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From the DVD Shelf: Lost in La Mancha (2002)

March 14th, 2011
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In August of 2000, director Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Twelve Monkeys) began work on his film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, an adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ famous novel The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, starring Johnny Depp, Vanessa Paradis and Jean Rochefort.

You don’t recognize the name of that movie?  You don’t remember ever seeing it in theatres?  You’re having trouble finding it on Netflix?

That’s because the film does not exist.  Despite years of preparation by Mr. Gilliam, months of pre-production (in which sets were constructed, props were created, costumes were made), and several days of actual shooting on the film with the main cast, an accumulation of catastrophes resulted in production being suspended, and ultimately halted indefinitely.  Despite all the work that had been done and the money that had been spent and the film footage already in the can, the movie was never finished.

Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe thought that they were filming a behind-the-scenes featurette for the eventual DVD release of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.  When the project fell apart, they decided to edit together the footage that they had shot to create a look at a movie that almost was but wasn’t.  The result is Lost in La Mancha.

For anyone interested in film, this documentary is a must-see.  It’s a fascinating case-study of the fiendish complexity of mounting a film production and the many, many things that can go wrong, thus sending a project undertaken with the best of intentions by all parties involved hurtling screamingly off the rails.

I wish I could say it’s shocking to me that acclaimed director Terry Gilliam has had so much trouble, over the years, finding funding and support for many of his projects.  Sadly it’s not shocking at all.  But it does remain bitterly disappointing.  Mr. Gilliam is one of the finest directors working today — a true film visionary in every sense of the world.  I might not love all of his films (they’re all so idiosyncratic and weird that some appeal to me far more than others), but all of them are clearly the work of a master craftsmen.  And yet, while most of Mr. Gilliam’s films probably possess behind-the-scenes stories of debates and battles over budgets and content and many other aspects of the making of the films, at least at the end of the day those movies exist!

It’s pretty sad that, despite literally years of working on his Don Quixote movie (at one point in pre-production, Mr. Gilliam comments with a smile that he’s been on the project for about a decade) that was, in many ways, a passion project for him, this talented director was unable to actually create his film.  (It’s reminiscent of the troubles besetting another incredibly talented, visionary director these days — maybe you’ve read about how Universal has declined to green-light Guillermo del Toro’s dream project, his film adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s at the Mountains of Madness??)  But while there are plenty of projects that might sound interesting but never actually get a green-light from the studio, what’s really staggering is that this film had not just begun pre-production but that actual FILMING HAD BEGUN on the movie before everything fell apart.

Lost in La Mancha is a truly intriguing peek behind the curtain of how movies get made — or DON’T get made.  Watching a film like this, it’s easy to see why so many films that DO actually get completed feel, nevertheless, as though the writer or director’s original artistic vision was ultimately compromised in the making.  (Hint: it’s because it probably WAS.)  But Lost in La Mancha is also an engaging portrait of a master filmmaker at work, and a glimpse at a really interesting-looking project that will never be.

Every now and then I hear rumors that Mr. Gilliam is attempting to relaunch this film, with new financial backers and a new cast.  (In 2009, Mr. Gilliam spoke about casting Robert Duvall in the film.)  Will this ever actually see the light of day?  Who knows!  For now, Mr. Gilliam remains lost in La Mancha.

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