In 2001, director and former Monty Python member Terry Gilliam set out his film, “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.” “Quixote” has been a pet project for Gilliam, something he has been working on for more than a decade. Gilliam’s version involves a modern-day actor (played by Johnny Depp) who somehow finds himself caught up in story of the “real” of Don Quixote. Quixote mistakes Depp for Sancho Panza, while he believes he must be in a dream.
Gilliam has a history of making brilliant films that like to blur the line between fantasy and reality (“Time Bandits,” “Fisher King,” “Adventures of Baron Munchausen”). However he also has a reputation as an “out-of-control” director and a “money-waster.” Because of such a reputation, Gilliam sometimes finds his visual ambitions exceed his limitations. The documentary “Lost in La Mancha” follows Gilliam’s dedication and frustration trying to bring his Quixote to life.
“La Mancha” is a good study in how chaotic filmmaking is, especially for independent and low-budget filmmakers. Gilliam has a difficulty finding investors, and must settle for Europeans who give him only a $32 million budget, or about half of what Gilliam feels he needs. This causes him to scale back and makes each day of filming crucial, as Gilliam and his crew have very little room for error in their tight schedule.
Of course, things do go wrong; actors are not under contract; the unforeseeable happens (flash floods, rumbling jets and an undeveloped “soundstage”); and Gilliam struggles to get his film completed. Because he is used to chaos while making his films (Gilliam touches on the similar difficulties he had making “Munchausen”), these setbacks do not faze him; Gilliam presses on. Yet despite his efforts, the film fails, as “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” shuts down after only six days of filming. The final blow comes when lead actor Jean Rochefort (playing the title character) develops a prostate injury during filming. He is gone for a few days, a week, two weeks, and ultimately cannot return for the film. The insurance company refuses to pay for Rochefort’s illness, claiming it was an “act of God,” and ends up with the film’s rights as a result.
While “Lost in La Mancha” is humorous, showing the many difficulties of making any film, it is also sad, not only for Gilliam and his staff, but for us moviegoers as well. “La Mancha,” does include some clips of the Gilliam’s film, from test scenes, pre-production work, and a few actual finished scenes, and we cannot help but wonder about the movie that would have been. Gilliam is childlike with glee as he watches his visions unfold, and we (especially Gilliam fans) cannot help but get caught up with him. Even as it becomes certain his film is doomed, Gilliam continues to push with unflappable enthusiasm and a belief that the film will get done. In many ways, he becomes like his own film’s protagonist, believing in his dream while reality slowly tears it apart.
At the end of the film, a dejected Terry Gilliam reflects over his experience. He states he has made the film over so many times in his mind, he no longer feels a need to really make it. The movie claims Gilliam is pursuing the insurance company to sell back the rights to him, but as “Lost in La Mancha” was released two years ago, it is doubtful “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” will ever be made.