LOST IN LA MANCHA CHRONICLES THE UN-MAKING
OF TERRY GILLIAM'S DON QUIXOTE
Terry Gilliam always dreamed of following in the footsteps of his hero Orson Welles. But having his own version of Don Quixote - a book Welles tried and failed to bring to the screen for 12 years - collapse around him was not what he had in mind. "I was interested in the first half of his career," he laughs grimly. "But it sort of turns out that I have been inflicted with the second half."
The former Python had been burning to film Cervantes's classic work
ever since pitching the idea to Jake Eberts (the executive producer
of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) in 1990. "I called him and
said, 'I've got two names for you: Gilliam and Quixote. And I'd like
$20 million.' He said, 'OK, done'. I then read the book and realised
that you couldn't make a film out of it. It was just too great and extraordinary."
Gilliam and his co-writer, Tony Grisoni (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), solved the "unfilmability" problem by taking the bits they liked and weaving a quixotic story around them that "maybe even Cervantes would be pleased with". The result was The Man Who Killed Don Quixote: a time-travelling version of the original, which Gilliam describes as "Quixote through the looking glass".
Filming finally got under way in Spain in September 2000, with Johnny Depp and the veteran French actor Jean Rochefort in the lead roles. It should have been the fulfilment of a dream. But instead, Gilliam saw his plans quickly unravel as the project was hit by one disaster after another. Just five days into an ambitious schedule, the shoot tragic-comically staggered to a halt - and never resumed. All Gilliam had to show for his decade-long struggle was a few tantalising glimpses of what could have been, and depression. It was a cruel end. But perhaps inevitable, given the film's subject matter and Gilliam's earlier experiences.
"It happens on almost every film I do that the process of making the film mirrors what the story is about," he sighs. "Brazil was about an institution and the ministry became the fight with the studio. With this one, we always said as we were writing it that it was about sacrifice and suffering. And it all came true."
Not for everyone, however: Film-makers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe managed to salvage a film from the wreckage, albeit not the one that cast and crew had decamped to Spain to make. Having documented the making of Twelve Monkeys in The Hamster Factor, they were asked to join the $32 million project by Gilliam and were on hand to chronicle the director's despairing descent into movie-making hell, every painful step of the way.
Fulton and Pepe arrived in Spain eight weeks before shooting started with the intention of making a documentary about how a film gets off the ground. However, it became clear, pretty rapidly, that what they were witnessing was, in fact, the collapse of a major motion picture and a director vainly struggling to achieve his vision in the face of unyielding reality.
In their documentary, Lost in La Mancha, out later this summer, Gilliam is thus transformed, rather persuasively, from a man trying to film the novel Don Quixote into a modern-day version of Cervantes's hero. Now that, Alanis Morissette, really is ironic.
According to Fulton, intimations of what was to come were there from the beginning, as almost everyone was worried from the outset that they neither had the time nor the budget to do the film Gilliam had in his head. They had good reason to be worried. A year earlier, the project unexpectedly stalled when Gilliam's principle financier confessed that he did not have the money he had promised. To anyone involved, it seemed as if the curse of Don Quixote had struck again.
Despite this set back, Gilliam, perhaps mindful of his creative differences with American studios on Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, remained fixed in his determination to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in Europe, with European money.
"Hollywood was dominating everything so much, I thought it would be nice to show them that we don't always need them," he says. "It might give other people confidence to say, 'Ah, there's other ways of doing this', and financiers confidence that they don't necessarily need Hollywood involved to make money."
Months of complex negotiations ensued, during which it looked as if Gilliam might lose Johnny Depp completely. The only person benefiting from the delay was Rochefort, who was trying to learn English. Eventually, Gilliam's passion and stubbornness bore fruit, and they were off again. It was then that the real problems started.
On day one of the shoot, Jean Rochefort complained of feeling ill. It transpired that he was suffering from a prostate infection, but the actor's suddenly aged appearance made it seem a lot worse. "He looked like an 80-year-old rather than a 70-year-old," Gilliam said later, "and it was obvious he was in pain. Day one and already we were in deep shit." The next day, as Depp was readying himself for his first scenes, the clouds burst open and a flash flood swept away the entire set. As Pepe and Fulton tried in vain to move their car from the rapidly forming river of mud, they heard Gilliam laughing hysterically on his wireless microphone. What it signified, they could not tell. Two days later, Gilliam realised that the landscape was no longer the same colour, leaving him desperately trying to fake shots in order to keep the film alive.
The final nail in the coffin was driven home on day five, when the first assistant director told Gilliam he was refusing to allow Rochefort to continue working. The actor, who by this time was clearly in agony, nevertheless insisted on climbing back in the saddle. An hour later, three men were needed to help him dismount. The next day he was flown to a hospital in Paris where he was operated on for a double hernia. And that was that.
As Lost in La Mancha reveals, these were not the only hurdles with which Gilliam had to contend. Other vexations included untrained horses, a multilingual crew that struggled to communicate detailed ideas, absent actors, a soundstage that was not, in fact, sound-proof, jet engine noise ... Given all these obstacles, is it any wonder that the director's initial excitement gave way to despair, causing the light to gradually go out in his eyes?
"It (the documentary) is a really fine bit of film-making but I don't like watching it because it usually takes me a week to recover," says Gilliam, his tongue nowhere near his cheek. "But it would have been even worse if the events had happened and no-one had been there to document it. This way at least there's some visible, tangible memory of the thing - and some images that might encourage future investors to come forward. So thanks to Keith and Lou, Quixote still has life in him."
Time will tell if Gilliam can resurrect his project and succeed where Orson Welles failed. Since the saga ended with a $15 million insurance claim, the largest in European film history, the immediate fate of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is in the hands of lawyers and the insurance company. As for Gilliam, he is down but most definitely not out.
"Once we get the script back we're going to have to re-finance it, and then off we go again," he says hopefully. "If I play it right, I could continue making this film for the rest of my life." With European money? "I'm happy to take from anybody now. I'm less choosey this time around."
Lost in La Mancha is released in August.