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Empire (UK)
September 2001
By Bob McCabe

(transcript by Natz)

THE DEATH OF THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE

This is the only footage you'll see from Terry Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote production which was shut down this year with losses of $16 million. But not before it had enraged Johnny Depp, put the lead actor in hospital and given its director brain damage...

"Right now, there's a guy in Germany who's walking around, and if he dies this weekend, this film is not gonna happen." Terry Gilliam, New York, June 1999.

The German didn't die. He just turned out not to have any money. Prior to that he had been leading Terry Gilliam, Johnny Depp and an extensive cast & crew a merry dance. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a dream project for a director, with some of the most audacious dreams in cinema, was all set to start filming in September 1999, when co-financer Rainer Mockert returned from his stroll in the Bavarian woods to announce that he didn't have the money he said he did. The character of Don Quixote has long proved an irresistible draw for filmmakers - Orsen Welles, for example, spent the last three decades of his life desperately trying to bring Cervante's classic to the screen. And by 1998, Gilliam had come up with a novel twist on the tale: TMWKDQ, co-written with Tony Grisoni, combining the world of Cervantes with a 21st century satire, and starring Johnny Depp as an advertizing executive who finds himself unstuck in time, unwittingly travelling between modern day London and 17th century La Mancha. And that's when the troubles began... Gilliam was determined that such a European subject should be made as a European project, with no money coming from Hollywood. Having secured a number of investors, Mockert may have dealt the film its first blow, but salvation appeared to come in the form of Rene Cleitman, the man behind such international successes as Cyrano De Bergerac.

Cleitman helped whittle the budget down to a just-doable $32 million, with the production now being backed by three French companies, three Spanish, one German and one British. And so, after a two-year struggle, TMWKDQ was finally ready to roll. Yet behind the scenes all was not well. "There's still a lot of miscommunication between the French and everyone else", says Gilliam, shortly before leaving for pre-production in Madrid. "It's the way they perceive filmmaking, this whole, 'We don't do it this way in France.' Well, it seems it's only in France they don't do it that way. Because everywhere else in the world you make films a certain way and everybody knows what they're doing."

SEPTEMBER 20 [2000]: Five days before production, Johnny Depp finally arrives in the Spanish capital. He's not happy. "He was very pissed off at the French for how they'd been mucking him about. And the first night that he'd got there, Tony (Grisoni), he & I go out to dinner," says Gilliam, "and he was just going on, saying he's not right for the part, he's not right for the character, people don't get redeemed and blah, blah, blah. It went on 'til two or three in the morning, but by the end he was fine." Unfortunately, then Depp met Cleitman. "Me, Tony & Johnny were having this script meeting and in barges Rene Cleitman, who says, 'I am Rene Cleitman. Terry, will you introduce me to Johnny?' And Johnny had told me he didn't want to see him and if he ever saw him he was going to tell him to disappear in French. So he just said 'disappear.' Rene said, 'What? Will you look at me?' And Johnny said, 'No. Disappear.' And got up, and they were face to face, like punch-out time... Of course, the second he's out the door, Johnny says, 'I think I'd better go apologize.'"

SEPTEMBER 25: Filming begins. The extras don't show up. Jean Rochefort (Quixote) has arrived, but is not a well man, suffering from what is later diagnosed as a double disc hernia. Plus, there's the fact that the French stunt Co-ordinator hasn't rehearsed the fight scene they are due to film, and NATO bombers are doing target practice, four times a day. "I wasn't excited and was making mistakes. And it was painfully slow."

SEPTEMBER 26: Several extras who did show up the previous day fail to arrive because they didn't like the work. Depp is insisting his co-stars be given the same size trailers as he - trouble is, they don't have them in Spain. And then the rains come & wash it all away. "It was wonderfully apocalyptic," remembers Gilliam. "We were in this little box canyon kind of area, huddled under this tent, trying to drag the equipment in. And suddenly the storm hit and I thought, 'Fuck! I'm not gonna stand in this thing!' But by then I'd gone crazy and just walked out into the middle of it, and found myself a great overhanging rock and sat there. And then the rain turned into hailstones. And I'm out there like King Lear, just howling at this storm, laughing and howling in equal measure. And it finally passed - it only lasted 45 minutes. Then I looked back and the tent's gone, everything's gone, washed away."

SEPTEMBER 27: Gilliam finally gets to do a read-through with his cast - three days into filming. Yet no shooting can be done, as what equipment is left is being cleaned.

SEPTEMBER 28: Filming resumes with an increasingly frail Rochefort. Attempts to use the same backdrop as on Monday are inhibited as the rains have changed the colour of the hills. Gilliam's relationship with producer Cleitman is worsening. "He's sitting on the set the whole time and doesn't see what we're doing," sighs Gilliam, "how we're trying to salvage situations to keep shooting." Also, in a bizarre turn of events, the Spanish Second Assistant Director is fired, only to be replaced by his twin brother, also a Spanish Second AD.

SEPTEMBER 29: Rochefort's health has now deteriorated to the point where the First AD, Phil Patterson, steps in and tells Gilliam he will not let him put the actor on his horse. "I went and talked to Jean and said, 'Can you really do this? I can see you're in pain,'" says Gilliam. "And he said he could. So I said, 'He really wants to do it. Fuck. Let's just do it.' So after lunch we put him on a horse, shot about an hour and a quarter. And you could see how good he could be, but he really wasn't there. It took two guys to get him off the horse and he was on a plane the next day to the hospital in Paris."

OCTOBER 2: Filming continues at a waterfall location, with the threat of closure hanging over the set. Still, no reason not to be nice to the Germans. "On the Monday, 60 Germans came, who were the German half of the money," laughs Gilliam. "And at that point we know we're dead, we know we're over. But we shoot all that day and have lunch with the German investors anyway." That night, Gilliam, Patterson, Cleitman and others meet with the insurance adjuster. "And I'm afraid Phil and I were fairly straight about things," says Gilliam, "and the French were a bit slow in realising what we'd said - that Jean was ill when he came down there - because nobody had ever mentioned that to the insurance people." Ultimately, however, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote finally died in a Spanish car park, after the viewing of some dailies in a poorly lit, converted dance studio. "Phil Patterson said, 'Do you want me to pull the plug? Because I'll resign, and you know what that means.' I said, 'Do it. Go.' And we all were in a parking lot and said, 'Good luck everybody.' And Phil went and did it."

OCTOBER 3: Production is halted with a proposed re-start scheduled for January 2001. But whilst Cleitman is still talking to Gilliam about salvaging the project, he is concurrently reported in the French press as saying the production has closed down and will never be resurrected.

THE PRESENT: Jean Rochefort is still unwell, Gilliam and Cleitman are not communicating and Don Quixote has unseated another visionary filmmaker. "On the one hand, it's almost relief because the pain is ending," Gilliam reflects. "The whole first week was like utter pain. I said, 'I can't stand this, it's gotta stop, it can't go on.' So at that point I'm totally split, saying we have to keep shooting, but glad that the pain has stopped. I wasn't in a simple state of mind." The insurance company eventually paid out over $16 million, although both Gilliam and Depp remain largely unpaid. The director still hopes to one day realise his dream project, but currently the script is owned buy the insurers, which means that he must eventually buy his own work back if it is ever to see the light of day. "I don't really want to let it go, but I think a bit of time is necessary because I'm braindamaged about all of this," Gilliam sighs. "I still think it's a really wonderful film...I may be wrong, of course. But I think so."