After years of false starts, is Terry Gilliam’s ill-fated Don Quixote movie finally going to be made?
Terry Gilliam’s long awaited Don Quixote project will ride again. Maybe. Gilliam announced last week that he will begin casting for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, with John Hurt approached to play the eponymous mad knight and production scheduled to begin in the Canary Islands on September 29th, almost a decade and a half after his much-anticipated, often recast, routinely abandoned film was supposed to wrap.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote will shoot a decade and a half after the often recast, routinely abandoned film was meant to wrap
You know those times when you feel you were clearly both Vlad the Impaler and Ghengis Khan in a previous life, and all of your karmic retribution has come at once? Not even close to what has happened to Gilliam’s film, which totally refuses to die. The most famous failed attempt began production in 1999, with Jean Rochefort as Quixote and Johnny Depp playing a 21st-century ad exec who travels back in time to 17th century Spain, where Quixote mistakes him for Sancho Panza.
Unfortunately, what Gilliam was already describing as his ‘dream project’ set up location right next to a NATO airbase, which ruined all the dialogue and audio recording, and was the site of a massive flash flood that promptly ruined the location’s landscape and damaged almost every piece of filming equipment they had. Rochefort, who had spent several months learning English specifically for the part, also herniated two discs in his back. Filming was halted, an estimated $16 million dollar insurance claim was filed, the whole thing was documented in the excellent film Lost in La Mancha, and a decade’s worth of legal wrangling meant that the insurance company hung on to the script until 2007.
In 2008, Gilliam restarted pre-production, intending to shoot the film with Rochefort’s role recast, on a new script co-written with Tony Grisoni. Robert Duvall was cast as Quixote, and Ewan McGregor was pulled in for an unspecified role. Unfortunately, the film’s investors pulled out, as did Johnny Depp, who set up his own Quixote project at Disney (rude). After production was confirmed to have halted (again), Gilliam told ComingSoon.net he was determined to get it done eventually: “I’m going to try to do Don Quixote again. I think this is seventh time. Lucky seven, maybe. We’ll see if it happens. This is kind of my default position, going back to that. I actually just want to make it and get rid of it. Get it out of my life.”
Terry Gilliam has never made a simple film. His consistently imaginative work is underpinned by a history of lost projects
Now, Gilliam’s having another go. Speaking at the recent Derby Film Festival, John Hurt discussed the possibility of playing the man from La Mancha. Confirmed on board is producer Adrian Guerra, who has a knack for making great movies on small budgets, mostly through the inventive use of tax breaks and using local Spanish businesses. He’s just 29-years-old, but he’s already made a film with Robert De Niro and Sigourney Weaver, founded his own distribution company when he was 21, and launched Spain’s first fantasy film festival when he was 19.
Gilliam, though, has never made a simple film. His consistently imaginative and innovative work is underpinned by a history of lost projects, production setbacks, and budgets that spiralled out of control. George Harrison once told him, “You remind me of John Lennon, you’re so difficult”, shortly, in fact, after George Harrison took out a mortgage to keep Gilliam’s 1981 film Time Bandits afloat. Gilliam funded his next film, Brazil, with the help of former arms dealer Arnon Milchon, though its release was blocked by Universal Studios. Gilliam took out a full-page ad in Variety reading, “Dear Sid Sheinberg, When are you going to release my movie, Brazil?”. Chagrined by the lack of marketing for the film, Gilliam wandered the streets of LA wearing a placard that said “Studio-less film maker – Family to support – Will direct for food.”
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The story of Don Quixote seems a good fit for Gilliam. Cervante’s epic story (if you’d like to annoy your snob friends, point out that it should be pronounce ‘Kwik-sote’ according to most modern scholars on linguistics and scansion) tells the story of Alonso Quixana, who, after reading too many chivalric novels, embarks on a quest with Sancho Panza to prove that chivalry is not dead. Quixote constructs a reality of giants and princesses, whilst the dogged Panza attempts to explain the realism of what he is seeing. The comi-tragic work is a satire of orthodoxy and veracity, themes that ring true through Gilliam’s art in all its mediums.
The story of Don Quixote seems a good fit for Gilliam…the director has led a lifelong charge against logic and accepted reality
Gilliam has led a lifelong charge against logic and accepted reality. Speaking to The Big Issue, he explains, “That’s what artists are supposed to do, see the world for what it is, not what everyone else is seeing. As a cartoonist, that’s what I’ve always done. I take the world, I distort it, and hopefully, you can see it more clearly… As you get older, you see it’s more out of control”. The parallels are obvious. Speaking to Empire Magazine, Gilliam described the production process of Don Quixote. “It’s obsessive…desperate…pathetic…foolish. It’s this growth, this tumour that’s become part of my system that has to get out if I’m going to survive.”
Gilliam has discussed the evolution of the script widely, with the newest version a significant departure. “It’s moved on,” he told The Guardian. “It becomes in some way more autobiographical and sometimes more pragmatic – fewer big scenes! No it’s genuinely better. And it’s really about how movies can fuck up people’s lives.” Gilliam’s most recent film, The Zero Theorem, set out to explore the satisfaction modern society gets from manufactured digital personas. Don Quixote, the tale of an epic knight who set out to create his own rewarding reality, seems to be an extension of those same themes.
Gilliam’s anarchic and often subversive presence in Hollywood has been a welcome one, exploring difficult themes with a surrealist edge, but the tale of the Don Quixote film is starting to resemble Einstein’s theory of insanity – repeating the same task over and over again, and expecting a different result. Gilliam announced the renewal of his project on Facebook, sharing director David Warren’s concept drawing, accompanied by the text, “Dreams of Quixote have begun again. Dave warren has started doodling. Will we get the old bastard back on his horse this year? Human sacrifices welcome”. Sacrifices of every sort have certainly been made; now to see if the last charge will slay the giant.
More on Gilliam’s latest: Is The Zero Theorem preachy or poignant?
All images: Optimum Releasing