Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s film “Lost In La Mancha” follows Terry Gilliam, director of “12 Monkeys” and “Time Bandits,” as production begins on his version of Cervantes’ famous Spanish fantasy “Don Quixote.” What begins as a dream project for the over-imaginative filmmaker quickly turns into a cinematic nightmare as a series of catastrophes plague what could have been a promising film.

Todd Weiser
Courtesy of IFC Films
To dream the impossible dream — ahh my hernia!!

Gilliams’s interpretation of Quixote, titled “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” stars French actor Jean Rochefort in the title role and Johnny Depp as his faux Sancho Panza, a present day office drone sent to the past whom Quixote mistakes for his sidekick. Gilliam’s vision for the film is vast, as is the case with all of his films, but he is severely hampered by his scant budget of $32 million.

Money becomes the least of Gilliam’s worries as the production is halted by old fashioned bad luck. Fulton and Pepe are there every step of the way as the problems mount, capturing each tragic event as it unfolds to the chagrin of the crew. One of the shooting locations happens to be next to a military base where jets scream across the horizon as the sound department attempts to record dialogue. A massive rainstorm washes away valuable equipment and ruins a valuable production day, but somehow the former “Monty Python” animator manages to continue on. It isn’t until Quixote himself, the 70-year-old Rochefort, gets injured when Gilliam finally admits defeat. And all of this takes place over a single week.

We learn of a Quixote curse as Fulton and Pepe reveal the long history of adapting Cervantes’ story to the silver screen. Orson Welles, the Hollywood wunderkind behind “Citizen Kane,” tried for years to bring “Quixote” to cinematic life, but ultimately failed.

In one of the few happy moments of “Lost In La Mancha,” we see Gilliam shooting three bulbous Spaniards running through the desert landscape without shirts on. The always artistic Gilliam, often the victim of his own creativity, uses a digital camera from a low angle in what he calls his “giant test.” The result is exemplary of what the director can do with little bankroll and a lot of innovation.

“Lost In La Mancha” is an especially difficult documentary to watch for Gilliam fans. What footage from “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” that actually made it into the can is even more thrilling to see on the big screen because there is so little of it. All of Gilliam’s trademarks – his lavish production designs, skewed camera angles, delectable eye candy, et cetera – can be found in the few scenes that survived the tumultuous production fiascos.

“Lost In La Mancha” is a more straightforward documentary than last year’s dazzling “The Kid Stays in the Picture” or Michael’s Moore’s slanted, but enchanted “Bowling For Columbine.” By documentary standards, “Lost In La Mancha” isn’t particularly noteworthy, aside from a short segment of Monty Python-esque animations, but the story captured by Fulton and Pepe is a compelling look at Gilliam and the man’s unflinching desire to put “Quixote” on film.

There may be a light at the end of the tunnel for those hoping to see Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” hit the big screen. The director recently purchased back the rights to the film in hopes that production might start up again sometime in the future.

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