Standing in the midst of pre-production hell for his dream film, "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote," filmmaker Terry Gilliam looked around and summed it up. "There is," he said, an actual gleam in his eye, "a lot of potential for chaos here."
"Lost in La Mancha," the essential new documentary about the collapse of Gilliam's most cherished project, records that chaos and more. A hip and intelligent insider's look at what a completely absurd experience filmmaking can be, "Lost" records an accident while it's happening, revealing a situation that makes you laugh again and again while weeping, metaphorically at least, for the sheer frustration of it all.
Because he is a master of elaborate and eccentric visions, responsible for wonders like "Brazil" and "Time Bandits," Gilliam's movies have never had an easy time of it. But even by the standards of his 1988 "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," which ended up costing double its budget, what happened on "Quixote" was a study in having everything that could go possibly wrong promptly do so.
In place to record the wreckage were documentary filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe. They'd first worked with Gilliam during the shooting of his "Twelve Monkeys," turning out an admired behind-the-scenes documentary called "The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys."
Gilliam, to his great credit, made sure Fulton and Pepe were given complete access to all aspects of the "Don Quixote" shoot, and didn't renege on his promise even as his film began to inexorably collapse. "This project has been so long in the making and so miserable that someone needs to get a film out of it," he told the pair, "and it doesn't look like it's going to be me."
Undaunted by the experience of Orson Welles, who spent decades trying to get a "Quixote" project made, Gilliam had been working on his version for 10 years. A man with an infectious spirit, called "a responsible enfant terrible" by a friend, Gilliam seemed a good match for a project about a dreamer who sees things others can't see.
Assembled to do the deed was an enviable cast. Because the role of Quixote needs an older actor who looks right, acts well and can ride a horse, Gilliam felt fortunate to get the entire package in veteran French performer Jean Rochefort. And for Sancho Panza, who in Gilliam's version was a modern advertising man transported back to the 17th century, Gilliam got the co-star of his "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," the criminally handsome Johnny Depp.
Because the budget for this epic film was $32 million (bargain basement by Hollywood standards but "a heavy film for European shoulders," said one of the producers), tension was high even early in pre-production. Gilliam charged his crew to "protect me from myself, to stop me sooner rather than later" if things headed in an untenable direction, and first assistant director Phil Patterson allowed that working with Gilliam was "like riding a pony bareback. You're in for the ride of your life."
Once filming actually started, things got unimaginably worse. An isolated location turned out to be used by NATO for fighter-bomber exercises, a flash flood washed away equipment and, most critical of all, star Rochefort began showing signs of health problems that were as debilitating as they were mysterious.
That this "Don Quixote" got derailed is especially distressing because the little of it that we see looks so enticing. One sequence in particular, Quixote's vision of marauding giants, is shown in casting, in rehearsal and, finally, in a 35-millimeter test. Just those few minutes let us know that Gilliam's "Quixote" would have been something special.
Though a film about a film that didn't get completed seems unusual, in fact it's been done before. In 1965, the BBC produced "The Epic That Never Was," about the abortive 1937 "I, Claudius," starring Charles Laughton and directed by Josef von Sternberg. In reviewing it, Pauline Kael wrote, "This is probably the only film ever made about an abandoned film." Now there's a second, and it's a pip.
'Lost in La Mancha'
MPAA rating: R for language.
Times guidelines: Adult situations.
A Quixote Films and Low Key Pictures production, in association with Eastcroft Productions, released by IFC Films. Directors Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe. Producer Lucy Darwin. Screenplay Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe. Cinematographer Louis Pepe. Editor Jacob Bricca. Music Miriam Cutler. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.