Bright Lights Film Journal

Chasing Windmills: Talking with Juan Luis Bunuel about Welles and Don Quixote

“I’d love to be Orson’s assistant again.”

I first became aware of Juan Luis Bunuel’s involvement in Orson Welles’s unfinished film Don Quixote while reading Peter Bogdanovich’s interview book with the director, This Is Orson Welles. At one point in their conversations, the name of Spanish master Luis Bunuel came up. Welles offered his typically witty and insightful thoughts on the director of Viridiana (1961) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), and then concluded with the following line: “His son was my assistant director on Don Quixote for a while.”1

“His son” is Juan Luis Bunuel. A gifted and acclaimed filmmaker in his own right, he has directed such films as The Woman in Red Boots (1974), which featured Catherine Deneuve, the star of his father’s classics Belle de jour (1967) and Tristana (1970).

But, as he explained to me, Bunuel’s beginnings in the movies can be traced back directly to the experience of working with Welles on his screen adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’s immortal novel. Bunuel worked on Don Quixote in the mid-fifties, when scenes for the project were being shot in Mexico. I spoke with him by phone in 2005.

JUAN LUIS BUNUEL: I wanted to be a professor in English literature. I didn’t know who Orson Welles was. I had heard of The War of the Worlds, but I was not really interested in cinema.

I was at home in Mexico for a summer vacation. I’d just graduated from Oberlin College. I wanted to go on to get my master’s in English literature. A producer said to me, “You want a job? You want to make some money?” I said, “Well, yeah.” I was a college student. He said, “Well, you have to work as an assistant to a director.” I said, “I don’t know anything about films. I’m not even interested.” He said, “Yeah, but you just go with this director. Just translate to the Mexican crew what he tells you and you can make a little money.” I said, “Okay, fine.” And so that’s how I met Welles.

PETER TONGUETTE: Do you remember your first meeting with Welles?

I went to the hotel where he was, the Hotel del Prado in Mexico City, which has been destroyed since then by the big earthquake several years ago. I went to the bell desk and asked for Welles. They called up, he came down, and we shook hands. We went out and his car was waiting for him. He sat up front, I sat in the back. We would meet the crew some place and then we’d all go off in eight or nine cars, with a truck with a horse in it. Rosinante. Then we’d head for Cuernavaca.

He sort of improvised a lot. He’d see something he was interested in, a Mexican hut or a town or a field. He’d stop, and then we’d shoot. Get the horse down from the truck and have Don Quixote ride by.

Were you aware of a script for the film?

To my knowledge, there was no script. He brought down one of his good friends, and an actor, Akim Tamiroff , who played Sancho Panza. He was a fantastic, wonderful man — a great man. He joined the gang there. In the evenings, Welles would edit the film and do the dubbing. He dubbed both Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, giving Don Quixote an Oxford accent and Sancho Panza a Cockney accent.

In downtown Mexico City, there’s a big park called Parque Juarez. In the back of the park is a hotel called Hotel Cortez. It’s an old Spanish convent, I guess, and it’s been turned into a hotel. It’s still a nice hotel. We shot a lot in the patio of this hotel and on the roof — in one scene, Don Quixote took a bath in a big tub.

One day we stopped the filming and Welles went back to Hollywood to get more money. Then he came back and we filmed some more, but he never really got finished. He didn’t finish the film. One afternoon, he said, “All right, that’s it. Wrap it up. We’re through.” And then he went out alone — I followed him — into this Parque Juarez. He sat on one of the benches there. I went up to him and he was crying. I was twenty-one or twenty-two years old and I put my arm around him and said, “Come on, Orson.” He said, “Yeah, but I really like this film.” So then we got up and went back and then he left — limping!

Tell me why he was limping!

We were shooting near Cuernavaca. Where we were filming was a hole, about ten inches deep. I thought, “I better get one of the staff guys to put something over it because somebody’s going to fall in and hurt themselves.” And then we had a problem — they couldn’t get the horse off the truck or I don’t know what — and I forgot about that hole. And, of course, who fell into it but Orson, who already had a weak ankle. He just really twisted his ankle.

So that’s the reason in Touch of Evil (1958) that he limps the way he does. Makes the character more interesting. That’s my participation in the film!2

Another thing that I found out was that Welles hated his nose. Whenever he can in films, he puts on these huge noses. He was a very big man with this tiny pug nose. And he hated it. In the film you don’t see it much, but he would change the shape of his nose. The make-up lady would come and say, “Welles’s nose is a little too green today.” So I said, “Orson, your nose is green!” “Oh, well.” And then he’d put some more make-up on it. Or it could be twisted the wrong way and I’d say, “Orson, your nose,” and he’d push it over into shape. Every day we had to watch out for his nose!

You were the assistant director on Don Quixote.

Well, more translator, and then as the work went on, I became [assistant director] . . . as soon as I learned a little bit of technique. I didn’t know anything about filming. I never went to watch my father shoot or anything. It didn’t interest me. So I learned with Welles.

What responsibilities did you eventually come to have on the film?

Well, they had other technicians. I’d just tell them what time to be on set and translate Orson’s instructions. Every day we’d improvise things, so there were no real sets to be built or anything. We’d just say, “Well, we’ll meet tomorrow morning at such-and-such a place.” And then we’d go out.

When Welles acted in the film, it would be my job to say “Camera! Action!” and then I’d say “Cut!” when the scene was over. So at one moment, I was directing Welles. [Laughs] 

As I understand it, Welles was playing himself in the film, telling the story of Don Quixote.

The story started off with him sitting in the patio of this Hotel Cortez, reading Don Quixote, the book, and this cute little blonde American girl runs up and says, “Oh, oh, are you Orson Welles, the famous film director?” “Oh, yes, I am!” She looks at the book and says, pointing at an illustration of Don Quixote, “Oh, I saw this man yesterday or the day before.” “What?” “Yes.” And then she tells him what we’ll see in the film. The girl’s character was Dulcinea; we called her Dulcie. She sort of told him about the Don Quixote that she saw running around.3

Welles would take scenes from the book, like when Quixote is attacking the windmill. But here he would go into a theatre and it would be an Italian film with Greek warriors — and he would attack the screen with his sword and rip the screen apart!

How would Welles and the cinematographer work together?

The cinematographer’s name was Jack Draper. They didn’t get along very well. Welles thought he was a little slow. He called him “Flash Draper”! And Draper didn’t like him at all.

In fact, the pictures I sent you [from the shooting of Don Quixote] were taken with my first camera. Somebody had told me to get a red filter. So in the photos I took during the filming of Don Quixote, the Mexican sky is quite sharp and dark and highly contrasted, the way Gabriel Figueroa or Eisenstein would shoot. I showed this to Welles. I said, “Look at the pictures I took yesterday.” Welles said, “Jack Draper, come here! This is what I wanted!” Draper looked at me, furious. What was this new assistant directing trying to prove? I said, “Well, it’s not my fault. I just took the pictures! I’m not competing with anybody; I don’t know anything about film.”

Was a lot shot during your time working on the film?

No. We had a small crew and it was just scenes he was improvising.

I saw him many years later in Paris at the studios. I said, “Hi, Orson! What . . .” And he stopped me. He said, “Yeah, ‘What ever happened to Don Quixote?’ Well, Francisco Reiguera [the actor who played Don Quixote in the film] died, the horse died, Akim Tamiroff died . . .”

Reiguera was an old Spanish actor. A refugee from the Spanish Civil War, living in Mexico, who really thought he was Don Quixote, but he was an old man.

In general, did you and Welles get along well?

Yeah, very well.

After the shooting, we’d go into a bar and have a drink. It’s too bad — all the questions I could have asked him about the people he had known and things he had done. I’d sit there and have a coke or something and he’d drink a bottle of Vodka. He had these Romeo and Juliet cigars which he’d always forget and leave them in his car. He never slept. He’d call his chauffeur to come at three in the morning to bring him his box of cigars. The chauffeur told him to go to hell and quit! He had to get another chauffeur. So at times he was not very cordial with people.

I know that Welles admired your father’s work.

Well, one day my father came to where we were shooting. Orson was very pleased and they chatted for a while. But we had a schedule. My father knew, so he stayed around a half an hour, and then left. But they seemed very pleased to see each other.

Did working with Welles on Don Quixote solidify your own desire to become a filmmaker?

Well, I found the work interesting, and Akim Tamiroff kept telling me, “You have to go into films. You’ll love it.” Knowing what I know now about films and film technique, I’d love to be Orson’s assistant again.

Special thanks to Sebastiaan Faber at Oberlin College.

  1. Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles, revised and expanded edition (New York: Da Capo Press, 1997), p. 276 []
  2. Bunuel told me that he recalled Welles departing from the Mexican set of Don Quixote to shoot Touch of Evil in Hollywood. []
  3. The role of Dulcie was played by American actress Patty McCormack, best known for her role in The Bad Seed (1956). []