Terry Gilliam long yearned to make a film of Don Quixote. In 2000, after some great movies (Brazil and The Fisher King) and one of the most infamous cinematic duds in recent history (the underrated Adventures of Baron Munchausen), he endeavored to make his dream a reality.
It’s easy to see why Gilliam, the only U.S. member of Monty Python, would be so attracted to the material. Some of his favorite themes—fantasy within the everyday, the line between sanity and insanity, and misunderstood outsider protagonists—run through Cervantes’ much-beloved narrative. Gilliam’s script adds a frame story about an ad executive (to be played by Johnny Depp), magically transported to La Mancha and mistaken by Quixote for Sancho Panza.
Lost in La Mancha
Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe
as themselves): Terry Gilliam, Jean Rochefort, Johnny Depp, Bernard Bouix, Bernard Chaumeil, René Cleitman
US theatrical: 31 Jan 2003 (Limited release)
Sadly, this film was never to be completed. After months of troubles, including a crew who spoke approximately 50 different languages, about half the budget needed for a film of such scope, an ailing star, hailstorms, and mudslides, Gilliam abandoned the film after just a few precious days of shooting.
But something came of this tremendous disappointment. Along for the ride were Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, filming Gilliam and crew for a special feature on the DVD release. Their efforts have yielded a kind of object lesson on how not to make a movie, how to read an insurance policy, and how even the most visionary of geniuses can overreach his (and his partners’) capabilities.
Lost in La Mancha begins when the problems begin: in pre-production. Gilliam points out that the $32 million budget for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (entirely financed internationally and a large sum for a production with no U.S. backing) is “about half” what he needs. Still, his designers create a warehouse full of elaborately distressed costumes and gigantic handmade puppets, pictured here as a kind of grown-ups’ secret garden: Gilliam, for one, is visibly delighted. Despite financial restraints, a beautiful film is evidently in the making.
But with the promise comes difficulty. The documentary has a familiar plot, one that occurs on virtually every non-Hollywood production: the crewmembers tell the director they can’t achieve what he wants with such small budgets and the director convinces them to find ways to do it anyway. Gilliam is well acquainted with the process. As narrator Jeff Bridges observes, the director’s grand ideas tend to be too expensive for an independent film budget, too “out there” for Hollywood investors. He’s become used to creating entirely new worlds for the cost of about half an hour of Titanic.
Lost in La Mancha shows how this “responsible enfant terrible” marches on, despite the odds. Certainly, warning signs abound: his Quixote is a fragile 70-year-old Frenchman with a thick-as-porridge accent, other actors never arrive for rehearsals, and the only available soundstage in Madrid is cavernous and booming with echoes. One wonders when, exactly, the thought occurred to him that perhaps things hadn’t been planned out enough. When F-16s buzz the set, a wildlife preserve, you think, didn’t the location scout note the adjacent military base?
The film suggests that Quixote is a cursed project, citing a previous effort by Orson Welles to mount it. But it resists the greater likelihood, that Gilliam’s dream is destroyed by a combination of poor organization, bad luck, and his own intense passion for the material. It may be dramatic and epic to blame the film’s failure on mysterious forces, fates and curses. But in the midst of these acts of an apparently vengeful god, the director makes some impatient, unwise decisions. Unlike Don Quixote, to whom Gilliam is compared throughout the film, the director is quite sane and knows what he’s doing, choosing to follow a risky path.
Computer-generated collage animations evoke Gilliam’s animated work with Monty Python, telling the story of his struggles to make movies outside the system. In one segment, a silhouette of a man pushes a giant reel of film up a steep hill marked “Hollywood.” There’s an obvious nod to Sisyphus and other great “misunderstood” directors, like Welles. But these associations are laid on a bit heavily, and the Gilliam-esque animations have questionable function. They mirror his own style, but the only reason for using them at all seems to be to further canonize Gilliam’s contributions to cinema.
Like the makers of Lost in La Mancha, I want to see The Man Who Killed Don Quixote completed; it would doubtless be a masterpiece. But Gilliam is no Don Quixote. He may be tilting at windmills, but he makes a conscious decision to do so. As stated in Lost in La Mancha, at the end of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the aged “knight” becomes sane and, as a result, dies. At the end of Lost in La Mancha, we learn that Gilliam is again attempting to make his Quixote; effectively, he’s lost his mind again.
Therein lies the difference—and the parallel—between Quixote and Gilliam. Insanity, for Gilliam, is a choice, perhaps even directly related to the creative drive. Unlike Quixote, he knows the difference between fantasy and reality and can decide which he wants. But sanity (or, adhering to mainstream filmmaking standards) could very well kill Gilliam. And even in the midst of chaos and catastrophe, his drive to create fantastic worlds can be as damning, and as appealing, as Quixote’s.