Some films are famous for how disastrous they were in the making. Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, John Frankenheimer and Richard Stanley’s The Island of Dr. Moreau — all three films experienced such catastrophes during production (injuries, death, people running away into the jungle) that the mythology behind them has almost transcended the films themselves.
Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote may just surpass them all.
In the three decades it’s been since Gilliam first had the idea of adapting Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the passion project has gained a reputation as one of the most cursed productions of all time. When Gilliam finally secured funding for the project in 1998, almost ten years after he’d first had the idea for the film, it was only to encounter natural disasters, illness, and insurance issues that ended up crippling and cancelling the production. Lost in La Mancha, a documentary originally intended as a making-of film, was released as something of a cautionary tale, instead.
Gilliam took multiple stabs at reviving the project in the years that followed, but each attempt fell through (with stars like Michael Palin, Ewan McGregor, Robert Duvall, and Jack O’Connell all drifting in and out of the film’s orbit) — until 2017. Jonathan Pryce (who had previously worked with Gilliam in the iconic Brazil) would be Quixote, with Adam Driver starring as a new character, a filmmaker named Toby Grisoni.
Even completing filming, however, didn’t mark the end of the film’s troubles. Paulo Branco, a former producer of the film, took Gilliam to court, claiming that he still had control over the film’s release despite having not provided the money he’d agreed to. The film’s premiere at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival was cancelled as a result of the lawsuit — and then put back on for the festival’s closing night.
It’s been almost a year since then, and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is only now receiving U.S. distribution — in a one-night-only engagement, no less (and scattered limited release later in the month). The strangely ignominious release feels like the final blow of whatever witch’s curse has plagued Gilliam (who also suffered a perforated artery prior to the film’s debut), given how much of his life he’s poured into it.
The intensely personal nature of the film doesn’t just have to do with its production, but with the way it feels like the culmination of all of Gilliam’s work thus far. Far from being a literal adaptation, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is almost an autobiography, treating the story of Don Quixote as an analog for the creative process. It’s a celebration of art, as painful as it may sometimes be to make.
Grisoni’s ad shoot takes a turn when he encounters a DVD copy of his student thesis film, a black-and-white version of Don Quixote. When he returns to the town where he’d shot it (Los Sueños, or, tellingly, “Dreams”), he discovers that the effects of his work are still being felt. The cobbler he’d cast as his Quixote, Javier (Pryce), truly believes that he is the knight-errant, and has been turned into a sideshow attraction. His Dulcinea, a young waitress named Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), has tried and failed to make a career out of acting, resorting to working as an escort and marrying a rich — but abusive — man. And they all remember him — except for Javier, who sees Toby as his Sancho Panza.
The story that unfolds as Toby is dragged along has its ties to Cervantes’ original work, given the depths of Javier’s delusion, but The Man Who Killed Don Quixote isn’t so literal as all that. From Toby’s reckoning with the way his early pushiness has affected Javier and Angelica to the grief that the pursuit of dreams causes them all, the film is less Quixote and more a look at Gilliam’s own quixotic tendencies.
Gilliam exists in the cynicism and frustration Toby feels as an artist laboring over a corporate, commercial job rather than his own passions; he exists in Javier’s indefatigable pursuit of an impossible dream; he exists in the almighty mess the film becomes as it mixes fantasy with reality, genuine spectacle with film sets that both recall Gilliam’s famous animation work. His DNA is even in the way Toby’s commercial shoot becomes an overwrought disaster, and the collateral damage around Toby and Javier’s actions (Gilliam has a reputation for being difficult).
As frustratingly wild as the film might become, however, it’s still ultimately joyous, and a rebuke of all of the years of struggling that have gone into getting it made. Gilliam has said as much, himself. Finishing The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has been such a protracted process that Lost in La Mancha is getting a sequel, He Dreamed of Giants, which will cover the film’s entire development but focus on events following those depicted in the first documentary. “It’s not really about the finishing of the film; it’s about me surviving,” Gilliam said. “The documentary concentrates on my pain [...] I’m told by those who’ve seen it they’re so moved by my persistence and suffering. Fuck it. Doesn’t interest me.”
To wit, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote celebrates the art and inspiration — perseverance is just a part of it. Like the rest of Gilliam’s work, it’s a singular vision, and still so filled with love and ambition that it may just surpass the mythology of disaster that’s built up around it.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is playing in a special one-night Fathom Events engagement on April 10, and opening in limited release soon afterwards.