Shooting the impossible dream


don-quixote2There are dark storm clouds gathering… F-16 fighter jets boom overhead, the thunderous sound of their engines interspersed with all-too-real thunderclaps. Johnny Depp is locked in a chain gang, scuttling sideways across the stark desert of the Bardenas Reales, in north-eastern Spain, but the microphones can’t pick up what he’s saying over the noise. The group approach the veteran French actor Jean Rochefort, poised atop a horse that refuses to move even when a member of the film crew gives a weighty push to its buttocks. Rochefort shifts uncomfortably in the saddle, feeling pain shoot through him from a herniated disc in his back. Finally, the storm breaks. It’s the only thing on this film set working on cue. As the rain lashes down, transforming the desert into a pit of quicksand, the director tilts his head back and roars into the heavens. “Which is it?” Terry Gilliam demands of the storm, “King Lear or The Wizard of Oz?”

That was just the second day of shooting during Gilliam’s attempt to film his epic The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in September 2000. Although millions of dollars had already been spent on the film-maker’s adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’s classic Spanish novel, the hobbling production didn’t last much longer.

Two men who saw the whole sorry mess unfold were Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe. They thought they’d be working on a behind-the-scenes ‘making-of’ feature about Gilliam’s film and instead ended up making Lost in La Mancha, an excruciating documentary about a film falling apart at the seams.

“We were slow on the uptake, because it was hard to believe a production of that scale was going to come to its knees,” says Fulton now and Pepe agrees: “We were somewhat blinded to it, because Terry was a bit of a hero to us. As a young film-maker, you’re not taught about all the movies that don’t get made.”

Since that time, Lost in La Mancha has itself become a cult classic, while Gilliam’s pet project has become a byword for blighted film productions. But, 16 years on, he may finally turn his Quixotic dream into a reality. In May, at the Cannes Film Festival, the director announced he was going at it again with an all-new cast featuring Star Wars villain Adam Driver as his lead and his old Monty Python compadre Michael Palin as Don Quixote. He vowed to return to the festival next year with the finished film.

If he does, it will be a Herculean achievement. Indeed, Gilliam’s attempts to bring Quixote to the screen has been a story almost as epic as that of Cervantes’s protagonist. In total, he has now been working on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote for 27 years, over twice as long as the 12 years it took Richard Linklater to make Boyhood – and that featured a boy growing up in real time. In that period, Gilliam has found and lost a galaxy of stars – Depp and Rochefort, Ewan McGregor and Robert Duvall, Jack O’Connell and John Hurt – and seen seven iterations of the story ground into the dust. If he finally pulls it off this year, he may at least avoid the unwanted record of overtaking the 28 years it took Canadian animator Richard Williams to make his passion project, The Thief and the Cobbler.

He’s not even the first director to struggle to bring Don Quixote to the screen. Orson Welles began filming test footage for his own film version back in 1955, yet was met with so many setbacks along the way that the film remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1985, although a version of it was cobbled together by the Spanish director Jesús Franco and released in 1992.

Gilliam’s own journey began when he was still a wide-eyed 48-year-old in 1989, fresh from steeringThe Adventures of Baron Munchausen through its own wildly overbudget production. He’d called producer Jake Eberts, of Goldcrest Films, and said: “I’ve got two names for you and I want $20 million. One of the names is Don Quixote and the other is Terry Gilliam.” Eberts replied, “You’ve got your money.”

It seemed like a natural fit. Miguel De Cervantes’s sprawling 1605 novel, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, is concerned with the same questions of madness vs sanity, and fantasy vs reality, that have defined Gilliam’s films. The book tells the tale of an old man so obsessed with reading romantic stories about brave and noble knights that he sets out to live as one, gathering together a suit of armour from the things he finds around his house. His helmet is a shaving basin. His horse, Rocinante, is an old nag. His squire, Sancho Panza, is a fat peasant. Undaunted, Quixote sets off in pursuit of adventure and believes he finds it, regardless of what’s really going on. Where others see windmills, he sees giants to battle. Instead of whirling sails, he sees flailing arms.

“I think he’s heroic because he refuses to accept the limitations of reality,” explained Gilliam in Cannes. “He’s determined to see the world in a heroic, magical, spectacular way.”

Faced with the challenge of adapting the whole of Cervantes’s 900-page work for the screen, Gilliam decided instead to write a new story which would bring Quixote into the contemporary world – or at least send a representative back into his. Inspired by Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, he wrote a screenplay with his collaborator, Tony Grisoni, in which an advertising executive also named Toby Grisoni was sent back to the 17th century and mistaken by Quixote for Sancho Panza – and thus The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was born.

don-quixote3The first disaster struck quickly, when Eberts’s promised $20 million fell though. It would be 11 years before filming began, a period in which Gilliam made The Fisher King (1991), Twelve Monkeys(1995) and Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas (1998). It was on the latter that Gilliam believed he’d found his leading man. After his Gonzo odyssey as Raoul Duke, Johnny Depp was lined up to play Grisoni. His then partner, Vanessa Paradis, was cast as his love interest and Rochefort was Gilliam’s Quixote. With Depp as the lead, the film secured a budget of $32.1m and began shooting in Spain.

Everything that could go wrong went wrong. Preproduction was dogged by financial and scheduling problems and then, on the day that filming was due to start, Rochefort, who has been learning English for seven months in order to take this role, failed to board his flight to the set. He had severe prostate pain, with it only later emerging that he had an infection that would prevent him riding a horse – crucial for playing Quixote. They weren’t helped by their choice of location. The desert of the Bardenas Reales was chosen by Gilliam to double for La Mancha, but the storm that halted filming also transformed the sun-bleached location he’d picked into a quagmire. As the delays piled up and the money disappeared, first assistant director Phil Patterson told Gilliam, “We can’t make the film – not the film you want to make.”

After the collapse of that production, the film’s screenplay ended up in the hands of the insurance company. Some directors would have written off the project then and there – and for a time, Gilliam did, working on The Brothers Grimm and Tideland, both released in 2005. Yet behind the scenes, he refused to give up on Quixote and by 2008, he had won back legal ownership of his story. With Depp still attached and Robert Duvall replacing Rochefort, it seemed the project was back on. The film went back into preproduction and in an interview with The Independent, Gilliam said, “We’re going to completely reshoot it. The intervening years have taught me that I can actually write a much better film. I’m so excited it’s going to get done at last.”

It wasn’t to be. The money evaporated once more, leaving Gilliam clutching at air. As the years slid by, Depp was himself replaced by McGregor, but once again funding fell through. In 2013, Gilliam was still struggling along with his quest. He told Deadline, “Certain things just possess you and this has been like a demonic possession I have suffered through all these years. The very nature of Quixote is that he’s going against reality, trying to say things aren’t what they are, but how he interprets them. In a sense, there is an autobiographical aspect to the whole piece.” In November of the following year, Gilliam announced he was trying to drum up support once again with a whole new cast attached: Jack O’Connell as Grisoni, and John Hurt as Quixote. By now, the sound of the sky falling in must have been as familiar as birdsong.

You could be forgiven, then, for taking this May’s announcement that production is back on with a spadeful of salt. Yet Gilliam is more positive about the film than at any point since 2000. This seems to be down to Portuguese producer Paulo Branco, a frequent Wim Wenders collaborator who is known in the European film industry for being the man who can make the impossible real.

“I first met Terry in February and very fast we decided to do the film together,” Branco tells me from his base in Lisbon. “It’s a real pleasure to take on this mythic project. Terry, like all artists, is a dreamer. That’s why he’s completely fascinated by Don Quixote. I think the dreamers of this world sometimes want their dreams to come true. That’s why he’s so keen to make this film a reality.”

don-quixote4Working together, the pair have raised a budget of €17m and secured what Gilliam calls “the perfect cast”. He says lead Adam Driver is “the first actor involved in this project who’s actually reading the book”, while adding, “Thank God for Star Wars”, for transforming the former Girls actor into a bankable leading man. He adds that Palin will be ideal for Quixote because, while the character is “old, ridiculous, foolish [and] a pain in the ass… You’ve got to love him…”.

Wisely, filming – scheduled to begin this month – will move from the blighted location in La Bardenas Reales to new ones in Portugal, Spain and the Canary Islands. “In Spain, we’ll shoot near Madrid, in La Mancha and near Toledo,” says Branco. “In Portugal, in Tomar, near the Convento de Cristo. It’s a beautiful place and when the film opens, I hope people will want to come and see the places we shot.”

Will the curse of Don Quixote finally be lifted in 2016, exactly 400 years since the death of Cervantes? Gilliam is now 75, nearly 30 years older than he was when he began his quest, but his refusal to abandon his dream has not surprised those who’ve worked with him. “I hope he can pull it off,” says Lou Pepe, “but at the same time, pulling it off isn’t the point. The striving is the point. In the larger human context, the fact that there are people out there like Terry, who don’t give up on big visions, is important for inspiring the rest of us.”

Tellingly, Gilliam has now written his own struggles into the story. The latest synopsis reveals that his protagonist Toby Grisoni once shot his own film version of Don Quixote in a pretty Spanish village as a young and idealistic film student, and it is only when he returns as a jaded publicist that his strange journey begins.

“People used to say I was Don Quixote, because I was a fantasist and a dreamer and I’d go up against reality, fail, and then get up again,” reflected Gilliam in Cannes. “I don’t think I’m Don Quixote. I’m actually Sancho Panza. Don Quixote is the film and I’m following it. It’s like one of those dream-nightmares that never leaves you until you kill the thing.”

Originally published in Easyjet Traveller, August 2016.