It would be all too lazy to compare Terry Gilliam and his attempts to make a movie about Don Quixote to its main character – an old man foolishly picking fights with windmills. A better comparison might be Sisyphus, the mythological Greek king whose deceitfulness was punished by forcing him to roll a boulder uphill repeatedly, arduously and monotonously. It’s an analogy Gilliam has made himself over the decades since he first got the idea to make the movie.
Now, 29 years after he secured financing for the picture for the first time, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is finally opening at Cannes this weekend. It has gone through several iterations over the years, with Johnny Depp, Robert Duvall, Ewan McGregor, John Hurt, Michael Palin, Vanessa Paradis and several other notable actors attached to it at various points. Production has started and stopped on a dime. Everything from competing Quixote projects to natural disasters have plagued what many thought was a cursed production.
One of the attempts, which was started around 2000, was chronicled in the documentary Lost in La Mancha. At the time, it was expected to be one of the priciest movies to be made with European money; in the film Gilliam grouses about having to work with $32.1 million – “for what we’re trying to do, it’s half the money we need.” Depp was to play Toby Grisoni, an ad exec who pulls a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and travels through time to meet Quixote, only for the knight (then played by Jean Rochefort) to mistake him for his companion Sancho Panza; Paradis was to play Depp’s love interest, Altisidora. But flooding of Biblical proportions, pesky military jets and insurance problems halted production indefinitely, paving the way for one of the most comical, compelling underdog stories in cinema, as Gilliam tried again and again to get the film made.
When it premieres this weekend, Adam Driver will be playing Grisoni, Jonathan Pryce will be Quixote and Altisidora is no longer mentioned as a character. To celebrate its release, we’ve compiled an exhaustive timeline of each step Gilliam took along a ridiculously hard road to get to get this movie made. What’s clear here is that the filmmaker is always up for a good joust.
“I like taking on very complex and difficult challenges,” Gilliam says in Lost in La Mancha. “If it’s easy, I don’t do it. If it’s almost impossible to do, I have a go at it. It seems it’s what gets my adrenaline going. Maybe it’s what fires what creativity I have. Without a battle … I don’t know exactly how to approach it.”
Terry Gilliam begins thinking about author Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th century novel The Ingenious Nobleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha, better known as Don Quixote. The director decides it would make a stunning movie – despite the fact that, at the time he first sought funding for the project, he hadn’t even read the book yet. “Like most people, I only knew a vague outline of [who] Quixote is and what he stands for,” Gilliam once said. “So I started reading the book, and the complications began. Several weeks later, I finished reading the book, and said to myself, ‘Jesus, this is unfilmable!’ … How could I begin to write a script that is broad, long and intricate as those books?” Still, he starts collaborating with his Brazil cowriter Charles McKeown on the first script for a Quixote-related movie.
Neon magazine quotes Gilliam as saying Sean Connery was considered for Quixote, as was Nigel Hawthorne; Danny DeVito was considered for Sancho Panza. The filmmaker learns that his funding offer of $25 million fell through. Around this time, he abandons the script he’d written with McKeown and pivots his attention to The Fisher King. The studio he’d been in talks with then moved forward on a Quixote movie with Fred Schepisi directing and John Cleese and, ironically, Robin Williams as stars.
According to Lost in La Mancha, this is when Gilliam begins sketching out the movie. “I’ve been fantasizing this for a very long time,” he says in the documentary. “I’ve made the film in my head. The pictures are there. It’s been played out many, many times.” Eventually, he collaborates on the script with cowriter Tony Grisoni.
September 20th, 1991
The Gilliam-directed The Fisher King is released.
December 29th, 1995
Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys comes out. A making-of documentary, The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys, is included on the laserdisc release in 1997. Its directors, Keith Fulton and Luis Pepe, would go on to make the Quixote doc Lost in La Mancha.
January 22nd, 1997
Director Fred Schepisi’s Don Quixote picture, which was to have a $60 million budget, is canceled before shooting can begin.
May 22nd, 1998
Gilliam announces at the premiere of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that his next picture would be Don Quixote.
French actor Jean Rochefort begins learning English in order to play Quixote. By the time he arrives on set, he’s spent seven months attempting to master the language. Gilliam arrives in Spain to begin work on the picture.
Production designers work on the windmills, statues and other set pieces for the production. Gilliam films giants running through a film, jokes that it should be the trailer – a gag that runs at the end of Lost in La Mancha.
Seven weeks before production
Gilliam has trouble reaching Johnny Depp, his lead in the film. Many of the actors agreed to work on the film for less than their usual paychecks.
Four weeks before production
Vanessa Paradis still hasn’t signed on to play Altisidora.
One week before production
Jean Rochefort cancels a flight to Spain citing a prostate infection. Gilliam chalks it up to being psychosomatic, saying the actor’s mind is so powerful that it’s destroying his body. That same week, Johnny Depp shows up to the shoot.
September 21st, 2000
Rochefort and Paradis show up for screen tests, costumes and makeup preparation.
September 25th, 2000
Work on the film begins in Las Bardenas Reales, a nature preserve near Madrid. They attempt to film a scene where a chain gang walks through a desert but it becomes clear that the extras have not rehearsed. “I want to know when we’re fucked in advance, not in the middle of a shoot,” Gilliam says on set. When they regroup and decide to work on another scene, the sounds of jets overhead stops the filming. The director later joked in his memoir: “‘What’s that sound?’ ‘Oh, it’s an unscheduled squadron of jet fighters … ‘”
September 26th, 2000
A storm rolls in by the time shooting begins. “If it isn’t the F-16s, it’s thunder,” Gilliam remarks. The oncoming tempest forces the crew to cover up the gear. Before long, a river of brown water has engulfed the set. The Lost in La Mancha documentarians are forced to film from a vehicle. “The funny thing was that when the going really got tough, the documentarians … had actually wanted to piss off home,” the filmmaker wrote in Gilliamesque. “‘Just keep fucking shooting, you jerks!’ I had to shout at them from the depths of my encroaching despair. ‘You might not have a film about the making of a movie, but at least you’ll have a film about the unmaking of one, and that might actually be much more interesting.'”
September 27th, 2000
The production learns that while its insurance company would cover the damaged gear, it won’t recompense them for the time it’s lost actually making the movie due to “acts of God.” They decide to resume work on the chain-gang scene for half a day.
September 28th, 2000
The crew realizes that the storm completely changed the look of the landscape it was shooting, making for a continuity error. The production had begun filming the chain-gang scene in sunlight but by now the sky was overcast. They move to a different location … and the planes come back.
September 29th, 2000
Rochefort’s pain from his prostate infection overwhelms him when he gets on his horse. It took two men to help him off the horse and 40 minutes to walk from the animal to his car.
September 30th, 2000
The production considers firing first assistant director, Phil Patterson, who is in charge of the schedule. Gilliam defends his right-hand man. Rochefort returns to Paris to see his doctor. In Gilliamesque, the director wrote, “On the set of Quixote … I [felt like] Job – a plague of boils might even have served as a valuable distraction when the news came through that my leading man, Jean Rochefort’s extreme physical agony was going to make it impossible for him to sit on his horse – and an understanding of what it means to be tested is very useful when you find yourself in trying circumstances.”
October 2nd, 2000
Filming resumes at Monasterio de Piedra despite Patterson’s advice to regroup in Madrid. Investors pour in to see how the production is going. To demonstrate that things are moving along, Gilliam shoots scenes that don’t require Rochefort, who is set to return on the 4th. They attempt to film a scene where Johnny Depp wrestles with a fish until his horse bumps him, but the latter animal won’t perform. Then the production learns that Rochefort won’t be able to return for another week. Next, the insurance adjusters come to assess the damage from the flooding; the production decides not to shoot the next day.
Second week of filming
The production learns that Rochefort won’t be able to return for at least 10 more days. The insurance company claims that the actor’s illness could be a force majeure and therefore not coverable. Gilliam doesn’t want to recast his Quixote. And, as narrator Jeff Bridges explains in Lost in La Mancha, the director, Rochefort and Depp are “essential elements – if any one of them leaves the project, the film must be entirely refinanced.” At this point the earliest the actor might be able to return is October 16th. Patterson decides to quit.
End of October
Rochefort tells the production that he’s been diagnosed with a double-herniated disc. He requires at least another month of recovery, so he won’t be returning. Producers decide to abandon the film, as the insurance company now owns the rights to it. “With the calamitous late-2000 abandonment of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, I had achieved the ultimate refinement of my cinematic methodology,” the filmmaker writes in Gilliamesque. “Never mind all those years of ‘The process of the film becomes the subject of the film’ – that shit was old news. Why not take it one step further, to the point where the film itself did not even get made?”
February 1, 2001
One scene in Lost in La Mancha shows a stack of call sheets for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. It lists February 1st as the latest scheduled date in the production, billed as “Day 86.” It never makes it this far.
Gilliam tries to start making The Man Who Killed Don Quixote again with a new investor who hopes to purchase the script from the insurance company. It, too, was unsuccessful.
August 4th, 2002
Lost in La Mancha opens in the United Kingdom.
August 30th, 2002
Lost in La Mancha premieres at the Telluride Film Festival.
February 2nd, 2003
Lost in La Mancha gets a wide opening in the United States. “The thing about both [the 12 Monkeys documentary] The Hamster Factor and Lost in La Mancha that I’m most proud of, looking back, is that as uncomfortably close as those two documentaries are to the clogged and straining heart of the filmmaking process, you don’t leave them with any sense of the process having been demystified,” Gilliam wrote in his autobiography. “In fact, if anything, by the end of them, the actual creative moment is still more mysterious.”
Gilliam tells Empire he’s working on getting the script back. At this point Depp is still attached and he’s considered Gérard Depardieu as the lead.
August 26th, 2005
Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm opens in theaters.
October 27th, 2006
Tideland, directed by Gilliam, is released in the U.S.
May 14th, 2009
With the rights to the movie freed up, The Associated Press reports that Gilliam has teamed with a new, British producer to work on Quixote. At the time, the filmmaker and Grisoni have reworked the script to center on a filmmaker rather than an ad exec. “Nearly 10 years on, I find myself lending a hand to get that crazed, giggling bedlamite back in the saddle,” Grisoni said in a statement at the time. “I’m talking about Don Quixote. In spite of God and the devil, he shall ride again.”
October 16th, 2009
Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – another difficult-to-finish film, due to the death of star Heath Ledger, who was replaced by Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law at various points of the film – opens in the U.S.
December 2nd, 2009
Robert Duvall says he is considering playing Quixote – “if they get the money” – according to Collider. “It’s so difficult to get the money,” he said. “He saw me play a Cuban barber one time with Richard Harris and that’s what gave him the idea to cast me as Don Quixote.”
May 18th, 2010
Ewan McGregor officially replaces Depp as (the fictional) Grisoni and signs onto the film to star opposite Duvall.
September 5th, 2010
Gilliam reports that the Quixote project lost its financing a month earlier. Gilliam tells a film-festival audience that the financing had collapsed a month and a half earlier. “Maybe the most frightening thing is to actually make the film,” Gilliam says.
December 6th, 2013
Gilliam claims he’ll begin work on Quixote in 2014. “It’s been around too long and it’s like a tumor, I want to get it out of my body,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I don’t even know if it will be a good film – I just want to get rid of it.”
August 7th, 2014
Gilliam says he has the financing to begin shooting Quixote again after Christmas. At this point, the story is more modern with self-referential nods. “I keep incorporating my own life into it and shifting it,” Gilliam told The Wrap. “The basic underlying premise of that the version Johnny was involved in was that he actually was going to be transported back to the 17th century, and now it all takes place now, it’s contemporary. It’s more about how movies can damage people.”
September 19th, 2014
The director’s The Zero Theorem gets a limited theatrical release. Gilliam tells Rolling Stone he’s planning on returning to Don Quixote, “but plans have nothing to do with reality … I really can’t say anything at the moment, because there’s been a little hiccup — once again. The Sisyphean rock that keeps rolling back. Just as we almost get to the top of the mountain.” He adds: “We’ll see what happens. I’m not a happy camper at the moment. … Every intelligent person around me says, ‘Walk away from it.’ But those are reasonable people.”
September 23rd, 2014
John Hurt announces that he’d play Quixote in Gilliam’s latest Quixote production.
July 15th, 2015
It’s reported that Amazon will help fund Quixote.
September 22nd, 2015
Production is delayed because John Hurt has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
November 1st, 2015
Gilliam tells The New York Times he’ll begin shooting Quixote again in April.
March 31st, 2016
The Quixote project secures new funding and will be produced on a budget of $18.25 million, according to The Hollywood Reporter. At the time, a start date was set for September. The attached cast at the time includes Hurt and Jack O’Connell.
May 18th, 2016
Gilliam announces a new cast for Quixote at Cannes, which would include Olga Kurylenko, Adam Driver and Michael Palin. “I want to get this film out of my life so I can get on with the rest of my life,” the director said. It’s also announced that Portuguese producer Paulo Branco would be financing it.
September 30th, 2016
The production is delayed when Branco does not deliver the money. “I had this producer, a Portuguese chap, who claimed he’d get all the money together in time,” Gilliam says. “And a few weeks ago, he proved that he didn’t have the money. So we are still marching forward. It is not dead. I will be dead before the film is.”
October 3rd, 2016
After seven attempts, production of Quixote once again stalls as the first day of principal photography is delayed.
January 25th, 2017
John Hurt, once attached to play Quixote, dies of pancreatic cancer at age 77.
March 9th, 2017
Filming begins on what will be the final production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
June 5th, 2017
Production officially wraps on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote once and for all, 17 years after starting preproduction on the original attempt. The final cast includes Adam Driver as Toby and Jonathan Pryce as Quixote, as well as Stellan Skarsgård as “the Boss” and Olga Kurylenko as Jacqui, the Boss’ wife. “Don Quixote is a dreamer, an idealist and a romantic, determined not to accept the limitations of reality, marching on regardless of setbacks, as we have done,” Gilliam said at the time. “We’ve been at it so long that the idea of actually finishing shooting this ‘clandestine’ film, is pretty surreal. Any sensible person would have given up years ago but sometimes pig-headed dreamers win in the end, so thank you to all of the ill-paid fantasists and believers who have joined to make this longstanding dream a reality!”
At the same time, producer Paulo Branco said that the film was made “illegally” because he owned the rights to it. In a statement, Quixote’s producers said, “Señor Branco is tilting at windmills.”
October 9th, 2017
Jean Rochefort, Gilliam’s original Quixote, dies in a Paris hospital at age 87.
April 5th, 2018
The first official trailer for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote makes it online.
May 8th, 2018
The China-based distributor Turbo Films acquires The Man Who Killed Don Quixote at the Cannes Film Festival for a Chinese release. The previous day it’s reported that a decision about a lawsuit brought on by producer Paulo Branco, claiming that he owned the project and sought to enjoin the Cannes premiere, would be decided a few days before the scheduled premiere.
May 9th, 2018
Quixote’s producers prevail in the suit that Paulo Branco brought on. The premiere is set to go on as scheduled. Additionally, Amazon Studios announces it would no longer be distributing the picture in the U.S. Finally, it’s announced that Gilliam had suffered a minor stroke over the weekend. He was recuperating in England while waiting for the Branco verdict.
May 10th, 2018
A new documentary by the team behind Lost in La Mancha is announced. The picture, He Dreams of Giants, will chronicle the history of Gilliam’s Quixote endeavors. “We began to think this is more a film about an internal struggle in an artist’s mind,” co-director Keith Fulton said. “What is it like for an artist to be standing on the brink of actually finishing this project finally?”
May 19th, 2018
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote premieres at the closing night of Cannes. Openings throughout Europe are planned for the rest of the summer.