LONDON—”I’m constantly accused of being a genius, which really irritates me,” declares genius filmmaker Terry Gilliam, the mind behind such delirious fantasias as Brazil, The Fisher King, and 12 Monkeys. “In Hollywood, genius means crazy, out of control, irresponsible. It’s a way of saying, We admire you and respect you and we’re not going to work with you. It’s the worst condemnation you can imagine.”
Gilliam is a man condemned by a vengeful cinema god in the superb documentary Lost in La Mancha (opening January 31), which chronicles the disintegration of his Cervantes adaptation, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, in September 2000. Starring Johnny Depp as a contemporary adman who travels back to the 17th century and encounters the indefatigable horseman, played by French institution Jean Rochefort, Quixote would have carried the largest movie budget ever raised with solely European funds—a neat finger-salute to Tinseltown, whose relationship with Gilliam has always veered between ambivalent and adversarial. But after months of financing woes and just six days of production in Spain, his dream project died of multiple stab wounds: Rochefort’s double hernia, the deafening roar of F-16s from a nearby NATO base circling overhead, and most incredibly, a rain- and hailstorm of biblical proportions that flooded the set—a preposterous, perversely thrilling spectacle worthy of a Gilliam epic.
“When the storm hit, the tempest, I was exhilarated,” recalls Gilliam from his office in Soho. (A native of Minnesota, the 62-year-old has lived in England since 1967.) “Because it took all the responsibility off my shoulders—I knew it wasn’t my fault anymore. That’s why I’m jumping around screaming, ‘Yes! Fuck! This is fantastic! Because now we’ll get an insurance claim which’ll give us the money to finish!’ ”
It wasn’t to be. Indeed, Gilliam and company’s travails reached a point so grievous that Lost in La Mancha directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe became reluctant to fix their digital-video cameras on the ongoing catastrophe. The team first met Gilliam as students at Temple University, when they shot The Hamster Factor, an account of the often tormented making of 12 Monkeys (1995). In Spain, Pepe explains, “here was this man who had become our friend and everything was collapsing on him—making the documentary started to feel really unethical. But Terry said, Screw ethics, this is what’s happening. Your film could be the only record of a lot of people’s hard work.”
Gilliam’s account differs only slightly. “I said, ‘Shut the fuck up and get on with it! You’re handed this great drama on a plate and you’re pissing around!’ There was this extraordinarily ugly fight between two key people, and Lou’s in the room, and he turns the camera off and turns away. They’re incredibly sensitive guys—that’s why I like them—but that’s stupid!”
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam’s first undertaking since the box-office disappointment Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), does not mark the only time he has watched as one of his daunting enterprises slipped from his grasp. His retro-futurist masterpiece Brazil (1985), whose depiction of a leviathan police state now seems a lunatic prophecy of Total Information Awareness, instigated a standoff between Universal’s Sid Sheinberg and Gilliam, who purchased a full-page ad in Variety asking when the boss planned to release the movie. Production on the bloated, fitfully brilliant The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) ground to a halt halfway through, and wrapped at double its original budget.
And yet more disappointment lay in store for the director after the meltdown in Spain. He and Quixote co-screenwriter Tony Grisoni spent six months prepping the Armageddon fable Good Omens (adapted from the book by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman), but according to Gilliam, “Our timing wasn’t particularly good. We went out to L.A. in November of 2001 with this comic tale of the apocalypse, and September 11 was still in the air, so it didn’t come together.” Momentarily feasible prospects beckoned and then evaporated, including a Scaramouche swashbuckler and a TV sequel to Time Bandits (1981), the Baum-meets-Dahl odyssey that Gilliam wrote with fellow Monty Python alumnus Michael Palin. Reportedly, Gilliam was J.K. Rowling’s first choice as Harry Potter‘s celluloid conjurer; Warner Bros. went with Chris Columbus instead.
On the floor of Gilliam’s office, you’ll find illustrations and location-scouting photographs for a Brothers Grimm movie, but don’t bother asking after them. “I can’t even talk about it, because I’ve become totally superstitious—if I mention what’s going to happen then it doesn’t happen.” Gilliam remains, at any rate, resolute about making a second go at Quixote, though a German insurance company currently owns the script. “It’s been two years of trying to get it back, and we will get it back, but I’ve been dallying in these other areas because I might as well make a commercial Hollywood movie—it might make the refinancing of Quixote a bit easier. I don’t normally think strategically, but that’s what I’m doing.”
His means of coping with recent letdowns will no doubt strike fear in the hearts of Gilliam devotees. “I started recognizing a few months ago that I don’t want to imagine anything anymore, because I don’t want to be disappointed. I’m closing down the movies in my head. They’re still behind doors in there somewhere, but I don’t want to think about them unless I can see things getting made. It was bad enough that Quixote collapsed—then all these other projects collapsed. I guess it’s some kind of test.” He adds, with his trademark cackle, “I’ve always been intrigued by Job.”
Fulton draws the more obvious parallel: “Terry is a quixotic character—his whole career has been battles with studios and the pursuit of the impossible dream.” In essence, Gilliam concurs. “The project has to take you over. And then the weird thing is how it starts moving beyond you,” he says. “Brazil is the perfect example: the bureaucracy against the individual. Everything that happened after the film was finished was what the film was about. Quixote is about madness and trying to make the world a more interesting place than it is and suffering; he’s always being knocked off his horse and getting the shit kicked out of him, and he just gets up and keeps going. So the fact that the film didn’t get made was actually the right thing. I don’t like it,” he hastens to add, laughing, “but it seems correct. If you’re going to play around with Quixote then you have to become Quixote. Everybody says, ‘You must move on.’ Why should I move on? I’ll do little detours, but I know where we’re going.
“But actually getting it done would probably be a huge mistake, because it won’t be as good as people imagine it could have been,” continues Gilliam, clearly on a roll. “It’s probably better to leave it as a documentary with little tantalizing glimpses of what might have been. It’s my theory about Stanley Kubrick: He should have died before he finished Eyes Wide Shut. It would have forever been an unfinished masterpiece, beautiful ruins. When it’s a ruin, you get these little fragments and you can imagine what the castle looked like.” Gilliam’s favorite aspect of moviemaking, he says, comes during “the early stages, when we’re drawing things and planning the film in our heads—ah, that’s exhilarating. The reality is that when we’re finished, it’s a fraction of what we were imagining. When I’m making films sometimes I want half the film to be in blackness so there’s room for people to imagine what’s in the shadows.”