HomeNewsThe curse of ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ continues in distribution hell

The curse of ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ continues in distribution hell

Thirty years ago legendary auteur Terry Gilliam didn’t know it, but the production of 'The Man Who Killed Don Quixote' was cursed.

The curse of ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ continues in distribution hell

Thirty years ago, after a string of well-received cinematic explorations such as Time Bandits and Brazil, legendary auteur and Monty Python animator & filmmaker Terry Gilliam started working on a cursed film. He didn’t know it at the time, but its production would be beset by a series of increasingly unlikely delays, difficulties, and challenges.

The curse begins

The project tread water through the mid-90s in a failed partnership with Phoenix Pictures. After his iconoclastic adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Gilliam revived the project in ‘98, switching tacks by combining the story from Miguel de Cervantes’s classic Renaissance novel Don Quixote with parts of the time-travel story of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

The humor of the source material unfortunately seeped into the production of this attempt, although it surely wasn’t funny at the time. Even before production commenced, clerical errors ensured the actors, including Johnny Depp, couldn’t even be on set simultaneously. First day of shooting? A fighter jet ruined shot after shot. Second? A literal flash flood uncovered by insurance.

Later that first week, lead actor Jean Rochefort’s health took a turn for the worse. Gilliam tilted on this windmill valiantly for a year or more, but eventually they gave up. Documentary footage of the production was cleverly assembled into the excellent, though downbeat, film Lost in La Mancha a couple years later.

The curse continues

Quixote’s curse appeared to seep into other Gilliam productions: lead actor of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnasses, Heath Ledger, passed away halfway through shooting, production company disagreements led to the cancellation of The Defective Detective, and his cinematographer was fired off The Brothers Grimm.

Legal rights issues abounded after the last failed Quixote production. Then, when they were sorted, years more negotiation with production companies and casting delayed things until 2009, when preproduction commenced again – only to be followed by dropped funding.

A new era, a new shot at the Don

Years went by with more rewrites and dashed hopes. The streaming era gave Gilliam another shot in 2015 when Amazon stepped in to support the project’s resurrection, with screen legend John Hurt slated to step into the title role. With only a few weeks’ footage in the can, Hurt fell gravely ill, dying in early 2017.

Gilliam then teamed up with producer Paolo Branco for yet another restart with a new Quixote played by Gilliam veteran Jonathan Pryce, who had yearned for the role for years. Finally, things seemed to line up and shooting completed late in 2017.

Movie in the can – but the curse continues

All was not smooth during post-production, however. Portuguese news reported the production team had caused damage while shooting on a UNESCO World Heritage site – later proved exaggerated – and a struggle for control with Branco erupted into a legal dispute that delayed release by a year.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote closed the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, but after funding it, Amazon decided not to distribute the film after all. According to Luddite French laws, films can’t be streamed for 36 months after box office release. It was released in a limited fashion in Europe and China – and finally played for a single night last week in some U.S. theaters.

The curse appears to be lifting. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is slated for limited release in the U.S. and online VOD starting Bicycle Day (April 19th) via Screen Media Films at Alamo Drafthouse cinemas, among others. DVDs go for the princely sum of forty bucks on Amazon. If you’ve seen it, we’d love to know what you thought. Hit us up on Twitter.

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Terence Whitley is a novelist and literary & film critic from Santa Barbara, CA. His articles have been featured in publications such as The Antarctica Review and Telluride Tell-Alls.

terencew@filmdaily.co