Natural Disaster

Was Terry Gilliam the man who killed Don Quixote?

Tony Grisoni can always tell when his old friend Terry Gilliam, the visionary who sees too far for his own good, is in pain: He laughs. The worse the pain, the harder the laughter. If that is the case, then the Terry Gilliam seen throughout Lost in La Mancha, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's painfully hysterical documentary about the collapse of a filmmaker's long-awaited project, should have been hospitalized, or at least force-fed fistfuls of Vicodin. He laughs throughout, a girlish giggle that slowly builds into a fierce, high-pitched cackle--the sound of Woody Woodpecker trapped in the tightening jaws of a lion.

Gilliam, maker of such films as Braziland 12 Monkeys, laughs as NATO airplanes roar across the Spanish desert sky, ruining shot after shot. He laughs as thick blankets of gray clouds blot out the perfect sunlight and dump blinding sheets of rain and hail on sandy desert settings that become bloody-red rivers of mud thick as glue. And he laughs when the star of his movie, the long-dreamed-of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, departs Spain for France and is diagnosed with a double hernia that will keep him from riding a horse--or even returning to shoot the movie.

As a founding member of Monty Python, as the illustrator responsible for the Flying Circus' beautifully demented animation sequences, Gilliam has made audiences laugh for decades. Now, what makes him chortle so fiercely is the sight of his dream--one of dozens, each slipping further out of reach--becoming a nightmare as it dies a slow and horrific death.

A man called horse: Terry Gilliam, right, was forced to abandon his dream when actor Jean Rochefort had to return to France.
A man called horse: Terry Gilliam, right, was forced to abandon his dream when actor Jean Rochefort had to return to France.

"And when he laughs, it's a terrible thing to watch," says Grisoni, with whom Gilliam wrote The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, as well as 1998's adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. "I think the collapse of Quixote has hit everyone hard, but it hit him hardest of all, and it's there on the screen. You can see it. But Terry's not going anywhere. He's not going to give up."

In the fall of 2000, the now-62-year-old Gilliam set out to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, in which a 21st-century advertising exec, played by Johnny Depp, time travels to the 17th century and becomes the Sancho Panza to French actor Jean Rochefort's Don Quixote. Gilliam had wanted to make the movie since at least 1991, while he was making The Fisher King, which bears an eerie resemblance to Miguel de Cervantes' story of the horseman so enamored of romantic tales he begins to imagine his own mundane life as one of intrigue and adventure. Robin Williams' Parry, the homeless man who witnessed the murder of his wife and began seeing knights coming to slay him, might as well have been named Don Quixote; he tilted not at windmills, but at skyscrapers. He had his own Sancho Panza as well, talk jock Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges, who narrates Lost in La Mancha)--the reluctant sidekick who, by film's end, had succumbed to his new friend's visions.

Gilliam did not write The Fisher King--it was penned by Richard LaGravenese, an author of treacly melodramas--but it stuck with him, perhaps because like all of his films it dealt with the very same things: "reality, fantasy, madness, sanity," as Gilliam says during the opening moments of Lost in La Mancha,which opens February 28 in Dallas. One could draw a very straight line from Gilliam's earliest work as a Python co-director (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) to Time Bandits, his beleaguered Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (yet another troubled production), The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys (both works for hire) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. They all deal, more or less, with how the imagined takes hold in reality and drives the sane mad, or, for those more fortunate, vice versa. Don Quixote's always been there in Gilliam's films, lurking around in the shadows, and finally Gilliam was going to put him front and center in a film of his own writing.

"It's almost as if all the other films Terry has made had their feet in Cervantes somehow, their roots in Cervantes in some way," Grisoni says. "I don't think that was the case. I don't think at some very early point he read Cervantes and then everything came from that. It certainly feels that way."

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote existed as a screenplay well before Grisoni got to it in 1997. Gilliam had written a version with Charles McKeown, his collaborator on Brazil and Munchausen, and then it was but one screenplay among many Gilliam was trying to get made in the 1990s, including a retelling of A Tale of Two Cities, The Defective Detective and an adaptation of Alan Moore's epic comic book Watchmen. Grisoni thought the first Quixote sprawling and messy but ultimately admirable and workable. Gilliam told him he wanted it to feature a modern-day adman, who didn't yet exist in the screenplay. "It's in my head," Gilliam told Grisoni, because that's where everything the filmmaker holds dear resides. They spent two and a half years on the script, during which the movie fell apart more often than a child's toy model. Finally, two years ago, they got to Spain, and what you see in Lost in La Manchatells the rest of the horrific story.

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