❉ A fascinating piece of work that stands on its own merits as an intelligent, insightful portrait of an ageing artist.
“This film is a very different beast to Lost in La Mancha. Often it’s leisurely, still and reflective, benefiting from a subtle, low-key score by Polish composer Jacaszek… Overall, of course, the documentary, about an ageing film-maker tilting at windmills, mirrors Gilliam’s finished film, which in turn mirrors Cervantes.”
In 1995, when aspiring film-makers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe were given full behind-the-scenes access on the set of 12 Monkeys, they must have thought all their Christmasses had come at once. As big fans of Terry Gilliam, they managed to get up close and personal to their hero, and their resulting making-of documentary, The Hamster Factor, was packaged with the film itself for VHS and DVD release.
The pair were surely just as over the moon when Gilliam asked them back to document the making of his long-mooted project The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, starring Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp, in 2000. Ah, but there’s the rub. Gilliam’s resulting Spanish shoot was legendarily troubled from the word ‘action’, and producers pulled the plug after just six days. Nevertheless, Fulton and Pepe’s candid footage ended up being released as a feature-length ‘unmaking-of’ documentary, Lost in La Mancha, to widespread acclaim.
Gilliam never gave up on Quixote, though. By 2017, rights issues had been resolved, the stars aligned and the film was made at last, largely with a new cast, now lead by Jonathan Pryce and Adam Driver. Fittingly, Fulton and Pepe were invited to document the process and He Dreams of Giants is the end result, a making-of sequel – counterpart, perhaps? – to its unmaking-of forebear.
Still with me? It might require a small flow chart to get the gist, but actually He Dreams of Giants is a fascinating piece of work and certainly no mere after-thought. If you know the backstory and you’ve seen the films involved, you’re likely to get more out of it, but this stands on its own merits as an intelligent, insightful portrait of an ageing artist.
In Lost in La Mancha the dramatic conflict was provided by the hurdles that came to plague Gilliam’s shoot. This time, those hurdles are few and far between. Instead, Gilliam himself proves to be the problem. Seen at the age of 76, he cuts a harried, careworn figure as he attempts to lay Quixote to rest at last. Often the camera lingers directly on Gilliam’s face, an embattled career seemingly etched onto it as he clutches his brow time and again. Evidently carrying a dream project for decades has become something of a burden for him. At one point he barks ‘I want the fucker out of my life’, and this time he’s not talking about a duplicitous producer or interfering studio head: he’s talking about Quixote.
To their credit Fulton and Pepe don’t give Gilliam an easy ride and this is an often unflinching portrait of what looks like an uncomfortable shoot. There’s palpable tension out on location and Gilliam is shown to be snappy and unwell. After a few years away from directing, he’s unfamiliar with some of the new technology he’s using. The big problem facing the cast and crew, it seems, is keeping him buoyant and getting him through the schedule. (Gilliam’s film did encounter some other practical problems, mostly of a legal nature, but only down the line after it was made, so they’re not touched on here.)
For all that, though, it’s no unremitting woe-fest. Gilliam remains irrepressible and his familiar chuckle is never too far away, even when he’s right up against it. The film gets made, Fulton and Pepe complete their journey and Gilliam gets closure, and though he talks about nothing waiting for him beyond that except ‘a void’, it appears to be the perspective of a man coming to the end of an exhaustingly long mission rather than his earthly existence.
This film is a very different beast to Lost in La Mancha. Often it’s leisurely, still and reflective, benefiting from a subtle, low-key score by Polish composer Jacaszek. In telling its story, clips from the earlier documentary are laced together with archive interviews, film clips and home movie footage. For example, we see a younger Gilliam enthusing about Fellini’s 8½ juxtaposed with a more sombre present day Gilliam considering the same film. Overall, of course, the documentary, about an ageing film-maker tilting at windmills, mirrors Gilliam’s finished film, which in turn mirrors Cervantes.
Within the documentary, we’re told of interim plans to get the Don Quixote project made. There were around seven separate attempts during the seventeen years between Depp and Driver, with the likes of John Hurt, Robert Duvall and Michael Palin all lined up to play Quixote at various points. It might have been intriguing to find out more about this period to get a sense of the sheer scale of Gilliam’s eventual achievement, but understandably the focus here is on what came to pass rather than what didn’t.
In its own valedictory, even elegiac fashion, He Dreams of Giants muses on creativity, mortality and being careful what you wish for. In all honesty, it’s a superior film both to Lost in La Mancha and, yes, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote itself – which is a fascinating, overthought kind of mess, but could hardly help being underwhelming after all that build-up. Not that it really matters, but He Dreams of Giants is far more engaging and satisfying – and it boasts a remarkable, multi-faceted main character, too. Ultimately, you may come away wishing you could somehow see the Don Quixote film that’s always been playing inside Terry Gilliam’s head.
❉ Blue Finch Film Releasing presents ‘He Dreams of Giants’ on digital platforms 29 March 2021. Cert: 15. Runtime: 85 mins approx.
❉ Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for Television. He’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.