Terry Gilliam is an innovative, imaginative, over-involved filmmaker who I admire immensely, but even I was taken aback by the amount of effort he put into his yet-to-be film based on Don Quixote. The documentary Lost in La Mancha chronicles the doomed production of a film which had a finished script, cast actors, and extensively developed puppets, costumes, and sets. It boggles my mind that a project with that much work put in to it could be canceled, but as the filmmakers reveal throughout the movie, things fall apart, and disasters snowball quickly.
The burning question behind this observational documentary is what caused a production with so much promise to fall apart? Though even the briefest description of the documentary lets the viewer know that Gilliam’s work will be thwarted, I found myself tense and hoping that the high stakes of making a movie would be achieved. The filmmakers took the role of fly on the wall, and so we were privileged to see Gilliam meeting with his crew, the development of the elaborate props and set pieces, and the sheer devotion Gilliam puts into his filmmaking. As we follow along in pre-production, it quickly becomes clear that they’re on a schedule with no room for error. There’s no slush fund, no extra days of filming, no back-up plan. It’s do or die for this crew, and it’s gut-wrenching to watch events unfold.
Personally, I loved this documentary, as it was a quick little peek into the world of filmmaking when things go wrong. The story was told in a linear fashion, with almost no interviews, so the audience feels almost like they’re a production assistant or personal aide on set, privy to every misfortunate coincidence and bad decision. Though no one is particularly inept at their job or easily to blame, it quickly becomes clear that a lack of organization or a unified plan pushed this production to the edge. After that one rainstorm and a primary actor’s health problems were enough to seal its fate as failure.
It was sad to see how quickly the magic of creation can be boxed, labeled and stored. Fantastic costumes and life-size puppets were all packed up in what could only have been a matter of days, and Terry Gilliam was left to fight an insurance company for ownership of his script. While that makes sense in terms of financing a film and designating ownership of a creative project in order to see it fully realized and to make a living from it, it seem ridiculous that the man who wrote the script ended up losing his right to make something from it. On the other side of the coin are all the investors who lost a phenomenal amount of money when this film went through to production before being shut down.
If nothing else, Lost in La Mancha is a fable for filmmakers. Our heroes tried to bring something fantastic to life in the name of art, but the moral of this story is that business always wins.