Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Lost in La Mancha

Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's documentary Lost in La Mancha, the story of Terry Gilliam's failed attempt to put Don Quixote on screen, has to be one of the best documentaries about film-making ever made. It's about the fragility of film-making; not so much about the artistic struggles but the financial and logistical ones, and, in this case, the insurmountable, unplanned difficulties that can sink a production altogether.

Those difficulties can be summed up quickly: herniated disk, F-10s, and act of God.

As you might expect, Gilliam's film wasn't a straight version of the book, but a rather imaginative one titled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote; it was to feature Johnny Depp as (if I remember correctly, and I can't claim I do) a modern-day advertising salesman who somehow gets thrown into the story. For cost reasons alone, odds are against the movie from the start, but Gilliam and his producers manage to patch together a somewhat wobbly international consortium of backers. The French actor Jean Rochefort is casts as Quixote; he absolutely looks the part, and spends seven months learning English to play it.

Rochefort no sooner arrives than he becomes ill with a prostate problem that makes horse-riding all but impossible. When he flies back to France to see his doctor -- for a stay that becomes increasingly longer -- Gilliam and crew try to make do by shooting some desert scenes with Depp. Then things really start falling down: shots are ruined when huge NATO planes fly overhead, and a flash flood turns into a mudslide, with the crew struggling helplessly to keep their equipment from floating away. The rain ruins the look of the landscape, making further shooting impossible for weeks. The roof, in other words, falls in on the project.

I don't recall ever having seen a documentary that pulls you in so closely into all the fascinating details of pre-production: storyboarding, script conferencing and run-throughs with actors, digicam screen tests, and the close working relationship a director has with his first assistant director. Fulton and Pepe manage to make all this look intensely interesting, and they pull together a broad, all-encompassing picture not only of the Cervantes novel but also what Gilliam was trying to do with it. The story, the filmmakers remind us, plagued Orson Welles for ten years of his life as well, in another production that also went nowhere. (Oddly enough, the film does not mention another sterling example: the Oscar-winning screenwriter Waldo Salt, who obsessively worked on a Quixote script for well over a decade, and died without seeing any results.)

I'm not a huge Gilliam fan, and the movie is very much of a love-letter to him: frame after frame is filled with his huge giddy face and mad eyes, in which we are presumably supposed to read the glint of true genius. (I can't decide if Gilliam was playing up to this idea or merely mocking it by wearing a T-shirt that reads "Fellini" in big letters.) A closing note lets us know that Gilliam is still hoping to get the picture re-financed and somehow made; you can't help but hope that he succeeds, and that this documentary -- superb as it is -- won't be his epitaph.

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