The Impossible Dream: Terry Gilliam’s Quest To Make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

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Terry Gilliam’s quest to bring Don Quixote to the big screen is now itself the stuff of legend. For over 15 years he has had The Man Who Killed Don Quixote on his To Do list, and despite all that the fates have thrown at him he has never given up. Tilting at windmills he might be, but with today’s news that he has a start date lined up, the director may yet slay this giant and prove himself at last. Here is the story so far…

Terry Gilliam and Jean Rochefort in the documentary Lost In La Mancha

Terry Gilliam and regular collaborator Tony Grisoni begin pre-production on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a new version of Miguel de Cervantes' classic novel, while the director finishes and launches Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas. The film sees a modern-day advertising man sent back through time and replacing Sancho Panza as the sidekick to the wannabe knight. The budget is set at $32.1 million, making it one of the biggest Continental films ever made. All seems rosy and right with the world.

Johnny Depp is cast as the advertising man, Toby Grisoni, with French star Jean Rochefort as Don Quixote after Gilliam described him as 'the perfect Quixote”. Rochefort begins learning English for the role and production steams ahead.

Jean Rochefort in the documentary Lost In La Mancha

Filming starts in Bardenas Reales in northeastern Spain and immediately runs into trouble. It turns out that the remote location is in fact close to a NATO air base and is regularly buzzed by noisy jets. On day 2, a flash flood strikes and permanently changes the look of the location, forcing reshoots of everything the day before. By the end of week one, Rochefort has suffered a double herniated disc and it proves impossible to continue. An insurance claim for the abandoned production is put in and the script rights go to the insurers.

The documentary Lost In La Mancha is released (see trailer below), detailing the disasters that befell the production. Originally intended as a making-of, the footage became its own tale of Gilliam's own quixotic quest to get the film made. Happily, the documentary at least succeeded in reigniting interest in the film and demonstrating Gilliam's rotten luck in all its appalling glory.

With Don Quixote still apparently dead in the water, Gilliam signs on to direct Grimm or, as it became, The Brothers Grimm. It would prove another fraught production, with Gilliam clashing with his studio over casting and story (detailed in the very good making-of book Dreams & Nightmares by Bob McCabe, formerly of this parish). That film finally hit screens in summer 2005.

Gilliam spoke to Empire at the London Film Festival and said that the film might be back on. 'We're getting closer to getting the script to Don Quixote back. It's been three years and it looks like there's some movement now: there was a legal situation where the insurance company and French production company put up a lot of money, but it looks as though things are loosening up. Johnny's still there, so we're good. It's got to the point that I think I just have to get it out of my system.” Gilliam reportedly looked to cast Gérard Depardieu as Don Quixote himself, which seemed like something of stretch, physically speaking (Quixote is generally portrayed as a very tall, extremely thin figure) but which might have fit the bill otherwise, since Depardieu gives good lunatic and has a way with tragedy (see Cyrano de Bergerac for a good demonstration of both). Sadly, rights to the script remained in limbo.

Terry Gilliam's Tideland

Tideland (above), Gilliam's seriously weird and sometimes disturbing fantasy film about a young girl in a remote rural setting, is released in the UK. If we are to judge the director's state of mind from his films, this may mark a nadir. In Gilliam's case, however, it probably just means he wanted to mess with us.

The rights issue seems settled – but that is only one small step on the path of this film to the screen. There's still financing to be raised and the cast to be secured.

Gilliam gears up The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus in the meantime, starring his Brothers Grimm star Heath Ledger. Tragedy struck that production too, however, when Ledger died during production in 2008 – but Gilliam struggled through and enlisted Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to fill the gaps and finish the film. It premiered in October 2009.

By 2008 Gilliam was hopefully predicting that Don Quixote might be back on – unless he adapted Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens instead. Gilliam told Empire, '[Producer] Jeremy Thomas is very close to getting all the pieces of paper signed from all the people who you gotta get signed. He's been on it for a year now, and he's come the closest to getting it untangled from the legal swamp it was in. He's just gotta get all the paperwork done and then I call Mr Depp and see which Pirate film he's still on".

In December, on a talk show, Gilliam announced that all the rights issues were settled and work on pre-production had begun once again. Robert Duvall was his fresh choice for Quixote, and Depp remained attached – but began to express doubt about whether he'd be available.

Johnny Depp and Terry Gilliam on the set of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Ewan McGregor was announced in May as the new occupant of Depp's role, while the superstar remained committed to a slew of Disney films including Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Meanwhile, Disney announced their own swashbuckling take on Don Quixote from producer Joel Silver. And who doesn't think of swashbuckling when they think of Cervantes' enduring classic?

By August, Gilliam's film was once more a no-go, due to 'a financial hiccup”. Gilliam went to work with Arcade Fire in the meantime, and in 2011 worked for the English National Opera instead. This is not a man who's desperate for work, is what we're saying.

Johnny Depp was reportedly attached to a modern-day Quixote tale that Steve Pink and Jeff Morris pitched to Disney – not, apparently, the Joel Silver story of two years before. At this point, we like to think that Terry Gilliam threw something quite fragile at something quite hard and possibly gnashed his teeth, but that's pure speculation.

Gilliam says that Quixote will be his next film on, at this stage, what he counts as his seventh attempt. In the meantime, he makes dark and dystopian future-set tale The Zero Theorem almost under the radar.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote Concept Art

Gilliam unveils concept art for the film and names September 29 as the start of shooting. John Hurt is rumoured as the lead, but discussions are still ongoing when the start date is moved back to January 2015. By this point, the story has shifted too. Says Gilliam, 'Now it's contemporary. It's more about how movies can damage people. Our main character actually made a Don Quixote movie a lot earlier in his history, and the effect it had on many people wasn't very nice. Some people go mad, some people turn to drink, some people become whores. I keep incorporating my own life into it and shifting it.”

Might we finally see Quixote on screen? For Gilliam's sake as well as our own, we have our fingers crossed.