It’s been 30 years since Terry Gilliam first dreamt of making a movie about the foolish, windmill-chasing knight Don Quixote — and it’s been roughly 29 years since it became his nightmare. As the tragicomic documentary Lost in La Mancha proved, Gilliam’s Quixote picture is the dictionary definition of a cursed movie, plagued by financial troubles, ailing actors and noisy fighter jets flying overhead. But now he’s finally broken the spell, and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote last year received a marathon standing ovation at Cannes.
Although the filmmaker, 78, is a bright, cheery, cheeky personality — when he enters a Manhattan hotel suite for an interview about the film, he asks why his room isn’t nearly as nice as this — the decades of frustration surrounding the project are evident. He gets comfortable on the room’s couch, crosses his legs and straightens out his trademark rat tail. And then he opens his eyes wide and reflects on the whole process of making Quixote.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see it when it was finished,” he says. “I thought I might just get rid of it. It’s been such a long thing. It probably won’t be for about 10 years until I can actually watch the film like an outsider and see whether it’s good or not.”
By that point, it will have been 40 years since Quixote first occupied his mind. He first conceived the idea in 1989 but didn’t seriously start work on it until 2000, when he began filming the picture with Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort as his leads. That production crumbled as storms, F-16s and Rochefort’s health halted production just a few days in. Over the years, he attempted it again and again; at various points, Colin Farrell, Jude Law, John Hurt and his old Monty Python pal Michael Palin, among others, were attached. Eventually, production on the final edition began in March 2017. By the time it was done, he’d suffered a minor stroke that he says was brought on by Quixote-related stress.
The film, which opens with a one-night-only screening on April 10th and will get a full theatrical release starting on April 19th, now features Gilliam’s Brazil star, Jonathan Pryce, as an unwitting Don, and Adam Driver as a commercial director named Toby who is trying to make a Quixote-themed ad. When he happens on a student film he made about the man of La Mancha years earlier, he revisits the town he shot it in only to find that his film ruined the town. Pryce’s character, Javier, was once a local cobbler that Toby had cast to play Quixote; he now believes he truly is the chivalrous knight, and everyone else has gone mad in their own way. Toby realizes he must face the mess he created, as well as the concentric circles of Gilliamesque chaos that now surround him.
Not surprisingly, the plot had gone through several iterations since Gilliam began work on it (originally it was a riff on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) and he knows that people’s expectations for the film have only grown as it’s become more infamous. The legend grew even larger before its Cannes premiere when Portuguese film producer Paulo Branco attempted to stop the screening. It nevertheless was a smash at the festival, making fans even more excited to see it. So as Gilliam nestles into the suite’s couch, he smiles wide and embraces the inevitable.
“The worst part of the whole process is those 20 years, with people waiting and their expectations growing, because clearly over the time [they think] it must be getting better and better and better,” he says. He leans forward, and his voice turns comically loud. “Not true! It’s just getting more different. In the end what it is, it is.”
How much did you concern yourself with the legend that has surrounded this film, when you were making it?
It took me a week or two to get into the swing of things, because I knew that over the years people’s expectations had been growing and their idea of the film has been expanding far greater than anything we can probably do. And knowing we were making it for effectively about half the money we were making it for in 2000, it’s not going to be the same movie. But to be honest, I think it’s a much better film because the script has gotten more interesting over the years. In the original one, it was like he got bonked on his head and ends up in the 17th century. That’s very different from what we ended up doing.
Why did you change the plot so much?
You get bored with it. As the years pass, you change. It was [cowriter] Tony Grisoni, really, who said, “Let’s let him have made a film when he was younger, when he was pure and full of hope and optimism and dreams. Now you see him 10 years later, rather cynical, unfulfilled, an asshole basically.” That created the situation where Toby is guilty of creating what Javier becomes. It’s a film about guilt, really.
You first thought about making a Don Quixote movie in 1989 and worked on a script with your Brazil cowriter, Charles McKeown, at the time. What did the plot look like then?
It was basically a last-hurrah story in my mind. It was all these old guys sitting around a square in a village somewhere in Spain, going, “If only I hadn’t done that. if only I’d done this instead.” One guy, who becomes Quixote, is just like, “Fuck this ‘if only’ business. I’m old. I’ll die soon. So fuck it, I’m just going to go for it.”
The basis of the story has always been about what books do to you. You read [about] chivalry, romance, knights and beautiful maids being rescued, and you go crazy. That’s what films do to people now. They are the new books of romance, heroism, knighthood. What’s Avengers about? What’s X-Men? “You can be a hero.” I’ve always been curious what it does to people. If that’s the way you perceive the possibilities of the world, do you go out like Quixote and try to live in that reality?
The funny thing is that Toby in the final version of Quixote does everything he can to avoid being the hero.
I think that’s been the case in many of my films: the hero not wanting to be the hero. Jabberwocky was about that. [The character] Dennis didn’t want to slay dragons. He wanted to marry the fat, grotesque girl from next door for whatever reason. He was in love, and that’s it.
What made Adam Driver a good Toby?
He’s a wonderful actor, but he might be a more wonderful reactor. His reactions are what’s so extraordinary. In Quixote, you get to see the extent of his range, which you haven’t seen in other films. I’m really blown away by his work.
You’ve been working with Jonathan Pryce since Brazil. What made him a good Quixote?
He brought much more humor to it than anybody else would have. At the beginning, Javier is this old guy who’s very quiet. He’s very innocent and vulnerable. When he says, “I am Don Quixote,” I’ve never seen anything as sweet as that in anything Jon’s ever done. It’s like he’s channeling every Shakespearean character he’s ever played. One minute, I’m looking at King Lear going mad, at the next minute I’m looking at Hamlet.
“There was always Quixote waiting in the wings. I’d finish another film, and it’d be Quixote waiting. Now he’s gone. It’s sad.”
What were the biggest obstacles with the shoot this time?
The irony of the whole thing is that the shoot was great. We ended on time and on budget. The sun shone, and we had a great time.
The main problems were afterwards with the legal machinations of the unknown Portuguese producer. I don’t say his name anymore. It sounds like he’s the kind of guy that shot up the mosque in New Zealand: “We don’t name his name” [laughs]. He was involved for four months. After 20-some years, I’d been involved with lots of other producers who had been on it much longer. But he was convinced he was the greatest producer on the planet, the only one that could ever make it. So when he didn’t make it, it was like dealing with an ego that’s completely gone mad. Ultimately, his suing the Cannes Film Festival was ultimate hubris and it failed. We were in three lawsuits [with him] at that point: one for the festival, one for the release of the film in France, and there’s another technical one. He lost them all.
How did the lawsuits affect the film’s release?
It scared off people like [original distributor] Amazon. We still don’t have U.K. distribution sorted out. But here we are, about to open – “one night only.” There is a secondary release on April 19th, but it will be very limited, I think in 10 cities or 10 screens or 10 people’s homes. I’m not sure which one.
At least people will be able to see it.
That’s the main thing. The fans who’ve been waiting for it, [they] can be disappointed on the big screen rather than at home [laughs].
So when did it finally feel like you’d made the film and it was done? Was it when you got a 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes?
It was 20 minutes, I was told.
Yeah. Somebody actually timed it; it was 20 minutes long. It seemed to go on forever. That was a nice relief, but even then, I can’t say, “Wow, they loved it.” Were they applauding the film or my perseverance? I don’t know. But that was an awful lot of energy poured down upon it, so that was great.
Did it feel “done” then?
Well, no. My problem is I didn’t like the sound at Cannes. I thought it was terrible. When I finally felt good was at the London Film Festival, and it sounded beautiful. That was a moment I really enjoyed, the only one. I never enjoy it.
A few years ago, you said, “If you’re doing to do Quixote, you have to become as mad as Quixote.” What was the peak of madness for you, when you look back at the past 25 years?
I don’t know. The whole thing becomes very wearisome. And it’s just plodding on. That’s when you realize, you’re actually Sancho Panza. You’re just plodding on the lunacy, which is the film or the dream of the film. It’s pigheadedness.
The sequel to Lost in La Mancha will be quite interesting.
I’ve seen it. My family and I have very mixed feelings about it. It’s basically a film about a sad, old man. It’s not really about the finishing of the film; it’s about me surviving.
It’s not a proper representation. On the set, I laugh a lot. I always try to keep it funny and keep everybody enjoying it. It’s trying to make it as playful as possible for the actors, so they feel confident and safe and have a good time. The documentary concentrates on my pain instead. I’m told by those who’ve seen it they’re so moved by my persistence and suffering. Fuck it. Doesn’t interest me.
There’s a lot of joy in the movie, such as the scene where Quixote gets on top of a giant rocking horse and tries to ascend to the heavens.
You have to have a manic set. We did that in one night. In fact, it’s not the way I wanted to shoot it, but it was the only way I could. I was determined to stay on schedule. There are a lot of things where, if I had more time, I would have done it differently. But it is what it is. There’s a lot of bits that I should have gone back and shot something different.
I have one particular shot that I still wake up in the middle of the night and think about. It was so stupid I didn’t get it, because I needed it. It’s not like anyone can tell where it is, but at a certain point, you begin to believe that if I had got that one shot in, then everybody would have loved the film. Of course, that’s bullshit. But that’s the way the mind works.
So are you ready to do it all again? What’s next for you?
There’s nothing in there [he points to his head]. It’s devoid of anything. It’s kind of strange. I’ve never been that empty creatively. There was always Quixote waiting in the wings. I’d finish another film, and it’d be Quixote waiting. Now he’s gone. It’s sad.
When you look back on the whole three-decade Quixote saga, what have you learned from being Sisyphus for two decades?
I’ve always admired Sisyphus. Actually, what I’ve admired are the Greeks who invented the myth. Sisyphus was the cleverest of men; so pushing a rock up a hill forever is the best punishment for the cleverest of men. I can’t do anything worse than that. I suppose I’m being punished by hubris. It’s only right.
Well, you’re not Sisyphus because you actually got Quixote made.
I think each time the rock rolled down the hill, it got a bit smaller.