Terry Gilliam has a laugh like a raspy chipmunk, and that's the sound that echoes in your ears long after you've seen Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's documentary "Lost in La Mancha," which chronicles the ex-Monty Pythoner's truly quixotic efforts to make a "Don Quixote" movie.
On the surface this story is a downer. If you don't remember Gilliam's "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote," the reason is simple: It never got finished. The problems that Gilliam encountered while on location in Spain make first-timer Pete Jones' experiences on that HBO making-a-movie series "Project Greenlight" resemble assembly-line efficiency.
At least Jones' cast showed up on time, his crew members all spoke the same language, he didn't schedule Middle Ages scenes to be filmed in an area where military planes are perpetually flying maneuvers, his sets weren't devastated by flash floods, and his lead actor delivered intelligible dialogue and didn't disappear for weeks with a mysterious back malady. Jones' "Stolen Summer" also never was on the verge of being shut down by skittish investors and insurance companies.
Gilliam's experiences on "Quixote" represent a filmmaker's ultimate nightmare, yet he is not a man prone to griping about disarray. As his surreal, witty Monty Python animations and previous films such as "Brazil" and "Twelve Monkeys" indicate, Gilliam embraces absurdity and, as his collaborators attest here, thrives on chaos.
More to the point, Gilliam is an artist first, and his administrative skills don't run a close second. You want to slap your forehead at some of his ill-advised moves. We can see why Gilliam would think Jean Rochefort is a perfect physical match for Quixote, but does casting a thickly accented French actor as a Spaniard in an English-speaking movie - mind you, a 70-year-old whose back is so sore that he can't sit atop a horse without resembling an armor-clad statue - really make sense?
But we love such idiosyncratic geniuses for their inspiration and passion, not their pragmatism. Gilliam's laugh is the sound of someone who, even though he's hit 50, has retained a childlike glee at the act of invention.
The footage we see of "Don Quixote" gives us no sense that it's going to be a good movie. Gilliam and whimsy can be a dangerous mixture, and the clips look closer to "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" than, say, "Time Bandits." But when Gilliam films three rather tubby, shirtless guys stomping toward the ground-level camera so they resemble giants, you can't help but giggle along with him as he views the footage later.
Creation may be a painful process, but using camera angles to make people look like giants is fun. Fulton and Pepe take a relatively straightforward approach to their own filmmaking. They offer the necessary background about Gilliam and his cinematic track record - most entertainingly in an animated segment dubbed "Terry Gilliam's Picture Show" - but the most important point is simply that they're around.
With so much behind-the-scenes movie footage these days functioning as mere promotion - the purpose of those hype-laden "making of" cable specials, after all, is to give you an opportunity to hang out with the stars - it's refreshing to see a documentary that takes you where so many films really get made: the board rooms occupied by people who must be convinced to part with their money.
As for the stars, Johnny Depp, Gilliam's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" lead, arrives late but appears utterly game to follow his director's muse no matter how silly he may appear. We get less of a feel for Vanessa Paradis and the distant Rochefort (which, in the latter case, probably puts us in the same boat as Gilliam).
The collapse of a film production doesn't supply much of a dramatic payoff, but then that's pretty much the point. Still, you can interpret "Lost in La Mancha" as a sort of triumph of the creative spirit. Gilliam's darkest gallows humor always comes with a smile. And, by the way, he still hopes to revive "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote." Perhaps Fulton and Pepe are up for a sequel?
3 stars (out of 4)
"Lost in La Mancha"
Written and directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe; photographed by Pepe; edited by Jacob Bricca; music by Miriam Cutler; produced by Lucy Darwin. An IFC Films release; opens Friday, Feb. 14. Running time: 1:33. MPAA rating: R (language).
Narrator - Jeff Bridges
Himself - Terry Gilliam
Himself - Johnny Depp
Herself - Vanessa Paradis Himself - Jean Rochefort
Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune movie reporter.