Terry Gilliam talks about Don Quixote

The former Monty Python member was at Karlovy Vary with his new film

After almost 30 years since the idea first came, Terry Gilliam's comedy The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is finally on screens. It was released in the Czech Republic on July 5, after premiering at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival with Gilliam in attendance.

Just before the premiere the director discussed the whole long story behind finally finishing the film as well as his love for the Czech Republic.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is inspired by characters from the 17th century novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, but is not an adaptation.

The film stars Adam Driver as Toby, a director of TV commercials, and Jonathan Pryce as a shoemaker who starred as Don Quixote in a student film Toby made a decade earlier, before the now successful Toby returned to the same village to look for more inspiration. Stellan Skarsgård. Olga Kurylenko and Joana Ribeiro are also in the cast.

Gilliam's finished film comes after many drafts of the scripts and a previous attempt to film it in 2000 starring Johnny Depp. Filming that attempt ended in a few days after a series of disasters, and became the basis of the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha.

“I was nervous we would not be as good as people's expectations. Ever since Lost in La Mancha, people have imagined what the film might be, and people's imaginations are usually much better than mine,” Gilliam said.

“The first couple of weeks were very difficult, but the actors were so brilliant … I very quickly forgot about what anybody else thought of the movie. Luckily the result, when the editing was over and we put the music on [was that] I loved the movie. So whatever anybody else thinks, I am very happy,” he said.

Gilliam is not the only filmmaker the struggle with Don Quixote. Orson Welles attempted to film it for over a decade from 1957 to 1969 and died with it still incomplete. A lukewarm version was edited out of the unfinished footage and released in 1992, seven years after Welles' death.

“Orson Welles, who is a great hero of mine, didn't finish his film. I felt I just had to do it,” Gilliam said.

Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote as it now exists is not the same story as he set out to make with Johnny Depp almost two decades ago. The original script called for time travel, and that was eliminated.

“It changed a lot over the years because Tony Grisoni, who I co-write with — we just wanted to keep fooling ourselves we were doing a new movie each time we' d rewrite it. The big change is that in the [2000] version for Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp, the character [played by] Johnny gets hit in the head and basically ends up in the 17th century. And for various reasons in turned out to be more interesting to keep it in our contemporary world,” Gilliam said.

“For one reason it was cheaper. I didn't need to remove telephone wires, or if planes flew overhead I didn't have to CG those out. One reason was very pragmatic,” he added.

Keeping the film in modern times added a new layer of complexity to the story.

“The most important change was that the character Adam [Driver] plays, Toby, had made a [student] film about Don Quixote 10 years earlier. And now he is going back to that time when he was young and optimistic and pure to see all the people he worked with and with whom he had a wonderful time. And when he returns to that village he discovers he turned many lives upside down,” Gilliam said.

“And then the film became more about what films do to the audience [and] what they do to the people who participate in making the film. And that films are dangerous things is all I know,” he added.

Another problem the latest script solved was the character of Dulcinea, a woman who becomes Don Quixote's fixation in the original novel. Gilliam wasn't satisfied with the character in earlier drafts.

“So the movie just got better and better, and we were able to create a Dulcinea. In the book, Dulcinea is maybe just a peasant, a rather whorish girl. Quixote things she's beautiful, wonderful — not at all. And we never solved that problem in our earlier scripts, but by going back and have the young, innocent Angelica believe she could be a movie star thanks to our friend Toby she goes out into the world and it doesn't work out very well, and she ends up very much a whorish kind of girl,” Gilliam said.

Joana Ribeiro plays the 15-year-old Angelica in Toby's student film and a 25-year-old in the main part of the movie. Her character tried to become an actress in Madrid but wound up as an escort.

Gilliam praised Ribeiro's insight into the character. “Joana Ribeiro speaks so intelligently about the character. She said Toby sold his soul, she only sold her body. And that is an incredible description of this character — and particularly important these days when women are being portrayed as victims everywhere. Joana and Angelica take responsibility for their choices in life like all of us should be doing. I'm tired of being a victim,” Gilliam said.

Toby is the type of character that Gilliam has seen often in real life, a promising talent who winds up doing things for easy money. “Toby is the character I hope I avoided being.I have done a few commercials in my life. They pay extraordinary amounts of money for selling dog food and three-ply toilet paper. I remember in 2002 I did the Nike World Cup commercial. I was being paid for 10 days work more than I was going to be paid for the year and a half of my life making Don Quixote. It is very corrupting, and that is unfortunately what happened to the character of Toby,” Gilliam said.

“Success had corrupted him, and he lost his soul in pursuit of material success. And that was not in the original versions of the film. I think we got to something that is much deeper,” he added.

“I have watched so many talented filmmakers. They begin, they make their first film, wonderful, and then they get dragged into the seductive world of commercials where you make real good money. And they never get back to making the kind of films they were capable of. So it is a warning for young filmmakers, this film,” he said with a laugh.

Over the years, several actors had been lined up to play the Don Quixote character. Following after Jean Rochefort in the aborted original attempt were Robert Duvall, Michael Palin, and John Hurt.

Gilliam joked that Jonathan Pryce, who starred in Gilliam's Brazil, got the role because Michael Palin was unavailable. He then walked that comment back a bit, saying it was a not true at all. Pryce had been cast in a different role in the original attempt,but kept his eye on the lead.

“Jonathan is utterly brilliant and for 15 years he was trying to convince me that he was right for the part, and for 15 years I avoided him. And I can't imagine a better Quixote now. And what pleases me the most is the Spanish think it is the best Quixote ever,” Gilliam said, adding that Pryce is an actor from Wales who speaks only English.

“You don't have to be Spanish to be Quixote. Quixote is universal,” Gilliam said. “Quixote has existed 400 years now; in 1605 Quixote came onto the planet. Quixote and Sancho are the two sides of every one of us. We all have a pragmatic side, and we all have a side of dreams. And that is why it is so wonderful,” he said.

He was also pleased with Joana Ribeiro, who came to Karlovy Vary to help promote the film.

“Joana, to be honest, I cast her before I saw her screen test. … I just thought she had the fire and the ability to play this. The great surprise was how brilliant she was as this 10-year-younger girl who was so innocent, sweet and wonderful. Everybody fell in love with her. And then they had to live with the older woman. Both Adam and Joana are extraordinary playing the 10-year-younger versions of themselves,” Gilliam said. He had considered casting another actress as the younger version of Ribeiro's character, but in the end was pleased he didn't.

When he first pitched the film idea to producers, he was not really familiar with the full story. “I like everyone else had never read the book,” he said.

He told a producer he had worked with previously, “I have two names: one is Gilliam and the other is Quixote. ... That is how it began. That was 1989,” he said.

“And then I read the book and I thought, 'This is more difficult than I thought it was going to be.' It's been like that. I have been trying to find it. In a sense I don't think I chose Quixote, I think Quixote chose me. I always felt the film is using me. I have been victimized by it. … I have been dragged along,” he said.

“While we were shooting I had the feeling I am not making the film, the film is making itself. And it really is a different film than I began to make. It is a better one. The film making process is more creative than me,” he added.

He also was grateful for the input from others after contemplating the film for so long on his own. “Along come actors and actresses, and they bring the real inspiration. Having thought about it for 20 some years I was bored to death with my own thoughts. And the actors would come in. We'd rehearse and start playing, and every day they would surprise me with a different way of doing it. And that was what actually got me through the shoot. They are the things that inspire me. It is as simple as that. I am a vampire. I live off other people's talents,” he said.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote also contains snippets of the student film that Toby made. While Toby's film looks interesting, all that exists are the brief clips. Gilliam did not make the full student film. “What you see is all we got. I was faking it,” he said.

He enjoyed filming the segments though. “What is so great is that there is one scene early … and the film first comes on the television [from a DVD] and there is this madman throwing things, and he is mad, crazy with love. We shot that with a GoPro at the end of the day with only three people because we had run out of time. My DP … stuck his GoPro on the back of an iPad, and … we just ran to this place and we shot the whole scene just like that. And it was great fun suddenly just using the GoPro on the back of an iPad. I think the next movie I make will be Toby's movie,” he said.

Gilliam was in Prague in 2005 to shoot Brothers Grimm, and he became acquainted with Czech culture, especially the fictional character of the Good Soldier Švejk.

“I loved Prague and Švejk. Czech humor is always very bleak, black. But Czechs march on. The Czechs are survivors. And you learn to laugh at survival. We don't laugh enough anymore. Everyone is pretending the world is so much more serious than it was before. That is utter bullshit. We are living in the best of times. …. and we are all moaning and I am tired of it,” he said.

“So I like Švejk. He just marches on and he smiles. He finds the humor and the absurdity in life. Life is absurd and luckily death comes along and stops the absurdity,” Gilliam said.

During the filming of Brothers Grimm, he gave a sock to kino Světozor, next to Wenceslas Square, as a symbol for their then-new poster and DVD shop. The store was originally called Terry's Socks, but now is Terry Poster and focuses more on vintage Czechoslovak posters. “Is it still there?” Gilliam asked about his sock.

“I love being in Prague. I am excited to go back. It has been a long time since I have been there. The guys in the [Terry Poster] shop are wonderful. That whole [Světozor] cinema complex is wonderful. I miss being there quite honestly. It was really a special time. I kind of get lost in that city. I just get completely seduced by it,” he said.

He also cited Czechoslovak filmmaker Karel Zeman, who blended animation with live action, as an influence on his work, and praised the artistic style of Czechoslovak film posters from the 1960s to 1990. 

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