From directors Louis Pepe and Keith Fulton, whose documentary Lost in La Mancha (2002) captured Terry Gilliam’s disastrous first attempt to film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, comes He Dreams of Giants, which brings the story up to date. Pepe and Fulton’s new documentary starts by giving us a thumbnail sketch of the difficulties Gilliam’s Don Quixote continued to encounter after that notorious first attempt, finally leading up to the casting of Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce, the latter of which starred in arguably Gilliam’s greatest achievement, Brazil (1985). He Dreams of Giants then acts as a making of documentary for the final and thankfully completed iteration of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (reviewed here), a career retrospective of director Terry Gilliam, and a meditation on what it is that drives an artist to create and to suffer for their creations.
The film captures Gilliam at his most vulnerable. He hasn’t made a film in eight years and has been dreaming of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote since he co-wrote the original draft of the screenplay in 1989. He has fought and won many battles for his art and has lost others. He’s no longer an A-list film director, and he’s old. It’s this more philosophical aspect of the film that is perhaps its strongest suit, as He Dreams of Giants ably depicts Gilliam’s dilemma. He’s a director noted for creating extraordinary dreamscapes on film. His Don Quixote has been in his dreams, and the dreams of film-lovers, for so long that he now doubts that he can match those dreams with his craft as a movie maker. Should the film now be left as a dream only? And what is left for him to dream about if the film is finally realised?
In action Gilliam is far from the irascible, boundlessly energic man that we’ve grown used to over the years. Instead he is shown as a near tragic figure, forced by his artistic drive to make one more film, even when his creative life-force and his body, at his own admission, are struggling to keep up. He shouts, he swears, he stares pensively into the distance, he sits hopelessly rubbing his eyes, and he literally pisses blood. In fact he appears so utterly forlorn a figure that one could easily believe that he is hating every second of finally completing the project he has fought so hard to bring to fruition. In his darkest moments Gilliam suggests that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote will be his last film, and he is terrified of what comes next. Creative death and actual death are the obvious answers hovering moodily over the documentary. For Gilliam one imagines that they are one and the same. Such sentiments give both He Dreams of Giants and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote an added sense of poignancy.
The atmosphere of the film is sparse, meditative. There is no commentary aside from by Gilliam himself. As such, the film is very much his perspective on the creative process and what finally completing The Man Who Killed Don Quixote really means for him as an artist. The footage is unvarnished, revealing and moving (although perhaps there are one too many shots of Gilliam staring off into the distance while he stands alone in the desert), and allowing its exhibition is a minor act of bravery on Gilliam’s part. However, one is left wondering what the cast and crew are really thinking about the experience of making The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. There are brief snippets here and there but not enough to satisfy. This reviewer would love to know what Adam Driver felt about the project and Gilliam’s behaviour. At one point Driver, a very sensitive and subtle actor, is seen visibly shaken during one of Gilliam’s outbursts, his lips quivering, his eyes twitching nervously. On that level He Dreams of Giants doesn’t entirely deliver as a standard making of documentary, even while being so much more.
He Dreams of Giants is a valuable documentary about a great artist once more finding the reserves to imprint his vision on film. It is a mediation on the intense struggle that the creative process can be (or needs to be according to Gilliam), and a compelling account of Terry Gilliam’s almost dangerous need to continue to dream new worlds, battered as he is by age and harsh experience, as time and opportunity dwindle down.
Film ’89 Verdict – 8/10.
He Dreams of Giants will be released on digital platforms March 29th 2021.