For the past 25 years, the documentarists Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe have been signed up as Terry Gilliam's brothers-in-arms. In 1996, they made the excellent The Hamster Factor... on the making of 12 Monkeys; they followed it with 2002's Lost in La Mancha, on the unmaking of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam's long-time passion project that was originally set to star Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort, and began shooting as such before a series of extraordinary events brought production to what appeared a decisive halt. Flashforward two decades, and after multiple casting rejigs and legal battles, we finally have a film of that title, now starring Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce, which opened early last year in the UK to (for Gilliam, not untypically) mixed reviews; we also have a Fulton/Pepe documentary, He Dreams of Giants, about how it all finally came together. The Gilliam this new doc describes is, firstly and most obviously, older, the silver in his hair only accentuated by adjacent clips of his more energetic 90s incarnation. (How long has he been tilting at these windmills? Well, Fulton and Pepe show Gilliam being interviewed about this project by Terry Wogan and Judi Spiers. Ask your folks, kids.) Yet he's also tired (a recurring image: director with head in despairing hands) and crankier with it, snapping "I'm not a nice person when I'm nervous". He has much to be nervous about, all told. Gilliam had a mini-stroke before production, and is fitted with a catheter after a mid-shoot collapse; though it goes unmentioned by the film, he's been caught up, albeit tangentially, in the #MeToo conversation; and the budget he's been allotted to finally realise his dream is far less than was at his disposal around the millennium. Time may be up, in more ways than one. And yet he continues to plough on with this personal project, whether to honour a promise made to those craftspeople who signed on 25 years before, or to exorcise the ghosts of a prominent creative failure. Lurking somewhere in the background of He Dreams of Giants, long before one of the filmmakers vocalises it in the final reel, is a pointed question: was it all worth it?
If we take the second it to mean "generate an absorbing documentary about the making of an erratic, sometimes inspired picture", I think my answer would be yes. Fulton and Pepe know there is something reliably fascinating about watching the pieces of a movie - particularly one that's quixotic by design - fall into place, and their film duly grants us access to the early table readings, to the make-up tests where we witness Pryce (playing Quixote) being fitted with his fake schnozz, and to the sets in the Spanish desert where we can marvel at the construction of windmills we take as given within the movie itself. Though we get a sense of the crew literally working overtime to realise these visions - they throw an impromptu party on Day Seven of this shoot, marking the point where this Quixote outlived its doomed predecessor - we're also invited to spend some considerable time in Terry Gilliam's head. Frequently, Fulton and Pepe cut to a blank space that relates in some way to their subject's inner quiet place; they also cut in choice clips from Fellini's 8½, a Gilliam favourite, to bolster this auteurist model. The plain truth would appear to be this: even on a shoot where his sets weren't being washed away by freak flashfloods, Terry Gilliam proves a big bag of neuroses. He doesn't have enough money to play with; he's "out of training" when it comes to shooting on this scale; and what he is shooting doesn't match up to either the images in his head or those he actually realised two decades before. The onset footage bears out that early comment about his nerves. Even as he slowly regains his feet, assisted by substantially improved working conditions (no flashfloods this time; for once, the sun shone on Quixote), the old doubts and fears persist. Chatting with journalists making a set visit, Gilliam can be heard worrying what he's going to do once he's finally put this project to bed. The flipside of the fantasist is the fretter, busy replacing all those what-ifs with what-nexts, or what-if-it-doesn'ts.
To the question of the finished feature, He Dreams of Giants enters the mitigation that this version suffered from a lack of time and money, that it was simply never budgeted to match its maker's vision. In an ideal world, Quixote would have seen the light first time around, when Gilliam had commercial wind in his sails, Depp was untarnished, and Rochefort was still around to sit on a horse - but then, plainly, this isn't an ideal world. He Dreams of Giants suggests a countervision: that of an old-school artist making his peace with compromise, grasping that art (and, beyond it, the world) often humbles us; that there remains some worth in simply getting something, anything done. (He learns this the hard way, granted: towards the end, Gilliam can be heard to spit "I want the fucker out of my life", which aligns with some of the film's harsher reviews.) What Fulton and Pepe capture is a picture of perseverance, and a perverse perseverance at that: future generations, with no knowledge of the backstory, will likely be amazed that this much blood, sweat and tears was expended on a movie that barely played in multiplexes for a week. Perhaps it would have been too easy if The Man Who Killed Don Quixote had proved a $100m megahit upon release; Gilliam's career and films don't readily lend themselves to such neat, pithy, try-try-again lessons, and the man himself is a relic of an era when there were systems in place to take a gamble on creatives who needed financial and logistical support to realise their crazier ideas. It's not that those crazy ideas have gone away, but the movies have got smaller, less generous, setting up - as Fulton and Pepe illustrate - mundane blue screens where there might once have been marvellous sets. The fantasists who've sprung up in Gilliam's wake have realised that tilting at windmills is a lonely, stressful life, and endeavoured to make their living and a career by making the kind of movie (algorithmic superheroics) the remnants of that system want, know how to market and subsequently make a lot of money from. Will there be another Gilliam film? Who knows. But the Fulton-Pepe trilogy will stand as a valuable record of creation at a time when the cinema was beginning to phase a certain idea of creativity out.
He Dreams of Giants is now available to rent via the BFI Player.