In the new dark comedy The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Jonathan Pryce plays a cobbler in rural Spain who, after getting cast in a low-budget film as Cervantes’s classic hero-fool, spends the next decade unable to shake the role, eventually convincing himself that he is, in fact, the literary legend come to life. This inability to let an idea die of course originated with Cervantes’s original text, but also seems to have infected The Man Who Killed Don Quixote director Terry Gilliam, given that he, too, has spent years and years tethered to his creation, refusing to let reality interfere with his imagination.
Over the past quarter-century, Gilliam has seen his vision of Quixote quickly come together and then just as rapidly fall apart a half-dozen times. There was the 2000 production that disintegrated so badly that the crew commissioned to chronicle its shoot for a DVD extra instead produced the award-winning what-might’ve-been documentary Lost in La Mancha. Gilliam picked up the pieces in 2005, casting Johnny Depp and Gérard Depardieu. Then there was the 2009 version with Robert Duvall replacing Depardieu, a 2010 effort with Ewan McGregor filling in for Depp, a 2014 attempt with John Hurt replacing Duvall, and on and on. Gilliam, the Monty Python member best known for his gonzo epics Brazil, 12 Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was not merely haunted by the idea: He was possessed. And if the universe was trying to tell him something, well, that was just another reason that he absolutely had to press on.
On April 10, the director’s dream is finally seeing the light of day, albeit briefly thanks to a one-night-only “event screening” in theatres across Canada and the United States. And while 2019′s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is more than a few degrees removed from Terry Gilliam’s initial idea – its budget couldn’t handle the original time-travel conceit, while the leads are now Pryce and Adam Driver – it is unmistakably a Terry Gilliam film: over-the-top, surreal and defiantly proud of its uneasy-to-stomach sensibility. Ahead of this week’s screening, Gilliam spoke with The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz about the long road to La Mancha, and his tendency to flirt with disaster.
Is it more cathartic to talk about the film now that it’s done, or are you sick to death of it?
It’s funny because on one hand, Quixote is out of my brain in terms of making it. But now that I’ve got to talk about it again for the rest of my life. …
We met once before, when you were promoting 2009′s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, another production that was, well, complicated. [Actor Heath Ledger died during filming, with Gilliam enlisting Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law to step into Ledger’s role, a trick that worked due to the film’s fantastical elements.] I don’t want to start off by asking how you persevere. But…
Maybe it’s because I had such an easy introduction into the business of film directing. I didn’t have to work my way up. When we were making Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Terry Jones and I decided from within the group that we’d take on the directing job, and our names went up on the screen. It was just like that. And now I’m paying the price for that easy introduction.
Do you feel you’ve been paying it ever since? Brazil was also notoriously troubled.
I don’t know if I make it difficult, but I do seem to be the common denominator in all of this. I just know what I want to do, and not everybody else agrees with me. With Brazil, that was me taking on a studio. But when people get ill or start dying, like Quixote, I start worrying if I’m the curse.
Have you found that it’s gotten easier at all to make films? Or have the challenges of the industry landscape and your history conspired to make it that much more difficult?
None of them have been easy. Actually, the only easy ones were my Hollywood movies after Brazil: The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Because I’d reached a point in my career where Hollywood wanted me to come in. When you’re out trying to be in the independent world, then life gets rougher. My films are more ambitious than they should be, so they cost more money. If you do an independent film now, it should be less than $10-million or more than $100-million, it seems. The middle-ground is horrible, and because Quixote was $20-million, it was the wrong number. But I just couldn’t get it cheaper.
I’m surprised that you say Hollywood is the easiest, as I feel there’s a perception that working in the studio system, you’re more hamstrung creatively.
I was lucky not to on those films, because I was the bait for the stars. With Fisher King, they wanted me because Robin Williams wanted me. And Robin and Jeff Bridges and I stayed on the same side. They couldn’t touch us. It was like that on 12 Monkeys with Bruce [Willis] and Brad [Pitt]. If we stayed united, the studios could scream and shout but they couldn’t touch us. I’m always looking for people who are going to be in the foxhole with me for the final battle.
So much of this film is about the process of making a film. Adam plays a filmmaker whose production has ruined lives, certainly Pryce’s character. Do you often go back and think about what your productions have left in their wake?
Well, I’ve read the interview with Sarah Polley about how difficult it was on the set of [1988′s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen] as a child.
What do you think of what she had to say of her experiences? [In 2005, the Canadian actor-turned-director told The Toronto Star that filming was “traumatic to say the least."]
I thought a kid’s recollections are not necessarily accurate. She said something some years ago, but she’s taken a lot of it back and that’s fine, and I’ve talked with her. She was frightened a lot of the time, but I wish I’d been aware of that. Because in many ways she was a total pro on the shoot. But obviously things affected her more on the shoot than I was aware of. But she’s survived and become a good filmmaker. So maybe those childhood scars have proved useful, who knows. [Editor’s note: In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Polley said that Gilliam "is more open to being criticized in public than most people. But he stops short of taking responsibility for most of it, or perhaps he really doesn’t remember it the way the rest of us do.”]
But as a director, what is your responsibility to mitigate those kinds of experiences during a shoot?
To be honest, except for Sarah’s version of what she’s felt, I’ve not had any other complaining. Uma Thurman was 17 or so when we did Munchausen, and she’s done fine. Jodelle Ferland was younger, nine or so, when we did Tideland, and she had no bad experiences. Munchausen was a much more complicated thing. It was bigger, in several languages. And I think to Sarah it seemed more dangerous in her recollections, but it wasn’t. The last thing I’m going to do is let my key actors get harmed in any way. The more you can turn it into a form of play, because actors are players, the better performances you get. You don’t get it from terrorizing them. I’m the guy who makes the sandbox, and tries to keep it safe so everyone playing in it doesn’t get hurt. The bigger the production the less control one has, no matter how hard you try. But that’s my approach.
The release strategy for Quixote is interesting, in that by having it be one-night-only, there’s an “event-icizing” of it, so to speak.
I’m not sure what to make of it, but I’ve been told by a lot of people that this may be the new future for independent films. They don’t have the money to promote them, unless you happen to be Netflix pushing Roma. Most of the films now will only be seen at home. But I make films for the big screen.
If Netflix approached you and offered a blank cheque and creative autonomy, but with the caveat that it wouldn’t be seen on more than, say, a dozen screens, would you take that?
If there was no better offer. It’s interesting, as you watch the Coens and Alfonso [Cuaron]. We all move to where we can get the money to do what we want. And luckily people’s home set-ups are getting nice and big, so it’s probably better than most cinemas. That’s the future, I’m afraid.
Now that Quixote’s 25-year journey is done, what’s next? If you can think of what’s next.
I wish I could. I was joking when finishing this film and people asked, “Now what?” And I said, “The void.” I have a head completely empty of ideas or dreams or hope. I’ve never been in this situation before.
Is there a sort of comfort in that?
No! I’m worried. I’m going to die soon, and I’d like to get something off before I kick the bucket. I’ve got a year and a half before I’m 80, and it’s shocking to even say those words.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote screens April 10 at select cinemas across Canada.
This interview has been condensed and edited.