The past few years have given us a handful of wonderful "making-of" documentaries, including Paul Seydor's The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage and Richard Rush's The Sinister Saga of Making The Stunt Man. And now for something completely different (as Monty Python used to say), there's a vivid "un-making of" documentary, Lost in La Mancha, starring Terry Gilliam - the American-born Monty Python member beloved for his collage-like animations and his own out-there movies like Brazil.
This engaging and enraging movie chronicles Gilliam's doomed attempt to film a Cervantes-inspired script called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. This documentary could have been a simple downer. Instead, it's a giddy, manic-depressive roller coaster - because it brings us eye to eye with Gilliam.
He's a bad-boy version of Gepetto. He's not the kind of big-screen fabulist who squashes human and digital creations to fit cartoon-like fantasies.
He's a puppet-maker who cuts his puppets' strings and sends them flying across the screen in unexpected and assaultive patterns. Because he treats the people and the things that inhabit his untamed landscapes with the same inventiveness and humor, he puts flesh and blood on gee-whiz effects and jolts.
What we see of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is Gilliam at his best and most Gilliam-esque: He even builds a marionette army to surround his Knight of the Woeful Countenance. But the filmmaker never gets a chance to deploy his puppets this time. The brutal realities of international picture-making undo this master of phantasms.
Struggling to mount an English-speaking epic in Spain on a $32-million budget with a multilingual cast and crew, he barrels into unrelenting bad luck.
His first location, picked for its harsh, arid beauty, turns out to be adjacent to a NATO site, with fighter jets shrieking through the air. A sudden storm floods the set, muddies equipment - and changes the color of the landscape. Saddest and funniest of all, Gilliam's star, the French actor Jean Rochefort, winces with pain every time he mounts one of the company's laughably recalcitrant horses. When he flies back to France, his doctors diagnose a double-herniated disc.
Such catastrophes might defeat even the most conventional moviemaker on the safest production. Here, Gilliam is rolling the dice on an elaborate career-defining project with ineffectual producers and dozens of investors.
Once an insurance company gets involved, you know the jig is up. Yet Gilliam keeps a rueful smile on his face: His consolation is that he's already made the movie in his head. That's no consolation to us.
On Lost in La Mancha, the writing-directing team of Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe capture the reason why filmmakers as individual and ambitious as Gilliam often try to push their movies through Hollywood rather than navigate the shoals of international production.
In Los Angeles, a director faces the inevitable stupidities of committees that oversee scripts, productions and release plans. Knowing those obstacles, he can find ways to overcome them: that's what Gilliam did with Brazil.
When Universal Pictures wanted to castrate the movie in the editing room, Gilliam enlisted the aid of the L.A. critical press and built such a tsunami of critical support for his version that the studio caved in.
But as Gilliam first learned when he directed The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a filmmaker doing a "big" picture independently in Europe faces terminal uncertainty.
For The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam presides over a Tinker-toy structure of hazy deals and flimsy facilities. He can't get his actors to show up for makeup tests, costume fittings and rehearsals. His producers haven't analyzed the insurance's fine print - equipment is covered, time is not.
And since the financing rests on the participation of Gilliam, Rochefort and Johnny Depp (as the movie's Sancho Panza, a contemporary ad-man thrust back into Quixote's time), Rochefort's illness hangs over Gilliam's neck like the Sword of Damocles. This time, the Sword drops.
The makers of Lost in La Mancha have done a vigorous job of telling this movieland disaster tale. They briskly summarize Quixote with images derived from the great Quixote illustrator, Gustave Dore, and outline Gilliam's vision with animated storyboards. Despite their affection for the filmmaker, they won't tone down his justifiable outrage or close their eyes and ears to his escalating expressions of emotional bankruptcy.
They do such a good job, in fact, that their movie ends up competing with Gilliam's and losing. Watching Gilliam patch together Quixote's costume into a masterpiece of tattered chivalry or shooting three Fellini-esque bit players so they appear to be pudgy giants, a viewer gets caught up in his cackling excitement. Gilliam unites the spontaneity of observation and improvisation with the quirky sweep of handmade artifice.
He's the belated creative heir of both the documentary pioneer Louis Lumiere and the fantasy pioneer Georges Melies. He is a real giant - and he's too big a figure to be contained even in this sympathetic picture.
Lost in La Mancha
Documentary by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe
Released by IFC
Time 93 minutes
SUN SCORE * * * 1/2