It's always a struggle to get a film made, but few filmmakers have had to endure as much hardship in seeing their visions realized than Terry Gilliam. The Monty Python alum and director of such modern-day fantasy classics as Time Bandits, The Fisher King, and Twelve Monkeys, Gilliam is a director who finds order only in disorder, and anyone familiar with the unbelievably troubled productions of The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen and Brazil knows that he has often had to fight tooth and nail to protect his films from the studios financing them. So when word came out that Gilliam was ready to set sail on his dream project - a unique and expensive version of the Don Quixote legend entitled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, to be filmed on location in Spain - it was, as usual, taken with a grain of salt. A Gilliam film, fans know, is not something to count on until the ads start running in the newspaper.
Well, the skeptics won this round. Beset by innumerable obstacles, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote never made it past the first few days of principal photography, and all that was left was Lost in La Mancha, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's alternately entertaining and depressing account of Gilliam's failed attempt to film his Quixote opus. The documentarians, who previously collaborated with Gilliam on The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys - a behind-the-scenes look at the production of his 1995 Bruce Willis time-travel vehicle - were granted unprecedented access to the Quixote set. In a fortuitous decision for Fulton and Pepe, the duo chose to accompany Gilliam to Spain for preproduction, and were therefore privy to the tumultuous series of events that would eventually lead to the project's downfall.
Thus, Lost in La Mancha is like watching a train wreck (film wreck?) unfold before one's eyes, and the sight is far from pretty. Gilliam, who is accurately portrayed as cinema's equivalent to Quixote himself - exuberant, possessed by his own wild imagination, a filmmaker in love with the dichotomy between dream and reality - begins his journey to Spain excited but already slightly disturbed by the departure of the film's original financiers. Forced to work with a new budget that, despite being the largest European-financed film in history, is nowhere near as sizeable as the director feels is necessary, Gilliam sets about overseeing the elaborate sets, scouting for locations, and struggling to keep his Spanish-speaking crew in order. To make matters worse, his actors - headlined by legendary French comedian Jean Rochefort as Quixote and Johnny Depp as a modern-day accountant who accidentally travels back in time and is mistaken by Quixote for his grumpy sidekick Sancho Panza - simply cannot get themselves to Spain for rehearsals.
Dubbed "Captain Chaos" by his aggravated assistant director Phil Patterson, Gilliam eventually manages to begin filming, but the project, as Fulton and Pepe's film has by this point made abundantly clear, is apparently cursed. Rochefort develops a medical ailment that prevents him from sitting on a horse, and is sent back to France (permanently, it turns out) for medical treatment. The indoor studio facilities turn out to be little more than glorified airport hangars with serious echo issues. The desert locations are located directly next to a NATO airfield, and fighter jets constantly rumble through the sky. And to add insult to injury, the usually arid desert is overwhelmed by torrential storms that not only destroy many of the production's sets, but also change the color of the desert itself, rendering it wholly unsuitable for filming. Through it all, Gilliam maintains his enthusiasm for the project, continually proclaiming that he thrives under such ridiculously haphazard conditions, and the meager snippets of completed footage that we see exhibit Gilliam's trademark zaniness. Unfortunately, however, the toll that the film's unraveling takes on the director is all too visible in his increasingly despondent body language. Lost in La Mancha is often amusing. In the end, though, Fulton and Pepe's account of this production-from-hell is a depressing reminder of the often painful lengths to which auteurs such as Gilliam must go to see their dreams made real.
If Gilliam's saga fascinates you (and well it should), check out the La Mancha DVD, which adds a second disc of deleted scenes, extra retrospective interviews, and even the infamous interview at the 2002 Telluride Film Festival between Gilliam and Salman Rushdie.
Men from La Mancha.