It has taken Terry Gilliam 30 years to bring “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” to the big screen. His most notable attempt to make the film starred Johnny Depp and involved a doomed six-day shoot, captured in the documentary “Lost in La Mancha,” that ended in the set being washed away in a flash flood and Gilliam’s then-Quixote, Jean Rochefort, suffering a medical emergency and unable to ride a horse.
Though the failed 2001 shoot was the most dramatic, Gilliam has been painfully close to finishing the film countless times, as the project has constantly evolved with new players ever since he was promised $20 million in 1989 to tell his adapted version of Miguel de Cervantes’ novel. Just last year, the film was completed with the help of Amazon Studios — which pulled out days before the film premiered in Cannes, leaving Gilliam once again searching for a home. Now, the filmmaker is addressing that sudden third-act twist for the first time.
“We’ve been involved with some very interesting fantasists, who have been more crazy than Quixote, thinking they would be the producer to make the impossible film,” said Gilliam, when he was a guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast this week. “I think I counted 11 producers fairly recently – some would just talk, others got more and more extreme.”
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Gilliam’s descriptions of these many failed attempts can sound like scenarios from one his absurdist films. “There was an off-shore, from a Tunisia film company we had to set up because somehow we were getting the gold from the ex-Tunisian President when he scampered during the Arab spring,” said Gilliam. “That grew into something even more interesting. The money was gold bullion in Zurich.”
One time, Gilliam and his family actually ended up popping the cork on a bottle of champagne to celebrate the evening a mineral-magnate’s daughter signed on the dotted-line to finance the film, but her family’s lawyer called to nix the deal the next day. Gilliam, a master at stretching the budget without compromising his production values, had a hard number he knew he needed in the bank to start rolling cameras again.
“We knew it had to be about 16 million Euros. We could get to 12 and a half, maybe a little bit more, but never really getting there,” he said. “Having been around that long, we smelled a bit like last week’s fish. We did. It was very hard.”
It was Gilliam’s producer-daughter, Amy, who eventually brought the film across the finishing line, finding a financier who had come into money later in life and wanted to see Gilliam’s “Quixote” finally made. But it was a short-lived former producer, Paulo Branco of Alfama Films in France, who served as the filmmaker’s final hurdle. Branco claimed legal rights to the film based on a 2016 contract and tried to prevent it from screening at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival or being distributed in theaters. In the interview, Gilliam referred to Branco only as “our nameless brief producer, who was on board all of four months, and then decided it was his film.”
For Gilliam, Branco “had nothing to do with the making of the film ultimately, but he was involved four months, failed to raise the money, was determined that nobody else would make the film was kind of what was happening. Yeah, that’s been the real miserable part, all the legal nonsense going on. We win some, we lose some. What happened with his legal claims, it frightened a lot of distributors away. It frightened Amazon away. That was a big one. They were both the US and the UK, and suddenly they’re gone. This was a killer.”
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“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” will be released theatrically for one day, April 10, in 700 theaters throughout the U.S via Fathom Events. It’s a strategy Gilliam said he was less than pleased with, as he said the distribution of the film was hurt by Amazon’s queasiness over taking on Branco in court.
“[Amazon] can’t afford lawyers, clearly,” said Gilliam with notable sarcasm. “That was exactly what was happening – their legal department, which is obviously very powerful, said, ‘No way,’ and really left us in a lurch. Since the film has been released the wrong way around rather than starting in America, and then sweeping across the world, we’re just picking up where we can. It’s been all around Europe now, but there’s no continuity. It’s bop, bop, bop, and that’s not great for a film.”
Amazon declined to comment.
Through it all, Gilliam has kept a sense of humor. When he went to see “Lost in La Mancha,” composer Michael Kamen and actor Paul McGann were seated behind him.
“I was having a great time, laughing,” recalled Gilliam. “I turned around at the end, and they were white as sheets. It was like, ‘How did you survive that?’ I said, ‘We survive, so you laugh.'”
Gilliam is far less entertained by the documentary’s sequel, “He Dreams of Giants,” which chronicles the filmmaker’s post-2001 trials to make “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.”
“It’s all about an old guy who doesn’t die making his movie,” said Gilliam, who did have a heart attack a few years ago. Gilliam said his family hates the film. “It focused on me, as opposed to the whole process. It’s a particular angle on me, is all I can say.”
Listen to the full conversation below:
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and Google Play Music. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.