When it comes to filmmaking, to say that Terry Gilliam has not had the best of fortune would be verging on something of a gross understatement. In fact, you could say if it wasn’t for bad luck, Gilliam would have no luck at all.
His various travails and tribulations in the film industry are the stuff of near-legend. He famously took out a one-page advert in a trade publication, hectoring Universal chairman Sid Sheinberg over when his own preferred cut of Brazil was going to be released, following studio interference. A series of projects either stalled or collapsed, such as an adaptation of Good Omens, a sequel to Time Bandits, and two attempts to make a Watchmen movie. Heath Ledger also passed away whilst starring in The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus for Gilliam.
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Perhaps the most widely-known case of Gilliam’s struggles to get a movie to fruition would be The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a monumental and at times near-insurmountable challenge which has been a personal obsession of his for the best part of three decades. From his first notion of making a movie about Don Quixote back in 1989, the project was put through so many false starts and permutations while Gilliam tried to get it off the ground that it ended up bearing almost no resemblance to what had originally been conceived many years previously.
For a long time, his best effort at actually getting the movie off the ground was documented in Lost In La Mancha, which was to have charted the making of the feature. Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe set about diligently recording everything in relation to Gillam’s attempt in 2000 to make and release his magnum opus; however, all thanks to a series of calamities, from acts of God to the illness and withdrawal of the leading man, Lost In La Mancha instead actually chronicled the slow unravelling of the entire production, which eventually ended up being cancelled in November 2000.
Gilliam, however, carried the project like an albatross around his neck, a huge burden which he needed to be free of, which meant that he spent almost two more decades patiently and fastidiously working away, piecing together both the rights and the finances, as well undertaking a dramatic rewrite on the film script, until in March 2017, Gilliam began principal photography on his latest – and, he hoped, final – iteration of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Fulton and Pepe ended up being hired again to record everything for posterity, with the end result being He Dreams Of Giants.
The documentary has a very different flavour and tone to that of Lost In La Mancha, with the previous film having a darkly comic edge, finding a lightness in the rather farcical situation which develops as everything conspires against Gilliam to stop his movie getting out of the starting blocks. Flashbacks to Lost In La Mancha are used, showing a very stark and rather marked contrast in Gilliam between then and now; here, he seems older than his years, unwell, and very much like a butterfly broken on the wheel of constant disappointment and frustration.
Whatever you may think of Gilliam as an individual – given some of his more contentious public remarks on issues such as #MeToo, as well as diversity and political correctness – if you can actually manage to separate the man from his work, then it would be difficult not to argue he has suffered for his art, and never more so than here. The deleterious effects of his Ahab-like obsession are all-too painfully clear in Fulton and Pepe‘s journal of Gilliam’s one last push to try and finish off this film, before it runs the risk of possibly finishing him off first.
The boisterous, ebullient Gilliam of old is often absent from proceedings, replaced by a man slowly having any traces of joie de vivre crushed out of him by a self-imposed weight of responsibility, leaving him noticeably more fragile and frail than might otherwise have been the case. There is very little triumphalism in evidence here as The Man Who Killed Don Quixote edges nearer to completion; instead, there is much more of a grim, almost funereal atmosphere at some points, in particular where it feels as if things have finally taken their toll in one last, grim twist of fate.
Although He Dreams Of Giants is not a flattering portrait of Gilliam, it is not intended to be; instead, you have to admire Fulton and Pepe for their dedication to unflinching candour, with no efforts being made to try and salve Gilliam’s ego, or sugarcoat exactly what they are observing as things unfold. The Terry Gilliam of this documentary feels very much like a man who is confronting his own mortality in a fashion which is deeply disconcerting, seeing fewer days ahead of him than behind, and racing desperately against time to try and finally complete his unfinished symphony.
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For around 30 years, Gilliam has been tilting at this particular windmill, trying to slay the giant which has taunted him. The cumulative effect on him is readily apparent, with not just a notable absence of any sangfroid throughout, but an angry, frustrated and almost bitter pall that falls over him at times, as if he wants nothing more than to be free. There certainly is a resonance between Gilliam’s circumstances here and the story of Quixote, with an old man choosing to go out on one last glorious and noble quest, against all the odds, as well as any reason or apparent sanity.
He Dreams Of Giants is the perfect companion piece to Lost In La Mancha, and the two films are perhaps best watched in tandem, in order to compare and contrast not just between Gilliam’s two very different visions of the Don Quixote story he set out to tell, but also as a snapshot of the effects which a fixation and mania can have on an individual when stretched over around a quarter of a century.
He Dreams Of Giants is out now on digital platforms from Blue Finch Film Releasing.