Back in the 1980s when I was working in theatre, the film boom was just beginning in Toronto, Ontario. Caravans of trailers, generator trucks, and honey-wagons taking up whole city blocks were still a novelty back then, and people would stand around gawking at the crews setting up a for a day's shooting, hoping for a glimpse of whomever might be starring in whatever feature was being shot. With my experience I could have taken advantage of the work that was coming available, but the little I had learned about the process of filmmaking from those already in the business had left me wary of taking any more than the occasional day work as an extra or production assistant. If I had stayed in Toronto perhaps I would have eventually broken down and taken the plunge, but the more I've come to learn about the world of film production the happier I am that never happened.
Having listened to the drunken ravings of the city's premier set and light designer about having to work in what he called "tunnel-vision" (television) in order to make ends meet, and hearing horror stories about movies never getting off the ground because of producers taking their salaries off the top and leaving nothing left over for the actual making of the film, very little about it appealed to me. Sure, the pay was ten times that what you'd make in theatre, but what you'd have to do and the conditions you'd be working under never seemed to make the payoff worthwhile to me. Even back then when there was far less reliance on technical effects and CGI were just initials, there seemed to be very little artistry involved when it came to movie production. In fact originality of thought and vision appeared to be more of a detriment than anything else for those considering a career in film, especially when dealing with the mainstream of North American film making — Hollywood.
I don't think it would bother me so much if they at least would stop with the sham of pretending they have anything to with art. However not only do they cling to the pretence that what they do is art, they've created the circumstances whereby those who are genuinely creative are either frozen out, discredited, or face incredible difficulties getting their movies made because they aren't "commercially viable" or fit any of the familiar formulas. Twenty some years after I worked in film, two young filmmakers, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, made the documentary Lost In La Mancha (available on DVD through Docurama Films) detailing how the system hamstrings genuinely creative people before they even begin shooting a movie. Given unlimited access by the director, Terry Gilliam, their movie, which was to have been a record of Gilliam making a film adaptation of Cervantes' Don Quixote, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote turned into a recounting of a director's worst nightmare.
Having been labeled "difficult" and "out of control" (he refused to give his movie Brazil a happy ending so Universal Pictures created a version of it for America with a different ending from that which was released in the rest of the world and won't allow the original to be shown publicly in their theatres) Gilliam was unable to secure financing for the movie in North America. What money he was able to raise in Europe didn't allow for any margin of error, so even before Gilliam has started shooting he's having to compromise his vision. However, in spite of the undercurrent of tension that you rarely find in a "making of" documentary, initially everything proceeds much as you'd expect. We follow Gilliam and his department heads through meetings about props and set pieces, sit in on discussions of logistics, and listen to what various people have to say about working with Gilliam and their hopes for the project.
In fact, the impression we receive is that from a technical standpoint everything is on track. The one disquieting note is there seems to be some problems coordinating the actors. Due to the budgetary problems, the leads for the movie — Johnny Depp, Depp's partner Vanessa Paradis, and French actor Jean Rochefort — have agreed to work for less than what they would normally be paid, but that means Gilliam and company have to set their filming schedule around their other commitments. The trouble is that with time winding down before they have to start filming, they still haven't been able to get all the actors together for costume fittings and screen tests, let alone have any rehearsal time with them. Then, just as they're about to begin filming, Gilliam gets the word Rochefort is unwell and will be delayed.
This is about when the documentary becomes the account of the film's disintegration. For not only does Rochefort's health become a dominant issue, when they do manage to shoot some film they are plagued by everything from jets flying overhead during filming to a flash flood washing away their equipment. As the end of the first week of filming draws to a close it becomes painfully clear that the film is doomed and shooting will have to be suspended. Things go from worse to awful when it becomes clear that the insurance company that was supposed to be protecting them if things like this happened declared that Rochefort's illness was a "force majeur", or "act Of God", and not only were they not planing on paying, they ended up owning the rights to the movie through some convoluted business involving film financing.
While the documentary is heartbreaking for the way in which it depicts how a man's dreams and visions can literally be stolen away from him through no fault of his own, you also realize that in spite Gilliam's reputation for being reckless and irresponsible as a filmmaker, he is actually the complete opposite. Watching him work with his people in the pre-production stages of the movie you see how incredibly prepared he is for shooting with all the specifications for each scene planned out to the smallest detail. The picture you get of Gilliam is that of a meticulous craftsman who not only has vision, but the ability to see it through to completion if allowed.
The package Lost In La Mancha is a two-disc set, with the first disc containing the documentary itself, and the second special features. The special features include interviews with Depp, Gilliam, and the documentary's directors and producer. It's quite interesting to hear what both Gilliam and Depp have to say about the reactions to the documentary and how both of them, at the time this was shot in 2003, were still committed to making The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. (According to the Wikipedia page devoted to Gilliam he is set to begin filming it again with Depp sometime this year.) However for sheer entertainment the highlight of the special features is the interview/conversation between Salman Rushdie and Terry Gilliam that was shot during the 29th Telluride Film Festival. They talk about everything from science fiction movies to Gilliam's history and have a great time dissecting the film industry in the process.
Lost In La Mancha is not just a record of how things went horribly wrong during the shooting of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote; it's also a fascinating look behind the scenes at the bitter realities involved in the making of a film. While circumstances conspired to derail the production, the fact remains that in a better world they shouldn't have been able to force its cancellation. As long as the power over what gets seen in cinemas remains in the hands of a relatively small number of people and we continue to be enthralled more by technology than artistry, originality will become a rarer and rarer commodity. We can only hope brave directors like Terry Gilliam continue to tilt at windmills and fly in the face of reason by attempting the seemingly impossible and taking real chances whenever they step behind the camera.