Terry Gilliam’s take on Don Quixote was first conceived in 1989 and is talked about in hushed tones in the movie industry as the definition of production hell. Dogged by almost mythical bad luck, illness and legal wrangling, it’s a film that almost never happened.
Funding problems meant it took until 2000 for filming to start. That first shoot in Navarre, Spain lasted one week. NATO air exercises ruined the sound, illness upset the casting and flash floods destroyed the rest, with insurance wrangles thrown in just for good measure.
Subsequent attempts met with casting and funding issues, along with the legal problems still dogging the completed version even up to the final hours before its Cannes Film Festival premiere earlier this year.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote did, however, make it to Cannes, earning a standing ovation. The script changed a lot over the almost 30 years since Gilliam, now 77, first took up the project. The story, now in a modern setting, centres on how the main character’s student film version of Don Quixote affected the lives of the people in the village he shot it in, not necessarily for the good.
Variety caught up with Gilliam at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic. Blending fantasy and reality is something of a feature in many of his films. So how does that work, Variety asked. “It’s all real. I don’t distinguish between reality and fiction, that’s my problem. That’s why I keep getting knocked down. I don’t think I conquered any windmills – I lost a lot of battles with them.
“The thing is, when I was younger, I thought everyone saw the world the same way as I did. As I got older I realised my version of the world is very, very different. Imagination is always a part of it I guess.”
And the technical challenges of incorporating the fantasy elements? “They are all the same to me… I shoot them exactly like the real ones. There is no difference for me. These things change, but only a little bit. But you don’t go woo-oo when you go into fantasy. I like the fact that if you do it well, the audience is just swept along with it. They are in this rather fantastic situation before they realise it.”
This is the magic of Gilliam’s work – the fantasy is right there, just behind the real world.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is in the middle of a European release schedule, with US release dates yet to be confirmed.
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