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The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’s long, possibly cursed journey to the big screen, explained

Twenty years of catastrophes, from funding failures to mudslides, may finally be coming to an end for director Terry Gilliam.

Jonathan Pryce plays Don Quixote in Terry Gilliam’s very, very long-awaited film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
Jonathan Pryce plays Don Quixote in Terry Gilliam’s very, very long-awaited film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
Diego Lopez Calvi­n / Tornasol Films, Carisco Producciones
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

For decades, it looked like a mere dream, but now it’s reality: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Terry Gilliam’s long-awaited adaptation (sort of) of Miguel Cervantes’s novel — which turns 403 this year — will premiere at Cannes on May 19, where it will close the festival.

While on-set catastrophes and funding problems have stalled the film for years, its future was recently threatened once again by a legal battle with an aggressive former producer seeking to keep the film from premiering. A French court declared on day two of the Cannes Film Festival that the film could in fact premiere on the final day.

That came on the heels of a brief illness over the weekend for director Gilliam — which some had speculated was a minor stroke, an apparently untrue rumor — and the news that Amazon had pulled out of US distribution for the film, leaving it to seek another route to American screens.

All that drama makes for a fitting finale for this movie’s journey to the big screen. If you feel like you’ve been hearing vaguely about The Man Who Killed Don Quixote for, like, 20 years, you’re not wrong. Gilliam first announced the project way back in 1998, at the premiere of his film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. At this point, nobody will really believe it’s done till the credits roll in Cannes.

But while the movie might find itself facing other PR hurdles (Gilliam has voiced some queasy opinions about #MeToo and been at the center of allegations as well), it appears that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is at least actually shot, edited, and ready to go. So if its legal battles don’t keep it from premiering, those who have been waiting to see it should soon have their chance.

And Gilliam — who once called the project “one of those dream nightmares that never leave you until you finish the thing” — may finally be able to get the wish he voiced at Cannes in 2016. “I want to get this film out of my life,” he said, “so that I can get on with the rest of my life.”

So as Don Quixote takes its last steps on the long road to its (hopeful) Cannes premiere, here’s the story of how Terry Gilliam’s cockamamie and possibly cursed adaptation finally came to be.

Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce star in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which is set to premiere at Cannes on May 19.
Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce star in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which is set to premiere at Cannes on May 19.
Diego Lopez Calvi­n, Tornasol Films, Carisco Producciones

1998-2000: High hopes and a first attempt

Gilliam’s announcement of the project in 1998 on the heels of the Fear and Loathing premiere wasn’t the first time he’d talked about making a Don Quixote adaptation. In fact, in 1997, Gilliam told Neon magazine that it was one of the projects he most regretted not being able to make:

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. Sean Connery was mooted, but Quixote is air and Sean is earth, so I backed away. I saw Nigel Hawthorne as Quixote, and Danny De Vito as Sancho Panza. I dithered because I’d committed to The Defective Detective. Now Fred Schepisi is making it with John Cleese and Robin Williams. That really hurts, that I let a project I’m convinced I’m the best director on the planet to do, slip by.

But the Schepisi adaptation — which was to star Gilliam’s Monty Python compatriot Cleese — never came to fruition, and by the next year, Gilliam was planning to make his own film.

Gilliam’s vision for Don Quixote wasn’t a straight-ahead adaptation of Cervantes’s novel, which is one of the most influential works in the traditional Western literary canon. In it, an old, retired, and slightly kooky nobleman named Alonso Quixano reads too many chivalric romances. Taking leave of his senses, he sets out to fix the world and revive chivalry, clad in makeshift armor and accompanied by a donkey-owning farmer named Sancho Panza, who serves as his squire. (The expression “tilting at windmills,” which means attacking an imaginary enemy, may be the most famous metaphor to come from the book.)

Don Quixote is a sort of patron saint for lost causes, and that metaphor is almost too perfect for what happened next. Gilliam’s original idea for the story took some additional cues from Mark Twain’s 1899 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Twain’s novel, a satire of romanticized ideas about chivalry, itself shares some DNA with Don Quixote. It also features a kind of time-traveling framing device that Gilliam decided to borrow: a modern-day ad executive would be transported to 17th-century Spain and become part of Don Quixote’s adventures.

Jean Rochefort and Terry Gilliam on the set of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in 1998, as planes buzz overhead.
Jean Rochefort and Terry Gilliam on the set of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in 1998, as planes buzz overhead.
IFC Films/Lost in La Mancha

Gilliam raised the money needed and secured an all-star cast, which included Johnny Depp, Vanessa Paradis, Miranda Richardson, Christopher Eccleston, Rossy de Palma, and Jean Rochefort. Filming began in Spain in September 2000 — and almost immediately, everything went wrong.

In a sort of dark serendipity, the whole debacle was chronicled in a documentary called Lost in La Mancha, which was directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe and released in 2002. They captured what looks a whole lot like a cursed production.

On the first day of shooting, a constant roar of jets at a nearby NATO airbase caused sound problems and delayed production. The next day, a sudden, violent storm flooded the set, washed equipment into a gully, and reshaped the landscape entirely. The set eventually dried up, but then Jean Rochefort, who was to play Quixote, was hospitalized with a back injury.

The production waited for Rochefort, attempting to fill the time by shooting scenes in which the actor would not appear. But weeks later, Gilliam received word that Rochefort would not be able to return. The production was canceled in November.

2000-2016: Impossible dreams dashed, resurrected, and dashed again

This failed first attempt was followed by a repetitive slog in which The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was declared dead and revived over and over, with various actors attached — in addition to Depp, who remained with the project for many years, Robert Duvall, Ewan McGregor, Jack O’Connell, and John Hurt all were committed to the project at one point or another. Somewhere along the way Gilliam’s fellow Python Michael Palin was rumored to be in talks with the production, and Gilliam voiced interest in having Gérard Depardieu star as well.

Along with the actors, various funding sources came and went, with news of financial collapse and revival becoming a staple of movie industry coverage. Things looked good in 2008, then fell apart; the same thing happened in 2010, and 2013, and 2014. The movie’s production was once again suspended in September 2015 when Hurt, who was set to play Quixote, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. (He died in 2017.)

But Gilliam has never managed to let go. At times, he seems to have relished cultivating the notion that he saw Quixote’s story as his own, as if the mystique around its seemingly cursed journey to the big screen was really part of the movie itself.

Jonathan Pryce plays Don Quixote in Terry Gilliam’s long, long, long-awaited adaptation.
Jonathan Pryce plays Don Quixote in Terry Gilliam’s long, long, long-awaited adaptation.
Diego Lopez Calvin/Tornasol Films

“The very nature of Quixote is, he’s going against reality, trying to say things aren’t what they are but how he interprets them,” he told Deadline in 2013, after referring to the project as a “demonic possession. ... It’s ridiculous and it is who I’ve become, with age. In a sense, there is an autobiographical aspect to the whole piece.”

“I really can’t say anything at the moment, because there’s been a little hiccup — once again. The Sisyphean rock that keeps rolling back,” he told Rolling Stone in 2014. “Just as we almost get to the top of the mountain. ... We’ll see what happens.”

That take on the story seems to have affected the adaptation’s planned plot too. Around 2014, it shifted from its original shape: “The basic underlying premise of the version Johnny [Depp] was involved in was that he actually was going to be transported back to the 17th century, and now it all takes place now, it’s contemporary,” Gilliam told the Wrap in 2014. “It’s more about how movies can damage people.”

A new producer, Paulo Branco, came onto the project in 2016, set to finance the newer, more contemporary version of the story, with a cast including Michael Palin, Adam Driver, and Olga Kurylenko. By all accounts, this was a disaster, with Branco attempting to cut funding for various crew members and Palin, souring relationships with other production companies (including Amazon), and ultimately failing to come up with the budget for the film.

“It is not dead. I will be dead before the film is,” Gilliam said on a BBC radio program in September 2016, announcing that production had been delayed once again, days before it was set to begin.

In 2017, the movie finally gets made

Then in March 2017 — having secured funding — Gilliam announced that production had begun, this time with Driver and Kurylenko, plus Jonathan Pryce as Quixote. On the film’s official Twitter account, Gilliam characterized the production as “terrifying”:

The fights with Branco have continued, with Branco declaring the new project “illegal.” In April 2018, he sued, apparently in an attempt to keep the film from being released.

But on April 21, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was announced as the closing night film at Cannes, to play after the awards ceremony, in a slot that has typically been reserved for the Palme d’Or winner.

But wait! The ongoing legal dispute with Branco prevented it from being shown in competition, where it would have been eligible to win the festival’s top award. As late as April 30, little more than a week before the festival’s start, Branco was still fighting to keep Cannes from premiering the film.

The Cannes Film Festival, however, is not easily cowed. In a slightly bemused-sounding statement to Variety on April 30, the festival’s organizers said that they would be playing the film, and seemed to suggest they had Branco’s number.

Jonathan Pryce and Terry Gilliam on the set of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
Jonathan Pryce and Terry Gilliam on the set of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
Diego Lopez Calvin/Tornasol Films

“Our entire profession knows that ‘forcing matters’ has always been Mr. Branco’s favorite method, and we should recall that he organized a press conference a few years ago where he denounced the Festival de Cannes because it had not kept a ‘promise to select’ one of his films,” they wrote. “This was an accusation which didn’t go anywhere, because the festival does not make promises to select films,” the statement continued. “It either selects them or it does not.”

And on May 9, on day two of the festival, a French court ruled that the film could in fact premiere at the festival. So The Man Who Killed Don Quixote will, at long last, have its day on the red carpet on May 19. Though it won’t be in competition, it will still have a splashy premiere.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the film is any good. But at this point, it almost doesn’t matter. It will be a long time before The Man Who Killed Don Quixote can be seen just as a movie, separate from its long saga of dreams and woes and catastrophes — which may actually be beneficial in the case of a movie about a knight with a foolish dream. The behind-the-scenes saga is part of the film’s mystique and history, and whether it’s great, terrible, or somewhere in between, that story is what historians, critics, and crowds will remember, long after the movie leaves theaters.

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