Documentary directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe have a history with director Terry Gilliam, because it was they who recorded his disastrous attempt to film one of his pet projects, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote; it was not his first attempt at the material, and neither would it be the last. But it was the most celebrated, and the resulting documentary, Lost in La Mancha, charted the painful realisation that this production was doomed early on and would probably never be finished: Gilliam himself was unsure whether it was a more appetising proposition as a great "what might have been" instead of a completed work that had the chance to be an artistic disappointment. But disappointment is part of the creative process, he comes to acknowledge...
Nevertheless, obsession is as well, and Fulton and Pepe were coaxed back when it appeared The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was going to finally be made so they could effectively make part two of their film that started in 2002. It's no secret in this effort that the film was eventually made and released, yet ironically Lost in La Mancha has been the most celebrated result of the entire, three decade-long endeavour, as the 2018 film came and went in release making a mere blip on the radar of pop culture, only really sought out by diehard fans of the director. Could it be that this life's work could end as if it was not really worth it when damn few were actually interested in what Gilliam was working on in the twenty-first century? If that were true, then the tragedy of his art continued.
We do not get a narration to guide us through this account of the most recent and successful try at the Don Quixote story, which at times looks less like Gilliam making a film of the classic Cervantes text and more like Don Quixote's impressions of Gilliam. Over and over the director looks like a madman, whether he's erupting in fury and frustration, giggling wildly as he acts out scenes for his cast, or simply sitting boggle eyed as he regards the fruits of his labours. We do not hear from Adam Driver or Jonathan Pryce, the stars of the film, and despite suspecting they would be nothing but supportive, there must have been times when they wondered what they had signed up for. We do, however, hear a little from some of the crew, who seem happy to be working on what was widely seen as a grand folly from a talent dogged by ill fortune.
In archive clips Gilliam is interviewed to offer a more rounded view of the man he was, as we view the man he has become, pushing eighty and realising if he does not create, he dies. Yet equally ironically, if he does create, the pressure it places on his mind and body could kill him too: as the shoot enters its final stretch, he suffers a serious medical emergency thanks to the stress he is under, putting him in a quandary: continue and give purpose to your life, or stop and lose that purpose, yet either way you're facing your mortality. Maybe a narration pointing all this out would be stating the bleeding obvious, since we can very well perceive the issues Gilliam is going through, and that old anxiety born of watching Lost in La Mancha returns. Though he succeeded in his dreams, by the conclusion he is pondering if it was worth it, and while the piece ends on a would-be triumphant note, there can't have been many in the wider world who even noticed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was out there to watch, never mind entice them to do so. Yet the fact he beat the odds seems fitting, he is that kind of man. Music by Michael Jacaszek.
[Blue Finch Film Releasing presents He Dreams of Giants on digital platforms 29 March 2021.]