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Terry Gilliam on set of the 2000 production of "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote"via

The secret history of Terry Gilliam's Don Quixote

For nearly two decades, false starts and freaky accidents have cursed his pet project – will it ever get made?

After years of trying, and failing spectacularly, to make it, Terry Gilliam announced last week that former Skins star Jack O'Connell has been cast as the lead in his long-in-development adaptation of Don Quixote. This is the closest he's come to actually making the "cursed" film since 2000, when a ridiculous sequence of calamities put a hasty end to shooting after only five days. The short production was so out of control that it spawned the notorious Lost in La Mancha, one of the scariest (and funniest) behind-the-scenes documentaries ever made.

Twelve Monkeys director Gilliam had been thinking of adapting Miguel de Cervantes' celebrated novel into a film since the early 1990s, and with his light, comedic style and fantastical approach to filmmaking seemingly a perfect fit for the story, it's not hard to see why. Don Quixote tells of Alonso Quixano, a retired, mad old man who, inspired by the heroes of the novels he reads, decides to live a life of chivalry. Calling himself Don Quixote, he pieces together a suit of armour from objects found in his home, saddles his worn out old horse and recruits Sancho Panza, a short, fat farmer with a donkey, as his squire, before setting off on a deluded, bizarre search for adventure – launching attacks on windmills thinking they're giants, among other things.

So far so Gilliam, but over two decades later, the project still hasn't come to anything more than six minutes of footage and a lot of wasted money, which begs the question: why hasn't Terry Gilliam been able to make the film he himself described as "a project I'm convinced I'm the best director on the planet to do"?

It's a long story.


After the UK premiere of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Gilliam announces his next project will be The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a reimagining of Cervantes' novel in which a modern day ad executive is somehow transported back in time to 17th century Spain, where he becomes embroiled in the adventures of Don Quixote. By 2000, Gilliam has secured financial backing from European investors and assembled a cast of Johnny Depp, Vanessa Paradis, Miranda Richardson and Christopher Eccleston, as well as Pedro Almodovar muse Rossy de Palma and veteran French actor Jean Rochefort. Speaking weeks before shooting is due to begin, a thrilled Gilliam tells one interviewer: “I hope it's going to be fun. It's been such a long slog to get to this point today.” He had no idea.


Production begins in Spain, and everything goes wrong very quickly. On day one, the constant roar of jets flying to and from a nearby NATO airbase causes major sound problems, delaying the shoot, and on the second day, the set is flooded by a violent storm. By the time the desert has dried up enough to continue, lead actor Jean Rochefort is hospitalised with a severe back injury, ruling him out of the film for an unknown period of time. After weeks of waiting for news, Gilliam is told Rochefort cannot return to set, and the production is cancelled. In the behind-the-scenes documentary of the shoot, Lost in La Mancha, director of photography Nicola Pecorini says: "Never in 22 years of being in this business have I seen such a sum of bad luck," and it's hard to argue with that.


After years of false starts and legal battles to regain control of the script, Gilliam happily announces that the film is back on the table, and pre-production begins afresh. He tells The Independent: "We're going to completely reshoot it. The intervening years have taught me that I can actually write a much better film. I'm so excited it's going to get done at last." With funding in place, Johnny Depp still attached to star and Hollywood legend Robert Duvall set to be Rochefort's replacement, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is in the best place it's been in years.


With production due to resume with Duvall and Ewan McGregor, replacing the unavailable Johnny Depp, Gilliam reveals that financing has collapsed yet again. He tells Variety: "I shouldn't be here. The plan was to be shooting Quixote right now," and, in an interview with MTV, he says: "I'll get back to it, but at the moment, if you're not spending a couple hundred million dollars in Hollywood it's pretty rough."


At Comic-Con, Gilliam reveals to Deadline why he can't let Quixote go: "Certain things just possess you," he says, "and this has been like a demonic possession I have suffered through all these years. 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. In a sense, there is an autobiographical aspect to the whole piece."


During an interview for The Zero Theorem at the Venice Film Festival, Gilliam tells Variety: "I am retreating to the safe harbour of Quixote. If we get the boats floating, we'll head out," before confirming to Coming Soon that pre-production has started for the seventh(!) time. "I'm going to try to do it again," he reveals. "I think this is the seventh time. Lucky seven, maybe. We'll see if it happens. I just want to make it and get rid of it. Get it out of my life."


Rising star Jack O'Connell is cast alongside John Hurt in the newly re-titled Don Quixote, and Gilliam announces production is due to start in spring of next year with an entirely new script. He tells The Wrap: "It all takes place now, it's contemporary. It's more about how movies can damage people. Our main character actually made a Don Quixote movie a lot earlier in his history, and the effect it had on many people wasn't very nice."

“I've done it so many times, or not done it so many times," he continues. "I'll believe it when I see it."