IndieWire sat down with Gilliam at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday to get the latest on the legendary production. Here are some of the highlights from that conversation.
Is getting this movie made bittersweet because you didn’t get to realize your original vision?
No. I’ve forgotten all that. I’m very good on sublimating my past.
Was it just bad luck that prevented you from completing this film 17 years ago?
I knew about four weeks down the line the shit was going to hit the fan on that film. I was relieved [when it ended] because they couldn’t blame me. Luck is very funny. I’ve been really lucky. I really do think that I’ve gotten away with a lot over the years, but you shouldn’t be able to have a clean slate. You’ve got to get punished sometimes.
Are there any misconceptions about what went wrong, or did “Lost in La Mancha” do a good job of capturing it?
It did a really good job. I love that documentary. You never get to see things like that, and that’s why it’s important.
What do you like most about the character of Don Quixote?
His thick-headedness. He will misinterpret reality and see it as something grander, greater and more wonderful, and then he’s hammered by the truth and he bounces back. It’s his relentlessness and how he will not be defeated. That’s what intrigues me about him.
I understand you’re quite fond of your lead actor Adam Driver.
That was a lie. The guy’s a piece of shit [Laughs maniacally].
What drew you to him?
I’ve never seen "Girls," but I saw "Star Wars" with him and "Inside Llewyn Davis" and some other things, and then I met him and it’s as simple as that. I’m very instinctive about things like that. I just liked this guy and I liked the way he looked. He’s surprising. He doesn’t look like what I had in my mind [for the part] and I like these moments when you bump into someone and you say, shit, this is interesting now. Now it’s getting fun.
I was just talking to Jim Jarmusch at lunch and he was talking about how he cast Adam as a bus driver and at one point Jim said, "Oh, I’ve got to get you some experience on a bus," and Adam said, "No, I’ve already got my license." He’d already gone out and done it. And now he’s dived into "Don Quixote."
I don’t know what my style is. I’m obviously too close to it. It’s funny, I get thrown together with Tim Burton a lot. We’re so different. It’s crazy. We both have a good visual sense and a sense of fantasy but our approach to work and the subject matter and how we deal with things is different. I feel closer to the Coen brothers. They come from Minnesota as well.
Which parts of the filmmaking process do you enjoy the most?
The writing is great. The location scouting is wonderful because you get to go to all these places that you wouldn’t normally get to go to. The shooting is shit. It’s a nightmare. And then the editing is wonderful because now it’s limited. That’s what you’ve got to work with. The shooting is all about knowing that each day you’re not quite getting what it was you’d dreamed about getting.
It’s continual failure. That’s what shooting is to me, even though there are wonderful surprises. Every day there are moments where you’re just like, fucking great! An actor does something that you hadn’t expected, but most of it, my stomach is in a knot the whole time because I know time is running out and we’re not getting the work done that we need to get done today, so I can’t say I really enjoy it. But the dreaming of the thing and then putting the jigsaw puzzle together – those are the good moments.
It’s pathetic. The point of a movie is you go into a space and there’s a large screen. You’re small and the screen is big. On an iPhone, you’re the big thing and the film is the little thing. It’s just all wrong and completely backwards. Can you imagine if the first "Star Wars" was being watched on an iPhone? This is one of the things I actually resent — how so much of humanity is so fucking lazy. They just want stuff now. They don’t want to really experience it. They just want to say "saw that" and tick all these boxes.
Does what’s happening with digital distribution and Amazon and Netflix interest you or is that secondary?
No, I talk to those people! Any source of money is worth talking to. If the cinema business is now just DC and Marvel comics, then you start talking to Netflix and Amazon and say, "How do we reach people to tell stories?"
Are you optimistic about the future of cinema?
Yes, because vinyl has came back. People want to get back to a certain kind of experience and this convenience will pass, like all things convenient pass. Great things lure you back in the end. But I don’t spend much time thinking about the future. I’m more interested in the future of mankind and this planet. That’s the bit that worries me. There’s too many of us all wanting all the goodies. The Chinese are rich now and they want the same shit we want.
I just think humanity isn’t very good at restraining itself. Humanity is pretty good at rebuilding after the apocalypse. I think we’re really designed for that. Give us a good World War, destroy half of Europe, and then we get to rebuild it. Isn’t that exciting?
Do you like coming to Cannes or does it just come with the territory of being a filmmaker?
I sit in front of my fucking computer screen day in and day out at home, so it’s very nice occasionally to get out into a three-dimensional world, especially one where people recognize and like you. And the fact that I’m sitting here not selling anything really makes this good fun.
What do you think your greatest challenge on this film will be?
Maintaining my belief that I’ll be able to finish it. Once it goes, then you’re just holding on, trying to get enough sleep every night. It’s about fooling yourself into thinking you can do it, that’s all. And that’s where most of my energy is — just in trying to fool myself to believe in something, that this is possible.
The part that scares me is that people have been imagining it and I may not live up to their imagination. That’s what worries me. It’s like ruins. I love architectural ruins because you can imagine what it was like and you’re imagination is usually better that what it really was.