Terry Gilliam has never made a simple film. The filmmaker does not seem to believe in such a word. While most everything the auteur has tried to put to screen has been an uphill struggle, there is one project that eludes Gilliam much in the same way that the water and fruit eluded Tantalus in the Greek Myth. Terry Gilliam’s eternal battle to adapt Don Quixote for the big screen has gone on for over two decades to date, but like the mad old man from the famous Spanish tale, the filmmaker continues to charge full steam ahead no matter which obstacle he may face next.
Written by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra back at the turn of the seventeenth century, the fully titled The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote Of La Mancha tells the tale of Alonso Quixana who after reading far too many chivalric novels decides to revive the dying act under the name Don Quixote. Quixote recruits Sancho Panza as his squire and together, the two men roam the land to show that chivalry is far from gone. Along the way, Sancho tries to explain to Quixote the realism of his fantastical world while dealing with the the mad old man’s ramblings about of knighthood. The story has been praised for its brilliance in being at once both a comedy and a tragedy. The novel itself is considered by many to be one of the greatest literary pieces of all time.
While the idea of adapting Saavedra’s novel first struck Gilliam in 1991 after the unmitigated disaster The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, the filmmaker has said the project has been a lifelong dream. The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen proved to be a Quixote-like fight for Gilliam as the entire production seemed to be plagued with problems from day one. Gilliam had originally intended for it to be a much larger and more ambitious piece but the film was reportedly $10 million over-budget before a single frame had even been filmed. Problems with sets and costumes led Gilliam to reworking much of the film during production to try and scale down what had been written. The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen was the filmmaker’s final film in a trilogy he referred to as “The Trilogy Of Imagination”. The trilogy began with 1981’s Time Bandits and continued on with the critically acclaimed Brazil in 1985. Gilliam’s trilogy focuses on the desire and struggle to escape the craziness of the awkwardly ordered society mankind finds themselves trapped in on a daily basis through whatever means possible. The three films each focus on a different age of man. Time Bandits is told through the eyes of a child while Brazil comes from the point of view of a man about to reach middle age. The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, much like Don Quixote, featured a very old man at its heart.
The surrealist filmmaker knew that trying to condense Don Quixote into even a two-and-a-half hour film would be a Herculean task. Along with screenwriter Tony Grisoni, Gilliam decided instead to create their own version of the Quixote story. Inspired by A Connecticut Yankee In New York, Gilliam and Grisoni came up with the idea that the character of Sancho Panza would appear only briefly very early on in the film before replaced by a twenty-first century marketing executive from New York named Toby that has been thrown back through time. The eternal battle of adapting Don Quixote continued for Terry Gilliam throughout the 1990’s as the autuer struggled to find anyone interested in taking on the ambitious project following the massive failure of The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen. After Gilliam completed what he referred to as his “Trilogy Of Americana”, comprised of 1991’s The Fisher King, 1995’s Twelve Monkeys and 1998’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, the imaginative filmmaker finally found a financier in 1999 for his film, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
Gilliam could not be more thrilled to be making the film with themes that heavily embody much of his work. The idea of the individual versus society and the concept of sanity run throughout both Don Quixote and even Terry himself, after he was label a black sheep for The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen. Gilliam and Grisoni’s script called for a budget of near $60 million, a number no American investor was willing to pay so the filmmaker went elsewhere. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote would end up raising $32.1 million for its production budget and at the time in 2000 was the most expensive film ever to be made with nothing but European money. The film was to be shot primarily in Spain with stops throughout Europe. Pre-production began in August in Madrid and everything went off without a hitch. While Gilliam noted that the sound stage used for many interior locations certainly should have been better, it was certainly nothing that could not be handled. A week before filming began, the first real signs of dangers struck the production as the French actor cast as Don Quxiote, Jean Rochefort, missed his flight due to what would later be diagnosed as a double herniated disc.
Filming began on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in late October. Johnny Depp was to play the role of Toby next to the acclaimed French actor in the lead role. Day one resulted in almost a total loss for the tightly budgeted film as military fighters jets ran drills above the set and ruined any possibility of capturing useable sound. On day two, the production faced a massive hail storm that destroyed most of their equipment and completely changed to look of the scouted location. The insurance company in charge would not refund the days lost due to what they called “an Act of God”. After two more unproductive days, Jean Rochefort would finally take to his horse for the first time as Don Quixote however the then undiagnosed double herniated disc prevented the actor from delivering a performance through the extreme pain of riding. After only six days of filming, the production was cancelled. The entire ordeal was captured and released in 2002 titled Lost In La Mancha.
After the cancellation, the rights went to the insurance company responsible for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Since Gilliam had to walk away for the doomed project, he has been trying to secure the funds needed to purchase the rights back. In 2008, Terry Gilliam announced that he was returning to work on the script for the film. With a smaller budget and Robert Duvall attached now in the lead role, Gilliam’s film look like it might get off the ground once again. Then everything went quiet. A year later, Gilliam stated that Johnny Depp had to leave the project due to his crowded schedule, telling the filmmaker that he no intentions on making him wait any longer to make the film. Ewan McGregor was soon cast to play Johnny Depp’s part of Toby. In 2010, Gilliam suffered another blow as he reported that funding had yet again collapsed on the project.
The filmmaker, like Quixote, is a persistent dreamer that gleefully and fearlessly charges forward against logic and reality. Terry Gilliam recently announced his continuation in his eternal battle to adapt Don Quixote. The filmmaker is set to begin production on his allusive opus in the Canary Islands this September.
By Benjamin Murray