There is a biro-scribbled aside in Monty Python’s Flying Circus alumni Terry Gilliam’s beautifully illustrated “pre-posthumous memoir” Gilliamesque in which he recalls of his hilariously doomed first tilt at filming Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote that, “Tragedy makes the best comedy, always. Not that it was funny at the time.”
Anyone who anxiously watched directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s unmaking-of documentary Lost in La Mancha might wonder how Gilliam ever relocated his funny bone. Cursed by biblical floods and buzzed by NATO fighter jets, it was finally killed when titular star Jean Rochefort, who learned English to take on the role, had to pull out due to a double-herniated disc that prevented him from riding Quixote’s clumsy horse Rocinante.
“I was feeling very Job-like,” Gilliam chuckles over the phone from Brexit-wracked London, his home of many years, recalling the trials of 2000. “I am convinced god is testing me because I don’t believe in him, and he decides to punish me until I do, but I still don’t believe, so I’ve got a life of pain ahead of me.”
One would hope not, though there’s something to be said about embracing pain in the pursuit of great art. Gilliam dusted himself off within six months of waving goodbye to Rochefort and co-star Johnny Depp, though it took almost two decades and a final legal battle to debut The Man Who Killed Don Quixote on closing night of last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Gilliam regular Jonathan Pryce plays a confused Spanish cobbler who believes himself to be the self-styled knight-errant after playing said role in a student film shot by Adam Driver’s now jaded commercial director Toby. Drawn into this meta-textual quest, Driver is brilliantly Gilliamesque as a pseudo-Sancho Panza.
Gilliam may be a confirmed atheist, but his deliriously visual brain relishes religious iconography, from the flesh wounds of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, through the winged angel of Brazil,to the redemption of The Fisher King. Was it self-flagellation, then, tackling a text that felled great directors including Fred Schepisi and, infamously, Orson Welles?
“I was a huge fan of Orson, and his story always intrigued me,” Gilliam acknowledges. “He’s a far more talented, more brilliant filmmaker, but I thought maybe I could beat him on one thing, and that was Don Quixote – I could get mine made.”
Wheezing with ironic laughter, Orson’s albatross hung heavily over Gilliam’s ambition. “It’s like a great ruined castle or a city devoured by the sand – there are these artefacts that are amazing, and perhaps they are better than what the finished film would have been? Because I saw The Other Side of the Wind recently and I thought, ‘oh, if Orson had only stopped one movie earlier’.”
Surely this poses an intriguing question. “Have I done one movie too many?” Gilliam cackles.
Noooooo, I counter, but how does this completed version compare to his original vision? “I mean, you keep it alive and it changes, because I had to keep tricking my brain into thinking I’ve got a brilliant idea to solve all the problems.”
One major alteration was ditching a time travel element, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court-style. “I didn’t want to do a period film where I had to worry about all the antennae on the rooftops and planes flying over, so we simplified it, and I think I’m much happier with the story we ended up telling.”
There’s a glorious moment in the final act when Joana Ribeiro’s Angelica, a young woman whose life was forever altered by Toby filming in her small town of Sueños (meaning ‘dreams’), bellows before a pyre as if summoning a wild spirit, “You see what they are doing here, gathering up old, broken, bad things. Tonight we sacrifice the past here. Everything will be destroyed in the changes. Made clean again.”
Was it an exorcism of the movie’s bad mojo and, if so, did Gilliam film it first? “No, but I’ve always been fascinated by these festivals around the world where they sacrifice the old. England doesn’t really do that anymore. They do bank holy days, but carnivals where the world is turned upside down are essential to a decent life.”
It’s hard not to see him as a fate-poker, willing chaos into being, Loki-like. After all, that fire nearly washed his set away once more. Mostly blessed by Mother Nature this time round, a great downpour unleashed on location that night, with 350 cast members assembled. “We had covered the ground with sand to make sure that nothing was damaged when this thing burned, but underneath the sand they put plastic down to cover the stones, and that covered the drain hole, so the place was filling with water.”
Did he cry to the heavens for mercy? “I started laughing. That’s the only thing you can do. You are completely impotent, so you might as well laugh at your impotency.”
The only way he completed Quixote was to rail against reasonable people telling him to move on. As Pryce joked at Cannes, “He put a lot of obstacles in the way of Quixote being made … to wait until I was old enough to play him.” Is there a mirror here in Gilliam?
“I’m not sure if I’m a better filmmaker now, but more seasoned, definitely. Because yesterday I was re-grading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for a re-release here in London and I was just checking out the colouring on it and suddenly I thought, ‘I was really good then’. Ha. I was absolutely blown away by how alive it was, and the way I was shooting. Whereas Quixote was much more painful, because I had lost a lot of confidence over the years.”
Hardly surprising, given the trials and tribulations, including an unfair rep for mind-bending budget blow-outs post-The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, when actually his grandly ambitious movies are usually achieved on reasonable budgets. “I like the limitations, because it makes me be cleverer than if I was given what I wanted, but my reputation does harm me, I think. But I like having this bad boy rep, rather than being a studio hack. It’s just the process does wear you down eventually. I mean, Nietzsche isn’t quite right when he says, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. That’s true until you reach a certain age, then it starts withering you.”
As Shakespeare might respond, had the Time Bandits encountered him, “Age cannot wither him, nor custom stale his infinite variety,” and Gilliam is very keen that Quixote isn’t seen as an old man’s tale. Asked what his greatest inheritance from Monty Python is, he answers immediately, “Arrogance. There we were six guys doing exactly what we wanted and getting away with it, and it’s a very dangerous thing. You get used to that and it sort of carries me through.”
After creating so many nightmare futures on film, does he ever worry, looking around at the world today, if his uncanny imaginarium hasn’t willed disaster into being? “I think that it will happen, but I don’t want to be that omniscient. My ego would like to be more godlike, but I struggle against it, ha. But when I have bad dreams, my problem is I’ve been quite prescient, and that’s what worries me. I always live with this sense of impending doom somehow, and try to be ready for it, with the scaffold built. So far my neck has not been put too tightly in the noose.”
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is in Australian cinemas now.
Follow the author here.