Lost in La Mancha

quixote (24K)

The making of a movie that doesn't exist

Lost in La Mancha is a documentary film about the making of a movie that was never finished and doesn't exist.

When Terry Gilliam set out to make a feature film based on Cervantes' character Don Quixote, he asked two filmmakers to document the project. The filmmakers, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, chose to start during pre-production, hoping to show how a major motion picture gets off the ground. Little did they know that they would also end up by showing how a major motion picture crashes and burns.

The film is a fascinating combination of cinema verite, interviews, screen tests, animation from sketches and storyboards, script readings, and sound from the live mic worn by Gilliam throughout two months of pre-production, the six days of actual production, and the days and weeks after the project collapsed.

Before production even started, Gilliam's movie had several strikes against it:

  • an elaborate, detailed, unshakeable (i.e., inflexible) vision in Gilliam's head
  • a multi-lingual production crew working at different sites around Europe
  • insufficient funding due to Gilliam's decision to fund the project entirely in Europe to avoid the strictures that come with Hollywood financing
  • a schedule that was already too tight, exacerbated by actors who were unavailable due to schedule overruns on other projects

Once production started, the project became a case study in Murphy's Law:

  • the sound stage — the last available facility in Madrid — turned out not to be soundproof
  • the outdoor location — in the Spanish desert — turned out to be right next door to a NATO military base where jets screamed across the sky, disregarding "Quiet on the set"
  • a surprise rain storm interrupted shooting and resulted in a flash flood which washed away the "set" and much of the gear
  • the insurance company claimed that the flood was a "force majeure," therefore excluded from coverage
  • the irreplaceable actor playing Quixote became ill with prostate problems and had to leave the set
  • the rainstorm changed the color of the desert and "greened" it, rendering the scant footage shot before the deluge unusable
  • busloads of investors showed up to watch a day's filming, only to see an uncooperative equine actor ruin his scene with Johnny Depp
  • the financial backer turned out not to have sufficient funds to cover the loss

Bottom line: The project had to be abandoned after six days of production.

One of the things that struck me while watching this film was how uncannily similar Gilliam's project seemed to so many projects I worked on while at HP:

  • overly ambitious designs and aspirations
  • overly "aggressive" (i.e., totally unrealistic) schedule
  • insufficient funding (i.e., do more with less)
  • multi-lingual, multi-cultural team
  • denial, refusal to accept reality — lots of it
  • continuing, using up resources, long past the point when it was clear the project was doomed

Lost in La Mancha is worth seeing!