Director: Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe
Starring: Terry Gilliam, Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce
Duration: 85 min
BBFC Certification: 15
He Dreams of Giants opens with a shot of Terry Gilliam crying. He stands upon a dusty plain, watching two lone figures ride off into the distance. Slowly, he raises a hand to his eye to brush away a tear. If you know the torrid history of Gilliam’s quest to film Don Quixote, it’s not surprising that he might be crying, realising that his film is finally, finally happening.
It is only about a quarter of the way through He Dreams of Giants that you begin to realise that those tears may not have been ones of joy…that they might actually have been tears of frustration or anger. Or despair… needless to say, He Dreams of Giants is not your typical ‘making of’ documentary.
For those that don’t know about Terry Gilliam’s decades long quest to make a movie out of the epic, doorstep sized literary behemoth that is Don Quixote, it might take a book almost as long to fill you in. In abbreviated form, however…Gilliam, a huge fan of the novel, had been trying to make a movie out of it for almost thirty years, beginning way back in the late eighties. He came incredibly close to fulfilling his dream at the turn of the millennium, when he actually started shooting a version with Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort, but a series of disasters, including storms, flooding and illness, meant that the film had to be shut down. The calamities that befell Gilliam and the ill-fated production became the subject of Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s critically fêted 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha.
Gilliam continually tried over the ensuring decades to get the film up and running again, with a roster of talent that came and went including Ewan McGregor, Robert Duvall, Michael Palin and John Hurt. Eventually, in 2017, the stars finally aligned and Gilliam attempted once more to turn Don Quixote into a movie, this time with Adam Driver and old Gilliam cohort Jonathan Pryce in the main roles. Fulton and Pepe once again turned up to document the process. He Dreams of Giants is the result.
While Gilliam did finally succeed in completing his decades long passion project, He Dreams of Giants is less concerned about that triumph and is instead more preoccupied with the internal struggle an artist faces in the act of creation. While Lost in La Mancha focused on a more tragic series of events, its often comically explosive exposé of the filmmaking process stands in stark contrast to Giants more melancholy and introspective tone, which achieves a sombre honesty rarely seen in film-making documentaries.
At the centre of it all, of course, is Gilliam himself. Gone is the wild, creative eccentric of the 1980s and 1990s (whose younger self is frequently witnessed in numerous flashback interviews). In Giants, Gilliam cuts a fragile, nervous figure. As a man who hasn’t made a film in years, he comes across (in a nice example of life limiting art) as a Don Quixote himself, old but desperate for one last chance to prove himself.
If anyone is expecting Giants to adhere to a traditional ‘making off’ documentary prepare to be disappointed. There are no interviews with the stars and only a few, brief on-set conversations with some key crew members. This is a documentary focused almost entirely on the director’s perspective. And what a stark and lonely perspective it is; a raw and unvarnished view of the director’s process, it focuses on all the self doubt, fear and frustration that comes with the role. There are several candid moments of anger seen throughout, where Gilliam storms around set swearing and shouting about running out of time, or moments of despair, such as the realisation in a visual effects suite that a key scene of the film needs to be re-shot. If anyone fancies becoming a film director, Giants, along with La Mancha, feel like almost essential viewing.
In an adroitly visualised metaphor (and the one piece of the film that doesn’t seem to have been shot on location) Fulton and Pepe frequently cut to Gilliam wondering alone around an empty white studio. On set, directors are meant to have all the answers but can at times be as just as lost and confused as everyone else.
Yet Giants also seems to be as much about old age as it is about the pressure of the creative process. At one point, Gilliam says that he is ‘not what he used to be.’ Despite the fact that he has never given up and is still following his dream, there are moments of stark self doubt where he wonders if his younger self might have made a better film. In fact, the shadow of mortality hangs heavily over Giants. Fulton and Pepe frequently allow their camera to linger over Gilliam’s tired, exhausted face and, in the film’s most shocking moment, capture the time when, struggling with an unnamed illness, he arrives of set with a catheter bag filled with blood tied up to his ankle. The film seems to be asking numerous questions at this point. Why would anyone do this to themselves? Is trying to create art worth dying for?
In Gilliam’s case, it seems the risk is certainly worth it. He needs to make films in order to survive. In the case of 2018’s The Man who Killed Don Quixote, that risk certainly paid off. While the eventual film may not have lived up to the years of expectation that hung heavily on both its and Gilliam’s shoulders, it remains an uneven but ultimately triumphant entry in his filmography, bursting with his feverish, idiosyncratic energy. Giants ends by focusing on that triumph, punctuating this dark, revealing documentary with a moment of joy and euphoria that transforms He Dreams of Giants into a testament to the power and belief of the creative spirit.
At one point in the film, Gilliam says that ‘Life is hard. Art is hard. Doing anything worthwhile is hard’. Right towards the end of He Dreams of Giants, he reveals that he still wants to go out and make another film, despite all the pain and self doubt that will inevitably come with it. Some may feel that this is madness. Why do it? Because for some artists, that is all they can do. He Dreams of Giants goes some way to show that this can be a curse as well as a blessing.
Blue Finch Film Releasing presents He Dreams of Giants on digital platforms 29 March 2021