The Man Who Killed Don Quixote – Part I: Cinematography

, Episode #99

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SPONSORED BY: ASC Master Class

In two separate conversations, cinematographer Nicola Pecorini (Part I) and director Terry Gilliam (Part II) discuss their collaboration on the long-gestating feture The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, in which egotistical filmmaker Toby Grisoni (played by Adam Driver) is drawn into the elaborate delusions of an old Spanish shoemaker (Jonathan Pryce) whom he once convinced to play the role of Cervantes’s Don Quixote for a student thesis project. Fantasy and reality intertwine, until Toby finds himself tangled in an existential knot of his own making. 

About the Project

Over the past 30 years, cinematographer Nicola Pecorini and director Terry Gilliam have collaborated on six feature films, including Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, Tideland and The Zero Theorem — seven if you count their first try at making Quixote. That tragic tale is told by the 2002 documentary feature Lost In La Mancha, wherein all manner of mishaps befall the doomed production, including jet fighters buzzing the location mid-take, injured actors, and a flash flood that washes away one of their sets.

Undaunted, Gilliam continued to develop Quixote in what might be described as his own Quixotic pursuit — with Pecorini as his Sancho — perhaps recalling the memory of Orson Welles’s 12-year struggle to make a straight and ultimately incomplete adaptation of Miguel Cervantes’s 17thcentury novel. In 2016, Gilliam’s film re-entered production with Adam Driver in the role of Toby Grisoni, a cynical commercial director who finds himself swept up in the outrageous delusions of an old Spanish shoe-maker (played by Jonathan Pryce) who believes himself to be the actual Don Quixote.

Jonathan Pryce as the shoemaker who believes himself to be Quixote. 

The film was serviced out of Technovision Rome. Pecorini used an Alexa STX and two Alexa Minis with the same Cooke Taylor-Hobson anamorphic lenses that Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC used to shoot Apocalypse Now.“They are quite an amazing set of lenses — the color and the way they take flares is quite unique,” remarks Pecorini. “It was a pretty straightforward package. Most of the time the A Camera was on a mini-jib that I operate myself with a Weaver-Steadman [camera mount].”

Pecorini leaned into a more realistic approach to photographing Quixote, largely eschewing the expressive visual touches that marked his previous collaborations with Gilliam. “I always try to be as unobtrusive as possible. If the cinematography stands alone, it doesn’t serve the movie,” the cameraman opines.

A different route was taken for Toby’s movie-within-the-movie, a student film adaptation of Quixote that catapulted him to fame, and continues to haunt him and the provincial Spanish villagers he cast in it. Pecorini and Gilliam wanted the film to feel special and different from its encapsulating narrative, so they decided to shoot it in wide-angle black-and-white. “My reference for it was an amazing movie from the 1960s called I Am Cuba,” says Pecorini. “It was all shot in wide angle, 16mm, black-and-white, 1.33. It’s fantastic. We shot [Toby’s movie] with a GoPro, of all cameras.”

Don Quixote was finished by Chema Alba at Deluxe Labs in Madrid. “We mainly followed my original guidelines,” Pecorini remarks. “Overall it was a pretty smooth and ordinary process. The main challenge was to even out the exterior scenes shot in extremely variable weather conditions over more than one day, but having twenty years to plan for something sometimes gives you a clear idea of how to do it.”

About the Cinematographer

Born August 10, 1957 in Milano, Italy, Nicola Pecorini started working as assistant photographer for Oliviero Toscani in 1976, but soon grew tired of the world of fashion, and in early 1978 he started working as a cameraman for Swiss Television, covering local news, sporting events, nature documentaries, and socio-political activities around the world. In 1981, he attended two Steadicam workshops held by Garrett Brown, purchased his first Steadicam, and left television for a new career in feature films.

Pecorini on location shooting Don Quixote. 

Since then, he has taught more than 25 Steadicam workshops around the world, co-founded the Steadicam Operator Association with Brown, and actively participated in the research and experimentation that led to many new technological achievements for the Steadicam.

Pecorini moved to the United States in 1993, and in 1995, after moving up from Steadicam to A camera operator, he became the director of photography for HBO’s Tracey Takes On. Since 1997, he has frequently collaborated with director Terry Gilliam, on the films Fear and Loathing in Las VegasThe Brothers GrimmTidelandThe Imaginarium of Doctor ParnassusThe Zero Theorem and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

In 2000, he won Best Cinematography at the San Sebastian International Film Festival for Harrison's Flowers

He is blind in one eye.

American Cinematographer interviews cinematographers, directors and other filmmakers to take you behind the scenes on major studio movies, independent films and popular television series.

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