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Entries in Lost in La Mancha [2002] (1)

Thursday
Sep012011

Lost in La Mancha (2002)

The Pain in Spain

Lost in La Mancha gave me a new appreciation for just how hard it is to make movies. It's so easy to forget that filmmaking is a process rather than a product. The best and worst thing you've ever seen in a theatre was a result of months--sometimes years--of hundreds of people laboring, haggling, and hoping to God that their work would at least be seen, if not successful.

In the fall of 2000, director Terry Gilliam landed in Spain to begin work on The Man who Killed Don Quixote, his adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes' novel, Don Quixote. As Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe point out in their documentary about this doomed production, Gilliam is a classic quixotic figure: he lives in a world where passion and optimism can conquer budget overruns, scheduling snafus and acts of God--not to mention NATO. I'm tempted to say that Lost in La Mancha is a profile in madness, but the more the filmmakers peel back the layers of Gilliam's famous, weird veneer, the easier it is to see him as just really stubborn.

It's a shame, too, because during the week-and-a-half he actually got to shoot his movie, Gilliam captured some pretty cool stuff. The lonely, dignified image of Jean Rochefort as Quixote, perched atop a wavering, white horse and dressed in cheap armor while plodding through the Spanish desert is beautiful. But, according to the documentary, this is one of only two usable half-scenes that were filmed. During the eight-day shoot, the production faces a flood; airplane noise from a nearby military test site; a no-show lead actress; and a leading man whose recently discovered herniated disc prevents him from riding a horse. There's also the matter of the second-lead, Johnny Depp, whose performance makes what he would later do with the character of Willy Wonka look dignified in comparison; this doesn't quite count as a disaster point, as I doubt anyone would have noticed until the film was much farther along.

I've just described the second half of La Mancha, which, while riveting for fans of Schadenfreude, is not nearly as devastating as what happens in the first half-hour. Gilliam and company spend months constructing bizarre props like life-sized marionettes and pieces of the famous windmill that Quixote imagines is a fearsome giant. Hundreds of concept paintings line office walls. And Gilliam's screen test of three mostly naked, obese men charging over a hill raises everyone's eyebrows but his own. There's a feeling on the part of producer René Cleitman, line producer José Luis Escolar, and first assistant director Philip Patterson that the wheels are about ready to fly off the picture, but that things will be okay once actual filming starts--assuming the schedule is adhered to.

Well, the first day of shooting is a wash because of the airplanes. Day two brings the flood, which knocks out day three for cleanup. By the end of the week, Rochefort is back in Paris seeing different specialists, leaving the crew to pack up and head to a different location where they'll film Johnny Depp wrestling with and screaming at a fish. Because these setbacks have already caused the movie to blow through much of its $32 million budget, the producers cobble together an additional $16 million from 60 backers, all of whom make a Disney-tour-style pilgrimage to Spain to watch a famous movie star roll in the grass with a trout.

I can't say anything about Fulton and Pepe's directing style based on this movie, which is the highest praise I can give them as documentarians. Lost in La Mancha has an incredible fly-on-the-wall feeling, as if someone very familiar with Gilliam's reputation and track record had the foresight to film what would surely be his greatest disaster yet (at the time, La Mancha was the biggest-budget European film ever produced; unlike Gilliam's legendary flop, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, it was neither completed nor released). The temptation may have been to sex things up with dramatic music and overtly narrative editing, but by understating the events, we experience the slow-motion train wreck in the same way that the people involved must have; the personalities and problems are dramatic enough to keep anyone's attention.

Lost in La Mancha showcases Gilliam as a true artist, hungry to create and uninterested in financial or logistical concerns. He butts heads with the creatively challenged producers, whose first instinct when facing a cash-flow problem is to fire the first assistant director. Because there's no "angle" presented by the directors, we're able to see both sides of the mounting issues: the financiers and guarantors are nervous because a madman is pissing away their capital, and the madman is annoyed at the limitations of the physical world--Gilliam says that he's seen The Man who Killed Don Quixote hundreds of times in his own head.

I would love to visit the alternate universe in which both Gilliam and Orson Welles were able to complete their versions of Dox Quixote (Welles spent twenty years on his, only giving up after his star passed away). There's no guarantee that Gilliam would have made a great movie--especially with the Johnny-Depp-as-a-time-traveling-ad-executive angle that he curiously added to his interpretation--but there's a good chance it would have been gorgeous and interesting. Which is more than I can say for ninety percent of the mainstream fare now playing at my local multiplex.

Yes, it's easy to forget that movies are hard to make and harder to sell, that they're collaborations between artists and accountants. It's fascinating to see that struggle play out, and I wish all "making-of" featurettes were as candid as this one. Lost in La Mancha made me wonder about the conflicts and compromises on movies that ultimately made it to theatres, and about the hundreds of other scuttled productions we may never hear about.

The temptation, then, is to give every film a bit of a pass because movies that don't turn out so great may have been harmed by any number of problems at any or every step in the process. But just as one can't enjoy a sausage while thinking of sausage-making, movies lose their magic the second the phrase "budget constraints" enters the discussion. I choose to judge art on the merits of the final piece, which, ideally, is as pure an expression of the creator's vision as can be achieved on Earth at the time it is created. Call me Don Quixote.