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Impossible Dreamer

Terry Gilliam sets out to film Don Quixote but becomes him instead.

Filmmaker Terry Gilliam is no stranger to fiasco. After all, this is the human dynamo who saw 1989's inventive (if sometimes incoherent) The Adventures of Baron Munchausen through a series of artistic and financial crises that would have landed most people in an asylum. But Gilliam's encounter with the tale-spinning Baron, trying as it was, merely hinted at the full-blown disaster that would strike him eleven years later, when he sought to satisfy his longstanding obsession with Don Quixote.

As we see in Keith Fulton's and Louis Pepe's fascinating but often indulgent documentary Lost in La Mancha, Gilliam's dream project, a characteristically bizarre new take on the most famous dreamer in the history of literature, seems to have been doomed from the start. The filmmaker set out for Madrid in August 2000, armed with an elaborate script, a pile of beautifully drawn storyboards and the firm resolve to shoot The Man Who Killed Don Quixote no matter what it took. He vowed it would be "an extraordinary film -- beautiful and terrible at the same time." It would star seventy-year-old French icon Jean Rochefort as the delusional knight errant, Johnny Depp as a modern-day advertising executive who travels back in time and becomes entangled in Quixote's schemes, and Vanessa Paradis as Dulcinea.

Upon his arrival in Spain, Gilliam learned that his European backers had reduced the film's budget from $40 million to $32 million. Clearly, they lacked chivalry.

Tilting at windmills? Jean Rochefort and Terry Gilliam 
on the set.
Tilting at windmills? Jean Rochefort and Terry Gilliam on the set.

That was only the beginning. The production was quickly beset by problems as nightmarish as anything Gilliam ever conjured up in surreal puzzles like 12 Monkeys and Brazil and, in places, no less hilarious than his wildest outpourings with Monty Python. American fighter jets screamed over the film's not-so-remote locations, ruining the sound recording. Rainstorms, hail and mudslides trashed the schedule. Actors failed to show up. Crew members bickered and battled. When it looked like things couldn't get any worse, they did; Francis Ford Coppola never had it this bad shooting Apocalypse Now. While Gilliam struggled to hold his movie together, actor Rochefort came down with a horrible prostate infection, which escalated into a pair of herniated discs. Off he hobbled to consult his doctors in Paris. The weather got worse. As the film's investors grew more alarmed, the insurance adjusters refused to make good on the production company's claims. Gilliam had trouble casting actors to play giants. The first assistant director quit.

That still wasn't all. Among the theatrical vanities and unreasonable demands of the company, nothing outranked Gilliam's own lunacy or the excesses of his baroque working style. "Terry has the tendency to overload everything," Italian cinematographer Nicola Pecorini says. "Nothing is ever simple." Indeed, Gilliam himself tells the camera: "If it's easy, I don't do it."

In this case, it didn't get done. After one setback too many, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote ceased production, perhaps forever -- a casualty of bad luck and blind belief. Gilliam has managed to buy the rights to the film from back from the insurers, but actually trying to shoot it again looks like a long shot.

For the time being, we behold the project's illegitimate child. Lost in La Mancha is, of course, an ideal film for movie buffs, who are bound to delight in each new misfortune even as they sympathize with the documentarians' sometimes inflated vision of a tortured genius at work. But you needn't know the sequence of the Hitchcock canon or the misdeeds of Fatty Arbuckle to appreciate this rare glimpse of the artistic impulse run amok. For nearly four centuries, Cervantes's immortal hero has tilted at windmills and imagined himself grand, beguiling romantics the world over with the crazy purity of his delusion. Seen through Fulton's and Pepe's affectionate lens, Gilliam's quest to revivify Don Quixote is no less noble than Quixote himself. But then, these filmmakers have been this route before: In 1996 they directed The Hamster Factor, a documentary about the making of Gilliam's 12 Monkeys .

Here's an interesting sidelight: For more than twenty years, narrator Jeff Bridges tells us, Orson Welles dreamed of making a Don Quixote of his own. All that remained when he died in 1985 were a few scraps of black-and-white test footage. Gilliam's obsession with the classic dates back at least a decade, and while he has no Citizen Kane on his resumé, the way the great novel has thwarted Gilliam is spookily similar to Welles's experience. "The curse of Quixote," he calls it.

In the end, what Fulton and Pepe give us is the tragicomedy of a failed idealist, a guy who risked sanity itself for the sake of stubborn vision. That's right: the impossible dream. The world calls him Terry Gilliam. But as irony would have it, Cervantes himself might have created him. "I've made the film in my head many times," the bowed but unbroken director tells us, his voice full of lament. Unfortunately, that's probably the only theater in which it will ever play.

 
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