In 1973, Francois Truffaut paid homage to the art of filmmaking in his Academy Award-winning La nuit Americain (Day for Night 1973). The self-reflexive film reveals the process to be more tedious than glamorous, fraught with obstacles: limited budget, inflexible shooting schedule, accidents in the film lab, emotionally fragile actors, and, what is certainly every director’s worst nightmare, the death of an actor during production.
The problems Truffaut’s onscreen alter-ego faces during the shooting of Meeting Pamela (Day for Night‘s film-within-the-film) are similar to those confronting director Terry Gilliam when he began shooting his $32 million screen version of Don Quixote. As the documentary Lost in La Mancha demonstrates, Gilliam had made several previous attempts to film Cervantes’ 17th-century tale, all thwarted when financing fell through.
In September of 2000, Gilliam set out to make The Man Who Killed Quixote. Yet, once shooting began in Spain, the celebrated director (Brazil , 12 Monkeys ) found himself in a losing battle against forces beyond his control. Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s record of the project’s demise is more about the un-making of a film and, no small thing, a director’s lifelong dream.
Lost in La Mancha is as compelling as it is difficult to watch. The first half captures the excitement surrounding the pre-production process. Gilliam is brimming with energy as he interacts with his crew and reads through the script with two leading men, French actor Jean Rochefort, who portrays Quixote, and Johnny Depp, who plays a television commercial director transported into Quixote’s world, where he reluctantly becomes his Sancho Panza. The script readings, along with Gilliam’s storyboards, costume and make-up tests, and rehearsals, provide a glimpse into his fantastical and nightmarish rendering of Cervantes’ tale of a dreamer who is under the illusion that he is a knight.
Early in Lost in La Mancha, the filmmakers draw an analogy between the director and the knight, two men questing after impossible dreams. In a brief, entertaining overview of Gilliam’s career, presented in the same comical “cut and paste” style of animation Gilliam perfected as a member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the director is positioned as a modern day Quixote who refuses to yield to the Hollywood system of moviemaking. Over the years, he gained a reputation for being an out-of-control director, particularly regarding budget or shooting schedule (as narrator Jeff Bridges points out, it’s ironic that only one of Gilliam’s films did not make profit — his $40 million The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), long regarded in the filmmaking world as a “textbook fiasco”).
The Man Who Killed Quixote falls apart, ridiculously and inevitably, due to flooding rains and Rochefort’s poor health, which prevents him from being able to ride a horse. As these disasters accumulate, it becomes clear that Gilliam’s dream will remain just that. Lost in La Mancha‘s most painful moment comes when Gilliam is forced to put on a happy face and pose for a picture with a group of investors visiting the set. With time slipping away while his leading man is back in France for medical treatment, his pained expression indicates that he knows, then, that his movie will never be finished. To add insult to injury, the filmmakers discover that their insurance policy does not cover all of the mishaps, so both the film and the rights to the screenplay become the property of a European bank.
There’s no question that many Gilliam fans who saw Lost in La Mancha during its theatrical release left the theater mourning the death of a film that could have potentially been the director’s finest achievement. Fortunately, the documentary’s DVD release provides an antidote, a second CD that contains scenes deleted from the documentary, costume designs, storyboards, and production stills, along with interviews with the cast and crew of The Man Who Killed Quixote.
What will most surely whet fans’ appetites are two 50-minute interviews with the director, the first by Salman Rushdie, shot at the 29th Telluride Film Festival and the second, an unedited interview with New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell, slated to be shown next year on the Independent Film Channel. The interview with Mitchell covers the major highs and lows of Gilliam’s career, but the Rushdie interview is far more revealing, particularly their discussion about Gilliam’s background working in the advertising industry in Britain (Rushdie started as a copywriter for Ogilvy & Mather in London) and his transition from Python to feature filmmaking.
Miraculously, it seems, Gilliam retains his sense of optimism and creative vision. Even when talking about his many past battles with Hollywood executives, as well as his obviously dreadful experience (not) making Quixote, he reveals an unkillable spirit, reminiscent of Cervantes’ knight. Time will only tell if the director will one day get the chance to achieve his impossible dream.