'He Dreams of Giants': Film Review

Courtesy of Diego Lopez Calvin
A sometimes revealing, often obvious portait of an artist.

The directors of 'Lost in La Mancha' follow Terry Gilliam and take a broad view of his career as he finally makes 'The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.'

By the end of He Dreams of Giants you'd think Terry Gilliam was dead. Thankfully, he is not, but this documentary by Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe, the team behind Lost in La Mancha, has such an elegiac, retrospective tone that you'd never know it's charting the progress of a triumph. After more than 20 years and many false starts, Gilliam finally succeeded in making his dream project, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a riff on Cervantes' classic novel.

The eye-opening Lost in La Mancha (2002) has deservedly become a classic of its own, capturing the perfect storm of disasters that killed an earlier incarnation of the movie, then starring Johnny Depp. After shooting started, the actor playing Quixote, Jean Rochefort, dropped out because of an illness. In a freak storm, wind blew over equipment and rain saturated the sand, which turned a darker color that didn't match the previous day's scenes. On and on until the financiers shut down the production.

Seventeen years later, recast and with half the budget, a new version was completed (released in Europe last year and in the U.S. in April). Set in contemporary Spain, this iteration features Jonathan Pryce as the man who believes he is Quixote and Adam Driver as an American filmmaker who joins his quest, bringing the actual Quixote's fantasies of windmills and knights to life.

He Dreams of Giants follows the making of that film, and begins with Gilliam holding his head in his hands. Throughout the production, he is beleaguered and full of doubts. To some extent, the documentary's somber tone comes from those insecurities, which form the most fascinating part of this picture. "The weight of expectations, my own and the fans' — that's the hardest thing," Gilliam says in one of the many brief comments he makes on camera to the filmmakers.

Some clips from Lost in La Mancha efficiently fill in the background, including a scene of Gilliam wondering if it might be better to let the dream of his project stand unrealized. "I've done the film too often in my head," he says. "Is it better just to leave it there?" In the contemporary interviews, he looks at how his attitude toward the character of Quixote has changed, so that now he seems, "an older man with one last chance to make the world as interesting as he dreams it to be."  Gilliam looks at himself directing today and says, "You realize you're not who you used to be," that is, a young man "talented, energetic, fast on his feet." That guy, he says. "is long dead." 

These are trenchant, self-questioning moments that any artist likely experiences, but the film refuses to explore that theme deeply. While the title He Dreams of Giants heavy-handedly compares Gilliam to Quixote, Fulton and Pepe rarely go beyond that unoriginal observation. Instead, we're given a broad look at Gilliam's career woven into the contemporary parts. The film is diffuse, not in an imaginatively chaotic Terry Gilliam way, but in the way of a muddled work that can't decide what it wants to be.

There are snippets of other Gilliam movies, including his masterpiece, Brazil, the colorful fantasy Time Bandits and the notoriously over-budget Adventures of Baron Munchausen. And the documentary leans heavily on archival interviews that Gilliam gave on camera to various reporters over the years, scenes that make the film feel padded. How many times do we need to hear Gilliam say that he is about to start shooting Quixote, only to have the plan stall again?

The admiring, retrospective segments take up so much space that the sections about making The Man Who Killed Don Quixote feel skimpy and frustrating, even though there are intriguing scenes. Gilliam is angry and irascible when things go slowly on the first day of shooting; he is already behind schedule. He has health issues, casually mentioned, along with a glimpse of a bag of blood on his leg draining from a catheter. There are some comments from crewmembers who stuck with Gilliam through the years but they don't add much. Driver and Pryce are not among the interview subjects. In the end, the contemporary sections are more tantalizing than revealing. Trying to address an audience of Gilliam fans, and also offer a Gilliam primer for everyone else, He Dreams of Giants is unlikely to satisfy either group.

Long-gestating projects often lose their energy along the way, but I think The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is better than it had any right to be, the inspired work of a true visionary. This documentary about its making ends with a still photograph of Gilliam standing to receive applause at the Cannes premiere of Quixote. It is a frozen image ready-made for an obit. It's true that he has gotten old — he's 78 — but he still lives and breathes and presumably dreams. He has earned a portrait deeper than this sincere but half-baked tribute.

Production Companies: Darwin Films, Low Key Pictures

Directors: Keith Fulton, Lou Pepe

Producers: Lucy Darwin, Keith Fulton

Cinematography: Lou Pepe, Jeremy Royce

Editors: Bill Hilferty, Janus Billeskov Jansen, Nyneve Laura Minnear

Music: Michal Jacaszek

Venue: DOC NYC (Portraits)

84 minutes