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Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Misadventures of Mr. Gilliam



Lost in La Mancha

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Directors: Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe
Running time: 93 minutes
Language: English
Opens May 17

Terry Gilliam is a director who's always been tilting at windmills, whether it meant provoking Christian outrage over the irreverent "Monty Python's Life Of Brian," battling with Universal to preserve the ending of his Orwellian comedy "Brazil," or persevering through shady producers and production disasters to complete "The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen." As Gilliam himself admits, in the revealing documentary "Lost In La Mancha": "If it's easy, I don't do it; if it seems impossible, I can't resist it."

News photo
Jean Rochefort, on horseback, and director Terry Gilliam in "Lost in La Mancha"

With a mantra like that, it's only a matter of time before you do, in fact, have your wings clipped. (A metaphoric fate that also afflicted "Brazil' "s flighty protagonist). Gilliam has dodged many bullets before -- both "Brazil" and "Munchausen" were films that almost never saw release -- but "Lost In La Mancha" captures, heartbreakingly, the moment when this inveterate dreamer, so rare among contemporary cinema's bland technocrats, is dragged down to a painful crash landing.

The project that felled him, appropriately enough, was a cinematic adaptation of "Don Quixote." Like Orson Welles before him, Gilliam nurtured the idea of a cinematic "Quixote" in his head for years before finally attempting it, and -- as it did for Welles -- it turned out to be the impossible dream.

Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe were to be the on-set documentarists for Gilliam's $40 million-budgeted "The Man Who Shot Don Quixote"; as fate would have it, though, their "Making Of" flick turned into a "Not Making" epitaph. Fulton and Pepe's footage does include tantalizing glimpses of Gilliam's ideas for "Quixote." Inspired by the etchings of Gustav Dorz, "Quixote" looks like it would have fallen comfortably between the fantastic whimsy of "Time Bandits" and the sanity vs. insanity themes of "The Fisher King" and "12 Monkeys".

But more intriguingly, "Lost In La Mancha" explores the monumental effort and willpower required to produce a $40-million spectacle flick outside of the creative restraints of the Hollywood system, a problem which is only magnified when weak-kneed investors flake out and your budget is trimmed by $8 million.

Gilliam has had a bad rep as an extravagant "mad genius" type ever since "Munchausen" came in way over budget (It's described here as "a textbook case of a film fiasco"). That was largely due to a series of mishaps outside of Gilliam's control, but despite a decade of films in the '90s that came in on budget and did all right at the box office, Gilliam was still widely regarded as a disaster waiting to happen. Now that it has, "La Mancha" seems very much like a plea from the condemned.

Judging by the evidence, he has a case. Take the budget. It's sudden constriction was no fault of Gilliam's, but he was left with a hard choice: scrap the film and leave a lot of debt behind for the costumes, sets, location scouting, etc. that had already been done, or somehow try to make the same film with considerably less resources. Gilliam took a gamble on the latter. Philip Patterson, Gilliam's 1st Assistant Director, gives the camera a strained look as he describes filming on a budget with no safety net, no margin for error: "It's not a disaster," he insists. "It just has a lot of elements that are . . . [long pause] . . . different."

The production faced huge problems in bringing everything and everyone together: Like many "Euro-pudding" projects with international financing, "La Mancha's" pork was spread over several countries. Gilliam found himself with his costumes sitting in Prague and the makeup staff in England, even as the sets were ready to go in Spain. His cast, meanwhile, remained elusive.

Johnny Depp, cast in the role of Quixote's sidekick Sancho, turned up on time, but nobody else did. Vanessa Paradis delayed shooting by her absence, but the straw that broke the camel's back was a herniated disc to Jean Rochefort, the French actor cast to play Quixote.

He was perfect for the role; as Gilliam explained, his problem was "finding a guy who's old enough, 70, looks right, and can ride a horse." Rochefort was perfect in all regards and he spent seven months improving his English for the role. But fate struck when he injured himself mounting a horse. With his leading actor barely able to walk from pain, Gilliam faced the stark choice of recasting the role -- an iffy process -- or waiting for Rochefort to heal. Either way, the meter was running, as the assembled cast and crew were already incurring expenses.

The saddest thing is to see the sheer glee Gilliam enjoys from the actual filmmaking process. His enthusiasm is boundless as he clowns around with some Spanish extras he's cast as ogres, and he's got a manic gleam in his eye as he wanders through the props department obviously thrilled to see his fantasy world coming to life. He clearly realizes that half his job is to carry the whole production along on his high, and bring out the best from his crew. It's almost too much to bear to watch him suffer through horses that refuse to move, NATO F-16 flyovers during shoots, sudden -- and destructive -- torrential downpours, jittery investors, uncooperative insurers, and other outbreaks of Murphy's Law.

Gilliam's curse is to be able to work magic with sheer visual spectacle in an age where creativity is no longer trusted or respected by those in a position to bankroll such projects. As Gilliam himself puts it, (in "Gilliam on Gilliam," Faber & Faber): "If it's going to be expensive, it's got to be mindless; and if it's going to be thought-provoking, it's got to be cheap."

It's rather depressing to think that he's managed to make only five films over the past two decades (one of which, "Fear and Loathing," was inherited from Alex Cox), but having seen the struggle involved, perhaps we should consider ourselves lucky to have even those five. Still, one wonders whether Gilliam shouldn't rethink his approach; looking at "Being John Malkovich" or "Donnie Darko," it certainly seems like there's still a lot of potential for his brand of absurdity in "cheap."



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