It was the rain that did it: the rain signaled the beginning of the end. “It wasn’t just rain,” says Johnny Depp, “it was enormous rocks of hail which hit me on the head and filled the pockets of my coat full of ice. I’ve been in torrential downpours before, but this was insane—I’ve never seen anything like it, it was epic, it was like . . . Noah’s Ark or something.” There were in Las Bardenas, in the desert in northern Spain, on the set of Terry Gilliam’s highly anticipated film, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, and the crew could do nothing but try to stop their equipment floating away on the rapids of the flood. The next day, the set was awash with mud, and when it had dried out, the landscape had changed; the earth was a different color and there were patches of green sprouting through, and from a continuity point of view, all the previous shooting was useless.
“It was almost as if there was this strange dark cloud hanging over us,” says Depp. They had had pre-production problems, but all within the normal range (unsigned contracts, puppets that had to be remolded, problems with the horses, lack of rehearsal time), though everything was exacerbated by a critical lack of budget. But this was all something Gilliam could absorb, something he could live with. Then it began to get more serious; Jean Rochefort, the veteran French actor who was playing Don Quixote (and he was perfect for the part, says Depp, just perfect) developed a prostate infection days before shooting commenced, and cancelled his flight. Finally, in September 2000, all the actors were assembled. Yet even on the first day of filming it became apparent that nothing—nothing—was going to go smoothly. There they all were—Quixote, the horses, the extras, the cast, a brace of producers, a huge crew and even a couple of documentary makers filming the filming—when they were joined by a group of F16 fighter jets, dropping bombs and making the most unbelievable noise. The set, it transpired, was also a military testing ground for NATO.
“So apart from the weather, we were dealing with bombing raids,” says Depp. “NATO was using it for target practice. The set was here . . .” (he places his tobacco down on the table) “. . . and base camp, the trailers and stuff, was here . . .” (he puts his Zippo down) “. . . and these bastards were coming in and dropping bombs right here.” He pokes a long, elegant finger in the space between the tobacco and the Zippo and laughs. “I remember thinking, Hey, I hope they don’t fuck up.”
The final blow came on the fifth day of filming, when it became apparent that Rochefort, an accomplished horseman, was in serious trouble. He was in so much pain he could barely ride, let alone act at the same time. After one scene, when it took two men to get him off his horse and half an hour for him to walk the short distance to his car, things began to look very, very bad. At that point, says Depp, they realized they were doomed. Rochefort flew back to his doctors in Paris and everyone waited. The days passed. The investors visited the set, followed by the insurers. No one knew what was going on. After ten days, the news came: Rochefort was suffering from a double herniated disc, and even if he were able to come back he would not be riding a horse for a long time. After a couple of days, the cast heard that Gilliam had gone back to London. “I think I was one of the last to leave,” says Depp sadly.
For years, Terry Gilliam had been trying to make a film about Don Quixote, the Spanish legend whose poetic fantasies led him wildly astray. There was already a history of bad luck attached to filming Quixote; Orson Welles tried to make his own film, shooting between other projects, over a period of 20 years; in the end his Quixote, Francisco Reiguere, died and it had to be abandoned. Gilliam’s problem was money—he’d made several unsuccessful attempts to finance it in Hollywood (Don who?), but European finance was hard to acquire (he needed 40 million pounds—vast by European standards), even with Depp and Vanessa Paradis on board. He had a wonderful script, written with Tony Grisoni (“I was just stupefied when I read it,” says Depp. “It was like reading a really well written novel. I instantly just dove in”), a committed cast and a budget of sorts: 32.1 million pounds. Gilliam asked documentary filmmakers Louis Pepe and Keith Fulton to join him to film the making of the film. They had made a documentary called The Hamster Factory about Gilliam’s film 12 Monkeys, and he wanted them around “for insurance purposes.” Although Don Quixote was never made, the documentary—which covered two weeks of pre-production as well as the six days of shooting—was. Narrated by Jeff Bridges, Lost in La Mancha shows a buoyant, exuberant, giggling Gilliam, initially bullish in the face of looming chaos (“if it’s easy, I don’t do it. If it’s virtually impossible I have a go at it . . . Without a battle, I don’t know how to approach it,” he says), getting more and more downcast. When Depp saw it for the first time, the thing that really upset him was seeing Gilliam shrink before his eyes. Depp knows Gilliam well (they made Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas together), and he believes he is one of the great filmmakers of all time. “Terry was so excited, you know how he is—big and broad and just exploding with excitement and giggling constantly,” recalls Depp. “He’s an insanely passionate, curious and knowledgeable man. And he was loving it, just loving it—then, day by day, you’d see him shrink. It was hard to see Terry like that; he looked beaten—and Terry’s a hard guy to beat. And it’s really sad because it would have been, like, The Best of Terry Gilliam.
“One of the things I hope Lost in La Mancha will do is kill all those myths about Terry being a renegade and a sort of careless wackadoo filmmaker: spend, spend, spend. [Gilliam acquired a bad reputation after The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen went wildly over budget.] You can see how badly he wanted to shoot, he just wanted to make the film, really. He cut the budget radically to a size that probably wasn’t enough, but he was willing to make it work. And then everything just went against us.”
Pepe and Fulton recorded it all. Luckily they had a co-operative subject with Gilliam, who is a man excited by candidness. The cameras were there for everything, even a meeting to discuss the proposed sacking of the first assistant director. Didn’t anyone ever tell them to drop dead? “Well, I wouldn’t say that,” says Fulton, “but Terry certainly didn’t. It was difficult when it all went wrong,” he adds, “but we were still obligated to make the film. There was a time when we thought we’d have to abandon it, but Terry was very supportive. He said, ‘Well, somebody’s got to make a film and if it’s not going to be me, then it might as well be you.’”
Depp had been involved in the film from very early on. He was to play Toby Grosini, a modern advertising genius who, while shooting a commercial, somehow gets magically transported back into the 17th century, where Don Quixote mistakes him for his sidekick, Sancho Panza. The character of Toby (“a really mean guy,” says Depp cheerfully) was written for Depp. “Gilliam wanted to expose to the world that I am much shittier than they think I am.” “That was our intention,” concurs Gilliam. “It was a fantastic role because it allows him to start off as a complete asshole and eventually reach a transcendental state. I wanted to take the entire range of Johnny and who he is and what he’s capable of, and play with it. He tends to get these parts where he’s lovely or innocent or whatever, and I thought, let’s stretch him and let him really play on a broad canvas. He’s much more interesting than the world knows. There’s a sting to Johnny’s tail that most people haven’t seen, and I thought we should incorporate some of that.”
The sting in Johnny’s tail is, sadly, not visible today. We are sitting in his trailer on the set of his new film, Neverland [Editor’s Note: The title was later changed to Finding Neverland]; the interior is all brocade and velvet and low lamps; it looks like the railway carriage in Once Upon a Time in the West. Johnny is in combat trousers, T-shirt and a cap, a child’s plastic bracelet around his wrist, drinking Coke. He looks absurdly young, though he is 39—I’d hate to see the picture in the attic. On the wall is a photograph of him with his three-year-old daughter, Lily-Rose (“She looks like Vanessa with my eyeballs”) and a picture of him with Hunter S. Thompson (“That’s the doctor and me in Cuba”). Also on the wall is a letter, in a penciled childish scrawl, which says, “Dear Johnny, thank you for the fart machine, love Luke.” Luke is one of the little boys acting in Neverland. His parents must have been thrilled. “Yes, they came and thanked me,” says Johnny, putting on a very credible well-spoken Home Counties voice. “Thank you very, very much. He used it all weekend.”
We are in Kensington Gardens because Depp is playing J. M. Barrie in the Miramax version of the story of the Llewellyn Davies boys who inspired Peter Pan. With a great deal of Hollywood license, the story has been turned into a romance between Barrie and Sylvia Llewellyn Davies (Kate Winslet). Earlier, a scene was being shot involving Depp doing something faintly furtive (by Edwardian standards) with Winslet on a rug, though I couldn’t see exactly what because of so many open umbrellas being brandished to prevent the paparazzi, who had been hiding in trees, from photographing the pair. The second the scene was over, Depp was whisked into a car and rushed off the set. Apart from a stint in Mexico to shoot Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Depp had taken much of the past eighteen months off to be with his girlfriend Vanessa Paradis and their children. He came back to do Neverland because he liked the idea of playing Barrie—a dark and complex man, whose early writing intrigues him—and working with Marc Forster (director of Monster’s Ball). “This version is very kind, although we’ve taken some of the saccharine out of the script: very kind, sweet and nice. It’s almost like a kiddie movie. I want to do kiddie movies now. I’m fed up with adult movies—most of them stink. At a certain point with movies, it becomes all about mathematics: this has to lead up to this, this has to lead up to that—you’re always bound by some kind of formula. But since having kids and watching lots of animated cartoons and all those great old Disney films, I think they’re better, they’re much better. They’re more fun and they take more risks. Even things like Shrek—it’s really funny and well-made and intelligent.”
It’s what he feels like doing at the moment, says Depp, making a film that his children are not going to have to wait 20 years to watch. I worry about him appearing in Free Willy III or something, but no—he’s going for a big one: a Disney, Bruckheimer-produced number, Pirates of the Caribbean—my God, it’s a film based on a theme park ride. Depp, of course, will play a pirate. (“That’s my guy,” Gilliam says later. “He’ll make a brilliant pirate. Whatever it takes. Whatever it takes to make him a big superstar so we can raise a lot of money on him for the next Quixote.”)
You can, of course, imagine him as a pirate. But he doesn’t play to his looks—on the contrary, he gets his roles despite them. Playing Hunter S. Thompson, he wore painful wedges to make his ears stick out, and draped seventeen sad little hairs across the top of his shaved head. This is not the action of a man concerned with glamour and grooming. Most of his films are interesting and unpredictable—some are brilliant: Ed Wood, Don Juan DeMarco, Dead Man, Edward Scissorhands, Arizona Dream, Donnie Brasco, Sleepy Hollow. He does odd things for the right reason—John Badham’s Nick of Time, for example, was a thriller based in real time, which appealed to Depp. It was largely overlooked, but the basic idea has become very successful in the TV series 24. Depp does things because he’s interested in the character—be it an opium-addicted cop in From Hell or a Buster Keaton wannabe in Benny & Joon. He has worked with some amazing actors (Marlon Brando, Faye Dunaway, Vincent Price, Martin Landau, Al Pacino, Judi Dench, Robbie Coltrane, Juliette Binoche) and with the best directors (Gilliam, Tim Burton, Emir Kusturica, Roman Polanski, Jim Jarmusch). And they all love him—actors, directors, grips, drivers. Why?
Well, he’s gorgeous, for a start. No matter what he does to himself—stupid woolly hats, unseemly baggy trousers, weird hair. He’s intelligent and funny. And he’s a good actor—an extraordinary actor. There is an unfinished quality to his acting which leaves endless room for possibility. His face is so expressive: emotions dance across it in a minute ballet of innuendo. He does a very good mixture of wonder and weirdness, and the combination of his talent and his looks means he can get away with stuff that others can’t. Imagine Matt Damon playing Edward Scissorhands (Depp based his performance on a dog) or Brad Pitt playing Ed Wood (Depp based his performance on Ronald Reagan). And somehow—and directors must realize this—Johnny Depp conveys an idea of art and substance. Of cool. If Johnny Depp’s in your film, then it must be interesting. It may not be a box office hit but it won’t be pap.
But in financial terms, he’s not up there on the A list—studios won’t green-light a film based solely on Depp, unless it’s low budget. It is partly his fault—he has turned down plenty of things that have made others into stars. “And it’s a terrible price to pay. Then you see all these other actors who have a fraction of his talent,” says Gilliam, “who get the green light at the drop of a hat.” On the other hand, there are actors who have made similar low-key choices whose credibility has long since floundered. “He won’t flounder because he’s so good,” says Gilliam. “He’s so talented. He may not be Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks or any other Tom—are there any other Toms out there?—because he chooses interesting material and he doesn’t want to be an icon. I saw Minority Report last night and I don’t think I can watch Tom Cruise ever again. He’s not a bad actor; he’s just a totally predictable actor. There are no surprises. Johnny surprises me; I don’t know what he’s going to do next. I don’t know where it’s going to go sometimes, and nor does he.”
He works hard; he has made some 28 films since 1984, and his girlfriends and what Gilliam calls “the sting in his tail” have been slavered over by the press. But he seems to have managed to keep a low profile in France lately, although a height of media hysteria was reached three years ago when his daughter was born. Depp and Paradis fooled the press this year by spreading the word that their new baby wasn’t due until June. Jack was born in March [Editor’s Note: actually, on April 9, 2002.]. “It was really well orchestrated,” says Depp. “It’s nice to win sometimes. It’s not always easy to win against those bastards, but when you do it feels really good.”
He loves France; he can smoke in peace, and is extremely fond of the grape. He’s not very happy about French politics, but then he’s not a person that feels involved in that sort of thing anyway. In fact, “It’s all horseshit. But this is interesting: not long ago, I met Tony Blair. I spoke with him for a bit and was able to watch him behave, and the guy was really a gentleman. I got the impression that he absolutely cares and it was sincere. I’ve met a lot of politicians over the years and found them to be plastic, but this guy wasn’t—he seemed like a good guy. I was shocked.” What did they talk about? Children, says Depp. Films and children. “He talks about his children all the time,” says Gilliam. “It’s boring beyond belief! If he shows me one more picture of his kid, I’ll kill him.” He laughs maniacally, then collects himself. “He’s happy—isn’t that awful? He’s content! No, it’s nice to see him happy, there’s no question about it—but I don’t want him happy too long.” Gilliam is in the process of trying to buy back the script from the insurers and start all over again: Depp is on board, but they might have trouble getting Rochefort insured. The good thing from Gilliam’s point of view, is that Lost in La Mancha leaves your mouth watering to see the real thing. It’s the best trailer a film has ever had. And even if The Man Who Killed Don Quixote never happens, better a good film unmade than a bad one made.