LOST IN LA MANCHA
(director/writer: Keith Fulton/Louis Pepe; cinematographer: Louis Pepe; editor: Jacob Bricca; music: Miriam Cutler; cast: Terry Gilliam, Jean Rochefort, Johnny Depp, Nicola Pecorini, Jeff Bridges (Narrator), Vanessa Paradis, Phil Patterson, Tony Grisoni, René Cleitman; Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Lucy Darwin; Quixote Films and Low Key Pictures/IFC Films; 2002)
“Viewers always seem to have a strange curiosity about disasters.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
‘Lost in La Mancha’ is a documentary co-directed and written by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe that started as the making of Terry Gilliam’s proposed fairy tale film “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” but changed gears when it became apparent that the hard luck film wasn’t going to be made and instead filmed what went wrong.
The documentary goes behind the scenes to show the bad breaks the energetic 61-year-old, the former cartoonist and Monty Python guy as director and actor, Terry Gilliam (“12 Monkeys” /”Time Bandits“/”The Adventures of Baron Munchausen“/”Brazil“), ran into, and it left me feeling sympathetic to his plight up to a certain point. When he starts comparing his doom to Orson Welles’ or tries to say there’s a curse on this project, he loses me. It’s true Orson Welles was also obsessed with making a contemporary film about Cervantes’ heroic dreamer who saw giants when fighting windmills, but there the similarities end. Welles began his project in 1957 but by the time he died in 1985 he still didn’t release a film that was actually completed. It was a low budget film that benefited from his innovative skills and joy for the project, and was made despite the star playing Quixote dying before the shoot ended. Perhaps still unsatisfied and not able to stop tinkering with it, Welles nevertheless still owned the rights to his film and hoped some day to release it. After Welles’ death the film was sold and butchered, so there’s no record of what the film was like except through friends who saw the original and said it was indeed another Wellesian masterpiece. Also, Gilliam’s comparison is unfair because as a filmmaker he’s unquestionably talented but he’s not in the genius stratosphere as Welles and it’s doubtful judging by his mixed results in previous films if he could have told the Quixote story with the same depth and feeling. But in his favor, from this documentary I got the impression he was not the ‘enfant terrible’ and egomaniac the studio bosses make him out to be. He was somewhat flexible and not that difficult to work with. But under all his cheerleading and happy poses, he grimaced a lot and didn’t seem to be having fun making this film. That seemed a shame.
The biggest fault that could be laid at Gilliam’s feet is the film’s chaotic situation and how he never had control of it (the money people did). There were too many things that must happen perfectly for the film to be made, and that’s not a good way to work. It’s not a healthy situation for any filmmaker. That’s probably why it’s mostly mediocre films, ones not taking chances, that get made, as the money people have very little tolerance for disappointments and I believe a certain amount of disappointments are inevitable when making a film. Perhaps Gilliam’s major mistake was thinking that he could make a Hollywood film without Hollywood.
The documentary serves as an historical record about the confusion on the set and how no one had control of the situation — which is a sad reminder on how difficult it is to put together a film that means so much that you want to do it right, but things you have no control over occur and kill your best laid plans.
This is a project that Gilliam has been obsessed with for ten years and after a few starts it ran into financial mishaps causing its delay. Finally he got all European backers for a promised 40 million dollar budget, which soon became 32 million dollar (cheap by Hollywood standards) when a major backer bowed out at the last minute. Gilliam also got actors who believed in the project to work for as little as possible (close to scale), but ran into problems with scheduling rehearsals and a contract dispute with the lead actress Vanessa Paradis. Gilliam mentions in passing that the production of the film was contingent on three principals: Terry Gilliam directing, the charming 70-year-old French comedic actor Jean Rochefort playing Don Quixote, and Johnny Depp co-starring. He was needed for his drawing power. If anyone of the three was not available, there would be no film.
Gilliam’s idea was to have Sancho Panza as a modern advertising man transported back to the 17th century, during the days of the Spanish Inquisition, as the handsome and smooth Depp would play him as a character named Toby Grisini. Gilliam sees Don Quixote as an old dignified man who is going out on his last adventure, who surrounds himself with romantic whims and gleefully battles against logic.
The film ran into problems at the start of shooting, as a series of setbacks on location in Spain in September 2000 became never ending. The soundstage in Madrid isn’t sound-proof. In a new location at a nature preserve, far from Madrid, there were F-16 fighter planes constantly flying overhead doing exercises for NATO. A severe thunderstorm caused hail and flash floods and mudholes, that made it impossible to shoot until they dried. It also ruined some of the camera equipment. And, the final blow was before the sixth day Rochefort removed himself from the shoot after experiencing pain while on horseback. He studied English for seven months because he wanted the part, so it was not easy for him to leave the film. But he believed he was having prostrate problems and returned to see his doctors in France. Rochefort never returned after operated on for two herniated discs and the film was immediately shut down some time during the second week of shooting. A clause in the contract over something called “force majeure” allowed the insurance people to take over the film rights. Gilliam still plans to shoot the film, as he’s trying to raise enough money to buy the rights back. Near the film’s close Gilliam grimaces once again and scribbles “The Windmills of Reality Fight Back” across one of his Quixote drawings he made in his sketchbook of the film. He has already played the film out in his head so many times that he feels he must forget about it or fight to make the film he can’t get out his head. The first assistant director Phil Patterson, a longtime regular with Gilliam, who took a lot of the blame for the problems, says “The failure is a consequence of poor planning that didn’t allow for the intrusion of bad luck.” For these guys, failure seems to be more about their ego being bruised and the box office bombing than anything artistic going wrong. It wouldn’t surprise me if this tantalizing video does a brisk rental business, as viewers always seem to have a strange curiosity about disasters. But as far as the “windmills of reality” being an intrusion, I don’t know. The video only told me so much and no more. It just left out too much of the real dope for me to feel compelled to totally buy into Gilliam’s sob story. I still have no idea how guys like Gilliam really think. He has too much of Hollywood in him to be the outsider, but he also has too much of the outsider to be considered Hollywood.
REVIEWED ON 6/26/2003 GRADE: B –