In 2002, Terry Gilliam - former Monty Python member and director of Twelve Monkeys (1995) - finally raised the finance he needed to make the movie he had always dreamed of - The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Gilliam had been planning the picture in his head for more than a decade and was confident it would bring him back out on top after the rather disappointing reception to his previous project, the adaptation of Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). Little did Gilliam know that it would all collapse under him after a mere six days of production.
During the filming of Twelve Monkeys, Gilliam had allowed filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe all-areas access to the production, to allow them to make a behind-the-scenes documentary about the film. As more than one person noted at the time, Fulton and Pepe became more 'witnesses' than documenters, as they saw Gilliam's creative process run the gamut of early enthusiasm to self-doubt and despair. Still, it was a successful experiment, and one that Gilliam decided to repeat with The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. The bitter irony is that the subsequent footage became a film in its own right - entitled Lost in La Mancha - a documentary that shows Gilliam's dream going down the plug, chronicling the series of events from pre-production to the six brief days of production before the movie collapsed.
Terry Gilliam has been plagued by lack of support from Hollywood throughout his career. His film Brazil had been re-edited by the studio and then left to rot on a shelf until Gilliam challenged the head of the studio in the form of a full-page advert in Variety magazine asking when he was going to release the film. The tactic worked, but it also marked Gilliam as 'trouble'. His follow-up film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, flopped at the box office and was critically slammed - though it also led Gilliam to first consider the concept that would (or more accurately, wouldn't) become The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Gilliam has struggled to raise finance for almost every project ever since, and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was no exception. Thus Gilliam turned to the European film industry, a tremendous risk as European film budgets are considerably smaller than even low-budget Hollywood productions, meaning the budget had to be stretched further with little room for error. The problem was that the whole production ended up looking like one big error...
This then, is the backdrop for Lost in La Mancha.
A Series of Unevents
Jeff Bridges narrates the story of Lost in La Mancha through to its ultimate incompletion as viewers get to witness Gilliam's gradual breakdown caused by the different disasters that occur.
Lost in La Mancha stars Terry Gilliam, Jean Rochefort, Johnny Depp and the rest of the crew on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, as Gilliam comes to terms with mistakes and mishaps.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was set to be a comedy based upon the novel Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes, which was about an man whose senility sets himself off on an adventure as a knight. Gilliam wanted to respect the work of Cervantes and having read the book, came to the realisation that it was too big to be made into a film (on the budget he had, at least). Thus in the script he changed the story into his abstract reality style with a plot about a jerk of an advertising director who believes 'money can be made from dreams' but gets thrown back in time to the 17th Century where Quixote mistakes him for his sidekick Sancho Panza.
Jean Rochefort was set to play Don Quixote, but colonic problems meant the old man was sent back to France for medical tests. This was a considerable set-back for the production, especially considering he was playing the lead and knights generally ride around on horses which for him, quite literally, was a pain in the rear.
Johnny Depp played Sancho Panza with a scene with a fish that makes Gollum from Lord of the Rings look like an amateur actor.
Problems in production ranged from losing the film's star and the discovery that the Spanish 'studio' (a warehouse) had an echo that ruined the dialogue, to a huge flood wiping out half the equipment in a storm. What filming there was took place in La Mancha and, being inland in South-Eastern Spain, such storms rarely happen, and the series of disasters began to convince the cast and crew to think that somebody somewhere really didn't want this film to be made.
Though in some ways a tragic movie as it depicts one man's loss of hope, Lost in La Mancha is also comedic as the director flips out at each stumbling block. What the documentary also does - thanks to the little amount of assembled footage of the Quixote production there is - is make people want to see this non-existent film completed.
For Gilliam, this movie has to be made. It is his dream project, it is his 'big thing' where artists know that it will be their greatest work and keep it bottled up until the time right for it to be released, as it optimises everything they've become skilled at. Basically, the artist's best work, ever.
As the documentary goes on, there seems to be a jinx on Don Quixote as a concept, as numerous other filmmakers have discovered. Previous attempts have rarely got past production. One example is Orson Welles, who died during the production of his own abortive attempt at the Quixote legend. Gilliam himself had experienced companies backing out of support agreements, making attempts collapse twice before.
But Gilliam is continuing his attempts to bring his own personal Holy Grail of the film to the screen. He's seen it too many times in his head to let it rest, which goes to show that some dreams take a while to wake from.