When director Terry Gilliam invited documentarians Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe to chronicle in the making of the science-fiction thriller Twelve Monkeys, he said that “if anything should go wrong, at least I’ll have witnesses.” It’s fortunate then, that based on the strength of their final product, The Hamster Factor And Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys, Gilliam invited the pair back to chronicle the filming of his latest project The Man Who Killed Don Quixote as no one would believe the incredible string of bad luck he and his crew were about to experience.
The resultant documentary, Lost In LaMancha, details the battle that most film productions got through to make a movie. Unfortunately, for Gilliam and his crew, it was a battle that they couldn’t win. Limited by a budget that barely met the production’s requirements, Gilliam struggles to realize a film project that he had been developing for a decade. But a series of disasters including a flash flood and the failing health of Gilliam’s Quixote, French actor Jean Rochefort, force the production to shut down after just six days.
Gilliam has an unjustified reputation in Hollywood as a visionary infant terrible. His fight with Universal Studios chief Sid Shienberg over the release of his film Brazil is legendary. (And has been chronicled in Jack Matthews’ book The Battle of Brazil.) His 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen went spectacularly over budget, though most of the blame could really be laid at the feet of the producer rather than Gilliam. In fact, the specter of Munchausen’s production hangs over Gilliam throughout the film, even though since then he had helmed the hits The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys. It seems that sometimes, you aren’t even as good as your most recent hit.
In a way, Lost In La Mancha is a love story. Gilliam’s love for his craft is evident in his eyes as he works through pre-production watching the costumes and set pieces come into being. And you can also see the frustration and heartache as things fall apart just weeks later. This film is heartbreaking for Gilliam fans as well. The glimpses of costumes, set designs and especially those few moments of completed film hint at a film that could have been truly spectacular.
The parallels between Quixote and Gilliam are readily apparent and thankfully the filmmakers don’t belabor the point. It’s been said that while filming a movie Gilliam begins to take on aspects of his protagonist, and its easy to see that in the face of mounting disaster Gilliam is almost dementedly determined to continue forward, ignoring the reality of the situation around him.
Of course, the film does raise the question of whether or not there really is a curse that hangs over any attempt to adapt the novel. Orson Welles struggled for 20 years to unsuccessfully complete his version of the project. Maybe Cervantes really did curse future generations when he wrote at the end of the book’s second volume “For me alone was Don Quixote born, and I for him; he to act and I to record; in a word, we were destined for each other” and wasn’t just taking a swipe at another author who had quickly published a sequel before Cervantes had time to finish his own.
In this day and age, “Making Of” documentaries are almost a de rigeur part of a film’s marketing, showing happy actors and confident directors having barrels of fun on set while in the incidental business of making a movie. Rarely is the real struggle and toil that is the actually film production experience shown. Up until now, the most revealing look at film production has been Hearts of Darkness, which chronicles Frances Ford Coppolla’s own journey through despair while shooting Apocalypse Now. Unfortunately, Lost In La Mancha doesn’t have any kind of triumph-over-tragedy, “Great-film-produced-over-unbelievable-odds” finish. Instead, it will serve as a document for a project that seems destined to join Welles’s version of Quixote and Marilyn Monroe’s Something’s Got To Give in the cinema of great films that never were.