Terry Gilliam and Adam Driver on the set of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
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Credit: Fathom Events

How Lost in La Mancha actually helped Terry Gilliam get his Don Quixote movie made

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Apr 10, 2019, 5:20 PM EDT

All good things to those who wait… even for co-writer/director Terry Gilliam, who first dreamed up The Man Who Killed Don Quixote years ago. The filmmaker behind such classics as Brazil, Twelve Monkeys, and The Fisher King began shooting his epic, about an egotistical director and his misadventures with an elderly actor who thinks he’s the real would-be knight, in 2000. Famously and disastrously, the production collapsed after six days of shooting, the crazy circumstances chronicled in the fine documentary Lost in La Mancha.

But after decades of starts and stops, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote will now screen Wednesday night in theaters all across North America, courtesy of a one-night showing presented by Fathom Events and distributor Screen Media. In this conversation with SYFY WIRE, the 78-year-old Gilliam recounts the joys of his dream project finally being realized. 

In the decades it has taken for you to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, did you ever have any doubts that the film would get finished?

Terry Gilliam: Oh, yeah. It was an uphill fight. I had my doubts, but then very quickly those doubts would disappear because I’d bump into so many producers who were probably madder than Don Quixote. Having seen the documentary [Lost in La Mancha] about the 2000 movie with Johnny Depp that had failed, they were convinced they were the only producers who could make this film possible. And so, they would turn up and I would believe their version of what they thought could happen. And a year or two later, it would all collapse. They couldn’t provide the funding that we needed or anything. And then I would get up and go do another film. Then when I finished the other film, I’d come back and there’s Quixote still waiting there with somebody else thinking they could solve the problem.

What was it like seeing the completed film projected for the first time after 30 years of gestation?

Oh, I dunno. I’d been in the editing room for half a year so I wasn’t so surprised. I always show the unfinished film first. There’s still a lot of work to be done: special effects, sound, music, lots of things to do. I show it to an audience of 30, 40 people, either family or friends or friends of friends. Very quickly it was clear the audience was enjoying themselves, and that was a great relief. We actually did something, even in its incomplete form, that was producing enough happiness in enough people that I could feel like I could sleep again.

Don Quixote

Credit: Fathom Events

What was the initial inspiration that sparked the project 30 years ago?

Well, there wasn’t so much an inspiration, I just always liked the character of Don Quixote. He is just a great icon in the way he sees the world, with all of its lies. He has a rather noble, heroic view of what the world should be, and the failure of what actually happens in reality.

After I finished The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, I called up Jake Eberts, who was the executive producer. And I said, “Listen, Jake. I need $20 million. I got two names for you. One is Quixote and the other is Gilliam.” And he said, “You got the money.” And, that’s when the big problems began. Then I read the book, and that was a problem. I hadn’t read the book up to that point. How do you translate this big, serious, wonderful book into a film? There was never a true inspiration. I just dug myself into a hole and had to crawl my way out of it [laughs].

If you had the choice of completing the film you started 18 years ago or going with the version you now have, which would you choose?

Oh, this one we’ve done. It’s far better. The script [co-written by Tony Grisoni] is much better. It’s a better idea. The original version was much more like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, where a guy gets bonked on the head and winds up in the 17th century with the real Don Quixote. This became much more interesting about the guy who makes a film about Don Quixote, and then years later, sees the result of what he has done to other people’s lives.

So that big gap has given you a better picture?

Oh, definitely. We kept trying to reinvent the thing as the years went past. The idea of sticking to the original script was rather boring. We were always looking for new ideas, another way of approaching it. I’m much happier with the version we ended up with.

Did Lost in La Mancha ultimately help or hinder raising the money to make the film?

In hindsight, I don’t know if it did or didn’t help. We’d reached the point where we were able to raise x amount of money in the marketplace, but it was never enough to do what we needed to do. And because of the documentary, my daughter [and producer] Amy had met this lady who had seen it and she had fairly recently come into a bit of wealth. She wanted to see the movie made. So, she gave us basically $3.5 million, which was the money we had never been able to raise before. Bingo.

Tell me how your frequent collaborator, Jonathan Pryce, aged himself into the Quixote role.

Well, that again is patience. Eventually, he got old enough for where I thought, “Yeah, you can do it now.” He was too young [back in 2000]. He wanted to do it, but it was going to require too much makeup. It was going to be too difficult. And finally, Jonathan became 70 years old, which was perfect. The makeup girl loved the way he looked. She said it would have been so expensive [back then] to recreate the eyebrows he now has as an old man.

Was the biggest challenge working with the now-senior citizen Pryce in getting him to ride a horse?

No, no. Jonathan had a bad knee, and had also done something to his ankle just before we started. We were very, very cautious and careful about getting him on the horse; we just didn’t want any problems. He started very slowly. He got more comfortable, more than we got more comfortable that he was going to be OK.

Well, this one day, the first time he charges the windmill, he had to gallop the field, turn a sharp left, pull out his lance and charge the windmill, shouting. He said, “I don’t think I can do it, Terry. I don’t trust my knee.” And so, we first did it with a stuntman. And the stuntman was very good, but the angle with the camera, there was no way we could avoid seeing his face.

And I just said, “This isn’t working.” So, at the end of this day, I said to Jonathan, “Do you just want to give us one go? You don’t have to go up the hill very quickly. We just need you on the turn, so we can see it’s you.” And so, on we go, I say, “Action!” and suddenly he just charges up the hill at a full gallop. Turns the corner, lance goes down, he fires his line out. It’s fantastic. And what was wonderful is the entire crew jumped to their feet and gave him a standing ovation. He's like the professional actor. He built up his fallibility so much before he did it, we thought it wasn’t going to work. And he just pulled it off in one brilliant take.

Don Quixote 3

Credit: Fathom Events

Besides Pryce’s costume, which was salvaged from the 2000 production, was there anything else brought over from the original shoot?

Well, the two Sanchos, one at the beginning in the commercial [Ismael Fritschi], and one in the black and white film [Jorge Calvo]. They were in the original cast back in 2000. Rossy de Palma was in the original cast. She plays Sergi López’s wife. Our designer, Benjamín Fernández, also came from the original. So, there were several people who had been with us there in 2000. It was a wonderful reunion.

Is the filmmaker character of Toby autobiographical in any way?

Not really. He is the guy I didn’t become. A cautionary tale for directors. I’d known so many really good directors who started out with their first film, or student film, wanting to make meaningful movies. They become successful and they attract these people who then put them to work doing hackwork in Hollywood or well-paid commercials. They sort of fade away from the original dream. That’s what Toby’s about.

Also, a sense of his responsibility or guilt in the creation of a madman like Quixote. When I make a film, I always feel a sense of responsibility of what I’m doing to people, especially since I worked with kids a lot. It’s very dangerous to work with children as actors because they think this is what life is going to be about.

What did Adam Driver bring to the character that may not have been there initially?

I met Adam at a pub in London. My daughter got us together. She thought he would be an interesting guy. He was unlike anybody I’ve met before or even thought about in the way of playing Toby. He isn’t really like an actor. There’s something really interesting inside of him, his view of the world, and he doesn’t look like your leading man either. He’s just smart. I loved all of that. The fact that after 9/11 he went and joined the Marines to go and help save America seemed to be a surprisingly naive and heroic thing to do. It gives a side of Toby that is wonderfully new and fresh.

And, he’s incredibly versatile. What I like about him in Quixote is we see his range from a self-centered asshole to incredibly funny. And he becomes absolutely romantic by the end. He played quite a beautiful character. Adam is an extraordinary actor; he’s not gonna stop. He’s going to be the guy for a long time.

Don Quizote 4

Credit: Fathom Events

Overall, was the shoot less or more problematic than some of your other cursed productions?

No, surprisingly pleasant. It was very hard because we were trying to cram a lot of complicated stuff into a short period of time, and we were totally exposed weather-wise because we didn’t have many covered sets to deal with. We were outside almost the entire film, and the weather was good to us, which was a nice change from the 2000 go. It was tough, but it was good. We had to work very fast. The thing I was really pleased with on the shoot, we managed to come in on budget and on schedule, which is a nice feeling.

This is your first film shot digitally. How did you adapt to the new format?

Well, I don’t have a problem with whatever it is. It is what it is. I’m not in any way nostalgic about film over digital. It’s just, “Can you get a good image up there? Can we work at a decent speed?” It wasn’t the digital side that was difficult, it was the anamorphic lenses. They’re very heavy and cumbersome and slow to change. And that was what I found difficult. Eventually, it was fine. No problem.

In an age of CGI films, your more practical scene with the giants at the end is pretty old school, reminding me of Time Bandits. How did you shoot that?

I question CG all the time, and even though there is CG throughout the film and it is a useful tool, I don’t want to over-rely on it. The old way we did it on Time Bandits, we got short, very wide-bodied people to play giants and then put wide-angle lenses down at their feet to stretch them into huge tall things. Adam, of course, was all shot on a blue screen. Basic things. One of those guys was a heavy metal rock musician, the other a flamenco singer and the third one is an actor. So, I love the idea of working with real people instead of trying to CG them. I don’t like that at all.

Speaking of Time Bandits, what is the status of the Time Bandits TV series, and are you involved?

I’m the executive producer. Nobody consulted me about the announcement that came out a few weeks ago. We shall see where it goes. I’m waiting to sign my contract. Once I’ve signed it, I can talk with everybody. We can decide what we’re doing or not doing. But it’s happening. That’s good.

Are you happy with Don Quixote’s Fathom Events distribution method?

I don’t know. It’s something completely new for me. I have no experience with it. I know Peter Jackson’s World War I color documentary [They Shall Not Grow Old] did very nicely. I’ve talked to other independent distributors who I’ve worked with in the past, and they think this may be the future for independent films that don’t have funding to compete with the studios as far as advertising. I’ll see how it goes. It is very important for fans to see the film on the big screen. If it does well, there will be follow-up bookings in theaters around the country.

Since the film was such a decades-long struggle to get made, would you be content for it to serve as your career epitaph, or are you itching to make more movies?

[Laughs] No, I’d like to get a few more done before I kick the bucket. While I was working on it, I thought in my own head that the film was a bit of a compendium of my work, like Fellini’s Amarcord. A lot of the tropes I’ve used over the years are in the movie. It’s not a bad summation of the way I see the world is all I can say.

Are you getting any more blowback from some of your anti-comic book movie statements that you’ve made recently?

No. Nobody seems to be paying attention to my criticisms. I just know that they’re dominating the industry at the moment, and they’re consuming so much of the money available to make films. The films that I always made, which are in the middle-class budget, there’s no money for films like that anymore. Films now are made for less than $10 million or more than $100 million. Those in between are not getting made. So, you get very small independent films or huge monstrous comic book films. It’s not that I dislike the [comic book] films. In fact, Avengers: Infinity Wars and Thor: Ragnarok, I enjoyed a lot. But because they dominate so much, I’m always against the dominator.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Credit: Recorded Picture Company

If the Terry Gilliam of today could go back in time to meet the Terry Gilliam just starting out, what kind of advice would he give him?

I don’t know. The advice I gave myself back then was to only do work that I had control of, and I’d probably suggest the same thing. I’ve been lucky. I’ve always been able to adjust what I do to what I can get financed. At the beginning, it was just a piece of paper and a pen so I could draw cartoons. And then, when you get into movies, it gets more expensive and then you have to adapt to see what you could do. But I’ve been incredibly lucky to get away with what I got away with over the years.

What is the best piece of creative advice you’ve ever received?

Be true to yourself, that’s an old favorite. Patience is the most useful one. I’m very lucky. From the beginning, I’ve only done what I really wanted to do and believed in. I was always the one giving the good advice, and that was saying no to all of the things I didn’t have control over. And, also, I like being surprised by other people’s better ideas. It’s not about an ego that says, “My way is the only way.” That’s tedious and boring.

What is the hardest scene you’ve ever had to shoot in one of your movies?

The most painful was during Monty Python and the Holy Grail. We were preparing for the shot of the animals being thrown over the parapet of the castle. To get that, we had to have a clean matte line on the edge of the castle. We had to get the other Pythons low enough so their heads were below the parapet. They were in the foreground. So, we had to dig a hole in the ground to get them low enough.

And, they were just completely pissed off at me for putting them in such an uncomfortable position. It got so bad that I said, “This is a scene you wrote! I didn’t write this. I’m just trying to make it work.” They were still grousing, and I finally just walked away and said to [co-director] Terry Jones, “Can you just finish it? I can’t deal with these people!”