Our 25 year quest to film Highgate visionary Terry Gilliam

Terry Gilliam in He Dreams of Giants

Terry Gilliam in Lou Pepe and Keith Fulton's He Dreams of Giants - Credit: Blue Finch Film Releasing

Just over 20 years ago, documentary makers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe followed Terry Gilliam as he shot his movie The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.

Their film of his doomed attempt has become a classic - from the flash flood that swept away the set days into the shoot, to the lead actor's illness that halted production. Now they have followed Lost in La Mancha with companion piece He Dreams of Giants which sees an older Gilliam negotiate budget woes and health scares to complete his movie.

Speaking from the States, the duo reminisce about Highgate and dream of a "pint of Doom Bar at the Angel Inn and a pub lunch."

They stayed in Highpoint while filming inside the former Python's Highgate home - especially his top floor workspace.

"It's the coolest place," enthuses Fulton. "It's like a kids dream with all the props from his films hanging from the ceiling."


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Pepe adds: "It's like the inside of his head, a secret lair where he is locked away from his family. It's a bit of a joke, but Terry's wife is happy that Terry has his own space."

It was 1985 movie Brazil that first switched them onto the visionary director.

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"I saw it when I was a second year student in college," says Fulton. "It made a huge impression on me and played a huge role in my wanting to make film."

They were fresh out of film school when their mentor invited them to follow him making 1995's Twelve Monkeys - which became their film The Hamster Factory. "He said: 'Don't make something I want to see. If it's interesting to you I will find it interesting'. That artistic generosity is rare."

Pepe adds: "He very much comes from that sixties ethos of calling out things that are ridiculous or unjust - and he does it with humour - which I don't think is part of modern film making."

Gilliam with Jonathan Pryce as Don Quixote in He Dreams of Giants

Gilliam with Jonathan Pryce as Don Quixote in He Dreams of Giants - Credit: Blue Finch Film Releasing

Cervantes' anti-hero spawned the term quixotic - the impractical pursuit of ideals - which turned out to be apt for Gilliam's 30 year quest to "film the impossible".

"We weren't aware the first production was going to fall to its knees making it much more Quixotic," says Fulton. "Quixote is a story of a visionary battling against reality. I read it again and thought 'my God it's about a person reaching the end of their life and wanting to leave something marvellous behind.'"

As Gilliam rages on the side of a Spanish mountain and ends up in hospital, Giants evokes the sheer effort of film-making.

"It's brutal, it's a young person's game that requires an incredible amount of stamina. To see Terry at 77 still exhibiting that was pretty impressive but also how much of a toll it takes on him."

Fulton adds: "When he is on his game Terry has more physical energy than the average 35 year old. It comes from a huge life force behind his creative energy - making this movie is what's keeping him alive."

Terry Gilliam filming The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in Spain

Terry Gilliam filming The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in Spain - Credit: Blue Finch Film Releasing

Instead of a documentary about "the nuts and bolts of making a film" their story was "the conflict going on in Terry's head".

"We are not bright-eyed young people thinking movie sets are exciting - they are a pain in the ass as a place to make documentaries," says Fulton.

"Terry was facing a lot of demons in the process of getting this out of his head. There's this powerful sense of how much the world had changed since the last time, the paralysing fear that it wasn't going to live up to his expectations - and of what he would do when he finished it."

While some might see Gilliam's obsession as indulgent, the pair see it as heroic. "As someone who stuck with something far longer than your average person would say was healthy, Terry as an artist stands for something. What does it mean to stick to an impossible idea for 30 years, maybe to get to the end and it's not as good as you wanted it to be? In a culture where if you don't get a certain number of clicks you move on, there is something about that that's important to witness.

"I don't know that I could exhibit that level of commitment to any idea but I am glad there are artists who do."

While "warts and all portrayals can affect relationships", they have remained friends with Gilliam since The Hamster Factory and drop by whenever they are in London.

"Terry is a whole lot of fun, a pleasure to be around, honest, excitable, his enthusiasm is infectious."

Giants ends with a 20 minute ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, but that wasn't their original plan.

"We intended to finish with a beautiful shot panning to follow the dust motes as Terry watches the images he created in the darkened theatre. What does it feel like to finish something you have been working on for 30 years? Why do human beings create at all?"

But there was a disagreement: "Terry said 'if it isn't any good what was the point of doing it?' But to us it wasn't important what Terry's film ended up being other than that he was proud of it. Anything that followed the completion of his task wasn't the point. The pursuit was the valiant and meaningful thing."

He Dreams of Giants

He Dreams of Giants is available on demand from March 29. - Credit: Blue Finch Film Releasing

Blue Finch Film Releasing presents He Dreams of Giants on digital platforms on March 29.



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