"And now, after more than 25 years in the making… and unmaking…" read the opening title card of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a passion project for director Terry Gilliam, as it celebrated the film's North American premiere at tonight's opening night of Fantastic Fest.
The film, which Gilliam has worked on since 1989, has become the go-to definition of "development hell." Now, 29 years later, the writer/director is finally ready to unleash his film unto the world. Though it screened at the same time as Halloween's U.S. premiere, the Alamo Drafthouse had two theaters packed with eager moviegoers, including yours truly. Unfortunately, at the screening I was at, it seemed like the crowd was never quite fully captivated. Sure, there were a few chuckles at its many lighthearted moments, but really not much else.
The film centers on Adam Driver as Toby, a big-shot ad executive who goes to the Spanish desert with a production crew, only to recall he was there 10 years prior while filming a student film about the legendary Don Quixote. Before long, Toby sees the impact his film had on his cast a decade later, and realizes that no one is better off. Particularly Jonathan Pryce, who after playing the Quixote in Toby's film, now believes that he's the real Don Quixote, and mistakes Toby for Sancho, his faithful squire.
Once Toby gets swept up in Quixote's impromptu adventure, Gilliam's filmmaking style takes hold, breezily drifting in and out of his memories, dreams, and hallucinations. It's Gilliam's most recognizable trope, and like he did in Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Fisher King, he wields it as confidently as ever. However, in Quixote, he tends to stay with these tangents for so long that it could alienate casual viewers.
More than anything, the resounding sentiment after the screening was one of disbelief. That after all these years, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote actually exists. After having already worked on the project for nine years, Gilliam first secured funding in 1998. Production started shortly thereafter, but the film fell back into purgatory after numerous problems plagued the set — a situation so storied that it became its own documentary, 2002's Lost in La Mancha.
Over the years that followed, news of the film's production came and went, with everyone from Johnny Depp, Ewan McGregor, Robert Duvall, and Michael Palin attached at different points. Both Jean Rochefort and John Hurt, who were each eyed for the role of Don Quixote and have since passed on, were given an "In Memory Of" as the end credits rolled. It read as a somber reminder of how long Gilliam has been working to bring this film to life, and how determined he remained until he saw it through until the end.