LFF 2018 Preview - The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
Dir: Terry Gilliam
Starring Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgard, Olga Kurylenko, Joana Ribeiro, Jason Watkins
In the interests of full transparency, I have some history with The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Twenty-odd years ago I was working on a book with Terry Gilliam – “Dark Knights and Holy Fools” (the first of four we did together.) This coincided with his finishing up Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas, and one of the things the book looked at was all those abandoned, or still planned projects he had on the back burner. Assuming pole position at this time was a script he had just completed with his Fear & Loathing co-scribe Tony Grisoni. Johnny Depp was keen to work with Gilliam again and was on board. Gilliam had been intrigued with the idea of making a Don Quixote movie a few years before this and he admitted, it was probably an ego thing, along the lines of if Orson Welles couldn’t do it, well, he could. Terry and Tony had hit on the idea of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote as a way in – set partly in the modern world, and partly in the days of the knight himself, with Depp’s Toby Grosini (see what they did there?) being an advertising executive who becomes unstuck in time.
Everything was moving forward – Jean Rochefort was cast as Quixote (despite his complete lack of English) and I was all set to write a book on the making of it. I wasn’t able to fly out for the first week of production due to the fact there were financial difficulties with the publisher (yes, financial issues have plagued this production on many fronts.) However, I was all set to go by the second week and I emailed Terry to confirm details. He replied by telling me the heavens had opened, flash floods had washed away the sets and the cameras, Rochefort was ill and unable to ride a horse (kind of essential given the part) and the insurance people were circling like buzzards in the Spanish sky. In his words they were “totally fucked.” But, as we waited to see whether I was flying out or not, he did suggest I might circulate a couple of inside stories on the internet to suggest things weren't as bad as they appeared and looking like they were going to get back on track, which I loyally did – see kids, we had “fake news” even way back then!
As it happens, it never happened – and for anyone that’s ever seen the brilliant Lost In La Mancha you’ll see the whole story. I went on to do some more books with Terry (“Brazil The Evolution Of The 54th Best British Film Ever Made” and “The Pythons Autobiography By The Pythons”) before finally getting on set to do that “making of” book, but not for Quixote, but for The Brothers Grimm instead, a film that didn’t prove as problematic as Quixote (it got made!) but was by no means an easy ride. (Check out “Dreams & Nightmares – Terry Gilliam, The Brothers Grimm & Other Cautionary Tales Of Hollywood.”)
So, to keep a long story long, I’ve been waiting over twenty years to see this movie. And for many of those years there was a side of me that thought maybe the La Mancha documentary was the best telling of the tale – the story of the man who tilts at windmills being tragically unable to slay those giants.
So I approached seeing this with all those years of expectation, a suitably appropriate amount of dread, and the constant thought of “Was it worth the wait?”
And I’m delighted to say “Yes, it was.” There are a couple of potentially obscure references to the original collapsed production – Stellan Skarsgard’s character says “This is the month it’s not supposed to rain” as a set is washed out late in the movie, and right at the beginning Adam Driver’s Toby is on the phone discussing a music video for a song called “Let’s Fuck Up The World” – this was actually recorded and filmed and edited as a pop video for the original production. I know, because I was in it. Terry’s daughter then, and producer here, Amy Gilliam dressed me up as a mad Scotsman and I sang along heartily to the playback. Ray Cooper (who was sitting in the stalls) told me “We could’ve used people who could lip-synch like you Bob back in the ‘70s.” It would’ve marked my big screen debut. Bugger! - all round really. (Although to be honest, it wasn’t that good a song.)
But what’s really interesting - and most satisfying –about this “new” Don is, that despite a couple of in-jokes, it is by no means the film Gilliam would’ve made all those years ago. It differs notably from those early scripts I read. Now it is a movie far more steeped in elements of autobiography, as if the film has become a study of the battle Terry has had to make the film. And the toll it has taken on him. It does, after all, open with the on-screen words “A film twenty five years in the making – and unmaking.”
And there’s more than one way to look at this. Driver’s Toby is a man making an advert based around Don Quixote, which in itself harks back to his student film which was also a telling of the Quixote legend. It’s almost as if the filmmaker is trapped within some kind of hell in relation to his subject, trying to find a means to complete something he has started and has to finish, and as the film progresses – and moves further and further into the territory of a nightmare horror movie – this becomes more and more prevalent.
On another level, it’s as if it’s looking at a man who feels he has peaked years before, almost trapped by the legacy of his own creation. It’s no coincidence surely that the film’s brilliant ending (an ending Gilliam would not have delivered 20 years back) touches on aspects of Brazil, the film that many consider to be his finest work. Personally, I don’t think it’s his best, but I’m sure we can all agree, it’s pretty fucking something!
Not everything works here of course, but Gilliam was never one for embracing smooth edges. He likes messy, he likes to take something and twist it/run with it, sometimes too far – and then just leave it there as if saying it is what it is. And Toby does seem to spend a lot of time falling over, and slipping – not between time literally in this incarnation – but through people’s skewed visions, or mentalities.
But as the film builds, it becomes more and more powerful, more and more personal (it’s no coincidence that Nicola Pecorini, Gilliam’s long time favoured one-eyed DP who brings this to life in such a gorgeous visual manner, added “Sancho” to his name in the film’s credits), and as it does so, it becomes more and more nightmarish. Art, creation, story telling and certainly making this bloody film has been the stuff of nightmares. And what’s on the screen reflects that in a harrowing manner in the film’s final act. Has a two-decade plus passion for making this movie damaged Gilliam? More than likely, but I’m tempted to say in all the right ways. And in ways that Terry would embrace, understand and refuse to give up. It is uneven, unbalanced, sometimes off the mark – but it is remarkable.
I’ve been waiting over twenty years of my life to see this film. Was it worth it? Absofuckinglutley. Cheers, Maestro.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote plays the LFF on 16, 17 & 20 October
More info @ www.bfi.org.uk/lff
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