Lost in La Mancha Documents Terry Gilliam and the Disastrous Don Quixote

While attempting to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in 1998, Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Twelve Monkeys) hired filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe to document the process. Gilliam’s productions were well-known for running into difficulties, perhaps a result of the unholy combination of his ambitions with the bean counters of Hollywood. Following 1988’s Baron Munchausen which was almost abandoned, the director decided to document his productions in case they never saw the light of day. However, watching Lost in La Mancha – Fulton and Pepe’s doc – there is a sense that Gilliam never thought this would actually happen.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’s script was co-written by Terry Gilliam and Tony Grisoni (the man behind anthology series’ Electric Dreams whackiest episode Crazy Diamond). It was to centre on a 21st-century marketing executive thrown back in time to the era of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. There, the ageing Portuguese noble mistakes the time traveller for his side-kick and companion Sancho Panza.

Fed up with Hollywood, Gilliam went to Europe to get funding. Early on in Lost in La Mancha, the writer-director states:



“It’s a very heavy film for European shoulders. The budget on this thing is 32.1 million … For what we are trying to do its half the money we need”.

As it turned out, money was the least of his worries. After spending seven months learning how to speak English, legendary French actor Jean Rochefort had to bow out of the lead role due to both prostate trouble (an issue since much of the movie involved him riding a horse) as well two herniated discs in his back. Fellow stars Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis were too busy to make rehearsals. When Depp could show up to shoot scenes, someone had forgotten to train the extras for a choreographed chain-gang sequence. Meanwhile as F-16 fighter planes roared over the Spanish country side, rendering all sound inaudible, and a surprise torrential downpour ruined much of the filming equipment – the project ran over-budget and was forced to shut down.

There are two big takeaways from La Mancha, the first being how ambitious Terry Gilliam is. He is a filmmaker dedicated to putting his wildest fantasies onscreen. An extraordinary part of the fly-on-the-wall doc is that viewers get to see this mutation from, what narrator Jeff Bridges (collaborator with the director on The Fisher King) describes as, ‘dreams into reality’. Gilliam talks at length about how his take on Don Quixote is storyboarded in his head and that he has seen it many times. We then see him pluck images of giant men roaming the Spanish countryside from his mind onto paper, hiring actors to play these roles for test footage and getting them to stomp around in empty fields. Then through simple in-camera trickery, these actors become towering giants and it looks incredible. Throughout the doc, there is a sense that Gilliam sees himself as the Don Quixote of the filmmaking world, ‘the dreamer’, ‘the idealist’.

One gets a sense from La Mancha that a big part of being creative is being open to new ideas and willing to take risks. Production designer on Baron Munchausen, Dante Ferretti compared the process of working with Gilliam to that of Federico Fellini:

“Terry is very similar to Fellini in spirit … He is open to every single idea and opportunity … Often the best ideas have come out of something not working properly and coming up with a new concept as a result. He is very elastic”.

Portions of La Mancha showcase this. Johnny Depp asks Gilliam and Grisoni if his ad-exec character, having been transported back to the past, would not at first think he was on the set of a commercial and yell ‘cut’. The director seems so open to the idea, laughing hysterically, replying ‘that’s great, that’s really good’. It’s moments like this, along with other shot footage (for example, one hilarious scene of Depp fighting a fish), that are tantalising glimpses into what could have been.

Depp and Gilliam in Lost in La Mancha. - HeadStuff.org
Depp and Gilliam in Lost in La Mancha. Source

The second big takeaway of La Mancha is how difficult it is to make a film. Recently, there have been many movies where behind-the-scenes trouble clearly showed in the end product (Suicide Squad, Justice League, The Snowman). While there can be a tendency for critics to lambast these films, documentaries like La Mancha and Lost Soul (subtitled: “The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau”) are reminders that to make a movie is a huge undertaking. There are so many variables at play and risks which could easily overwhelm the director at the helm. Scenes in La Mancha – Gilliam and his assistants attempting to juggle a cast and crew operating on different schedules or when endless producers, insurance agents and completion bond guarantors begin to swarm a ruined set – although funny in a tragi-comic way, seem to accurately convey the pressures a filmmaker could easily find themselves under.

What a joy then that Gilliam, despite his many battles, won’t let his dream die. Twenty years after pre-production began, the director has completed shooting his version of Don Quixote. With Adam Driver in the role formerly occupied by Johnny Depp and Brazil’s Jonathan Price as the elderly hero, it is bound to be interesting. If it manages to live up to the promising footage displayed in Lost in La Mancha, it could be a real treat.


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