When Terry Gilliam began work on “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” one of its producers was about 11 years old.
That would be Gilliam’s daughter, Amy, who is now 41.
The movie has to be one of the unluckiest passion projects in history: In a three-decade stretch, Gilliam, now 78, endured several financing stops and starts, a rotating cast of committed and uncommitted cast members, and a brutal flash flood that wiped out an entire set. In fact, a documentary about the failure to make the movie — the 2002 “Lost in La Mancha” — was completed before the actual movie.
But finally, “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is no longer just a project. Sisyphus moved the boulder to the top of the hill. After debuting at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, it is a completed work that will make its U.S. debut April 10 in a one-night showing at 700 theaters across the country, before a limited theatrical run with an unknown date.
Gilliam himself, in his effort to make the film, has been likened to Quixote, but he prefers a different comparison: “The film is Quixote. I’m Sancho Panza because I’m the guy who just keeps pushing it forward,” he said from London. “My feet are on the ground most of the time.”
While he didn’t make the journey alone, Gilliam had very little of the same company along the way. Only a few people involved in the final product were there when he first tried to film it in 2000: They include his daughter; co-writer Tony Grisoni; cinematographer Nicola Pecorini; and production designer Benjamín Fernández. The Quixote costume designed for the original production was used in the finished version.
In interviews, those who had stayed with Gilliam on this ride could be described as the director’s own Sancho Panzas: equal parts loyal and astounded that Gilliam kept pressing on, even under the most challenging circumstances.
The director had a script in hand that he wrote in the late 1980s with Charles McKeown, one of his collaborators on “Brazil” (1985), but it wasn’t quite to Gilliam’s liking. He recruited Grisoni, a British screenwriter, to help on rewrites. The two had adapted another book for the screen, for the 1998 movie “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” but Grisoni had reservations about doing the same with “Don Quixote.”
“It’s a fantastic two volumes,” he said. “Maybe every book doesn’t need to be a film. Is that heresy? It’s heresy I know in the film world. But sometimes, a book can just be left alone.”
Nevertheless Gilliam’s idea of making Quixote a contemporary story drew Grisoni in. With Johnny Depp and French actor Jean Rochefort attached as leads, shooting began in 2000 with a disastrous expedition in Spain. Rochefort had to withdraw because of health problems, and the production was routinely disrupted by thunder, flash floods and flyovers from a nearby NATO base. The filmmakers gave up after about a week.
But Gilliam spent nearly two more decades trying to bring it to fruition. “It’s partly that everybody else says, ‘Forget it, move on,’” Gilliam said. “I think that’s the main driving force. I don’t like reasonable people telling me to be reasonable.”
Multiple times a year, Grisoni said, Gilliam would call him to work on the script. Michael Palin, Gilliam’s fellow Monty Python member; Robert Duvall; and John Hurt were among the stars attached in those years, but all of them fell through. (Gilliam dedicated the movie to Hurt and Rochefort, who both died in 2017.) The financing, in place for the first script, was thrown in doubt during the initial rewrites, came together for the Depp version and fell apart repeatedly after that.
Pecorini, also a “Fear and Loathing” alumnus, said that according to his records, since he signed on, there had been a dozen attempts to make the film. Each time, Pecorini said in an interview, he was “totally skeptical.”
But still, he added, he has deep affection for the project and for Gilliam: “I love working with Terry. He drives me nuts, but I love it.”
When asked what sometimes irked him about working with Gilliam, Pecorini said stubbornness, a quality Amy Gilliam also cited about her father and one that she shares with him. It’s likely a big reason “Quixote” finally debuted at Cannes.
She was working in the production office when Gilliam first tried to shoot “Quixote.” For this version, she was crucial in securing the final investment — the budget was about half the $32 million allotted for the original version. She saw firsthand how much the project weighed on Gilliam, saying that the topic routinely came up at dinner conversations.
“As a family, we really were like, ‘Oh my God, this is too much for all of us,’” Amy Gilliam said. “And we were fed up with dealing with the struggles and the suffering and the heartache and the trauma.”
“Well, I’m kind of relieved to now just get on with my life,” Amy Gilliam said. “It’s a bit scary. What do I have to torment myself with?”
This round of filming, which finished in 2017, went smoothly. “There were no signs of God’s wrath,” Pecorini said.
Or as Gilliam put it: “I guess God liked me this time.”
What made it to the screen stars Jonathan Pryce as Don Quixote, the delusional but chivalrous man from La Mancha, who sets off to become a hero, as described in the 17th-century novel by Miguel de Cervantes. Gilliam’s story takes place in contemporary times: Toby, played by Adam Driver, is a self-centered advertising director who, years after casting a Spanish shoemaker as Quixote in a student film, returns to Spain to find that the man, played by Pryce, thinks he’s actually Quixote. The man takes Toby to be his loyal companion, Sancho Panza. (In the novels, Sancho is crucial in telling the story to delineate from Quixote’s warped mind.)
Gilliam wasn’t able to get everyone he wanted to work on this version of the film, like one of the extras who played a shirtless giant in the original version. “I wanted him so desperately but we couldn’t make contact with him. It was very sad,” Gilliam said. Instead, in a scene that features the filming of a commercial, Gilliam said, a model of the extra’s head can be seen.
Gilliam was able to get Jorge Calvo, who played a version of Sancho in the first version, to come back and play him again in this one. Actress Rossy de Palma, who plays a farmer’s wife, and Ismael Fritschi, who portrays another version of Sancho, also were part of the original production.
The revived production wasn’t completely trouble-free. The Portuguese government investigated accusations that a UNESCO World Heritage site, the 12th-century Convent of Christ in Tomar, was damaged during filming, something Gilliam vigorously denied. A former producer of the film who had fallen out with Gilliam, Paulo Branco, filed a lawsuit over rights ownership and tried to block its debut at Cannes. A Paris court ruled that the movie could debut as planned.
And with that, an endeavor that has taken up almost half of Gilliam’s life has been completed. Now, he has a new windmill to tilt at: how the film’s rollout is being handled.
“I’m not convinced with the way it is being released in many countries, particularly in America,” Gilliam said. “I’m told by other people that if you have a studio picture with millions to spend, this idea of one screening across the country works. I don’t know. We’ll find out. I’m in the middle of trying to get these guys to promote it properly.”
Still, Gilliam described himself as exhausted and, for the first time in 30 years, finds himself with nothing on his plate.
Whenever he finished a film, he would “go into a postnatal depression, and there was always something waiting. There was a little Quixote standing back there waving to me. ‘Hey, let’s do me again!’ It was always something to keep me moving forward. And right now, I never felt quite like I do at the moment: It’s just I have no idea what to do.”