CS Interview: Terry Gilliam on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote & More!
Screen Media invited ComingSoon.net to have an exclusive 1:1 with legendary director Terry Gilliam (Brazil, 12 Monkeys, Time Bandits) about the film he has been trying to make for 25 years, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which will be released in theaters and On Demand April 19. Check out the full interview below, where we talk with Gilliam about how the final film compares with the unfinished first attempt from 2000 starring Johnny Depp, Taika Waititi’s upcoming Time Bandits series for Apple TV+, and more!
A classic tale of fantasy and adventure inspired by the legendary protagonist of Miguel De Cervantes’ literary classic Don Quixote, the project is directed by highly-acclaimed filmmaker Terry Gilliam (The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys, Brazil, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and features a cast that includes Adam Driver (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Paterson, Silence), previous Gilliam collaborator Jonathan Pryce (Pirates of the Caribbean films, The Brothers Grimm, Brazil, Tomorrow Never Dies) as Don Quixote, Stellan Skarsgård (Our Kind of Traitor, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Good Will Hunting), Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace, Oblivion, To the Wonder), Joana Ribeiro (Portugal Não Está à Venda, A Uma Hora Incerta), Óscar Jaenada (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, The Cold Light of Day), Jordi Mollà (Criminal, In the Heart of the Sea), Sergi Lopez (Pan’s Labyrinth, Dirty Pretty Things, With a Friend Like Harry) and Rossy de Palma (Julieta, The Flower of my Secret, Three Many Weddings).
Toby (Driver), a cynical advertising director, finds himself trapped in the outrageous delusions of an old Spanish shoe-maker (Pryce) who believes himself to be Don Quixote. In the course of their comic and increasingly surreal adventures, Toby is forced to confront the tragic repercussions of a film he made in his idealistic youth – a film that changed the hopes and dreams of a small Spanish village forever. Can Toby make amends and regain his humanity? Can Don Quixote survive his madness and imminent death? Or will love conquer all?
Gilliam penned the screenplay with Tony Grisoni, with whom he previously collaborated on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Tideland and The Brothers Grimm. Gerardo Herrero, Mariela Besuievsky, Amy Gilliam, Tornasol Films, Kinology, Recorded Picture Company, Entre Chien et Loup and Ukbar Filmes in association with Alacran Pictures, are producing with the participation of TVE, Movistar +, Eurimages and Wallimage.
ComingSoon.net: So I saw the movie the other day. It was unfortunate: I had to watch it on a laptop. Terry Gilliam: No.
CS: I’ve been waiting 20 years for this movie and I had to watch it on a laptop. Gilliam: That’s always the problem. I know most people had to watch it that way. I know some people like it that size, but big with an audience is a very different experience. People have talked about the Cannes screening with the huge standing ovation that went on forever, but the best screening I had was at the London Film Festival. It’s just the sound, everything was good. The reactions flowed through the audience, where it’s just wonderful.
CS: Even having anticipated “Quixote” for so long, and trying to reverse engineer what this movie could be in my head, I was still constantly surprised by where it went. Gilliam: Good. Because we would rather disappoint a lot of people’s expectations. Fuck your version of the film. There’s been so many of the reviews I’ve read already, you know, “29 years in the making, was it worth it?” Of course you know the answer’s going to be no. In this world of cut and paste reviews, it’s the reputation that makes me crazy, the same words, word perfect. It’s like, come on, guys. Go to work. Make something.
CS: How would you frame the movie for somebody -not for the typical audience- but for the audience that had been rabidly following it all these years? Gilliam: I’ve done a lot of interviews in Italy, and they were all there. And I said, “just lower your expectations. Don’t think of it as a movie that took 30 years to get made. Just think of it as a movie that I made in the last couple of years, that’s all. And it’s the best I could do in the last couple of years.” That’s it.
CS: Twenty years ago now, after developing “Eyes Wide Shut” for decades, Kubrick finished it, and then he just died. He was just like, “Ahh, it’s out of my system… DEAD.” Gilliam: You know what the story I’ve been told, because I know things. I know somebody close to Kubrick. When he died, it was that he had sent it out to Hollywood. Tom and Nicole watched it, the two top guys at Warner Brothers watched it. They called Stanley and said, “It’s a masterpiece.” He went to bed having relaxed, “I made a masterpiece,” and died. It was really apparently just that night when he got the news that they thought he had made a masterpiece, which it ain’t. (laughs)
CS: Right, right, exactly. So what was your mental, physical, spiritual, existential reaction to finally locking the film? Gilliam: It was just, thank god, fuck it. It’s out of my life, I thought. Yeah, it was just, “Okay, that’s as good as we’re going to get it.” I get very pragmatic at that point. When it’s finally locked I’ve shown it to a lot of people beforehand, and I just bring people in, not actually off the streets, but most of them I don’t know who they are. You show it and you talk afterwards. “I can fix that, but I can’t fix that bit. That’s how it is.” And in the end, I mean, all I can say is I’m happy with it. I’m very pleased I have the fucker out of my life. And there’s so much good stuff in there. There’s always things that I don’t like, that if I was able to I would change, but in most cases, I didn’t have the ability to change them, because we worked very fast when we actually got down to doing it. The shooting schedule was just the right length, but we never had enough time to go back and fix anything. It was just go, go, go. And I still lie in bed knowing if only I had that shot, I could make that moment better. That’s all.
CS: Right. Having seen both the documentary and several minutes of edited footage that Nicola had put on his website… Gilliam: I’ve never looked at what he’s got up there.
CS: It’s rough, but it’s interesting. It sort of paints a picture of that version of the movie. But it seems like Adam has a much more sympathetic approach to playing Toby. Johnny was a little brasher, a little more abrasive. Could you talk about sort of the difference between the two? Gilliam: The scene with Johnny that we see in the film is at a point where he’s just suddenly found himself in the 17th century. He’s just been arrested. He’s in chains, so he’s rather fractured at that point, so it’s not necessarily the whole range. But Johnny would’ve played it very differently. He’s just a different guy. We might like him more than we like Adam at the beginning. Adam is fearless. He is, no? He’s a complete asshole at the start, that’s all. I really just was carried away by how good Adam was and how he gave a kind of gravitas that Johnny wouldn’t do to the thing. You believe this guy, and as he’s changing, as he more and more discovers the mess of people’s lives he’s made, he actually becomes really very sensitive, quite beautiful. And then he comes and tries to be a hero and all this. It’s a great performance. I’ve read a couple of the trade reviews, and it’s like they just dismiss him. I’m like, what are you talking about? This is an extraordinary performance. I don’t know how they can miss what he’s doing. And for me, having not worked with him before, it just was full of surprises. In many ways I would know what Johnny was going to do, because we’re very close. He’s in many ways more on my wavelength than Adam, and that’s what I think the strength of Adam is. He’s not on my wavelength, he’s on what Toby is—I was saying to somebody earlier, he’s like Jeff Bridges in “Fisher King”. He’s the ground.
CS: He’s the anchor. Gilliam: Yeah, that’s the whole thing. When we first met, I just had lunch with him, and by the end he’d got the part. I’ve never seen “Girls.” I still haven’t seen “Paterson” yet.
CS: Oh it’s beautiful. Gilliam: Yeah, I know, everybody says. There was something that just comes off Adam that’s one-hand very sensitive, very vulnerable, but really strong. And he doesn’t look like a movie star.
CS: He was the only person you cast as Toby to actually read Cervantes? Gilliam: Yeah, he read it, he read it.
CS: And what did he contribute from that? Gilliam: Him reading the book was the key to who this guy is. He takes it really seriously, and that seriousness is what’s important because we got so much comedy around him and such weirdness, and yet, he’s incredibly funny when he needs to be. He’s wonderful.
CS: Your DP Nicola Pecorini gets the “Sancho” credit, the MVP. What’s really interesting about the way you guys shot the movie is it’s very different from the way you guys normally work. It had a more romantic old Hollywood feel. There were less Dutch angles, less fisheye lens. Gilliam: Yeah, we shot it very normally. We saved the wide angles and the Dutch angles for Toby’s film. That’s what we were doing. So it’s probably one of the most conventional ways of shooting that I’ve ever done. I don’t know what it was. It was partly that I was kind of running away from making a movie, in a strange way. I was just putting this on the screen with a very un-complex technique, not drawing attention to the director.
CS: That makes sense, too, because unlike the previous 2000 version, this one takes place entirely in reality. So it should feel more grounded. Gilliam: Yeah, and that’s why we shot on location the whole time. We weren’t building things. If you’re going to do this kind of thing, to me, it was all about texture and the real world. The dust is real, everything is real.
CS: Yeah, like the scene with the sheep, I feel like the older Gilliam would’ve actually shown Quixote hallucinating the Muslim scholars, but no. You just show the sheep. Gilliam: No, boom. That’s it. And it’s interesting because I just felt I was trying to draw as little attention to me as possible while I was making this movie. I was really following the actors. Maybe it was the way of escaping the expectations, because literally the first couple of weeks, I was not on form because the weight of expectation was killing me. And it was like, okay, disappear, Gilliam. You don’t exist anymore and the movie will just make itself without drawing attention to the guy 30 years at the wheel.
CS: Yeah, you were probably also wondering if another hurricane was going to come or something. Gilliam: I always imagine the worst possible thing, and every day was a relief because the sun was when we wanted it. It was all happy and it was ridiculous.
CS: And even though you overhauled the script, there’s still a lot of elements from the 2000 version. Were there any sort of visuals or moments from around when you first pitched it to Jake Eberts in ’89 that survived all the way to the final film? Gilliam: No. Well, there’s locations, I can give you. The night of the mirrors location was the first location I chose for the film way back when. The cave and the waterfall, also, these were from way back when. A lot of other things changed. We ended up shooting in Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands. And then, because at one point we were partly a Portuguese film, we ended up in Portugal and found Tomar, which is the castle monastery, which is extraordinary. And so, it just developed. And then you change things a little bit, okay, this Russian oligarch didn’t exist until this version. It just keeps shifting as we went along. So for me, it’s really hard to remember how and when things altered. For some you’d find a location, so we’d completely rewrite that whole end sequence to fit that location.
CS: Was there a lot that got cut? Gilliam: The scene in the inn with Sergi López and Rossy de Palma, that wasn’t in the movie at one point. We shot it, because that was one of the scenes from the original script. It was slightly different, but basically, I always wanted to do that. And we shot it, and I then cut it out of the film, until the very last moment when we were actually dubbing the music on the film and I was in Brussels and I said, “No, let’s stick it back in.” So things like that I did because I remember when we first started cutting it, I was trying to get it down to something very, very simple, very basic, and it was basically about the love story. I was focusing all on that, put everything out of the way except for that. And it worked. But everybody kept saying, “Oh, we’re having such a wonderful time. Is there another scene?” And I said, “No, no,” but the inn has a lot of information that helps all the subsequent scenes, which wasn’t there before, which you could gloss over because you’re going along with the story, but I said, “No, I want these things clear.” There was no way of getting the film shorter, because I know it’s a bit long. But fuck it. I had to. If you’re in it, it doesn’t feel that long, but if you’re not in it, it’s interminable.
CS: That’s one of the most memorable scenes, too, because it’s one of the only scenes where you see things from the Quixote character’s perspective, with the wine bags coming alive and everything. Gilliam: Yeah, that was it. We were trying to find the right balance of Toby going crazy, is what it’s about, because without putting it in there early, it’s just a bad dream. He’s got the capability of really bad dreams.
CS: I remember talking to your daughter Amy Gilliam around the time of “Tideland” coming out. She said, “Oh, my big thing that I want to do is I want to make Terry Gilliam movies.” And now she’s gotten her wish. What has been the experience of making movies with your daughter? Gilliam: Oh it’s great. I mean, because she was the one that got the money that made the film possible. We could only get so far in the marketplace, and there was this lady whose company is called Alacran. Amy got to meet her and became friends. The woman, just wanted to see the film finished. As simple as that. Here’s the money. Boom. Without that connection, Amy’s connection, the film would not exist. It’s so very simple, isn’t it? It’s been very hard, because there’s so many producers on this, because it’s a French, Belgian, Spanish co-production. Briefly, there was also a Portuguese part of it. And you end up with this multi-headed beast. And it’s not a fun job.
CS: In my lifetime I’m expecting to see a movie that’s 89 minutes of opening production company credits and one minute of story. Gilliam: It’s like that. So many of these companies, producers, it’s all state funding. And that’s a slightly different world than when you go out and raise money to make a movie. We’re used to going out and raising money, as is Amy, and battling with those who are relying on the state is just, it’s a very different way of working.
CS: Do you get almost more notes than you would on a Hollywood movie? Gilliam: No, it’s really not that, it’s just when decisions are being made, it’s how you make them. Amy’s always just on my side. It’s whatever makes the best movie.
CS: Is it about maybe not hiring certain people over certain regional people? Gilliam: But that’s the good side of working with all of these different countries, because some people like Jordi Mollà, Sergi López, Rossy de Palma, they probably wouldn’t be in the film, except we were getting Spanish money. A lot of the crew, most of the crew is Spanish, and out of those, Benjamín Fernandez, who was the designer on the original with Johnny, is back on board. In fact, also Jorge Calvo, who is the Sancho Panza in Toby’s film, was a Sancho Panza in the original. Even the guy at the beginning Ismael Fritschi, who is the first Sancho Panza in the commercial at the beginning, he was also playing a different character in the original movie. So it’s very nice. And when you have to work with people from other countries, you have to hire people from there. You discover great talent that way. It’s been like that for a long time, since I gave up being an American. I had to work in Canada, the same thing. Great people that I wouldn’t have worked with, had I not been forced to. It’s good.
CS: You have your sort of loose dreams trilogy that you made in the 80’s. But now “Quixote” is kind of the third part of a Crazy Old Man Trilogy alongside “Munchausen” and “Parnassus.” Gilliam: (laughs) You’re absolutely right.
CS: In terms of “Munchausen” this is the 30th anniversary this year. You’ve spoken in the past about how it haunted you or it gave you a bad rep or whatever. But 30 years later, are you able to look back on it with more fondness now? Gilliam: No. I mean, I was always fond of it. I hated the way it was treated, how it was just dumped by the studio. That bothered me. What’s interesting, they’re all gone, those people. The film exists. Now, when I read about it, somehow it’s deemed now not to be the greatest financial failure of all time, which it never was, but to be a really good film and worthy of bringing it back. So that’s why I don’t change. I still just fight for these because you deal in the business with so much money involved and they’re all frightened. They’re all frightened of losing their job. And I just like working with the other side, which are, “We believe in this, so go forward.” We may be right, we may be wrong, but we’re positive as opposed to being fearful, that’s the whole thing.
CS: Right. The script you and Richard wrote for “Defective Detective” is magnificent. Is there any hope of that ever coming to fruition? Gilliam: I’m having dinner with Richard LaGravenese tomorrow. And we’ve talked about it. We were playing with it—well, before “Quixote”, we were playing with trying to extend it to a six-part TV series. And then, it sort of died because the movie took off and everything. There’s something inside me that really likes that idea. We’ve tried to extend it, and we did find a way of doing it. Okay, now we can get on Netflix, is what it’s all about. I just don’t know if it holds up over an extension. There’s a thing about it with him and back and forth and from fantasy to reality, if you contain it within two hours, two plus, you can’t escape. If you go, “Okay, next week, what will happen?” It’s not quite the same.
CS: Yeah, I found it difficult to imagine that being spread out over a longer time, but the idea of you getting to indulge in a Winsor McCay-esque fantasy world is very tantalizing. How much actual physical visual development went into it over the years? Because I know it came close to being greenlit at Paramount, right? Gilliam: Yeah. We drew a lot of stuff. Dante Ferretti was doing drawings. I was doing drawings. That was about it. We didn’t go beyond that. That’s very odd that you should be asking about that, even today, because we bumped into a certain producer who was involved in it back then only yesterday at a coffee shop in New York by sheer chance.
CS: Oh wow. Was it Scott Rudin? Gilliam: (nods head) Getting his own coffee, something I never saw before.
CS: He must’ve fired his assistant that day. Gilliam: Must’ve. There must’ve been something going on, because Scott doesn’t get his own coffee, never has. And he was looking in great shape. He really seemed to be quite happy. Something in his life is going nicely for him, I thought. Scott’s a very smart guy. So the weird thing you should ask about that, we bumped in—I haven’t seen him in years.
CS: You spoke at a press event the other day about re-reading Phillip K. Dick, and you talked about “Ubik”, which is an amazing novel. I feel like that would appeal to you, especially for the sense of nostalgia in the book. Gilliam: Yeah.
CS: Unfortunately so many things in it having been pilfered by “The Matrix” and “Inception”. How do you reimagine it as a movie today? Gilliam: That’s the problem, yeah. I don’t know. I was looking at other Dick books recently as well, because yes, so much has been lifted from “Ubik”. And it probably doesn’t feel fresh anymore to an audience. I don’t know. I haven’t actually looked at “Ubik” itself. I was looking at other books, just to see if there was something that nobody had touched. I’m curious whether Dick would work better now or not. I just don’t know anymore because so many films were made that took the best of Dick in them and played with them. So I don’t know. But I’m just reading anything at the moment trying to find something that excites me. I would love to find a project that is ready to go that is just lacking a director, so I don’t have to spend years getting the funding for it. I’m bored with that. I just want to go to work.
CS: Are you involved at all with Taika Waititi’s “Time Bandits” series? Gilliam: Well, apparently I’m the executive producer, whatever that means. We don’t know yet. But we’ll find out as things develop. I just want to be able to keep enough control over what it is so it doesn’t betray the heart of the original, that’s all. Because there’s been attempts in the past to do the thing, with the only caveat that there would be no dwarves in it. (laughs) I would say, “No, get out of it.” We’ll see what happens with it. It’s still early stages, very early stages, but whatever executive producer means, I’m him.
CS: Well, I guess that leads to my last question, which is, when I watch Taika’s movies, I feel like he’s one of the few people who’s sort of carrying the flame of Python and that type of humor. But I’m wondering, from your perspective, there’s a lot of filmmakers who are inspired by you, like Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron and people like that, but who do you think is really simpatico with you? Gilliam: Well, I’m curious, because I don’t know. I only know his work from “Thor Ragnarok” and I thought, “that guy’s funny. This is good. It’s surprising.” That was it. Everybody says his earlier stuff is even more something I would like.
CS: “What We Do in the Shadows”, yeah. Gilliam: I will have to dig it out and look at it because I don’t know. There was the nicest thing Guillermo said when he was having his fight with Jean-Pierre Jeunet, do you know this one?
CS: They were having a fight? Gilliam: Well, it was a public fight. It was about the fact that Jean-Pierre said Guillermo had stolen the scene in “Shape of Water” when they’re sitting on the edge of the bed and dancing on television. That he had stolen that from “Delicatessen”. I know the scene in “Delicatessen”, it’s not a steal. It’s they’re sitting on the bed. It was very different what was going on. Jean-Pierre actually said something and it was in the press, and Guillermo’s response was basically, “What are you going on about me stealing from you? We both steal from Terry Gilliam.” (laughs) But Guillermo is successful. He’s more successful than I am. That’s what I think is interesting. “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Tideland”, there are things about a little girl and difficult situations. His went off and “Tideland”, ahhh, you know, crashes.