Windmills of his mind
Even Terry Gilliam’s own fertile, fantastical imagination pales next to the struggles and biblical disasters that infested and finally squelched his production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Practice NATO bombing runs drowned out the shoot on a key Spanish desert set. A flash flood and mudslides washed away equipment and any chance of staying on schedule. The only available soundstage had the acoustics of a bottomless pit and an air-conditioning system that rumbled like overhead F-16s. And the physical ailments of the film’s 72-year-old leading man, who was to spend most of the film on horseback, pounded nails into the coffin containing Gilliam’s dream of reviving Miguel de Cervantes’ classic tale of latent heroics and delusion.
Filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe chronicled the rocky marriage of art and commerce on the set of Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys in the 1995 documentary The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys. In the summer of 2000, they were also on location in Spain with cameras in hand to witness the final eight weeks of pre-production and the principal shoot of Gilliam’s decade-long effort to turn his feverish Quixote dream into reality. They were looking for a backstage story unlike any other. They found a chaotic state of affairs in which the actual production not only depicts but also metaphorically embodies its story’s insanity, exhilaration, grimness and impossibility.
Gilliam is the Minnesota-born member of Monty Python who supplied the group’s Flying Circus TV show with distinctive stop-motion, collage and animated segments that bridged its skits. He drifted into film, first with his comic mates as co-director of 1974’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail and then with his own medieval monster epic Jabberwocky. His use of vivid, painterly visuals continued with Time Bandits and Brazil, and he was successful with both The Fisher King (a sort of modern Manhattan cousin to Quixote) and 12 Monkeys. The critical and financial failure of 1988’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Gilliam’s bitter war with studio brass to release an uncut version of Brazil are now legendary.
Lost in La Mancha adds another layer of thought on just how these ups and downs occur in the career of a such a brilliant, capable director and provides a cautionary tale that may leave filmmakers and investors suddenly seeking other outlets for their creativity and pocketbooks.
Gilliam toyed with the idea of interjecting time travel into the story of an old man who surrounds himself with romantic novels of heroic knights and then makes himself a suit of junkyard armor and battles windmills that he envisions to be giants with massive, flailing arms. He wanted to flavor this film with the same magical significance that children attach to the everyday world.
After collaborating with Johnny Depp on the audacious Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Gilliam and screenwriter Tony Grisoni developed the character of a cynical advertising executive for the former Tiger Beat heartthrob. The adman is transported into 17th-century Spain and is mistaken by the deluded Don for his fat, short, donkey-riding sidekick, Sancho Panza. Their misadventures were to push the thematic envelope of Quixote’s last hurrah, in which the aged warrior has “one last chance to make the world as interesting as he dreams it to be.”
With Depp’s flame, Vanessa Paradis, on board as the fair maiden and with Jean Rochefort picture-perfect as the mustachioed Knight of the Sad Countenance, the project seemed to be properly on course. But things went bad during pre-production and rapidly down the toilet the day shooting began. Fulton and Pepe capture the free fall as Gilliam’s glee and high-pitched laughter becomes peppered with bouts of profanity, frustration and despair.
The backstage tour and lessons in European film financing here are relevatory. Storyboards come to life with Gilliam and his assistants vocalizing the dialogue. First assistant director Phil Patterson becomes a central force of daily progress (and nearly a scapegoat) on the film, and interviews with the crew and a narration from Jeff Bridges keep the documentary flowing at a brisk clip.
Is there a place for a man whose visions are too elaborate to be shouldered by independent film and too risky for mainstream Hollywood? Is there a place for a man fencing under the cloak of enfant terrible who is well aware of but not intimidated by the fragility of human beings as well as the fragility of cinema itself? If not, there should be. A dreamer like Gilliam, who sees things the rest of us humans cannot and who has the courage to attempt to share them, is a treasure not to be lost in La Mancha forever.