The decades-long saga behind Cannes’ longest-suffering passion project
After nearly two decades in development hell, Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” will close out the 2018 Cannes Film Festival on Saturday.
Of course, this is one of film history’s most infamous productions for a reason. There was one last hoop to jump through, and it took a last-minute ruling by a Paris court to ensure that the film, which stars Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce, would finally get to make its bow at the festival.
Here’s a closer look at the film’s decades-long journey to the big screen:
A first attempt to adapt ‘Don Quixote’
The Monty Python star’s interest in the project dates back to 1989, when he first read Miguel de Cervantes’ novel. Gilliam even signed a deal with a studio to make the film, with Sean Connery and Danny DeVito linked as possible stars, but funding issues led to Gilliam dropping out.
“The years I wasted on this one!” he told Neon magazine in 1997. “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.”
If only he knew what lay ahead.
Everything that can go wrong, goes wrong
Although Gilliam had left the project years earlier, it wouldn’t be canceled until 1997. The next year, he started working on a looser adaptation with writer Tony Grisoni, this one focusing on a 21st-century marketing exec who meets Don Quixote after being thrown through time.
The film started shooting in September 2000, with Johnny Depp playing the marketing exec, named Toby Grisoni, and French actor Jean Rochefort cast as Quixote. But because of a calamitous mixture of flooding damage, health issues for Rochefort and insurance and funding issues, production was canceled in November of that year.
But it wasn’t all for naught. In 2002, “Lost in La Mancha,” a documentary cataloging the cursed production was released.
A decade of what could charitably be called false starts
After a few years away from the project, Gilliam would attempt to get “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” made numerous times between 2005 and 2016 to no avail.
Depp remained linked to the project for a few years but eventually lost interest. Other actors linked to the role included Ewan McGregor, Jack O’Connell and Adam Driver. Robert Duvall, John Hurt, until he was diagnosed with cancer, and Michael Palin were all touted as possibilities to play Quixote.
But despite Gilliam’s best attempts to get the project going — including a moment in 2016 where it looked as if it might actually happen — “Quixote” never came to fruition.
But then in March of last year, it was announced that the impossible had happened — the film had started shooting. Driver, who’d been on board for 2016’s failed attempt, would play Toby, while Jonathan Pryce was set to play Quixote. Gone, though, was the time-traveling element of the Depp version, as Gilliam, who’d spent the previous 16 years constantly rewriting the script, had decided to set it in modern times.
“I’m incorporating the idea of the damage that films do to people,” Gilliam told the BBC earlier this month, “so it’s become a bit more autobiographical.”
Filming finished in June, but not without the production being accused of damaging a historic convent in Portugal. Then, just before the end of the year, Gilliam revealed on Facebook that editing was just about complete.
It was never going to be that easy
Just because the film was finally done didn’t mean Gilliam was out of the woods just yet. The film has been stuck in legal limbo since last summer, with former producer Paolo Branco, who was involved in a 2016 attempt at making the film but failed to deliver promised funding, claiming he had rights to the film, a claim Gilliam has refuted.
But last week, a Paris court rejected an attempt by Branco to stop the Cannes Film Festival from screening the film. But the specter of legal uncertainty surrounding the movie did lead Amazon to drop out as its US distributor.
Oh, and Gilliam suffered a minor stroke days before the ruling, but according to him, he’s doing just fine.
But finally, on Saturday, the film will make its debut before an audience at Cannes. Although it’s unlikely anyone involved with the production will breathe easy until the screening actually starts.
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