Are you guys going to rebel?” booms Terry Gilliam as he bounds into the conference room of his publicists’ London offices. It’s the Monday after Boris Johnson’s general election victory and the veteran filmmaker, animator and founding member of Monty Python can’t resist doing a little rabble-rousing upon hearing I’m from Scotland. “Come on, you can’t let England win again,” he teases, giggling as he takes a seat.
Despite just having flown in from Los Angeles, Gilliam, who recently turned 79, is in ebullient mood. That’s hardly surprising: he’s here, after all, to discuss The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, his freewheeling adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th Century novel, which is finally finished and ready for release, 30 years after he first conceived of it.
The film’s turbulent production history is the stuff of legend: it’s fallen apart more times than Brexit, plagued by terrible luck, inclement weather, dodgy financing, fantasists masquerading as movie producers, illness and, just when it looked as if he’d finally got it across the finish line, many, many legal wrangles.
“I think it’s six. At least six,” he says when I ask how many times the film almost got made. “I lost count. It’s become a bit of a blur. And then what was interesting was, having finally finished the film, Paulo Branco started taking us to court…”
He’s referring to the project’s onetime producer, whose copyright claim over the movie, which Gilliam finished in the summer of 2017, has kept it out of cinemas for the last 18 months, beginning with a legal challenge launched ahead of the film’s ultimately triumphant world premiere as the closing night gala of the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Amazon Studios subsequently pulled out of distributing the movie and the various court cases launched by Branco (whom Gilliam says failed to secure the necessary financing when they were working on it together) have made releasing the movie around the world a more complicated proposition.
Indeed, the release of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote makes the well-publicised and protracted battle Gilliam had with Universal Pictures over Brazil look stress-free by comparison. There’s certainly no love lost between him and Branco. “He has made films and he knows his stuff,” says Gilliam. “But he basically said: ‘No problem, the money, got it.’ And he failed, and he can’t live with it. So he’s been dragging these court cases out. As I’ve said, he wants to be the man who killed Don Quixote. But he’s just is the man who tried to kill Don Quixote. Or the man that wounded Don Quixote.”
Is he not worried that some eleventh hour disaster may yet halt the film’s imminent UK release? Gilliam just smiles. “I think we’ll be fine.” For Gilliam’s sake, let’s hope so. This has, after all, felt like an unnecessarily cursed production, its infamy burnished by the 2002 film Lost in La Mancha, a documentary Gilliam now cheerfully describes as “the longest running trailer of a film never made” thanks to the way it captured in all its catastrophic glory the aborted version of the film he started shooting in 2000 with Johnny Depp as the Sancho Panza character and the late Jean Rochefort as Don Quixote.
But there were other attempts that got close, including one with Ewan McGregor and Robert Duvall and one with John Hurt as Quixote that Gilliam was a few months away from shooting when the actor (who died in early 2017) was diagnosed with cancer. A version with his old Python cohort Michael Palin and eventual star Adam Driver, hot off The Force Awakens, also nearly happened, but, he says, the producer kept dragging his feet over Palin’s deal and, after six months, Palin told him he couldn’t waste any more time on it.
Eventually he got the movie going with Driver and his Brazil star Jonathan Pryce, who’d actually been lobbying Gilliam to play Quixote for 15 years. “He finally hit 70 and his eyebrows were looking great,” Gilliam chuckles. “How could I say no?”
Ironically, given the bumpy ride still to come, the actual production went smoothly. Gilliam spent the first week conscious of the weight of expectation, but after that, it became just like any other shoot. “The quotidian problems of making a movie take over and you just go: ‘F*** expectation; let’s just get through the film.’”
He let Lost in La Mancha directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe back on set too, though he’s “less OK” with their subsequent documentary, He Dreams of Giants. “The only drama they could come up with was the fact that my prostate gave out and I ended up with a catheter,” grins Gilliam. “They’ve treated it like a pre-death experience. But a catheter is the best thing for a director because you’re always caught short. So I’m just sitting smiling in my chair, my bag filling up. I recommend it to all film directors.”
The finished film has also changed substantially since the one he tried to make with Depp. In the new version, there’s a sly meta flourish: Driver’s character is now a filmmaker working in Spain on a Quixote-themed commercial beset with problems that are amplified when he realises that the arty student film of Quixote he made in a nearby village ten years earlier has ruined the lives of everyone he cast in it – including the local shoemaker (Pryce) who played Quixote and who has since suffered a complete break with reality. What follows is an oddball fantasy, one true to the self-referential spirit of Cervantes’ ground-breaking novel, the first English translation of which Gilliam remembers looking at in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. That said, he does also confess he didn’t actually read the book until after he first pitched it as a film all those years ago.
“I just liked the idea of Quixote as this iconic character,” he says now of its enduring appeal. “He’s a dreamer, a fantasist, a man who misunderstands the world as it exists because he’s living in a [fantasy] world that’s more noble and more chivalrous.”
The joke of this entire tortuous process, he says, is that when he did first pitch it, he was given the money right away. “I started with the money!” He laughs. “Then I spent several weeks reading the book and I said, ‘I’m f***ed. How do we do this?’”
Three decades years later, though, he’s pulled it off and is pretty happy with the results. He’s seen it with enough audiences now to know that it plays well, but at the same time he also knows it can’t possibly live up to the expectations of those hoping for some career-defining masterpiece (he’s pretty sure that’ll end up being Brazil). “There’s a feeling that because I spent 30 years on it, it must be a masterpiece,” he says. “But why? It’s just the last movie I made. That’s all it is.”
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote previews nationwide on 23 January with a Terry Gilliam Q&A and is in cinemas from 31 January. For more visit www.quixotemovie.com