'The Man Who Killed Don Quixote' Director Terry Gilliam On The Joy And Desperation Of Filmmaking [Interview]

Nobody can deny that Terry Gilliam is one tenacious filmmaker. We all know the trials and tribulations of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, his undying passion project that's been in the making for well over 20 years with a revolving door of stars and a lot of terrible, no good luck. Whatever could go wrong for this movie seemingly did, but what matters now is this: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is finally finished.

The end result is, in typical Gilliam fashion, a rush of creativity and imagination. "This is Gilliam at his most playful in decades and his distinct blend of slapstick, silly raunch, biting satire, and electric wit is on full display here," managing editor Jacob Hall wrote after he saw the film at South by Southwest. With The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam doesn't hold back, but according to him, it's always the limitations that bring out the best in his work.

He told us plenty more about his process, past films, and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote during a wide-ranging interview.

I thought the ending of the movie was very moving. 

Oh, that's very nice. I was worried that I'd gone too Hollywood for the end, but it's very effective, I think. It's very nice. I think it's the right ending.

It is one of your happier endings. How did it come about?

What was interesting about it, it's a result of our first rehearsals because originally it was just Adam [Driver] saying the lines. And as he was reading them out, Jonathan [Pryce] was always trying to get back into the movie, even after he's been killed, started saying the lines as well, and I thought this is magic. Suddenly, he doesn't die, his voice lives on. And that's what we did, and I was so pleased with it. It was so much better than doing it as we had originally written, and that's why it's important to work with really good actors because they come up with much better ideas than I have, is all I can say.

It was just the idea that Quixote never dies. The idea that Adam became the new Quixote is one thing, but what is poetic is having Jonathan's voice in there, and that's the last voice we hear. And then Roque Baños, he scored it very beautiful, so we had a good picture up there for people to look at. So, all in all, it's probably the most happy, optimistic ending I've done for a long time.

It sounds like you were always open to new ideas with this story.

Well, on something that's taken this long to finally get finished, any new idea was welcome, because it's a way of keeping the thing alive. It wasn't just an idea that we had 30 years ago, and we were just plodding on because it was the most perfect script ever written. It wasn't. I'm getting older, I'm changing, my attitudes are changing. Then, as different actors come into it, they have a slightly different take on it, and that's what kept the film alive for me, and that's what was exciting about working finally with, I think, the perfect cast.

Talking about how you've changed throughout the movie's long history to the screen, how do you think that influenced the story?

I think people who watch the film seem to read it more than I do. They think it's very autobiographical, but I never felt that. I was just trying to be true to Quixote, true to the masterpiece and find a way that might communicate Cervantes and Quixote to a modern audience. I think there was a point somewhere, probably about four years ago when [co-writer] Tony Grisoni and I made this leap, and suddenly we had the Toby character. We gave him a backstory. We gave him the film that he made, and we show this younger, innocent, exuberant character, and how life changes him, and how life changed all the people that were in his film. And that became a much more interesting take on the story than what we had way back.

Have you met a lot of directors who, like Toby, lost their way?

Oh yes, too many. I've known some that did very well here and then went off to Hollywood and just started making the same films that everybody else makes. There are those who took the quicker route, which is going into commercials because there's real money in commercials. Much easier to do. Those people have always bothered me because I knew them when they were talented, and then I saw that talent just dribbling away to make money or to try to succeed in Hollywood.

You've always stayed to true to yourself and made uncompromising work, but have you ever felt lost as well in your career?

There was the moment after I finished Munchausen, and I just thought I was really in the dumps. Everything was going wrong. I was getting accused of all sorts of nonsense, and that was the moment I broke my most prudent rules because I said I would only do what I wanted to do. I'd never work for money, and I would never ever work for Hollywood. And so suddenly I was offered this script, which was The Fisher King, and I just thought what a wonderful script. And it meant working in Hollywood, and that's what I did, and it was an absolute joy. And then from there, I went on to Twelve Monkeys and Fear and Loathing. So, by breaking my rules, I actually succeeded.

So would you say it's important to break your own rules?

My approach to life most of the time is to do things that shut most of the doors of opportunity to me, so I don't have a large amount of time choosing where to go.

Throughout the movie's development, what were some ideas that never went away?

The relationship basically of a modern man in advertising was always there in the Johnny Depp version. And the difference was, he was more like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, where he got knocked on the head and he ended up in the 17th century. I just thought that's a bit tired, and also, it's much more expensive when you gotta be true to the 17th century. It seemed a better idea to keep it contemporary, where if planes flew over, we didn't need money to get rid of them, and that was the way it developed out of just sheer pragmatism.

Then we'd always been struggling to find a good Dulcinea character that would work, and the idea of him being a younger film director and meeting this village girl, probably falling in love, they both did. And she ends up going off to be an actress, fails at that, and gets into the escort business, is basically a kept woman by a Russian oligarch seemed to give us a nice Dulcinea that echoed Cervantes' original one, who was basically a peasant girl, but she would put out for anybody, basically.

You've always been good at stretching a dollar and creating a large sense of scale. How do you do it? What are your tricks?

Desperation is the trick. The main one is desperation because I can't get the money to do what really is floating around in my head, so we have to constantly invent. What that produces is nice surprises, because it isn't ... I would just build it if I didn't have these restrictions, and it would be just more like every other film, but by being trapped in a small budget, you've gotta be clever and those kinds of restrictions seem to get my mind working better than when I get handed a lot of money to do exactly what I want to do. I think the main thing is to keep me from doing exactly what I want them to do, and that's what low budgets do.

Have you always felt that way?

I discovered along the way, and at the time when it's happening, I'm screaming at the gods and threatening death, destruction. But when it's all finished, I look back and say, "Oh, yeah, that was a really good idea, much better than my original idea, but it was forced upon me by circumstances."

The movie's coming out next week in the states, so what's your relationship to the film and the story right now? Does its release feel more significant than usual?

Once a movie's done, it's kind of it. I'm glad to get on with my life. Hopefully, it'll be seen by a lot of people and enjoyed, because I mean, when you live with a thing ... Every movie I do, I'm probably lived with it for three years at least, sometimes four, and this one was just longer. So I think I said in some interview a year ago or something, it's just like having a brain tumor removed so I can get on with my life, and that's what it feels like.

How much do you see of yourself in these characters?

Well, I try not to say the truth, but I'm actually both characters. I'm both Sancho and Quixote. I mean, I think most of us have that within us. We've got the dreamer, or the madman, or the person who's just an idiot, a fool. And then we've got the other side that keeps his feet on the ground a bit more. It's the only way to live life, it seems to me. If you're just pragmatist, just looking at the world as it's presented to you, that's a pretty dull way to live life.

Where if you can constantly try and reinvent it, to make it better, it seems like something that could fail, which each film is, I mean, a sense of failure because I didn't quite create this wondrous world that I wanted to. I create something slightly smaller, but it's still pretty good. It's better than if I hadn't attempted to do so.

I was just reading an interview with you where you talked about how darker the world has gotten the last few years, and I wondered, how much do the times ever influence your sensibilities or the stories you tell?

Well, I think everything I've done is my version of what I think the world is. In each film, I do so, and then realize a year later how wrong I got it, so I make another attempt at it. So it's always trying to reflect it. But I do find the current world is becoming so tedious, so serious. Its lots its sense of humor it seems. Everyone finds it so easy to take offense. We've become very thin skinned, and I really hate that. I just want people to be bolder, to try to imagine a more wondrous place out there, but it doesn't seem to be. And our leaders are not leading us up the hill to a great view.

Do you have any hope at all?

Well, it's horrible, because I've now got a granddaughter, who's two years old. She gives me more sense of what life should be than anything out there. I do worry about what the world is gonna be like when she becomes of age. We seem to be so distracted by nonsense, rather than dealing with the big problems which are facing the world. And I'm afraid that Donald is very good at reducing everything to tweets, and that's a sad way to look at the world.

Mentioning your granddaughter, you've said before children and musicians tend to really connect to your work the most. Why do you think that is? When did you first notice?

Yeah, I think it started happening with Jabberwocky, which is the first one I did on my own, and Time Bandits because it's adults ... Adults, by the time they become adults, they've accepted so much of the reality of the world and they try to structure everything. I remember with both Jabberwocky and Time Bandits, the adults were frightened watching the film, because it was leaping around, moving through time and space, and they couldn't keep up with it. They wanted to effectively be given road signs as to where we're going next, but kids just went with it. They were free.

Even with Quixote, we know that there's a lot of people that just do not get what I've just done. But at a screening at a festival, there's this 10-year-old kid, who happened to be with his parents at dinner afterward with us, and he could describe everything in the film. He just got the whole thing, and I thought, "That's what it's about. Keeping your mind open and willing to just go for the ride and enjoy it rather than try to structure it, define it, limit it." That's what I think is the problem with adulthood [Laughs].

Man Who Killed Don Quixote ReleaseObviously, you went through a lot of struggle to get this movie made, but what were some of the more joyful moments you've gotten out of it? 

I think the joyful thing is that it doesn't look like an old man's film. It looks like somebody who's still got a lot of life in him, and that pleases me a lot. I think the joys are small things, they happen every day because half the day is spent just in depression because you're not getting what you want. And then an actor comes in and does something, reads a line in a fresh way, and suddenly it's magical again. The thing comes alive. That's kind of the way it works, and I feel that about everything I've done. I'm very critical about what I've done. I don't like watching my films, because I see all the mistakes. But the good bits still impress me.

Any good bits that come to mind at the moment?

Well, actually, it's very funny, two days ago, I was doing a regrade, or just grading, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, because they're putting out a new HDTV thing. I haven't watched it in years, and I was just blown away how good I was back then, and every moment of it just surprised me. It's wonderful madness. I really admire that guy. I don't know what happened to him.

[Laughs] I finally read the book and it gave me a whole new appreciation of the movie, which wasn't celebratory at all. You showed the good but, mostly, the bad.

But that's the whole thing. I mean, I remember the best review I ever got for that was from this 15-year-old kid when his parents said, "Why do you like that movie? Because it's sex, drugs, rock and roll. It's disgusting." And he said, "No, it's great because it's the first non-hypocritical film I've ever seen." And I thought, "That's great to be not hypocritical." Because I think there's so much lie and deception out there. We were just trying to do the book, and the book was about a very specific time, a very specific experience, and I really think we captured it. That's what I'm proud of.

You've shown different sides of many movie stars with your work. What interested you in Adam Driver?

What I love about Adam, he was constantly surprising. Basically, it was my daughter, who's one of the producers, said, "You've gotta meet this guy because he's bankable." And we had lunch in a pub in London, and I just immediately liked him, because he was not like any other actor I've ever met. He didn't seem to be an actor at all. He was just a very interesting character. And when he told me about when 9/11 occurred, he signed up with the Marines to protect his country, and I thought, "He's crazy." There's a wonderful innocence about that. I thought, "He's not thinking like most people are thinking."

We got on immediately, and I was really happy because constantly he's very serious about his work, but he doesn't cheat. He doesn't do tricks. It's all solid, honest stuff. And yet, he's so funny. And this film, I think, shows his range more than anything he's done. It goes from the beginning, where he's just a miserable asshole you don't like, and then he becomes very funny, and by the end, he's actually quite beautiful and romantic. It's all down to him, and I think he's truly a special actor. He's great.

He seems like the type of movie star you tend to work with, the ones who are more of character actors.

But that's exactly the thing because I mean, movie stars have become repetitive. It's like what I do with Brad on Twelve Monkeys and push him to do something he had never done before. I like creating an atmosphere that people are confident enough to really take chances. And Adam ... Adam just went for it. Every day he would surprise me with a reading of a line, or the way he moved, the way he did something. And he and Jonathan just became a brilliant double act, because they sparked each other off in very different ways, but it just lifted both of them. It's wonderful to watch.

It must be gratifying for you to see, too. A lot of people still look at Brad Pitt's performance in Twelve Monkeys as a major turning point for him. 

Yeah, I'm pleased that I get away by being perverse in my choices and pushing people to do things they wouldn't normally do or sensibly do.