CHRIS: Lost in La Mancha (Fulton, Pepe, US, UK, 2002)

“If anything goes wrong, at least this time, I’ll have witnesses.”

– Terry Gilliam (in THE HAMSTER FACTOR, AND OTHER TALES OF TWELVE MONKEYS

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It appears that Terry Gilliam is the most reluctant python at the reunion party. Monty Python are presently playing London to packed houses to what promises to be the last live appearance. There has been a great deal of excitement (and much needed alimony cash) generated at the thought of the old comedy team coming back together. Gilliam has not shared the anticipation, seeing it as a painful distraction in his busy schedule. He’s been busy directing BENVENUTO CELLINI, Berlioz’s little performed opera, for the English National Opera. He is a powerful ball of creative energy that has no interest in going back to the parrot sketch. Indeed, it seems that his biggest contribution to the show is to provide some new, never seen before animation.

It is perhaps pushing my luck to include LOST IN LA MANCHA in my list of post-STAR WARS films, given that I’ve already included Gilliam’s wonderful BRAZIL (1985), but I think that this documentary about a film that was never made is a testament to the end of the New Hollywood dream. BRAZIL suffered from studio intervention at the time of release. The financiers no longer had the courage to allow directors to create their unique visions at their expense. Gilliam has always been very candid about his battles and the ups and downs of his career. In the book ‘The Battle for Brazil’ tells the full story of the battle for the release of the film. He publicly stood up to  the studios who were insisting on a recut of the ending. He kept hold of the prints and showed them to audiences in secret screenings. When BRAZIL won the LA Critics’ Award without being released, the studio relented and allowed him to release the director’s cut.

The financial disaster of ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1988) looms over Gilliam’s career like an ex-wife at a wedding. It was made in Italy to avoid high production costs, but the ambition and scale of his vision, bad luck and language difficulties caused an £18 million budget overspent. It was subsequently squashed by the distribution company and was a catastrophic flop. In the early nineties Gilliam was attempting to rebuidhis career as a director for hire, bringing his unique flourishes to studio productions such as THE FISHER KING (1991) and TWELVE MONKEYS (1995).

During an extended period trapped in ‘Development Hell’ following the production of FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1988). He’s long held a vision of bring Cervantes Don Quixote de la Mancha to the screen and wrote a script about a New York marketing executive (Johnny Depp) who is thrown in the Quixote’s world. The themes and characters match Gilliam’s crazy delusions perfectly – an individual vision railing against the conventional view of existence – chasing windmills as if they are marauding giants. The weight of history put the film on a back foot. It was financed in a similar manner to  MUNCHAUSEN as it was all European money and insufficient to deliver the elaborate vision that Gilliam wanted to create. It also had the spectre of Orson Welles’ doomed attempt to bring Quixote to the screen haunting the production.

Veteran Jean Rochefort was chosen to play the lead and learned English to play the role, but its clear from early scenes that he is uncomfortable on horse-back. The relentlessness of the production schedule pushes on, even if the location is a NATO aircraft base, so the the filming is interrupted by jets flying past. They resolve to over-dubb the sound in post-production. During the shoot there is an unexpected storm that washes the equipment away in a flash-flood which renders the scenery into a completely different colour. In the middle of the madness, Gilliam makes a giddy-giggle and injects a manic drive to carry on.

Rochefort is diagnosed with a herniated disc. The film’s production crashes around Gilliam’s ears as the insurers step in to mitigate their losses. There is a poignant moment as Gilliam inspects the rushes. This documentary remains a ghost of a film that could have been. There are reports of the film being revived with a different cast (Gilliam has reclaimed the script from the insurers), but if it remains a dead parrot then this film remains a powerful statement of a singular vision and the energy required to create a vision in the modern production system.

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