One possible response to the tantalizing notion of a Terry Gilliam film about Don Quixote: How hasn’t he made one already? Another possible response: Wait, hasn’t he made one already? The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which premiered at Cannes last month, arrives 29 years after Gilliam first started working on it — and 16 years after Lost in La Mancha, a well-received documentary about one of his failed attempts to shoot it. Long the perfect symbol of a “cursed” production doomed to an eternity in “development hell,” it has somehow come back from the dead, resurrected by the sheer doggedness of Gilliam and his collaborators, time and time again.
The movie even survives John Hurt and Jean Rochefort, two of the stars previously signed on to play Quixote himself. (The list also includes Robert Duvall and Gilliam’s fellow Python Michael Palin.) Jonathan Pryce, best known at the moment as Game of Thrones’ High Sparrow, has ultimately taken on the role, having been attached to play others in the project over the previous decades. But just as Gilliam’s film doesn’t straightforwardly adapt Cervantes’ classic of Spanish literature, Pryce doesn’t straightforwardly portray Cervantes’ iconic character. He does it, rather, through a Spanish shoemaker who truly believes he is Cervantes’ iconic character, having played him in a student film years before.
The student filmmaker has grown up to become a cynical adman, one meant to be played in previous versions of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote by Robin Williams, Johnny Depp, Ewan McGregor, and Jack O’Connell. In the trailer above you’ll see the character played by Adam Driver, who in recent years has fast ascended into the realm of indie-film royalty. Whereas earlier scripts flung him back through time from modern day into 17th-century Spain, this one stays in the present and forces him to confront the outsized impact of his small film on the even smaller village in which he shot it. And so the story of the film, not just the story behind it, takes on themes of the unpredictable complications, consequences, and even dangers of filmmaking.
Those complications have ground on for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. The latest manifestation of the film’s supposed curse takes the form of a lawsuit by a former producer, Paulo Branco, who insists he still owns the rights to it. Gilliam’s current producer says otherwise, but their recent loss in the Paris Court of Appeals has given the notoriously forceful Branco reason — valid or not, nobody seems quite able to say — to publicly declare victory. Whichever party will finally have to cough up however much money to settle all of this, the epic journey of Gilliam’s Don Quixote project looks as if it has entered its home stretch. However the world receives the film itself, Gilliam’s fans can almost certainly look forward to another acclaimed documentary about it as well.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.