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Daily Telegraph Magazine 8/3/02
One That Got Away
Donated by Emma
It was the rain that did it: the rain signalled the beginning of the end. 'It
wasn't just rain,' says Johnny Depp, 'it was enormous rocks of hail which hit
me on the head and filled the pockets of my coat full of ice. I've been in
torrential downpours before but this was insane - I've never seen anything
like it, it was epic, it was like … Noah's Ark or something.' They were in
Las Bardenas, in the desert in northern Spain, on the set of Terry Gilliam's
high anticipated film, Who Killed Don Quixote, and the crew could do nothing
but try to stop their equipment floating away on the rapids of the flood. The
next day, the set was awash with mud, and when it had dried out, the
landscape had changed; the earth was a different colour and there were
patches of green sprouting through, and from a continuity point of view, all
the previous shooting was useless.
'It was almost as if there was this strange dark cloud hanging over us' says
Depp. They had had pre-production problems, but all within the normal range
(unsigned contracts, puppets that had to be remoulded, problems with the
horses, lack of rehearsal time), though everything was exacerbated by a
critical lack of budget. But this was all something Gilliam could absorb,
something he could live with. Then it began to get more serious, Jean
Rochefort, the veteran French actor who was playing Don Quixote (and he was
perfect for the part, says Depp, just perfect) developed a prostate infection
days before shooting commenced, and cancelled his flight. Finally, in
September 2000, all the actors were assembled. Yet even on the first day of
filming it become apparent that nothing - nothing - was going to go smoothly.
There they all were - Quixote, the horses, the extras, the cast, a brace of
producers, a huge crew and even a couple of documentary makers filming the
filming - when they were joined by a group of F16 fighter jets, dropping
bombs and making the most unbelievable noise. The set, it transpired, was
also a military testing ground for Nato.
'So apart from the weather, we were dealing was bombing raids,' says Depp.
'Nato were using it for target practice. The set was here..'(he places his
tobacco on the table) 'and base camp, the trailers and stuff, was here ..'
(he puts his Zippo down) 'and these bastards were coming in and dropping
bombs right here ..' He pokes a long, elegant finger in the space between the
tobacco and the Zippo and laughs. 'I remember thinking, hey - I hope they
don't **** up'.
The final blow came on the fifth day of filming, when it became apparent that
Rochefort, an accomplished horseman, was in serious trouble. He was in so
much pain he could barely ride, let alone act at the same time. After one
scene, when it took two men to get him off this horse and half an hour for
him to walk the short distance to his car, things began to look very, very
bad. At that point, says Depp, they realised they were doomed. Rochefort flew
back to his doctors in Paris and everyone waited. The days passed. The
investors visited the set, followed by the insurers. No one knew what was
going on. After 10 days the news came: Rochefort was suffering from a double
herniated disc, and even if he were able to come back he would not be riding
a horse for a long time. After a couple of days, the cast heard that Gilliam
had gone back to London. 'I think I was one of the last to leave,' says Depp
For years, Terry Gilliam has been trying to make a film about Don Quixote,
the Spanish legend whose poetic fantasies led him wildly astray. There was
already a history of bad luck attached to filming Quixote; Orson Welles tried
to make his own film, shooting between other projects, over a period of 20
years; in the end his Quixote, Francisco Reiguere, died and it had to be
abandoned. Gilliam's problem was money - he'd made several unsuccessful
attempts to finance it Hollywood (Don Who?) but European finance was hard to
acquire (he needed £40 million - vast by European standards), even with Depp
and Vanessa Paradis on board. He had a wonderful script, written with Tony
Grisoni ('I was just stupefied when I read it,' says Depp. 'It was like
reading a really well written novel. I instantly just dove in'), a committed
cast and a budget of sorts: £32.1 million. Gilliam asked documentary
filmmakers Louis Pepe and Keith Fulton to join him to film the making of the
film. They had made a documentary called The Hamster Factory about Gilliam's
film 12 Monkeys, and he wanted them around 'for insurance purposes'.
Although Don Quixote was never made, the documentary - which covered two
weeks of pre-production as well as the six days of shooting - was. Narrated
by Jeff Bridges, Lost in la Mancha shows a buoyant, exuberant, giggling
Gilliam, initially bullish in the face of looming chaos ('If it's easy, I
don't do it. If it's virtually impossible I have a go at it .. Without a
battle I don't know how to approach it,' he says), getting more and more
downcast. When Depp saw it for the first time, the thing that really upset
him was seeing Gilliam shrink before his eyes. Depp knows Gilliam well (the
made Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas together), and believes he is one of the
great filmmakers of all time. 'Terry was so excited, you know how he is - big
and broad and just exploding with excitement and giggling constantly,'
recalls Depp. 'He's an insanely passionate, curious and knowledgeable man.
And he was loving it, just loving it - then, day by day, you'd see him
shrink. It was hard to see Terry like that; he looked beaten - and Terry's a
hard guy to beat. And it's really sad because it would have been like the The
Best of Terry Gilliam.
'One of the things I hope Lost in la Mancha will do is kill all those myths
about Terry being a renegade and a sort of careless wackadoo filmmaker;
spend, spend spend. [Gilliam acquired a bad reputation after The Adventures
of baron von Munchausen went wildly over budge.] You can see how badly he
wanted to shoot, he just wanted to make the film, really. He cut the budget
radically to a size that probably wasn't enough, but he was willing to make
it work. And then everything just went against us.'
Pepe and Fulton recorded it all. Luckily they had a co-operative subject
with Gilliam, who is a man excited by candidness. The cameras were there for
everything: even a meeting to discuss the proposed, sacking of the first
assistant director. Didn't anyone ever tell them to drop dead? 'Well I
wouldn't say that.' Says Fulton. 'But Terry certainly didn't. 'It was
difficult when it all went wrong, ' he adds, 'but we were still obligated to
make the film. There was a time when we thought we'd have abandon it, but
Terry was very supportive. He said, "Well, somebody's got to make a film and
if it's not going to be me then it might as well be you."'
Depp had been involved in the film from very early on. He was to play Toby
Grosini, a modern advertising genius who, while shooting a commercial,
somehow gets magically transported back into the 17th century, where Don
Quixote mistakes him for his sidekick, Sancho Panza. The character of Toby
('a really mean guy,' says Depp cheerfully) was written for Depp. 'Gilliam
wanted to expose to the whole world that I am much s******r than they think I
am.' 'That was our intention,' concurs Gilliam. 'It was a fantastic role
because it allows him to start off as complete asshole and eventually reach a
transcendental state. I wanted to take the entire range of Johnny and who he
is and what he's capable of, and play with it. He tends to get these parts
where he's lovely or innocent or whatever, and I thought, let's stretch him
and let him really play on a broad canvas. He's much more interesting than
the world knows. There's a sting to Johnny's tail that most people haven't
seen, and I thought we should incorporate some of that.'
The sting in Johnny's tail is, sadly, not visible today. We are sitting in
his trailer on the set of his new film, Neverland; the interior is all
brocade and velvet and low lamps, it looks like the railway carriage in Once
Upon a Time in the West. Johnny is in combat trousers, T-shirt and a cap, a
child's plastic bracelet round his wrist, drinking Coke. He looks absurdly
young, although he is 39 - I'd hate to see the picture in the attic. On the
wall is a photograph of him with his three-year old daughter, Lily Rose ('She
looks like Vanessa but with my eyeballs') and a picture of him with Hunter S
Thompson ('That's the doctor and me in Cuba'). Also on the wall is a letter,
in pencilled childish scrawl, which says, 'Dear Johnny, thank you for the
fart machine, love Luke.' Luke is one of the little boys acting in Neverland.
His parents much have been thrilled. 'Yes, they came and thanked me,' says
Johnny, putting on a very credible well-spoken Home Counties voice:"'Thank
you very, very much. He used it all weekend."'
We are in Kensington Gardens because Depp is playing J M Barrie in the
Miramax version of the story of the Llewellyn Davies boys who inspired Peter
Pan. With a great deal of Hollywood licence, the story has been turned into a
romance between Barrie and Sylvia Llewellyn Davies (Kate Winslet). Earlier, a
scene was being shot involving Depp doing something faintly furtive (by
Edwardian standards) with Winslet on a rug, though I couldn't see exactly
what because of so many open umbrellas being brandished to prevent the
paparazzi, who had been hiding in trees, from photographing the pair. The
second scene was over Depp was whisked into a car and rushed off the set.
Apart from a stint in Mexico to shoot Robert Rodriguez's Once Upon a Time in
Mexico, Depp had taken much of the past 18 months off to be with his
girlfriend Vanessa Paradis and their children. He came back to do Neverland
because he liked the idea of playing Barrie -a dark and complex man, whose
early writing intrigues him - and working with Marc Forster (director
Monster's Ball). 'This version is very kind, although we've taken some of the
saccharine out of the script: very kind, sweet and nice. It's almost like a
kiddie move. I want to do kiddie movies now. I'm fed up with adult movies -
most of them stink. At a certain point with movies it becomes all about
mathematics: this has to lead up to this, this has to lead up to that -
you're always bound by some kind of formula. But since having kids and
watching lots of animated cartoons and all those great old Disney films, I
think they're better, they're much better. They're more fun and they take
more risks. Even things like Shrek - it's really funny and well made and
It's what he feels like doing at the moment, says Depp, making a film that
his children are not going to have to wait 20 year s to watch. I worry about
him appearing in Free Willy III or something, but no he's going for the big
one: a Disney, Bruckheimer-produced number Pirates of the Caribbean - my
God, it's a film based on a theme park ride. Depp, of course, will play a
pirate. ('That's my guy,' says Gilliam later.'He'll make a brilliant pirate.
Whatever it takes. Whatever it takes to make him a big superstar so we can
raise a lot money on him for the next Quixote..')
You can, of course imagine him as a pirate. But he doesn't play to his looks
- on the contrary, he gets his roles despite them. Playing Hunter S Thompson
he wore painful wedges to make his ears stick out, and draped 17 sad little ha
irs across top of this shaved head. This is not the action f a man concerned
with glamour and grooming. Most of his films are interesting and unpredictable - some are brilliant: Ed Wood, Don Juan de Marco, Dead Man,
Edward Scissorhands, Arizona Dream, Donnie Brasco, Sleepy Hollow. He does
odd thing for the right reason - John Badham's Nick of Time, for example was
a thriller based in real time, which appealed to Depp. It was largely
overlooked, but the basic idea has become very successful in the TV series
24. Depp does thing because he's interested in the character - be it an
opium-addicted cop in From Hell or a Buster Keaton wannabe in Benny and Joon.
He has worked with some amazing actors (Marlon Brando, Faye Dunaway, Vincent
Price, Martin Landau, Al Pacino, Judi Dench, Robbie Coltrane, Juliette
Binoche), and with the best directors (Gilliam, Tim Burton, Emir Kusturica.,
Roman Polanski, Jim Jarmush). And they all love him - actors, directors,
grips, drivers. Why?
Well he's gorgeous, for a start. No matter what he does to himself - stupid
woolly hats, unseemly baggy trousers, weird hair. He 's intelligent and
funny. And he's a good actor - an extraordinary actor. There is an unfinished
quality to his acting which leaves endless room for possibility. He face is
so expressive: emotions dance across it in a minute ballet of innuendo. He
does a very good mixture of wonder and weirdness, and the combination of his
talent and his looks means he get away with stuff that others can't. Imagine
Matt Damn playing Edward Scisscorhands (Depp based his performance on a dog)
or Brad Pitt playing Ed Wood (Depp based his performance on Ronald Regan).
And somehow - and directors must realise this Johnny Depp conveys an idea of
art and substance. Of cool. If Johnny Depp's in your film, then it must be
interesting. It may not be a box office but it won't be pap.
But in financial terms, he's not up there on the A list - studios won't green
light a film based solely on Depp, unless it's low budget. It is partly his
fault - he has turned down plenty of things that have made others into stars.
'And it's a terrible price to pay then you see all the these other actors who
have a fraction of his talent,' says Giilliam, 'who get the green light at
the drop a hat.' On the other hand, there are actors who have made similar
low-key choices whose credibility has long since floundered.' He won't
flounder because he' so good,' says Gilliam. 'He's so talented. He may not be
Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks or any other Tom - are there any other Toms out
there? - because he chooses interesting material and he doesn't want to be an
icon. I saw Minority Report last night and I don't think I can watch Tom
Cruise ever again. He's not a bad actor; he's just a totally predictable
actor. There are no surprises. Johnny surprises me; I don't know what he's
going to do next, I don't know where it's going to go sometimes, and nor does
He works hard; he has made some 28 films since 1984, and his girlfriends and
what Gilliam calls 'the sting in his tail' have been slavered over by the
press. But he seems to have managed to keep a low profile in France lately,
although a height of media hysteria was reached three years ago when his
daughter was born. Depp and Paradis fooled the press this year by spreading
the world that their new baby wasn't due until June. Jack was born in March.
'It was really well orchestrated,' says Depp.'it's nice to win sometimes.
It's not always easy to win against those b******ds, but when you do it feels
He loves France, he can smoke in peace, and is extremely fond of the grape.
He's not very happy about French politics, but hen he's not a person that
feels involved in that sort of thing anyway. In fact, 'It's all horseshit.
But this is interesting: not long ago I met Tony Blair. I spoke with him for
a bit and was able to watch him behave and the guy was really a gentleman. I
got the impression that he absolutely cares and it was sincere. I've met a
lot of politicians over the years and found them to be plastic, but his guy
wasn't -he seemed like a good guy. I was shocked.' What did they talk about?
Children, says Depp. Films and children.
'He talks about his children all the time,' says Gilliam. 'It's boring beyond
belief! If he shows me one more picture of his kid, I'll kill him.' He laughs
maniacally, then collects himself.'He's happy - isn't that awful? He's
content! No, it's nice to see him happy, there's no question about it - but I
don't want him happy too long.'
Gilliam is in the process of trying to buy back the script from the insurers
and start all over again: Depp is on board, but they might have trouble
getting Rochefort insured. The good thing from Gilliam's point of view, is
that Lost in la Mancha leaves your mouth watering to see the real thing.
It's the best trailer a film has ever had. And even if Who Killed Don
Quixote never happens, better a good film unmade than a bad one made.
3 August 2002