Lost In La Mancha (2002)

Directed by Louis Pepe and Keith Fulton

“Captain Chaos is completely in his element.”

The Disc

Plastered with four and five-star reviews, the disc is nicely but not elaborately packaged. The artwork is fun and irreverent, as you might expect for something that focuses on the work of Terry Gilliam.

It’s got a bunch of extras too, including some decent interviews, deleted and alternate scenes, a wealth of storyboards and galleries of artwork from the abandoned film, while even the animated menus are Gilliam-esque.

Why did I get this?

Well, like any good Brit, I’ve got a soft spot for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, though I’m the first to admit the hit rate isn’t anywhere near 100%, and frankly, some of Gilliam’s animations terrified me as a kid. If I’m honest, while I like his movies, I don’t exactly love them (there are two more Gilliam films on the Late Viewings pile which have been gathering dust for years), but I’ll accept they’re never short on ambition and creativity.

What I do love is a good behind the scenes story about a movie, especially if it’s a movie that never quite ended up being made*. As someone who has more than a passing interest in film, I remember tales doing the rounds in magazines and online around the time of production about how disastrous Gilliam’s labour of love had become, and it was tough not to be intrigued.

Handily, I’d kept the HMV receipt inside the case for some reason, showing I bought it for the bargain price of £2.99 alongside Paul Provenza’s excellent The Aristocrats – a documentary about a joke too terrible to tell in public – which suggests I was in a bit of a documentary phase in July 2006.

To be honest, I remember very little about Lost In La Mancha apart from some oddly-clothed and out-of-shape men bounding towards camera, test screening as giants. Funny what you remember, eh?

*(If that sort of thing floats your boat too I’d highly recommend reading Tales From Development Hell by David Hughes. Or don’t, whatever, I’m not the boss of you.)

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review will cover the film from start to finish in depth, so it’s pretty long, and you can expect spoilers below – scroll straight to the next heading to avoid them!

Right off the bat, we’re watching Gilliam filming fire-throwing revellers dressed as demons with an early-2000s JVC Handycam. They’re dancing around, screaming and swinging burning sticks around, and already I remember being jealous of Gilliam’s turn-of-the-Millennium tech.

I don’t know much about Don Quixote, and to be honest, I think 80-90% of what I do know comes from this documentary. The rest comes courtesy of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip To Spain – none of my knowledge about Don Quixote comes from the actual Cervantes which has languished, unread, on my Kindle for many, many years.

Jeff Bridges narrates this?! Seems kind of expensive for a documentary, though I suspect (a) he’ll have done it on the cheap due to his Gilliam/Fisher King connection and (b) his voiceover will be used sparingly**. Whatever, that’s pretty cool, but as soon as he speaks, it sounds more like a DVD extra than an actual release in its own right.

From the first production meeting, the European crew look genuinely worried about the scale of the film and Gilliam’s feverish enthusiasm – though at times, that enthusiasm appears more as a nervous energy.

I had no idea Orson Welles tried and failed to make a Don Quixote film too, though from what I understand it was just one of many unfinished movies he ended up slumming in bit-parts to try and finance.

In case you were wondering just how difficult this production was, the $40m budget was slashed to $32 just a few weeks before pre-production, and with four weeks to the first day of filming, they still didn’t have signed contracts for some of the main players – the cast included Johnny Depp, Vanessa Paradis and veteran French actor Jean Rochefort as Don Quixote.

The documentary makers have been given incredible access to every element of this production, and we’re treated to shot after shot of beautifully painted storyboards, props and costumes being designed/made/fitted, screen tests and location scouting trips. The storyboards are genuine works of art, and the scenery is breathtaking.

Ah, here we are, I recognise this – Gilliam’s lying in the dust on a Spanish hillside filming flabby, shirtless local men as they loom above him. They’re acting as Quixote’s visions of the giants, though his gleeful giggling suggests he’d be enjoying this even if it wasn’t for a film. Back in the office, his wide-eyed excitement as he explains it to another member of the team is pure creative giddiness.

If you’ve seen the brilliant hitman comedy/drama series Barry, Terry Gilliam reminds me a bit of Stephen Root in that – looks, mannerisms and vocal tics. If you haven’t seen the brilliant hitman comedy/drama series Barry, I’d highly recommend changing that.

Terry Gilliam’s high-pitched giggle is pretty infectious, and as he laughs like a drain watching a video of the test footage of the giants, it’s difficult not to feel pretty joyous too. You’re willing him on, even as the utterly chaotic schedule of the film begins to unravel before any actual film has been shot. Gilliam’s right-hand man and first assistant director Philip A. Patterson puts it simply: “Captain Chaos is completely in his element.”

After much hand-wringing from the crew that they haven’t seen an actor yet, here’s Jean Rochefort, Don Quixote himself, bonding with Gilliam during a makeup test as they try on moustache extensions, then riding a painfully skinny horse. He’s been learning English for seven months just to make this film, and he’s Gilliam’s first choice for the role.

You know that bit in war films where some young, naïve soldier talks about marrying his girl back home, settling down and having a bunch of kids? This kinda feels like that. Obviously, Rochefort’s not going to get gunned down, but it all feels like very ominous foreshadowing.

We’re 30 minutes in, and a couple of weeks from the start of filming, and the crew have just visited the soundstage where the internal stuff is all due to shoot – it’s the last venue available, and it’s basically a warehouse. The acoustics are awful, and you can see a cold fury in Gilliam’s eyes as he makes bizarre noises to test them – you can pretty much see his heart sink in his chest, as if he realises this is going to be the first of many setbacks.

Right on cue, one week before filming Jean Rochefort feels unwell as he’s about to board a plane. He’s convinced it’s a prostate problem, and cancels his flight so he can see a doctor in his native Paris. This is all told by Gilliam and the production team in their Spanish office, and it gets very uncomfortable as they pretty much mock the elderly actor, suggesting he’s nervous, it’s all psychosomatic, and if he just got on the plane and toughed it out, everything would be fine.

They’re basically pissed because unlike The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (Gilliam’s most notorious filmmaking catastrophe), on this shoot they’ve got costumes, sets and props ready to go, but no bloody actors.

I’m sure this was all said in the heat of the moment, but I wonder whether Gilliam has ever watched this back and thought ‘ooh, maybe that was a bit much’?

Johnny Depp’s here! It’s alright everyone Johnny Depp is finally here, wearing a white streak in his shoulder-length hair and a Viper Room hat. Christ, he looks young and keen – self-assured enough to make his own suggestions over a glass of red with Gilliam (and Rochefort, who has made it to a table read), and seemingly more ‘alive’ than the tabloid and franchise fodder he was doomed to become nearly two decades later.

And finally, they’re filming – day one involves Depp in an Inquisitorial chain gang, and the first shot is in the bag in record time! Maybe this is where it all turns around?

Nope, the day quickly goes downhill with delays, more delays and fighter jets buzzing the location.

Day two gets even worse, as thunder, lightning and torrential rain destroys the set and washes equipment away. Nobody’s even sure if this is covered by the insurance either.

Rochefort looks great in costume, and they shoot a couple of scenes, but he’s in so much pain as they try to get him on a horse, it’s becoming clear he might not be able to continue with the production.

Man, it really feels like everything’s against this production as this continues – Gilliam and the crew are being (metaphorically), kicked in the crotch day after day, and the film still didn’t get finished. “Everything that can go wrong does go wrong” is something of a cliché, but in this case, it’s pretty much true.

While it’s impossible to film, the producers take stock and suggest firing Patterson, but he says if that happens, he’ll walk as well. Meanwhile, Rochefort’s flown back to Paris to see his doctor.

Against Patterson’s advice, Gilliam decides to continue filming because they’re expecting a visit from investors. It’s on location at a beautiful waterfall, Johnny Depp’s being wacky with a dead fish, but that’s where the good news ends. The horse that’s trained to nudge him comically in the back just

isn’t doing what it’s supposed to, and it’s just been announced that Rochefort won’t be back for another week, and when he does return, he won’t be able to ride a horse.

Suddenly, we’re past the point of optimism now, and you can see the hopes of the crew just disintegrate before the camera. Still, Gilliam plays the gracious host and poses for photos with the investors when he’s not swearing in frustration, but it’s fairly clear he’s fighting a losing battle. He keeps working, but now nobody’s sure what they’re working towards. “There’s a lot of denial going on,” says one crew member.

In a heated conversation in a car park, Patterson tells Gilliam he’s leaving, and will say the producers will not support him in agreeing what’s best for the production. He informs the director that the film will not be made – not the film he wants to make, anyway – and there’s a look of exhausted acceptance on his face. He knows it’s over, and he’s crushed.

Turns out, Jean Rochefort has a double herniated disc, and he will not return to the production. He’s one of the essential elements of the film, and if he’s gone, that’s it. The film is abandoned.

It’s really sad to see Gilliam in this state of devastation, talking about the Curse of Quixote and drawing a sketch of the Don being shot at by baddies in flying windmills.

A final caption announces that six months after filming was abandoned, Terry Gilliam started a new attempt to make the film and intended to buy the rights back from the insurance company. Clearly, he’s a glutton for punishment, but if I recall correctly, it finally got made a couple of years ago with a new cast (Adam Driver for Johnny Depp and John Hurt for Jean Rochefort), and I’ll be honest, I’d love to see it.

** Jeff Bridges’ voiceover was indeed used sparingly. There were plenty of talking heads available to ensure the narrative kept flowing.

Thoughts on the movie

In short, this is a fascinating and accessible feature on just how much work goes into making a film and the toll it takes on filmmakers.

What this film does, perhaps better than any documentary I’ve seen, is show just how much pressure the director and crew are under. It started life as a making-of documentary for the disc, and while they’re all well and good, they’re generally very self-congratulatory and tend to gloss over just how difficult it is to actually get a film made. This is the polar opposite of that.

The film goes to great lengths to compare Gilliam with Quixote, to the point where several crewmembers have come straight out and said it, but it honestly doesn’t need to try as hard as it does to make that comparison. His unique view of the world, his creative flights of fancy and difficulty accepting the cold, hard reality of certain (usually financial), situations, make it more than clear enough.

At one point, as Rochefort’s illness takes him away from the production again, the crew are gathered for an update on the situation, and told “we are reminded of the fragility of the human being and the fragility of cinema”. Watching this in 2021, and seeing how the worldwide pandemic has effectively scuppered the plans of Hollywood and filmmakers around the world, it’s hard not to relate to that.

It must have been hard for Gilliam to know the whole debacle was playing out in front of cameras, and fair play to him for continuing to engage with the documentary as his own film fell apart. I understand they were invited back for the 2018 film, and there’s a follow-up to Lost In La Mancha which might be an extra or could be independently released. Either way, I reckon that’ll be a fascinating watch.

The Verdict

This is a great reminder that just because a project has failed, that doesn’t mean everyone involved wasn’t giving it their all. It’s also a useful reminder that some truly visionary filmmakers can’t get a movie made while other, blander, generic types seem to be given blank cheques.

Has filmmaking changed since Lost In La Mancha? Definitely.

Will I watch this again? Yeah, probably – as and when I get round to watching the finished version of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, and once the sequel documentary gets released, I expect I’ll revisit Lost In La Mancha as a refresher. Highly recommended.

5 thoughts on “Lost In La Mancha (2002)

Add yours

  1. I remember back in 2002, we had a copy of this in the video shop. I never got round to watching it, but a couple of our customers said it was good – presumably for the same reasons you liked it.
    Not sure if you’ve ever watched it, but Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau is also a great watch. Similar thing, but this time focusing on the problematic shoot of the ‘90s Island of Dr. Moreau movie – aka the one with Brando and Val Kilmer. It’s fascinating. I think Lost Soul is currently on Shudder, and is defo worth a watch.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You remember the gag in The Simpsons where you can see Ralph Wiggum’s heart break in real time? There’s a sequence in this where the same thing happens with Terry Gilliam as he realises this film he’s spent years developing has just collapsed for good.
      Read an article about the fiasco behind The Island of Dr. Moreau, but didn’t know there was a doco, will try to seek it out, thanks for the heads up!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. At least he finally got it made – albeit with a completely different cast. I’ll get round to watching that one day, but there are another two Gilliam discs in the Late Review pile already!

        Liked by 1 person

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