Shakespeare couldn’t write a tragedy so endless and harrowing as the story of director Terry Gilliam and his Don Quixote.
Yesterday, the Paris Court of Appeal ruled in favor of a previous producer, Paulo Branco, and gave him the legal rights of the film. Terry Gilliam was bewitched by chasing the film for 25 years. And just as its finally debuting, its taken from him all over again.
How did this 2.5 decades-long saga go on this long? And how did this film, still getting hit by new and terrible roadblocks, become known for being the most cursed production in recent history?
Our Shakespearean tragedy began in 1989, when Terry Gilliam read Don Quixote for the first time. He became enrapt in it, adamant in the idea of adapting it for film. Terry Gilliam had been known films such as 12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and for being a member of the Monty Python comedy troupe. He had the ability and the connections, all he had to do was work to make his Don Quixote film happen.
Gilliam first signed with Phoenix Pictures in 1990 to make his Don Quixote. The studio quickly vouched for and cast Sean Connery as the leading man. Gilliam abandoned the project, however, when he decided that the budget for the film was too low. Phoenix replaced Gilliam, Connery, and a fair amount of other crew and cast in his absence.
By 1997, though, the project was officially cancelled. Gilliam was greatly affected by the fallout. After its cancellation, he lamented, “The years I wasted on this one! I was so frustrated with Hollywood, I went after European money, needing $20 million. And they said, ‘You’re on.’ But I found out I needed more money. […] That really hurts, that I let a project I’m convinced I’m the best director on the planet to do, slip by.”
Little did he know, he had many more years to be wasted on his dreams of Don Quixote.
After the Phoenix Pictures project collapsed, Gilliam worked with Tony Grisoni to write a new script. This version was titled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, the same name the film had by its 2018 release. Jean Rochefort was picked to play Quixote and Johnny Depp to play Toby Grosini. Toby Grosini was the script’s straight man, a normal guy who fell into the story and became Don Quixote’s Sancho Panza, his trusty servant turned squire. Filming began in 2000.
Then, troubles began to crop up. Shortly before shooting, several actors revealed conflicting schedules with one another, leaving the days they could shoot scenes together up in the air. Even worse, the first day of shooting had a loud, military jet flying consistently overhead, ruining much of the first day’s audio. Even wilder, the second day of filming a flash flood occured that washed away much of their equipment, not much of which was insured. The flood also washed away and changed much of the landscape’s coloring, making all previous footage void for continuity. Amongst all of this, some actors simply didn’t show up on set. The fifth day of shooting, the star actor, Rochefort, was struggling with intense pain whenever he rode on the set horses. The pain got so unbearable that Rochefort was rushed to a doctor. In all horse-riding scenes it was obvious he was in pain, so they had to be scrapped. After two months of waiting around for Rochefort’s health to improve, the project was cancelled in November, 2000.
Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini stated at the time, “Never in 22 years of being in this business have I seen such a sum of bad luck”.
The 2000 filming disaster of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was not Gilliam’s first failed project, however, and after his first experience he made a point to film the making of his movies as they were produced. Because of this, the documentary of the film’s failure, Lost in La Mancha, was released in 2002. The documentary was very well-received. In terribly irony, the film on him being unable to make his dream film was a highly-praised hit.
Despite the film’s flopping, from 2003 on, Gilliam still wanted to make the film. He participated in legal proceedings for the rights to the script. In 2006, rights were settled and Gilliam owned his story again.
Gilliam wasted little time and restarted preliminary work for the film in 2008. By 2009, Robert Duvall was set to be the next Quixote with Depp still pegged as Grosini. Content with his cast, Gilliam delayed production while Depp finished off 2 Disney films. Depp backed out because of his busy schedule, however, and was replaced by Ewan McGregor.
The pre-production couldn’t catch a break, however, as in September 2010, funding collapses and things were pushed back again. By 2012, McGregor was gone, but Gilliam and Grosini, the determined writers of the script, were still going. By September 2014, production finally began again for Quixote. The plot was revealed to be rewritten and John Hurt has become the new lead actor. In November 2014, Jack O’Connell was cast as Grosini. In June 2015, Gilliam even makes a deal with Amazon for a theatrical release and streaming debut for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Things were finally looking up again for the little film that could.
That is, until filming was tragically postponed because of Hurt’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis. However a strong, brilliant actor, Hurt struggled with the disease for 2 years before ultimately losing his life in 2017.
By 2016, Gilliam was desperate to get his seemingly doomed project off the ground. That was when he was introduced to Paulo Branco. Branco agreed to be a producer and fund the 16 mil. that the film needed. Gilliam was warned of Branco’s controlling reputation, but fiercely needed funding. On April 29th, 2016, Gilliam signed a deal where in exchange for producing the film, Branco would earn, in addition to his own salary, the 750,000 euros salary Gilliam would have been paid for writing and directing the film.
Now funded, the shooting was planned to begin in fall of 2016, with Michael Palin and Adam Driver as Quixote and Grosini, respectively.
Tensions with Branco rose rapidly. He demanded creative control of the film. His reputation led Amazon to withdraw from the project. Branco also tried to reduce the 16 mil. budget by lowing cast and crew pay. He cut Michael Palin’s pay from 285,000 euros to 100,000 euros, spurning the lead actor. Salaries for the hair stylist, assistant director, and many others were also lowered. His controlling nature only increased from there. He hired his sister as a costume director. He continually antagonized Palin, trying to push him away from the role for being too old. Palin would leave the project after all this abuse. He tried to move shooting forward by several months. He tried to change the cinematography from Gilliam’s planned 35mm to digital. Gilliam suffered his tyranny because he felt a need to collaborate, with Branco footing the bill.
However, after causing so much uproar, Branco ultimately did not provide the funds promised.
With Gilliam pushed to his limits and refusing to meet all of his terms, Branco officially suspended production in October. Gilliam quickly found new producers and picked a new Quixote in Jonathan Pryce. In 2017, filming had started again for the first time since the initial 2000 attempt.
In June 2017, filming for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was completed, 17 years after filming first began.
But after victory, there was only more trouble. Paulo Branco returned and claimed the film was illegal because he owned the rights to the script. A terror of legal battles began. Despite Branco’s intercedence, the film was finished and ready for the summer film season.
During legal battles, it was argued if Gilliam could show the film at the Cannes film festival. The court ruled in favor of Gilliam on May 7th, allowing The Man Who Killed Don Quixote to be shown at the festival and his film was allowed to be distributed in French cinemas by May 18th. On May 19th, the closing night of Cannes, the festival showed the legally controversial and long-fought The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
Then, the Paris Court of Appeal took all of that away from him and gave it to Branco. Branco has made clear intentions to cancel all distribution of the film. He also plans seek damages from Gilliam, anyone who worked on the film, and anyone who distributed and showed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
Update: Terry Gilliam’s producer, Mariela Besuievsky, insists they have not lost the rights to the film. She claims they still have rights to distribute. According to Besuievsky, Branco only had rights if he had chosen to purchase them, which he did not. She also denotes the terrible conditions it is to work with Branco and how his attack on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam, and all involved is a fruitless “desire for revenge”. No comments have been made on this from Gilliam himself.
A follow-up film to Lost in La Mancha was announced in May 2018, titled He Dreamed of Giants. It follows the entire history of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’s making. The filming is currently being edited and its release is unknown.
After so long, Terry Gilliam’s suffering with the film of his dreams never seems to end. In 2018, it finally became a reality, only to be ripped away by a producer who only made production a brief hell before leaving without paying. However heartbreaking, Gilliam has spent 25 years for the love of this film. It’d be hardly surprising if he took a little bit more time to ensure it gets the legal, respected release it deserves.