Terry Gilliam was the “stealth Python.” The only American in the quintessentially Br-r-r-ritish comic sextet, Monty Python’s Flying Circus (though the Minneapolis native has since taken British citizenship), Gilliam was the least distinctive member: aurally, he lacked the nasal whine of Eric Idle or the perfect stuffed-shirt fustian of John Cleese, and physically he was less recognizable than the rest, partly because he often hid his rough-hewn features under the heavy makeup of old crones and wizened soothsayers. (Remember the keeper of the Bridge of Death who demands the answers to “questions three” in “Holy Grail”?). His labors as an animator also set him apart from the Brits. Much of his work consisted of cut-out drawings and photos moving crazily about the screen, so he didn’t even appear in his own material.

In the years since the Pythons went their separate ways, Gilliam has turned out to be the most ambitious and creative of them all. He cut his directorial teeth on Python projects, co-directing “And Now For Something Completely Different,” “Holy Grail,” and “Jabberwocky,” sometimes in tandem with fellow Python Terry Jones, but he moved on to such marvelous movies as “Time Bandits,” “Brazil,” “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” “The Fisher King,” and “12 Monkeys.” One of his most cherished dreams, not surprisingly, was to make a film based on Don Quixote, the 16th century classic epic by Miguel de Cervantes about a delusional old man with head full of romantic fantasies who goes out on an ancient horse to battle the evils of the world with only a roly-poly but sensible squire to guide him through reality.

As one of Gilliam’s crew says in “Lost in La Mancha,” the 2002 documentary about the making (or not-making) of Gilliam’s dream project, “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” “I think he’s a little bit the Quixote [himself], who sees things other humans cannot see.” Gilliam himself says, “If it’s easy, I don’t do it; if it’s almost impossible to do, I have a go.”

Gilliam’s dream was the story of a modern advertising exec (to be played by Johnny Depp) who finds himself back in medieval Spain and mistaken for Sancho Panza by the Don. He asked young documentary filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, who had shot “The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of 12 Monkeys,” if they would like to do a film about the Quixote project. That documentary had shown much of the post-production process, so Fulton and Pepe decided to concentrate their new project on the murky pre-production period: how the magic of film comes together through the labors of dreamers, financiers, teams of technical crews, and all the rest.

As a film project, Quixote already seemed to be cursed. Orson Welles started shooting a version in 1957 and sweated over it for two decades; his star Francisco Reiguera died before the project could be completed. Gilliam himself had traveled a long road to get to shooting, with several false starts: We see tons of drawings the animator did of his conception starting in 1991, pre-production in the spring of 1999 collapsed when one backer admitted he didn’t have all the promised money, and the attempt depicted in Fulton and Pepe’s film didn’t get going until the summer of 2000. It was planned to be the most expensive film ever produced solely with European funding: $32 million, scaled back from an initial estimate of $40 million, which was probably still much less than needed to realize Gilliam’s full vision.

We are treated to scenes of everything from a fitting for Quixote’s armor to training of the horses for a joust; from puppet making to auditions and screen tests of the grotesque giants who will threaten our heroes; a little financial haggling to writers Gilliam and Tony Grisoni reading the script dramatically.

“It’s got a lot of potential for chaos,” Gilliam remarks almost gleefully, even before the actors arrive. But Gilliam gets more chaos than he bargained for: actors’ contracts don’t get negotiated, his Quixote (70-year-old French actor Jean Rochefort) develops ailments both psychosomatic and real, the only indoor sound stage they can secure has lousy acoustics, the first outdoor location turns out to be next to a NATO bombing range, a downpour and hailstorm wash away the set in a flash flood on day 2 of shooting. It’s like a slow motion train wreck that is almost as funny as it is painful to watch.

Through it all, Gilliam willingly wore a remote mike for the benefit of Fulton and Pepe, and apparently never turned it off. In an interview later, Pepe said “hanging around with the camera started to feel exploitative. At the same time that we knew we were getting great footage, we didn’t always feel good about it. We even approached Terry and told him that we felt uncomfortable shooting, that it seemed to us that we were just exploiting his misery.” But Gilliam told them to stick with the story, however it developed: “He replied, ‘Someone’s got to get a film out of all this mess, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to be me. So it had better be you. Keep shooting!’ ”

Eventually the investors start looking for a scapegoat, and then a way out entirely, and Gilliam ends up losing the rights to his own project, which becomes the property of insurance companies. After watching this catastrophe, one wonders how any feature films get completed, let alone great ones (or, for that matter, so many rotten ones).

“It’s almost like I’ve forgotten about the film,” Gilliam says. “It doesn’t exist, because if it does exist, it’s too painful.” Grisoni adds: “The most painful thing was seeing reality win out over Don Quixote in the end. ’Cause it did.” What adds to the pain is the inclusion of some footage from Gilliam’s cameras – the opening shot of an Inquisition chain gang dragging its way through a desert gully, Depp yelling at a fish gripped in his fists – that offers a hint of what might have been.

Although “Lost in La Mancha” tells a great story, it is only a so-so film with some delightful and moving moments. It’s tough to make a rounded tale that ends with a whimper, not a bang – although a concluding note declares that six months after the conclusion of this story, Gilliam was laboring to buy his script back from the insurance company and have another bash at it. Fulton and Pepe never interviewed any of the actors, which is a loss. (Depp’s comments would have been especially interesting to hear; he comes across on the set as a pretty sharp guy.)

Early in “Lost,” the filmmakers provide several animated sequences to fill in the background for Quixote and Gilliam, which are a nice change of scenery. Stefan Avalos colored and animated Quixote etchings by Gustave Doré to charming effect. Gilliam also lent some of his storyboard illustrations for “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” to Avalos for him to animate. Even better is the precis of Gilliam’s past filmmaking career, done very much in the Gilliam-Python style, by Chaim Bianco.

“Lost” was finished just three days before its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in early 2002, and was screened at other festivals in Britain and the U.S. in the summer and fall before general release early in 2003. Because of its relatively unique look at the filmmaking process (especially a spectacular failure of that process), “Lost” garnered several endorsements from distinguished filmmakers: “Extremely entertaining, and every film director’s worst nightmare!” said Woody Allen, and Robert Altman called it “Truly heartbreaking and emotionally satisfying.”

David Loftus


David Loftus had never read _Don Quixote_ until after seeing this film and writing about it. One of his book groups chose the Cervantes for the summer of 2003, so he is currently slogging through the thing. He considers himself a pragmatic romantic and practical idealist -- or "progmantic" . . . "practealist."
David Loftus, Writer - AllWatchers.com


Directors: Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe
Producer: Lucy Darwin
Editor: Jacob Bricca
Original Music: Miriam Cutler


2003    Evening Standard “Peter Sellers Comedy Award”

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