It's been 25 years in the making, but The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, director Terry Gilliam's tribute to the classic Spanish novel, has finally hit the silver screen. The project has foundered and been revived so many times, it became a poster child for Hollywood's notorious development hell, with a reputation of being cursed. But Gilliam persevered, and while the finished product isn't exactly a masterpiece, it definitely reflects the singular vision of one of our most original filmmakers.
(Mild spoilers for the film and Miguel de Cervantes' 17th-century novel below.)
Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote is inarguably one of the most influential works of Spanish literature. The book is written in the picaresque tradition, which means it's more a series of loosely connected episodes than a plot. It follows the adventures of a nobleman (hidalgo) named Alonso Quixano who has read far too many chivalric romances and becomes convinced he is a knight errant. With his trusty peasant sidekick, Sancho Panza, he embarks on a series of random tragicomic adventures, with the Don's hot temper frequently getting them into scraps. (Sancho usually gets the worst of the beatings and humiliations.) Don Quixote is the archetype of the delusional dreamer, tilting at windmills and believing them to be giants, preferring his fantasy to mundane reality.
Everything went almost comically wrong from the start.
Gilliam came up with the idea for his Don Quixote film back in 1989 when he read Cervantes' novel, but he didn't secure funding until 1998. Johnny Depp signed on to play the role of Toby Grisoni, while his then-partner Vanessa Paradis would be the female lead. Shooting commenced in 2000 in Navarre, Spain. But everything went almost comically wrong from the start. There were conflicts with the various actors' schedules, making it difficult to get everyone on set at the same time. The production site was near a NATO military base, and F-16 fighter jets flew overhead the entire first day of shooting, making it necessary to dub those scenes in post-production. A flash flood ruined the second day of filming by damaging equipment that was not covered by the insurance policy. The flood also caused continuity problems, since the colors of the terrain had noticeably changed.
Finally, on the fifth day, the film's star, the late Jean Rochefort, was clearly in pain during the scenes on horseback, despite being an experienced horseman. He turned out to have prostate problems and a double herniated disc, and while Gilliam tried to shoot around Rochefort's scenes, it soon became clear the ailing actor could not return to the set. The production was officially cancelled in November 2000.
The shoot did produce a critically acclaimed documentary film, Lost in La Mancha (2002), detailing the production's various woes. (It was originally intended to be an accompanying "making-of" special feature. A second follow-up documentary is in the works, titled He Dreamed of Giants.) In it, cinematographer Nicola Pecorini claims that "never in 22 years of being in this business have I seen such a sum of bad luck."
In the years since, Gilliam kept trying to revive the project with a constantly shifting cast and multiple rewrites of the script. Finally, he succeeded in getting funding and completing The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, only to have its release delayed by legal disputes involving one of the earlier producers. The film ultimately debuted at Cannes last year, although it was ineligible for the top prize because of its ongoing legal woes.