Now that his film “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is finally set to open in a special theatrical event Wednesday, director Terry Gilliam is at a loss for what to do now.
For nearly three decades, Gilliam has weathered cast injuries, legal battles, lost funding and even flash floods to get his film “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” to the screen in what has become among the most cursed productions in movie history. His journey has been nothing if not quixotic. In an interview with TheWrap, Gilliam compared himself to Sisyphus forever pushing a boulder up the side of a hill, only for it to roll back down.
“It’s given meaning to my life. In between films where you’re normally just lost, I could always know I had something to focus on,” Gilliam told TheWrap. “At the moment, now that’s it’s finished, there’s a huge emptiness waiting for me is all I know. These last interviews are the only things keeping me from jumping off a bridge.”
Speaking via Skype at a studio in London, Gilliam was in a better mood than his suicidal joke lets on. His film even opens with a tongue-in-cheek joke that acknowledges the film’s arduous journey to the screen and sets the lighthearted and adventurous tone for what could truly be described as Gilliam’s passion project: “And now…after more than 25 years in the making…and unmaking,” the opening credits read.
“This is the spirit of the thing. I have not been destroyed by 30 years of beating my head against this brick wall of ‘Quixote.’ I’ve been invigorated more than not,” Gilliam said. “Here’s this character who sees the world in this distorted way, but it’s wonderful, and yet he keeps crashing, keeps getting knocked back, but he keeps getting up. I did the Quixote experience I suppose. If you take on an icon like that, you slowly become it in one way or another.”
Gilliam said the 2019 version of “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” – the one that actually made it to the screen – is completely different and “more interesting” than the 2000 version that was ultimately abandoned.
“I made the movie that we ended up making, is all it really is,” Gilliam said. “It’s not the script we started with 30 years ago. It’s morphed. It’s changed. We’ve all changed, those of us involved in making it. It is what it is.”
The first version Gilliam attempted to shoot starred Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp, with Depp playing a modern-day advertising executive who bumps his head and winds up back in Quixote’s time. Though some of the original footage exists — some of it shown in the documentary “Lost in La Mancha” — Gilliam was determined to start from scratch. And the finished version stars Adam Driver as a modern-day commercial filmmaker and Jonathan Pryce as a man who believes himself to be Don Quixote. But in this version, the whole film is set in the modern day.
It results in a story that shifts realities on a whim and plays with perceptions of what’s real and what’s imaginary. Gilliam says it’s a movie about the impact movies have on a person’s life and how they affect what they see as real. And considering Gilliam has lived with this project for so long, he would know.
“My wife says I keep making the same film, I just change the costumes. There’s invariably a dreamer, or a fantasist or a madman involved in my stuff, it’s just people who will not accept reality as it’s presented by the media and the world around,” he said. “I think Quixote is interesting, because he’s trying to elevate the world to be more heroic, chivalric, beautiful. And others like Sam in ‘Brazil,’ he’s just trying to escape reality through juvenile fantasies like flying around the place. I’m wondering now, is that what all the younger people who watch ‘Avengers’ and ‘X-Men,’ do they believe they can be like those characters?”
It sounds like a heavy subject, but it’s a playful film. At one point Driver’s character shoves some Spanish subtitles out of the way so the actors can continue speaking English for the remainder of the film. Another line even evokes President Trump as a “toddler on a sugar rush.” Gilliam says two top “Quixote” translators praised the film’s screwball tone for matching the essence of Cervantes’ story.
“Both of them having seen the film separately, they said the same thing: ‘You’ve really done it. You’ve really captured what the book is about.’ That to me, you couldn’t ask for a better review,” Gilliam said. “There have been scripts floating around, things I never wrote of Quixote, and they all are trapped in being so respectful of the book and ultimately become pedantic, and that’s not what Cervantes was about. It’s important to play with it and be true to the essence or the spirit without being trapped.”
Gilliam said the production on this version of “Don Quixote” went smoothly, but it was the legal aftermath that created the most headaches. Amazon acquired the film ahead of its premiere at Cannes last year. But producer Paulo Branco sued Gilliam, saying that the film could not be shown without his permission. The lawsuit required Gilliam to pay damages and convinced Amazon to bow out.
“He was on for four months and ended up creating such chaos, and Amazon just ran away the minute it became a potential of some legal lack of clarity of who owns what,” Gilliam said.
Gilliam added that it’s “depressing” that the film will only go to VOD after its one-night-only run in theaters. And though he’s not a fan of the on-demand model, he accepted that it’s the reality of the industry today.
“This thing, when we play it with big audiences is fantastic, because it’s just bubbling the whole time,” Gilliam said. “It will be just lonely people sitting alone at home. That’s a really sad way of experiencing this film.”
Through it all however, Gilliam received some funding from a wealthy donor that made him feel more blessed than cursed.
“She gave us $3.5 million, and that’s how the film got made, not because I could raise the money in the marketplace. I couldn’t,” Gilliam said. “There’s something about that that’s important, that someone was inspired enough by all the s— I’d gone through and was rich enough to say, ‘Come on, you get to go to the ball, Cinderella.'”
So what is next for Gilliam? He’s been pushing a metaphorical rock up a hill forever, but now he has another idea.
“I literally don’t know. I’ve got nothing on my calendar. All I really want to do is go off to my house in Italy and build stone walls,” he said. “Do manual labor. I can handle that.”
“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” opens in theaters Wednesday for one night only through Fathom Events.