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Masterpiece Theater

Filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe followed iconoclastic director Terry Gilliam to Spain hoping to capture the making of a classic. What they got was so much better.

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Reel folks: Jean Rochefort and Terry Gilliam in Lost in La Mancha, a documentary about a doomed film.  

Lost in La Mancha is a mesmerizing documentary about the unmaking of a movie—Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Cervantes’s Don Quixote, starring Johnny Depp, which began filming in Spain in September 2000 and shut down several weeks later after a string of calamities. The moviemakers, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, had previously shot a documentary on the making of Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys and the director gave them complete access to the Quixote production, which they joined in Madrid eight weeks before filming began and stayed with until the post mortem. Gilliam even had himself wired with a special microphone that would allow Fulton and Pepe access to his every moan and whoop.

To Gilliam’s credit, he kept the filmmakers around even after the point of no return. He probably realized that the only movie that was going to come out of this horrendous experience was , and so he might as well play along: A movie about a non-movie, after all, is better than no movie. The surprise of this film, for those who have followed Gilliam’s contentious career through such movies as Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, is that Gilliam comes across as an equable soul who is trying to do right by everybody. His well-publicized clashes with studio heads over budget overruns and creative control seem a distant memory on the Quixote set.

Since Gilliam was able to finance the $32 million movie entirely with European funds, thus bypassing Hollywood altogether, he seems initially optimistic at the prospect of making his dream project without studio interference. He had been preparing for over ten years to make Quixote, and it is clear from the documentary that he sees himself as a modern incarnation of a man tilting at windmills. Even after the project is kaput, we see Gilliam talking about getting it restarted. But he also asks, “Is it better to leave the film in my head?” We see a couple of sequences from the film-that-might-have-been, including one with a marauding giant bearing down on the camera as his flabby stomach sways, and they have the baroque too-muchness that is Gilliam’s visual trademark. Was a masterpiece lost?

There’s no way to know. Fulton and Pepe began their project believing they would be privy to a magnificent venture. Instead, they found themselves with a front-row seat at a full-scale disaster. (Truth be told, such a turn of events must be every documentarian’s hidden wish.) Watching Lost in La Mancha is like witnessing a slow-motion train wreck, and it recalls two other first-rate movies about the making of movies, Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, which is practically a companion piece to Werner Herzog’s folly Fitzcarraldo, and George Hickenlooper’s Hearts of Darkness, which documents the meltdown on the set of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and is an unparalleled chronicle of how bad things can happen to good people.

With Gilliam’s Quixote project, the difficulties didn’t appear to be as endemic or ego-driven as they were in the Herzog and Coppola films. The main problems seemed to be bad planning and bad luck. Jean Rochefort, the French actor playing Quixote, shows up ill and unable to ride a horse; other cast members, including Depp, arrive late; the soundproof soundstage is anything but; an important desert location turns out to be one mile from a nato bombing range; a heavy storm floods the location and impairs equipment. Investors in the project visit the location around the same time the insurance adjusters descend.

Gilliam is indefatigable throughout most of this, and yet when it becomes clear his dream will be deferred, he shuts down; he has been emptied out by the experience. Most veteran directors have projects they once dreamed of making but never did, and perhaps it is those movies, and not the ones that were realized, that have the greatest hold on them. I once interviewed David Lean about the reissue of Lawrence of Arabia, and he spent most of his time describing to me, in exact detail, a sequence about the rounding of Cape Horn from his aborted Mutiny on the Bounty. This 80-year-old man looked absolutely vibrant at that moment, as if he were watching the movie being played out before his eyes.

There are many other examples: Orson Welles, who also had a Quixote project curtailed early on (we see some of the footage in Lost in La Mancha), spent much of his career publicly ruing the films he never got to make. And then there is Robert Altman, who is quoted approvingly in the ads for this new documentary, calling it “truly heartbreaking.” What must it have been like for him in the seventies to have his Ragtime project, with a script by E. L. Doctorow, taken away from him in his prime? The careers of many of our greatest cinema mavericks are littered with stillborn or never-born projects; to some extent, this is true of all artists, but because of the expensiveness of the movie business, it is particularly true of movie artists. As you watch Lost in La Mancha, your heart goes out to Gilliam. The documentary is much more than a case history; it’s a worst-case scenario made flesh.

There is much darkly mysterious talk in the new CIA thriller The Recruit about how things are not what they seem; but for most of this movie, things are exactly what they seem—mediocre. Al Pacino plays Walter Burke, a haggard, Mephistophelean CIA operations officer who recruits computer whiz James Clayton (Colin Farrell) for the agency, putting him through so many mind games that it’s a wonder the poor guy still has his head screwed on straight by the end. (Or does he?) Roger Donaldson, who also directed No Way Out and Thirteen Days, is too seriously intentioned to give this claptrap the juice it deserves. Farrell is all intensity and no nuance. Pacino is in full, flamboyant hoo-hah mode as a person who is supposed to be invisible. Pacino can play many things, but covertness is not his strong suit.

Lost in La Mancha
Directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe.

The Recruit
Directed by Roger Donaldson; starring Al Pacino and Colin Farrell.


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