Lost In La Mancha
At once an intimate portrait of a dedicated cinematic genius and a
madcap comedy of outrageous cosmic errors, “Lost In La Mancha”
is the heartbreaking story of Terry Gilliam’s doom-laden attempt
to bring his dream project, Cervantes’ tale of Don Quixote, to
the screen in his trademarked epic/absurdist fashion.
Still regarded as an megalomaniac/spendthrift after the failure of
his “The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen” (despite the impressive
returns of his studio-funded follow-ups “The Fisher King”
and “12 Monkeys”), Gilliam secures European funding for
“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”, thanks largely to the
signing of Johnny Depp to the lead role of an executive who travels
back in time and is mistaken for Quixote’s assistant Sancho Panza.
French actor Jean Rochefort has been learning English for his pivotal
role as Quixote. Underway is the challenge of translating the director’s
extravagant designs into sets, costumes, and locations within a meager
budget (although enormous by European standards) and near-impossible
time frame Gilliam hasn’t wrestled with since his early “Monty
From day one of shooting, everything goes wrong. The first location
is situated next to a NATO airbase, making it impossible to record dialogue.
Then, the location is destroyed by a flash flood of Old Testament proportions.
Equipment is damaged, valuable shooting time lost, and wouldn’t
you know it, Gilliam’s insurance doesn’t cover such incidents
of “force majeur”.
Then, Rochefort experiences discomfort while sitting on his horse and
returns home for medical tests. The producers contemplate firing Gilliam’s
long-time and trusted First Assistant Director. The investors themselves
come to the set as part of a bus-tour to ensure their money is being
well spent, and Gilliam shills by posing for pictures, and having Depp
sign autographs. A makeshift soundstage location is too small and as
noisy as a munitions factory. Then, the worst is confirmed: Rochefort
requires prostate surgery and will not be returning to the production.
Filmmakers Fulton and Pepe had previously chronicled the making of
“12 Monkeys” and were granted full-access to every stage
of this new production. What resulted, of course, is a documentary filmmaker’s
wet dream. “La Mancha” is often uncomfortably candid—when
Gilliam doubts the seriousness of Rochefort’s health concerns
and vows that he’s going to “kill” the actor, and
there’s no doubt that he means it. And being a documentary on
Gilliam, of course the film is expected be visually inventive as well
and is, embellished with live script readings and animated storyboards
that mimic the filmmaker’s whimsical bits for Python. An added
treat is the inclusion of rare footage from Orson Welles’ own
equally ill-fated attempt to film Quixote (at one point, Gilliam compares
the Quixote jinx to that of “The Scottish Play”).
A significant moment comes when co writer Tony Grisomi compares Gilliam
to Quixote himself: a “mad” old man empowered by his rich
delusional fantasy life, only to die when he regains sanity and cannot
cope with the sudden exposure to reality. But when the film is shut
down, Gilliam doesn’t allow his vision to perish. He immediately
dedicates himself to regaining the rights to his property and climb
back on Quixote’s horse Rocinante once again. The best thing about
“La Mancha” is how it leaves the viewer with an inflated
respect for Gilliam, who never once seems out of control or irrational
(in fact, he’s often serenely practical), and for the alchemy
of filmmaking process, which is, after all, a “business”
as well as an “art”, and sadly, subject to the realities
of finance, nature, and the frailties of the human body like any other.
During the post-screening Q&A, in which we were all delighted to
find Gilliam in attendance and in good spirits (but he didn’t
watch the film, too painful), the director announced that while all
of the props had been sold off by investors, the script would soon be
his again and he was jazzed on resurrecting the project. He also requested
that we check out another Jean Rochefort film playing at the festival
to assure him that the actor is, in fact, “seated’ throughout
his entire performance.
- Robert L