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Impossible dream 

La Mancha shows how not to make a movie

In a different world, a better, easier world, Lost in La Mancha would never have justified a theatrical release. Instead, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's documentary would just be a behind-the-scenes extra on a special edition DVD of Terry Gilliam's film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.

But in the world where we live, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote does not exist. Terry Gilliam began shooting his long-nurtured dream project in Spain in 2000, but he was forced to cease production after barely a week following an uncanny series of disasters. Lost in La Mancha provides a painful but hilarious chronicle of the production's troubled history, which unfolds like a car accident shot in slow motion.

Director Terry Gilliam, who retains a boyish enthusiasm for filmmaking, proves an innately likable tragic hero. Before finding fame as the animator and co-founder of Monty Python, Gilliam was a cartoonist, and from the outset his drawings let us see his vision of the Quixote film that could have been.

Narrated by Jeff Bridges, the documentary suggests that Don Quixote has often brought bad luck to film projects, showing a haunting black-and-white snippet of a screen test Orson Welles shot for a never-completed film. Gilliam's story puts a modern-day spin on Cervantes, with a contemporary ad man (Johnny Depp) somehow transported to Spain and mistaken for the earthy Sancho Panza by the knight errant. Gilliam casts Jean Rochefort in the role of Quixote, despite the French actor's advanced age and shaky English.

There's fizzy excitement as the designers build huge, fanciful props, and Gilliam shoots three chubby Spaniards who'll play giants (one of whom clicks castanets). But there's a little tension as well. The film's $32 million budget is low for a fantasy film, providing little financial wiggle room in case things go wrong. When the lead actors prove unavailable for crucial preproduction work, first assistant director Phil Patterson, an upbeat Australian bloke, frets at the impact on the schedule.

Every problem -- like the discovery that the only available soundstage is a squalid warehouse with lousy acoustics -- evokes The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Gilliam's disastrously expensive fantasy epic. An animated sequence recaps Gilliam's checkered career as filmmaker, and there's a clever image of the director as a madman driving a red convertible, riffing on his adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Gilliam admits that he gravitates toward difficult projects: "Without a battle, maybe I don't know how to do it."

But once the actors have finally assembled, Gilliam's crew seems so committed and competent that you're half-convinced they'll succeed. Instead, the shoot consists of a ruefully funny series of mishaps. One of the primary locations is near a military base, and when Rochefort begins a speech, F-16s roar deafeningly overhead. The next day a torrential downpour interrupts filming, and we see equipment floating away in the mudslide. Gilliam can lose his temper -- "If we're fucked, I want to know when we're fucked in advance," he snaps, not unreasonably -- but often he laughs, as if in lieu of weeping.

Despite the logistic nightmares, the film might have prevailed, but Rochefort's prostate problems prove its undoing: How can you have a Don Quixote who can't sit on horseback? Ironically, the last photographic image taken during the production may be a group shot of Gilliam posing with the blissfully ignorant investors.

La Mancha candidly reveals some unpleasant film traditions, like the tendency to fire the first assistant director when productions go wrong. We're dismayed, since Patterson seems a stand-up guy and the problems like acts of God. But somebody should have known about the jets and the soundstage ahead of time. As the crew waits for the plug to be pulled, you share their feeling of impending failure.

One cannot fairly judge The Man Who Killed Don Quixote based on what the documentary shows us. But one can't help but think it would have been derivative of Gilliam's prior films, all of which pit fantasy against reality. Gilliam gave us a similar giant in Time Bandits and also paired a cynical modern man with a crazed courtly knight in The Fisher King.

One cannot say that the heartbreaking Lost in La Mancha is better than Gilliam's film would have been. But Gilliam's loss was certainly Fulton and Pepe's gain -- and possibly ours as well. Lost in La Mancha offers a valuable reminder that so many things can go wrong with film productions that it's amazing any of them get finished.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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