DOC NYC ’19 Review: The Realities of an Uncompromising Vision Comes to the Fore in “He Dreams of Giants”

Seventeen years have passed since “Lost In La Mancha” came out, which by extension means it’s been at least that long since Terry Gilliam was on a set actually filming his adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.” More true to the tale of the once-formidable knight who is reduced to tilting at windmills in following his considerable imagination than he ever could’ve expected, the director who had triumphed over all manners of adversity on films such as “Brazil” and “The Fisher King” had met his match on the production that saw inclement weather wreak havoc on the shooting schedule and its lead actor Jean Rochefort go down with an injury that couldn’t be shot around. Like a car accident you couldn’t turn away from, the primary appeal of Lou Pepe and Keith Fulton’s irresistible making-of doc was a rare unvarnished look at the filmmaking process with full access to Gilliam’s frustrations and indefatigable spirit that left open a great “what if” when funds ran out before shooting could be completed.

It may have been obvious when Gilliam finally marshaled the resources to remount the production in 2017 for Lou Pepe and Keith Fulton to return for a follow-up as well, but their approach to “He Dreams of Giants,” the next chapter in this story is not. Unexpectedly joining the impending release of Michael Apted’s “63 Up” as one of those extraordinarily powerful cinematic uses of time, Fulton and Pepe, the longtime videographers of choice for Gilliam, have a wealth of their own material, an intimate knowledge of what archival footage there was out there of the filmmaker and clearly the trust of the director and his associates to access home movies to create a dynamic profile of an artist working against the growing limitations of age, with interviews he gave over the years that saying as much as with words as you notice the subtle changes in his appearance and attitude towards putting up the fight required to make the film he wants.

The parallel between a new “La Mancha” production and the past one draws an incredibly powerful comparison, but the strength of “He Dreams of Giants” emerges gradually from its many nuances and while telling the story of this singular filmmaker from such a unique perspective, the style of the film is equally compelling as a measure of progress. Pepe and Fulton, who spread their wings in the intervening years with both the fictional “Brothers of the Head” and the experiential doc “The Bad Kids,” reflect a growing number of documentarians not content to point and shoot, quietly becoming as adventurous as Gilliam formally and the two create a more impressionistic portrait of Gilliam than they likely would’ve dared at the turn of the century. With a clever use of sound design to convey the director’s focus in moments of panic through focusing on what he hears specifically and the well-structured interview montages that show his enthusiasm towards filmmaking evolve from a creative outlet to a nagging obligation, there’s a particular electrical charge that results upon seeing him get excited on the set of the new “Don Quixote” when you’ve been put so firmly in his shoes as he worries that he’s seen the movie so many times in his head it’s gone stale.

Gilliam’s right to be concerned about “Don Quixote” with less resources than he’s ever had at his disposal, thanks to the budgetary realities of an industry different than the one that already hadn’t been hospitable to his initial attempt at “Quixote,” and his health is shown to become a greater liability in the years since. However, the filmmaker once again seemingly puts no limits on what Pepe and Fulton can capture, letting them into a doctor’s visit to check his blood pressure and providing no shortage of opportunities throughout production to be seen rubbing his temples or shouting in anger.

Given that “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” came out earlier this year, the audience for “He Dreams of Giants” know at least the film will have a happier ending than “Lost in La Mancha,” but while Pepe and Fulton elide the legal fracas that accompanied the film’s distribution, they hardly lack for tension with a protagonist so often at war with himself. That makes the small moments of inner peace that Gilliam can find in “He Dreams of Giants” especially rewarding and during a scene when for the first time in his career that he can remember being a day ahead of schedule, the director muses to himself, “It’s nice to be in a place that’s special and do something worthwhile,” it’s more than likely you’ll feel the same way towards what Pepe and Fulton have done.

“He Dreams of Giants” will screen at DOC NYC on November 11th at 2:50 pm at the IFC Center. It will next play at AFI Fest on Los Angeles on November 16th at 7:45 pm at the TCL Chinese.

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