The Long Journey of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

We spoke to Terry Gilliam about the decades-long process of bringing his The Man Who Killed Don Quixote to the screen.

Terry Gilliam Man Who Killed Don Quixote Interview

I became a film fanatic at the early age of 10. No, it wasn’t after watching Star Wars for the first time or from gorging on Back to the Future. It was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that drew me in. However, what really changed my entire world were the works of Terry Gilliam. Whether it was the stylized brilliance of “The Crimson Permanent Assurance” (the short film that plays before Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life) or the whimsical journey of Time Bandits, I started to realize that deep and meaningful stories didn’t need to be told strictly through dark and dour dramas. And then I saw Brazil, and nothing else mattered anymore. I don’t have to run down the rest of my history with his work for you to understand that I was one of the many people who have been aching to finally see the release of his new film, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.

This was, after all, a project Gilliam originally began work on at the tail end of the 1980s, yet never found funding for until the end of the following decade. Production began in 2000 with Johnny Depp starring alongside French actor Jean Rochefort, the latter playing Don Quixote de La Mancha. Due to a myriad of production issues, including rain, the film was shut down shortly after shooting began. And after many more years of attempting to get the film off the ground, it was given new life in 2017 with Adam Driver set to star as Toby Grisoni, and Jonathan Pryce as Quixote. Fans went crazy. Filming was wrapped, and the movie was the closing night presentation at Cannes in 2018. Then a new legal battle emerged with one of the producers and, once again, the possibility of seeing The Man Who Killed Don Quixote outside of a few select European countries seemed like an impossibility.

Luckily, with the help of Screen Media Films, the movie is finally coming to U.S. audiences, and Terry Gilliam was in New York to speak with us about what had changed about the film since its original planning stages, what made the film’s performances so fantastic, and why he doesn’t want you watching it on your cell phone.

How much changed from the original planning of the film to what we see now?

Ad – content continues below

Well, there was always a Toby character who was in [the business of] advertising, and there was always a Quixote. The difference really was Toby. He originally got a bump on the head at one point [in the present day] and ends up in the 17th century–it’s [Mark Twain’s] Connecticut Yankee. That was the big difference, and it seemed like kind of a dumb idea after a while. I thought let’s be practical. If we’re going to get money to make this thing, let’s go contemporary.

Then we made this leap to seeing Toby 10 years earlier, back when he was innocent. I suppose it was before the corruption set in. This did several things; it gave us Toby’s sense of guilt, because he comes to this little village and fucks up a lot of people’s lives, that is important. He is trapped in a sense. He is like Frankenstein with his monster. It really solved our Dulcinea problem, because we always struggled with “who was this Dulcinea?” In the previous version, it wasn’t very successful, but the idea of having made this little film and he gave this little village girl hopes and dreams–although they were bad. Well, it’s not totally bad. She ends up with an incredibly rich oligarch and she seems to be content to put up with his bullshit.

Then how much of what this iteration became was an effect of the whole production issues from the first time around?

I know everybody is [thinking] that I’m learning that this is what it is about now. I wasn’t thinking about that. Of course there are a couple of references like, “This is the one month it never rains,” and all that stuff. So that was about the only real connection or thought of the original production.

I don’t know what other people are thinking, but I came out of the movie thinking that I could take the entire thematic version that is presented here and think of it at any point in your career, matching what you always try to say. I could think that maybe you were trying to take this a more personal route.

There was always in the back of my mind… I kept thinking of Fanny and Alexander and Amarcord, two films made late in the directors’ lives which are very much a summation of so many of the thoughts and ideas, or tropes of their lives. So that was always in the back of my head, and it obviously has reared its ugly head to the unsuspecting audience who watches it. [Laughs]

Ad – content continues below

What about changes to the personification of Quixote himself? Because, as talented as Jean Rochefort and John Hurt were, I don’t see them being able to be as airy as Jonathan’s performance was.

That’s why the film waited till the right person came along. Yes, they all were going to be very different. John Hurt would have been probably a bit more tragic and less funny. Jean Rochefort was always going to be slightly distant. Jonathan came in and just grabbed it and just shook it until it wouldn’t die, basically.

It is one of those performances where I can’t even imagine now someone else in the role. Even though I knew there were other people there previously.

What I really like is the Spanish crew, and especially the Spanish editor Teresa Font, she said, “There will never be a better Quixote.” This Welsh actor pretending to be a Spaniard–that is what I really like, how they, the Spanish that grew up with Quixote, so loved what Jonathan was doing. I was enjoying every moment, because he was breaking so many of the limitations. He was finding humor when there was only a little glimmer of it. He was also adlibbing a lot. He was just so excited to be doing it, he pulled out all stops. He’s always a big show off, and this was his chance.

I can’t remember if it was from the Lost in La Mancha documentary or just from an old interview I read, but I remember you talking about being lucky to have young stars who wanted to work with you that are considered to be bankable; Johnny Depp, Matt Damon, Heath Ledger. But what about the idea of Jonathan being a bankable asset now, as there is a whole new generation of kids who only know him from Game of Thrones?

Ad – content continues below

That’s a total coincidence, because when we started with Jonathan, he wasn’t bankable. Now he’s just not Game of Thrones, but he’ll be the Pope soon [in Fernando Meirelles’ The Pope]; so Jonathan is hot. But back then, when raising money, Adam was the key. Me and Jonathan were very second rate compared to Adam’s power. That’s how it works.

read more: The Real History of Game of Thrones – The Sparrows

What did Adam bring to the role, compared to what you were originally thinking of when you first started production?

He’s a little bit like what Jeff Bridges was to The Fisher King. He’s the grounding quality, he keeps it on the ground. He doesn’t cheat, he doesn’t go for a cheap laugh, he is solid, and that’s what I liked about him. I didn’t know what he was going to do when I first met him. I thought this guy is so different than any other actor I’ve bumped into. If you’re crazy enough to go off and join the Marines just because a couple of towers got blown up, that’s very different than most actors, that’s a serious guy. I loved that. What is so good about this–I’ve never seen Girls, I haven’t seen Patterson. I’ve seen his first entry as Kylo Ren, that’s it, though I’ve seen BlacKkKlansman now.

So it was purely an instinctive feeling about him. He didn’t look like what I had in mind, he didn’t behave like what I had in mind, and that is what was exciting. I didn’t know what the results were going to be, and they’re brilliant. He shows his range in this movie, from asshole to almost sublime at the end; he’s incredible. He’s funny, he’s always touching. Like Jeff Bridges, he doesn’t cheat.

It’s easy for people to go back and think about the studio pushing to put the happy ending onto Brazil. For this film, the ending is not ambiguous, but still it is ambiguous in a way.

Ad – content continues below

Yeah.

There is a happiness to it, but do you think people are coming away with that feeling?

I don’t know. I’ve had enough people say at the end–there was this one lady whose agent, she said, “I felt like I was walking on pink clouds, when I left.” So yes, I think enough people respond to that ending, and it is not exactly what we had written. It was written with Toby and Angelica riding off into the sunset, and he says what he says, but it was during the rehearsals when we were doing the first read-throughs, Joana [Ribeiro], Adam, and Jonathan.

I asked Adam to speak a little bit like Quixote, like Jonathan. So he started doing the lines, and suddenly Jonathan joined in, and he just kept going. I was like, “Wow!” So that’s what we did, and it was wonderful. Roque Baños’ music is so fantastic, and when I first hear it, I thought, “Whoa, we’re almost to a Hollywood happy ending.” I was a little bit nervous. But people seem to respond to it, so I’m delighted.

I don’t want to only talk about difference between this production and the original one, but as soon as I got out of the film, I went home and rewatched Lost in La Mancha, just to remind myself of a few things. Like I totally forgot about the idea of you wanting a Marinette battle scene. So again, coming into this version of it, how much was affected by just the idea of changing it to a contemporary story, to the limitations of this budget, of what you could do practically or digitally?

What it really was, was holding onto scenes from [author Miguel de] Cervantes that we liked. That was the first thing. Then it was re-adjusting it all, considerably. Once we got into the idea of showing Toby 10 years earlier with Angelica, it all just went very simply. So much of it is still the same. I’ve read the criticisms, already. Stuff saying that I’m cramming too much in there. I had too long to play with it over the years and I didn’t know when to stop. Well, that is not exactly true. It’s longer than I would have liked it, but that is mainly because of the long credits at the end. It’s five minutes of credits [Laughs].

Ad – content continues below

read more: The Zero Theroem is the Final Piece of Terry Gilliam’s Orwellian Triptych

So let’s change gears a little bit. I think I remember you talking about the idea that you shot Zero Theorem in a specific way, knowing it will probably be watched on a cell phone.

That was my little joke… it’s a reality.

Time Bandits is going to be one of the premiere shows for the new Apple TV service. I know you didn’t have anything to do with the recent 12 Monkeys TV show, but how much are you involved with the Time Bandits project? I know you’re listed as being a producer.

I’m still trying to work out how much I’m involved with it to be quite honest. I don’t know yet; I’m executive producer, but I’m still trying to find out how much power I have or don’t have.

Did you have any say in the hiring of Taika Waititi?

Ad – content continues below

Nope. I haven’t signed yet, so nobody consulted me. I like him, I think it is a good idea, he’s a good choice. I saw Thor: Ragnarok, I thought, “Smart guy, he has a sense of humor.” I haven’t seen his other stuff, but I thought, “Here’s a smart guy.” It is an interesting choice, but I wasn’t involved.

read more: Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement on What We Do in the Shadows Crossover

I will say, that when you see his earlier work, and I’m talking about before What We Do in the Shadows, I think you’ll enjoy them.

Yeah, what I saw in Thor: Ragnarok, it surprised me. It had really good humor. The guy has a good touch.

But what about the idea of you working with streaming services. They seem to just give people complete creative control. Is that an avenue you want to explore?

Well, that’s the way I work. I’ve always worked that way, so it’s nothing new. If you head toward the streaming services, I mean, Amazon was originally distributing Quixote in America and the UK, until all the legal bullshit around Cannes, and then they jumped ship. You go where the money is.

Ad – content continues below

You look at it, there is the Coen Brothers, there is Alfonso Cuarón; everyone is moving over to that way. It’s about storytelling. You have more time too. It doesn’t have to be a two-hour film, you can do a series. And people obviously have bigger TV sets these days. Always when you think about all the films made, more people watch them on DVDs at home. It’s when they get down to their iPhone that I want to start harming them, physically, if I see them watching something I’ve done. It is stupid, they’re not able to experience what you’re doing.

Imagine first seeing Star Wars or something like that on that scale, it’s ridiculous. My problem is, with cinema, you’re this small little person around the campfire and there is the big campfire screen, and there is this spectacle going on. Now with the phone, you’re the big thing and the storytelling is the little thing to serve you–fuck that [Laughs].

But I guess the big question is though as much as that may be the reality… from what I understand when I talk to people, the streaming executives are just completely hands off. They say, do what you want. They’ll give you a note or two, and that’s it. So does that mean that there is a compromise to be made, even if the product is on a smaller screen?  

Well, I don’t mind as long as it is not on an iPhone [Laughs]. If you sit in front of your big, 52-inch television, I can’t control any of that. So I don’t ultimately care if it gets things made. I mean, something like Zero Theorem could have been just for that, it has not got scale. It’s when I’m dealing with scale, because I think that’s part of the experience. So it gets frustrating when it’s being watched on a little screen.

What do you have in mind for future projects? Are we maybe going to see some older projects in the pipeline? Something like The Defective Detective?

 

Ad – content continues below

In fact, I’m seeing Richard LaGravenese [who co-wrote the script with Gilliam, and well as The Fisher King] tomorrow. It’s always been floating around. We played with it a couple of years ago, seeing if we could maybe expand it into a six-part series. Who knows, it may happen, because I don’t think it will end up being a film; unless I’ve got Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, and everybody in it, it won’t happen, because the money isn’t there. Marvel, they really captured all the money there is to make movies with.

Well then, if Marvel came and said, “Terry, we want you to do one,” would you sit and do one?

Probably not. I don’t think I can compete with them. I don’t think I’m technically as adept or get that much pleasure out of technology as the directors that are doing those things; they’re massive. Again, you’ve got to farm it out to so many people. I still prefer to think I’m a craftsman–my hands making it. I’ve known enough people who have gotten into the big film’s; Harry Potter and all this. It’s a bit like a factory job and I don’t want to do that.

That’s completely understandable and that is what I would expect from that type of atmosphere, but bringing it back now into Quixote; if it means it is the only way of keeping your dreams going, is it the right way to go?

Well yeah, it is. But I would demand control, that’s all. Give me control and I’ll work around it. That is part of what I was doing with Quixote. I was going out of my way to not be The Avengers/X-Men. It’s all in the real world. We’re not building fantastic sets and things. I shot it outside with all the restrictions and dangers of shooting outside, because I wanted you to smell it, to feel it. It was all textures, not fake stuff.

Fantasy doesn’t necessarily mean it is fantasy.

Ad – content continues below

But that is what bothers me about so much of it. None of the tension between dreams, fantasy, and reality, exist. I mean, the image that takes place in Brazil when Jonathan is trying to fly with his wings and out of the pavement comes Ian Holm as the pavement man, pulling him back. That to me, is the perfect image; trying to fly while you’re restricted by reality, that’s all. Once I’m watching the big films, I mean they entertain me, I can’t complain about that, but at a point, I don’t feel that there is any real tension I’m getting out of this thing.

Then of course also, it is a world of green screens you’d be living in. I imagine if you didn’t have to use CGI, you wouldn’t.

I do. There are scenes in Quixote, like when there is Adam with the dead mule. He’s on this hillside, but the background is not what you see in the film. The background is a bunch of agricultural land [Laughs]. So you use it that way, you use it to enhance things. That’s why I like the giants. I just did it the old fashion way, with real people. I still like working that way, I like the surprises of working with those kind of limitations. I don’t want to do everything that I want to do. I like the restrictions because it forces me to get clever.

I mean, just think about some of the most famous Hollywood mistakes that end up making a movie great.

Yeah, it’s like that. If given a huge budget, I wouldn’t have anything to push against, and I would just want everything, and you can’t focus that way. With limitations, you’re focused, “I can’t do it this way, can I do it that way?” It keeps the process of making the film, exciting. It’s frustrating, and exciting. That’s why I don’t do pre-viz. You’ve worked it all out in advance, you don’t need to exist anymore, you just hand it over–and this is what’s done–to other people to do it.

To skip back in to the film itself, I’m wondering about how much you remember about the little details you put into a film once you’ve finished it. For instance, I’m sitting, watching the movie, I see that the little town is named, Suenos. Now, even with my limited Spanish, I know that means dreams.

Ad – content continues below

Well, that’s obvious, we do those things, all planned. [Laughs]. I’m just assuming there is enough people who speak Spanish and understand what we’re saying. For others, well, it isn’t problematic. It’s trying to build a world, and the detail is what makes the world believable, it seems to me. So detail is something I spend a lot of time on, and some of it is to just entertain myself, because I’ve been thinking about the film for so long. “Let’s do this instead, I know I’ve been thinking of doing this for so many years, but fuck it, I got a better one.”

I don’t think you should and I don’t think anybody should, but how surprised or pleased are you with the idea there are so many fans talking about Quixote like, “It’s here, we’re getting it, thank you!”

That’s wonderful, it really is. The fear of all that is that they’ve been expecting it for so long and their version of the film might be better than mine. That is the problem, I hate high expectation, I really do. If I introduce films, I just tell people to lower their expectations, this is just, another film. I’ve read enough stuff that has been written about this already, “Okay, 29 years or whatever, was it worth it? No.” That’s the review, that’s how it goes. That’s correct, but for me, it wasn’t 29 years, it’s what I made in the last couple of years. A film that I started, we started shooting, things changed. That’s what it is, nothing more. The idea that you spend a long time doesn’t mean you’re perfecting something, but it seems to be expected.

I think there are so many people who want to be in love with that story of it. It is the same thing with people who want to be in love with the idea Heath Ledger was so damaged from playing the Joker–that is more fascinating to them than the product itself [or the truth of the man].

There was a book I had years ago of photographs by a guy named, Roloff Beny. It’s called something like [Interprets in Photographs: Pleasure of Ruins]. He was a photographer who just photographed ruins because the unfinished thing, or the destroyed thing, lets the imagination go to work. We all love doing that thing of imagining what they must have been like, and it’s probably better than what was.

If you were unable to secure a ticket to see the film at a Fathom event near you on April 10, the film will be in select theaters on April 19, and well as on demand services.

Ad – content continues below