Writing about He Dreams of Giants feels a bit like Kirk Lazarus talking about his acting process.
2002’s Lost in La Mancha was a making-of in search of a finished product. Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, whose troubled production it documents, was one of the great unfinished movies – until it wasn’t.
Finally completed in 2018, sixteen years after the first attempt, Quixote was screened at Cannes and received a standing ovation; as much, I’d suggest, out of a sense of relief as the film itself. That’s open to debate, of course, and demands a separate review 1, but has a bearing on He Dreams of Giants, its own behind-the-scenes; also directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe.
The two documentarians understandably entered into the project with a certain trepidation. They’d made one of the classic film documentaries around the failure of Quixote v1 and the final, successful shoot is comparatively lacking in incident -no freak storms, no ailing lead.
He Dreams of Giants is, as such, a more reflective affair. The filmmakers makes full use of their access to the director and the clear trust that Gilliam has in them, having first worked with him back in 1995 on the The Hamster Factor, a behind-the-scenes on Twelve Monkeys.
Gilliam, then 78 years old, has to deal not only with the pressures of shooting, but with the weight of expectation surrounding the film and the impossibility of matching up to the version that has existed only in his head for almost three decades.
No wonder then that Gilliam decided to radically re-conceived the film as a (in my opinion) slightly laboured allegory for its own making. The meta-narrative is enough to give you a headache, and indeed Gilliam seems to spend much of the shoot clutching his head in mediative agony.
He barks instructions, swears violently, and storms off across the arid landscape – rinse and repeat. Understandably then, as cause or effect, that filming is disrupted by a medical emergency as Terry is hospitalised pissing blood. Next time we see him on set, there’s a catheter strapped to his leg.
Gilliam’s determination is remarkable – as he puts it himself, “This isn’t a film, it’s a medical condition” – but it can’t quite exorcise the ghosts.
Even as Jonathan Pryce, the eventual Quixote, sanguineously claims that the production was just waiting for him to be old enough, I couldn’t help but imagine Robert Duvall or Michael Palin in the role, or the late John Hurt, or yes, the late Jean Rochefort, the original Quixote; the latter two to whom the released Don Quixote was dedicated.2
Adam Driver, meanwhile, ad-exec-now-film-director Toby is warm and engaged; the consummate professional, whether lining up for “nose comparisons” or going to work attacking a giant polystyrene foot.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a film that’s impossible to separate from the mythology surrounding it’s making and He Dreams of Giants is, for me, ironically, a victim of Gilliam’s eventual success.
Unlike with Lost in La Mancha, the film it documents is not a great unfinished masterpiece. It’s a flawed, completed work of cinema that you can buy on Blu-ray or rent online.
Which is not to say the film is lacking in pathos, like when Gilliam’s face suddenly creases up watching the monitor and a wheeze of laughter issues forth. In these rare moments, it’s like the sun breaking through the clouds.
He Dreams of Giants is not an easy watch in its intimate depiction of creative anguish and often literal pain, and in the end, the sad knowledge that defeated windmills are perhaps less than imagined giants.
Still, so long as you still have the costumes in storage, what else are you going to do, not joust at them?
He Dreams of Giants is available on digital platforms from 29 March, 2021, courtesy of Blue Finch Film.