When it comes to famously unmade movies, there’s Jodorowsky’s Dune and Terry Gilliam’s Don.
Gilliam’s decades-long quest to adapt Don Quixote was the stuff of cinema legend until 2018, when he finally premiered The Man Who Killed Don Quixote after some three decades of snafus. Some of those snafus– or what Gilliam would probably call fuckups– were captured in Lost in La Mancha, and now the directors of that 2002 film, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, are following it up with another behind-the-scenes doc. He Dreams of Giants premiered at DocNYC last night and screens again tonight, and surely rivals 63 Up— the latest film in the 7 Up series– as the festival’s most powerful serial portrait of aging.
Gilliam’s 2000 attempt to film a Cervantes adaptation starring Johnny Depp was as infamously cursed as the making of Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo (documented in Hearts of Darkness and Burden of Dreams, respectively). But while Coppola and Herzog actually finished their passion projects, Gilliam’s was scrapped after seven days of shooting, when a freak hail storm wiped out the set and a hernia prevented his Don Quixote (Jean Rochefort) from riding a horse. One good thing came out of the ordeal: Lost in La Mancha, a candid documentary that showed the legendary director of The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys, Brazil, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas at work. Or, at least, trying to work with a relatively modest budget, military jets flying over his mud-splattered set, and European producers and investors breathing down his back.
In their latest effort, Fulton and Pepe’s cameras are up and running again, after 17 more years of foiled plans. After losing Ewan McGregor, Robert Duvall, John Hurt, and his old Monty Python mate Michael Palin, the film now has Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce attached. Gilliam, now 76, has aged quite visibly into a self-described “old cynic” and “worrier.” He’s worried that he no longer has his youthful energy and inspiration. He worries he has forgotten how to direct. He worries that his budget of $16 million is half of what it was the last time around. But most of all, he worries that his film can’t possibly live up to expectations.
Spoiler alert: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote did disappoint many critics and fans who found it meandering and overwrought, even for Gilliam. And after a legal squabble with the film’s previous producer caused Amazon to pull out of distribution, it wasn’t exactly a box office success. It surely didn’t help that shortly before the film’s release, Gilliam made comments about Harvey Weinstein’s accusers and the #MeToo movement that were condemned even by fellow humorists. New York‘s pre-release profile of Gilliam was followed, two months later, by a review of the film that called it a “bumblingly misogynistic fun house.”
Ironically, Gilliam’s craggy features and broad build have caused him to develop a passing resemblance to Weinstein (with whom he butted heads during the making of The Brothers Grimm), and his on-set outbursts don’t help the matter. If I’m focusing on Gilliam’s physical appearance, it’s because Fulton and Pepe’s cameras spend a great deal of time locking in on the director’s face as he broods over prop snafus, filming delays, and, of course, the legacy of his topsy-turvy career.
Gilliam says he’s “here to suffer like Don Quixote,” and clearly evokes himself when he says Quixote is an older man who “has one last chance to make the world as interesting as he dreams it to be.” But we don’t get the sense that the director has a Sancho Panza. Those hoping to see a lot of Adam Driver will be disappointed that not much interaction is shown between Gilliam and his actors. Mostly, he drops countless F bombs as production threatens to veer off course, storms off into corners, and debates whether the film is better off left unmade. When the crew holds a champagne toast to congratulate him for making it through an unprecedented seventh day of filming, he’s touched, but can’t keep himself from noting that “it’s bad luck to celebrate.”
Clearly, Gilliam is still scarred from the previous seven attempts to get The Man Who Killed Don Quixote off the ground (if you thought the 132-minute film was long, take a look at the Wikipedia page). And coming off of a mini stroke that affected the vision in his left eye, he’s acutely aware of his mortality. He fears the “void” that will envelop him after the project wraps, and he asks himself questions like “Did you achieve anything? Did you change the world?” One is tempted to dismiss his worry that the film will give him an ulcer, but his literal bellyaching proves to be legitimate when he’s rushed to the hospital during production.
If Gilliam often looks truly miserable during shooting, Fulton and Pepe try to lighten things up by peppering the film with clips from his old interviews, in which he has considerably more spunk. And Gilliam sometimes does break into a cackle that indicates he’s still capable of finding joy in creativity, even while he insists that making art is often no fun. The cackle usually comes when the cameras are rolling and his actors are successfully making his detailed storyboards come to life. When Pryce overcomes a bad back in order to charge a windmill on horseback, Gilliam is clearly overjoyed when it doesn’t end as disastrously as the time he pushed Rochefort, his earlier Don Quixote, beyond his limits.
As I watched He Dreams of Giants, I found myself wanting more of these scenes revealing the inner workings of the movie rather than the inner workings of its director. The film frustratingly jumps from the earliest days of shooting to the final days. And it ends rather abruptly, with Gilliam receiving a standing ovation at Cannes.
In The Devil’s Candy, an excellent book about the making of another famously cursed film, author Julie Salamon followed Brian De Palma all the way to the end of his Bonfire of the Vanities ordeal, describing him weeping over a bad New York Times review. One can only wonder how Gilliam felt about his film’s post-production distribution woes and its mixed critical reception– and, of course, the backlash over his #MeToo comments. But I suppose Fulton and Pepe had to end their film somewhere, or it could’ve dragged on for decades.