Nick Pelling attends the St Leonards’ premiere of a documentary about the making of a film by the former Monty Python star Terry Gilliam. 

Have you ever thought that a project you were working on was under some form of curse? The history of film has a few, almost mythic, fables of camera crews seemingly under a sinister jinx. Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, for example, has a hellish back story, including a heart attack for its main star, Martin Sheen. The making of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo involved so much violence and pain that it bordered on insanity. But surely the film with the strongest claim to being in the hands of malevolent film furies is Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. For those who like to stare into the dark heart of such affairs, the good news is that the film producer Lucy Darwin made a documentary record of the ex-Python’s Sisyphusian struggles, entitled He Dreams of Giants directed by Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe.

Incredibly, Lucy brought the film to the Kino Teatr a few days ago and then announced that this was in fact its first British showing. To put it another way, the Kino in Norman Road was holding a UK premiere. Just as impressively, Lucy brought her friend, the renowned BBC film critic Mark Kermode, along for the post-film Q and A session. This was another fantastic line-up from the Kino. 

Mark Kermode and Olga Mamonova

He Dreams of Giants takes a deep look at the nature of creative energy and, in particular, what might be called Gilliam’s incredible will to film. His original idea of making a filmic version of Cervantes’ tale of the deluded knight of La Mancha, goes back to 1989. Staggeringly, the eventual release of the final film was not until 2018. In between times, he and his crew endured twenty-nine years of starts and stops and a range of problems so swirling in their unpredictability that only a man such as Gilliam – who seems to inhabit a surrealist universe of monsters at the best of times – could find it in any way manageable. 

His first attempt to bring Quixote to life foundered on such rocks as flooded sets, illness and of course, in the end, a collapse of funding. This initial effort was also recorded by Lucy Darwin in a brilliant documentary entitled Lost in La Mancha, released in 2002. Most directors would probably have given up at that point. But Gilliam, it seems, is made of more perverse stuff. He kept on trying to flog life into the knight, but horrible twists of fate kept interrupting – the sublime John Hurt was cast as Quixote but tragically cut down by cancer. Clearly, one might feel, somebody up there didn’t like Gilliam’s dream. But Gilliam would not give up. Of course, it is tempting, if a bit too neat, to believe that Giliam had, in effect become Don Quixote, tilting at all the legal and financial windmills that so frequently swipe at and obstruct the chivalrous director.

He Dreams of Giants takes a deep look at the nature of creative energy and, in particular, what might be called Gilliam’s incredible will to film

After the first false start, Gilliam got back on his horse and began again in 2016. Jonathan Pryce was cast as Don Quixote and Adam Driver as a sort of alternative Sancho Panza, by the name of Toby Grummett. Casting choices that put a great chemistry at the heart of his film. But, inevitably, the documentary does not then wind neatly to a happy ending. There are other calamities in Gilliam’s path; not the least of which was his own ill health. For a moment it almost seemed as if his magnificent obsession might be a fatal one. 

Curiously, as Gilliam began to bring the film towards a conclusion, Darwin’s film introduces us to another facet of the creative psyche. The fear of success, or at least, the fear of finishing; being left with a void, and the bleak horror that sort of emptiness holds for the older artist. We are, finally, told that when the film opened in Cannes in 2018, it received a 20 minute ovation. Gilliam had apparently triumphed over the gremlins. But not quite. Even after release, we are told the lawyers are still gnawing away at him. 

The Q and A afterwards, touched on all manner of things. Producer Lucy Darwin’s faith in Gilliam, as a man possessed of something close to genius, certainly came across. But she worried that somehow her film had “missed its moment,” maybe, in part, because of Gilliam’s recent brush with the no-platforming police when the Old Vic recently cancelled a production he was due to direct. Objections had been raised after he described the MeToo movement as a ‘witch hunt’.

Mark Kermode made a telling point, by pointing out that most of the audience in the Kino had not yet seen The Man Who Killed Don Quixote but everyone still found Darwin’s documented record utterly compelling. It is undoubtedly, as Kermode said, a “stand-alone” film and not in any way dependent upon Gilliam’s shifting stock. Overall, both Darwin and Gilliam showed that creative people need to be tough and perhaps slightly mad. Giants is many things, but a central truth definitely emerged –  it is not about curses, it is just that, as Gilliam put it quietly to camera, “Art is hard.” 

Quixotic Quixote

Don Quixote or The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha is a Spanish novel by Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616).

• It was originally published in two parts in 1605 and 1615. It is said to be the best-selling book of all time (after the Bible) with sales of around 500 million copies.

• It is also believed to be the most translated book of all time.

• Notable adaptations included a classic 1869 ballet; the 1965 musical play Man of La Mancha, and a 1972 film version and starring Peter O’Toole, and Sophia Loren.

• The story tells of an aging knight whose head has been fuddled by reading chivalric romances. He sets out on his old horse Rocinante, with his pragmatic squire, Sancho Panza on a donkey, to seek adventure.

• The adjective quixotic (foolishly impractical especially in the pursuit of ideals) derives from the book’s title character’s unrealistic schemes and great chivalry.

• Tilting at Windmills. Quixote’s attack on a field of windmills, mistaken for giants, has entered the language to mean wasting time and energy over a problem that is not real or important.

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