If you’ve ever spent time on a film set, you know that almost every movie is a quixotic enterprise, a battle against chaos—the elements, the machines, the ebb and flow of actors’ egos. But the squirmily funny documentary Lost in La Mancha (IFC), directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, makes the case that Terry Gilliam’s aborted epic The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was one of the most quixotic enterprises of all—that its director was practically a stand-in for Cervantes’ delusional Spaniard. As one colleague puts it, Gilliam is “a little bit like Quixote: the idealist, seeing things we can’t see.” The collapse of this expensive European production after only a few days of shooting—a casualty of poor planning, the weather, and the inability of its leading actor to sit atop a horse—is presented as a mythic disaster, the ultimate tragicomedy of the artist butting up against the “windmills of reality”: windmills that here fight back, and win.
Fulton and Pepe have a history with Gilliam. They directed a sympathetic documentary on the making of his TwelveMonkeys (1995), The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys (1996), and they took advantage of their unrestricted access: At times they must have had the only organized production company on the set. They catch Gilliam throwing tantrums over the lack of rehearsal for extras and the atrocious location scouting—a warehouse for interiors that conducts sound like a corrugated shed, a picturesque landscape that’s four hours from Madrid and next to a NATO bombing range. The Murphy’s Law aspect of the production is grimly amusing, at least for those of us who didn’t have money in Gilliam’s film. In the documentary’s most spectacular sequence, a huge, lethal-looking black cloud appears on the horizon and someone asserts that there’s sunlight on the other side: “Another half hour and it will be clear.” In another half hour the production’s cars are underwater and its equipment in the process of being carried off by raging flood waters. Gilliam is last seen making King Lear jokes.
Lost in La Mancha is a fascinating glimpse at the fragile ecosystem of a movie shoot, but I’m bound to say that I don’t share its view of Gilliam, which seems perfectly in synch with Gilliam’s view of himself: as “Captain Chaos,” a man who needs an atmosphere of panic in which to do his greatest work. His movies are awesome, but most of them strike me as tiresomely overscaled, misshapen, and slapdash. I prefer Gilliam’s less self-indulgent efforts— Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), which he co-directed with Terry Jones, and The Fisher King (1991), on which he was gun-for-hire: Reeling from the disaster of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989), he was handed a shapely and powerful script by Richard LaGravenese and reined in by strong producers, among them Lynda Obst.
Given the choice, Gilliam prefers his producers weak and off the set—which goes farther toward explaining the collapse of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote than anything in Lost in LaMancha. Why doesn’t anyone have a backup plan? Why is Gilliam discussing the future of the film with his assistant director instead of his producers? Why is no one around to make the case that his French leading actor, Jean Rochefort, should be recast when he flies off to Paris to see his doctors and doesn’t come back for weeks? Rochefort was an “essential element” in the financing, but it seems unlikely that investors would have thrown away everything they’d spent if another star could have been found. And, on the basis of the footage Gilliam shot, Rochefort doesn’t appear to be the definitive Quixote: He’s irredeemably Gallic, and his “woeful countenance” has more to do with his swollen prostate than with any chivalric sense of duty.
Gilliam, meanwhile, becomes increasingly detached, sitting around with his hands over his face or playing with his model windmills and burnt-orange marionettes. Conscious that Orson Welles had his own unfinished Don Quixote project, Gilliam makes jokes about the projected as accursed—although Welles never gave up on his Quixote, whereas Gilliam never seemed to commit to it fully. He has, on the other hand, put considerable effort into promoting Lost in La Mancha, making the rounds of talk shows to sell a story of cinematic impotence that most filmmakers would want to see buried. Gilliam evidently loves this view of himself as the Don Quixote of modern cinema. But Don Quixote would have gotten the movie made.