rochefort as Quixote. Gilliam went into production in 2000, and the disastrous shoot lasted only six days before self-destructing, fraught with countless logistical issues and ultimately losing Rochefort, who had to return home to Paris with a double herniated disc. The doomed effort became the subject of the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha (a follow-up, He Dreams of Giants, is currently in post-production). “The problems weren’t of the corrupt, art-versus-commerce variety,” EW summed it up in a 2003 review of the doc. “They were mostly acts of God.”
Gilliam would probably agree, sort of. “I think God doesn’t like me, is the problem,” the filmmaker says of his many trials in getting Quixote to the screen. “Because I don’t believe in God, I think he’s trying to punish me. If he punishes me long enough, I will begin to believe in his existence. But I don’t.”
The years that followed that botched attempt were filled with more “up and down,” as the director described it. Just glancing through the EW archives, there’s a 2003 cover story about Johnny Depp in which Gilliam expressed his pleasure that the star’s high profile after Pirates of the Caribbean would enable them to raise the money to try again (in 2010, Ewan McGregor would be named as Depp’s replacement); Robert Duvall told the magazine in 2014 that “Terry Gilliam came to my farm, and he wants me to play Don Quixote;” and a 2015 news story announced that the filmmaker had Jack O’Connell and John Hurt on board to play Toby and Quixote, respectively, on a deal with Amazon.
The completed film stars not any of the men named above, but Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce. Gilliam wouldn’t have it any other way. “I always believe a film is making itself, I’m just one of the helpers along the way,” he says. “The film waited until the right people came along.” Gilliam’s daughter Amy, a producer on Quixote, first suggested Driver, but the filmmaker wasn’t convinced until he met the Star Wars actor. “When we were talking about [Driver’s] military experience, when 9/11 occurred and he joined the Marines, I thought, ‘That’s extraordinary! It’s almost Quixote-esque! That is a very foolish thing to do!” Gilliam recalls. “I thought, ‘he’s the guy.’ It was as simple as that.”
Pryce had been involved on the long-gestating project for years, but never in the title role. “Jonathan had been in the wings for 15 years, [but] he was never my image of Quixote, even though he’s a good friend and an extraordinary actor,” Gilliam admits. “When he hit 70, everything fell into place. I think, waiting that long, he just exploded on the screen — once I got the right nose on him. Always the nose is the problem. But we got a good prosthetic nose, and he became Quixote, just like that.”
Even after the Depp-and-doc debacle, the lowest point, by Gilliam’s estimation, was still yet to come. “It was in August 2016, having been involved with [producer] Paolo Branco for four months, and he pulled the plug on it,” the filmmaker says. Gilliam had announced the Branco-funded new production at Cannes that spring, along with the casting of Driver as Toby. Just a few months later, however, “[Branco] pulled the plug, because he didn’t have the money,” Gilliam recalls. “All the actors were in cars heading to airports to convene in Lisbon for our first read-through! It crashed, and to try to resuscitate it was really hard.”
Production had to be delayed once again, but that brought new problems. Driver’s wife was pregnant at the time, and the actor was not going to available in the spring of 2017. “That was when I had this first stroke, because that was an incredible pressure. I woke up and realized I’d lost a chunk of my left vision,” the filmmaker says. “So I thought that was quite ironic, for a visionary director to lose half his vision. But that’s the great thing about irony — that’s the only god to believe in!”
Ultimately, Driver was able to work that spring, but Gilliam hadn’t overcome every bizarre obstacle quite yet. Branco soon came after the production, claiming it was “patently illegal” and accusing Gilliam of making it “clandestinely” behind his back; the film’s producing team responded that the allegations were “preposterous.” Branco fought with Gilliam for a year to prevent the film’s release, and the legal nightmare lost the filmmaker his distribution deal with Amazon. In May of 2018, Gilliam suffered a medical episode that was widely but erroneously reported as a stroke. Finally, in the summer of 2018, a French court ruled that Gilliam owed Branco $11,600 in damages for a messily terminated contract, though the director retained the rights to the film. Now here we are, finally, on the eve of American distribution.
In the final story, Driver’s Toby is a cynical advertising director shooting a campaign in Spain, where he revisits the small village that provided the backdrop for the student film he had made about Quixote years prior. There, he finds that the old man he had cast in the title role truly believes, since making their film, that he is the legendary knight-errant and Toby is his squire Sancho Panza.
The addition of Toby’s student-film backstory was the biggest change to the original script, “and it also gave us a good parallel between the books of romance and chivalry that Quixote, in the 17th century, was reading, and movies [today],” Gilliam says. “It became very much this tale about the dangers of cinema, both what you see on the screen and how it affects you if you’re part of the process.”
The director is well aware of the latter, and not because of the decades he spent toiling to get Quixote made. “What that was really was about was what happened when we made Monty Python and the Holy Grail in this little village in Scotland,” Gilliam explains. “So many people’s lives were turned upside-down by a film crew. Marriages broke up, people came down to London with hopes of careers — all failed. So it was my guilt trip about that.”
Even after all these years of difficulty, Gilliam believes that the movie came together exactly as it should have. “I think all my instincts were wrong, and the film was right,” he says simply. “Time chose the right everything.” And those comparisons to Don Quixote, his elusive inspiration, another hero with an impossible dream? His co-writer Tony Grisoni has a theory: “I was much more the Sancho Panza in the piece,” Gilliam says. “I was not Quixote. The film was Quixote.”
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote will hit theaters for a one-night theatrical Fathom event on Wednesday. Check out an exclusive clip from the film above.