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LOST IN LA MANCHA

Review by Michael Jacobson

Featuring:  Terry Gilliam, Johnny Depp, Jean Rochefort, Vanessa Paradis
Narrator:  Jeff Bridges
Directors:  Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Docurama
Features:  See Review
Length:  93 Minutes
Release Date:  June 24, 2003

“Talk about your false sense of security.”

“I don’t think there’s ANY sense of security, false OR real!”

Film ***1/2

Ah, the best laid plans of mice, men, and movie directors.

Directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe made the excellent supplementary documentary on the making of Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys. But when they were invited back by Gilliam to capture the realization of his dream project The Man Who Killed Don Quixote for possible inclusion with another future DVD release, they never could have foreseen what was about to happen.  What started as a simple making-of documentary instead became the record of how easily a motion picture project can implode for reasons beyond anyone’s control.

Terry Gilliam is no stranger to troubles when it comes to making movies.  His filmography reads not only as a list of some of cinema’s most imaginative and boldly stylistic visions, but also as a collection of some of the art’s most troubled productions.  His innovative and darkly funny Brazil is one of the best movies of the 80s, yet more famous than the picture itself is the legendary battle Terry had to fight in order to keep the studio from cutting his picture down and changing the ending.  The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a delightful piece of fantasy, yet it continues to hang like an albatross around Gilliam’s neck because it went so far over budget that turning a profit at the box office became impossible.  Fortunately, his follow-up film The Fisher King enjoyed a trouble-free shoot as well as critical and box office success.

But all of these are merely prologue to Terry’s misadventures with Don Quixote.  A pet project of his for ten years or better, Gilliam frequently points out in Lost in La Mancha that the movie has been completed in his mind for some time now.  And sadly, so far, that’s the only place it exists.

Financing was the first troubled step…without any American money to back his film, Terry set off to capture his dream vision with the largest budget ever assembled for a strictly European financed movie, about $31 million.  “That’s about half of what we need,” Gilliam chuckles.  But he still went forward, prepared to cut corners when he could…he had a great location, terrific costumes and props, a trio of renowned actors including Johnny Depp, Jean Rochefort and Vanessa Paradis, and most importantly, his unwavering commitment to what the finished movie would look like.

But the problems started coming in rapid fire fashion.  A key sequence early on had to be re-scheduled because no one remembered to rehearse the extras.  Their beautiful location happened to be in close proximity with a NATO air base, and takes were frequently interrupted by the loud roars of passing jets.  Finally, after only a few days of shooting, a monstrous wrath-of-God type storm blew in, with lightning, wind, torrential rains and even giant hailstones.  Terry leans into the wind and screams “YES!” over and over again with humor and madness…what else could he do?

By the time the weather cleared, sets and equipment were washed away and/or ruined, and the landscape had darkened because of the saturation from the rains.  Filming could not continue there for a while.

Then a bigger problem arose:  French actor Jean Rochefort, who was slated to be Gilliam’s Don Quixote, showed obvious signs of pain during his scenes on horseback.  After a day of shooting, he had to be helped off the horse by a couple of men and carried to his chair.  Seeking medical help, Gilliam and crew waited and hoped for good news, but it never came:  Rochefort had two herniated discs, and would not be back for awhile.

With days passing and nothing getting on film, investors and insurance representatives come around looking for answers.  Legal jargon is mulled over, such as what constitutes “an act of God”. 

The inevitable finally comes…The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was scrapped.  Props and other items were boxed up.  The insurance companies owned them and Terry’s screenplay as compensation.  And Terry was left as a filmmaker without a film.  But at that point, pulling the plug seemed more like a mercy killing than anything else.

Gilliam, who mastered the art of dark comedy with Brazil, never could have guessed he’d one day be starring in one of his own just by doing what he does.  The events depicted in Lost in La Mancha are often heartbreaking…yet how can we not smile at the absurdity of it all?  Had someone fashioned this story as a fictional tale, we’d never have bought into it. 

The most intriguing aspect of documentary filmmaking for me has always been the fact that the filmmakers have no way of knowing how their story is going to end until it ends.  Gilliam’s bad luck turned into a stroke of good fortune for Fulton and Pepe, who never could have imagined their simple supplemental documentary turning into a celebrated cautionary tale.  But they were ready for anything, and Gilliam was a completely available and accessible subject to them…and to his credit, he’s been a supportive good sport with this picture, appearing in the DVD supplements and even crafting some terrific Monty Python-styled animation to go in the movie!

And this picture shows Terry in his true spirit…he’s actually one of cinema’s nice guys, with an infectious spirit and gleeful enthusiasm about moviemaking.  In fairness to him, he’s not the first artist to stumble with the impossible dream of realizing Don Quixote as a film.  Orson Welles labored for years on his version, which was shot here and there whenever money allowed over a period of years.  It, too, was never completed…in fact, the shooting was so stretched out that the actor playing Welles’ Quixote died of old age.

But there is still a ray of hope…as Lost in La Mancha concludes, we learn that Terry is preparing to give it another go and working to buy back his script from the insurance company.  I, for one, hope he succeeds.  Looking at his storyboards, hearing his lines, and seeing some of his few complete shots proves that his vision of this story is one that deserves to be seen.

Video ***

The movie was shot on video and shown in original full frame ratio, and considering the limitations of tape, the image looks quite good.  It was transferred directly to disc from video source instead of having the extra step of film in between, but it works more than serviceably.  Generally, colors are well rendered and details are probably as sharp as tape allows…not much was shot in low light levels, so the graininess and murkiness that sometimes shows up on video from that isn’t an issue.  Sometimes when scenes fade to black you can see a bit of etching; but again, that’s a problem inherent in the source material.  Overall, a solid enough effort.

Audio ***

Though the box says 5.1, the movie is actually in Dolby Surround, but even so, it’s a better than average offering.  You’ll appreciate it when the early scenes are interrupted by the sounds of jets…even with limited sound equipment, those things are quite loud and intrusive!  The big storm sequence is as potent as any you’d see in a special effects-laden production.  On top of that, the dialogue is almost always clear and clean…amusingly enough, when certain clips are too low for audio pickup, you get a subtitle so you don’t miss anything.  Nicely done.

Features ***1/2

I didn’t notice anywhere on the packaging of this DVD that this is a double disc set, but that’s exactly what it is!  The feature and looks at other Docurama titles are on the first disc, while the second contains all the remaining supplements.  There are interviews with Gilliam, Johnny Depp, and the filmmakers (in which it is confirmed that yes, Terry does plan to give Don Quixote another go), plus deleted scenes, video soundbites, stills of costumes, storyboards and production, a conversation with Terry Gilliam and author Salman Rushdie from the 29th annual Telluride Film Festival, a live IFC focus on Gilliam, and one of the best theatrical trailers I’ve seen in a while…good stuff!

Summary:

Like Don Quixote, Terry Gilliam tried to create fantasy in the face of hard, cold reality and failed, but unlike his screen hero, Gilliam lives to do battle another day.  Lost in La Mancha is a terrifically entertaining and bewildering documentary about misfortunes, but who knows?  It may just generate the interest required to let Terry’s film rise from the ashes like the phoenix.  Either way, this is a DVD definitely worth checking out.