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During 1992-93, Gilliam became involved in two literary classics. The first, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, satisfied Gilliam’s interest in returning to the dark, gritty medieval landscapes which he began his career with. He worked on the screenplay for almost a year, but then jumped ship at the request of Mel Gibson, who wanted Gilliam to direct a project the actor had been developing for a number of years, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. While working on the project, Mel asked Gilliam if he’d also be interested in directing a film about the legendary Scottish figure William Wallace. When Gilliam passed on the picture, Gibson abandoned Cities and took the reigns on the Wallace film himself. Braveheart (1995) won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Gibson. Gilliam tried to get Cities made without Mel Gibson, eventually signing Liam Neeson for the lead, but ultimately the project collapsed.
The other projects Gilliam worked on throughout the 90’s were Theseus and the Minotaur, Quasimodo, and a film about the forgotten genius Nikola Tesla, the inventor of the alternating current, and inventor of radio, and even the inventor of a machine that created an earthquake in New York City. He was a fascinating character, and one who had intrigued filmmakers before, both Orson Welles and David Lynch also tried and failed to bring his story to the screen. But again Gilliam couldn’t find the money to finance the project. There was also a western called Anything For Billy, an adaptation of the Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman black comedy Good Omens and a sequel to Time Bandits, although that project was held up because of legal issues over the rights to the original film.
But the two films which have obsessed Gilliam more than any other for over a decade are The Man Who Killed Don Quixote and The Defective Detective. The latter is the story of a burnt-out New York cop who slips into a world of fantasies in search of a missing little girl. It is a world of one-dimensional cut out trees and newspaper forests, of immense towering walls of filing cabinets, and of removalable pieces of sky. After the success of Twelve Monkeys, Bruce Willis expressed an interest in playing the detective on the edge of a breakdown in a fantasy world, but even with an A-list superstar in the lead, Gilliam still found it next to impossible to get the project off the ground.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote on the other hand did get off the ground, although only for little under a week. The project was shut down after a flood of biblical proportions destroyed the set, and the sudden illness of Gilliam’s Quixote, veteran French actor Jean Rochefort. The whole (un-) making was documented in Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s brilliant film Lost in La Mancha (2002). Gilliam’s take on Cervantes’ Don Quixote was to transport a modern day advertising executive, played by Johnny Depp, back into the 17th Century where he meets with the dreamer, adventurer and fabulist Don Quixote. What’s painful about watching the documentary is how amazing the footage Gilliam did manage to shoot looks.
It is not the first time a visionary director has struggled to bring Quixote to the screen. In 1957 Orson Welles began production on his own version of Don Quixote. The project would become Welles’ creative obsession for more than two decades. Welles took various acting and directing projects to help finance the film, and would shoot pieces of footage whenever he could. Although by the time of his death in 1985, his Quixote remained unfinished. The parallel between Welles’ own struggles within the Hollywood system and Gilliam’s are striking. Here was a genius artist, who at the age of 26, had co-written, directed and starred in Citizen Kane (1941), after which he was pretty much chewed up and spat out by the studio regime. Gilliam is still trying to get his version of Quixote back into production.
In 2005 Gilliam released the much mangled comic fantasy The Brothers Grimm, followed in quick succession by the intriguing and beautifully shot Tideland (2006). Yet both these films, especially the problematic Brothers Grimm, feel a little unworthy of Gilliam’s hand. Maybe, much like Stanley Kubrick before him, there is now so much expectation surrounding a Gilliam film they can only, to a certain extent, disappoint. Or is it that he still hasn’t had the opportunity to paint his visions on a large enough canvas?
Whatever the reason for these many disappointments, Hollywood producers should finally realise the worth of this stunning and truly original filmmaker, take a chance on some of these amazing project which have slipped through the net, and not let his genius meet the same fate as Orson Welles’.
Because Terry Gilliam, like Quixote, is a chaser of dreams.
(This article is dedicated to my favourite distraction!!!)