by Willard Manus
LOS ANGELES -- Terry
Gilliam and Orson Welles have a lot in common. Both were immensely talented,
ambitious and courageous filmmakers who had early success followed by
endless bad luck and self-destructiveness. Welles made Citizen Kane, one
of the best films of all time, then struggled for the rest of his life
to get projects made. Gilliam made Brazil, which, while not in Citizen
Kane's league, was a remarkable debut, a free-wheeling futuristic tale
which combined animation, surrealism and social commentary in one audacious
package. After that, though, he has directed only a few fitfully successful
Both Gilliam and Welles insisted on tackling immense, epic stories which
were difficult to finance and shoot, such as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,
Othello, The Trial, Time Bandits.
In most cases their ambition exceeded their resources, pushing them way
over budget time and time again, putting them in dutch with the studios
Although Welles is dead, the much-younger Gilliam is still making films.
Correction: trying to make films. For the past decade, he has been working
on a version of Cervantes' Don Quixote, Conceived on a grand scale, the
epic drama of the wandering knight and his sidekick Pancho, was first
budgeted at 60 million dollars. When Hollywood balked at backing the risky
project, the budget had to be cut in half and raised entirely in Europe.
Gilliam and his creative team struggled to adapt to these less than satisfactory
circumstances, finally managing after many years to put a production together.
But as Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe's documentary, LOST IN LA MANCHA--THE
UN-MAKING OF DON QUIXOTE, shows so vividly and painfully, disaster struck
in swift, relentless fashion.
Fulton and Pepe, two young Angeleno filmmakers, had been given permission
by Gilliam to shoot on the set of DON QUIXOTE. Thus they were on hand
to record the first behind-the-scenes problems: actors not showing up
on time, unsuitable sound stage (in Madrid), language barriers. It put
an immediate strain on the production, but Gilliam refused to scale down
his vision and make a smaller, more intimate film. Like Welles (who had
devoted a chunk of his life to planning his own version of Don Quixote),
Gilliam would not compromise.
He ordered the elaborate costumes and props to be made, shooting to begin,
even though the principal actors were still tied up on other projects.
As if to punish him for his hubris, the weather turned nasty. A freak
thunderstorm pelted everyone on location with rain and hail, unleashing
a flash flood that swept away sets and equipment.
A weaker man might have quit right there and then. But the doughty, determined
(and doomed) Gilliam hung in courageously, trying to marshall and inspire
his troops. Another set was built in a different location and photography
resumed, only to be halted by the sudden illness of the leading man, a
French actor. Gilliam tried to shoot around him, helped by the arrival
of Johnny Depp, who had agreed to play the earthy Sancho Panza.
Gilliam, as one of his aides said on camera, should have recast the lead
role, but the director would not listen to good advice. Holding out for
his original choice cost the production a fortune when the French actor
was unable to return to work, thereby causing the insurance and bonding
companies to pull the plug on Don Quixote.
All of Gilliam's work went for naught--the thousands of storyboard sketches
he had made, the costume designs, the puppetry, set-building, horse-training
and rehearsal time with secondary actors. What could have been a memorable
motion picture was rendered null and void by Gilliam's dark angel--the
same angel that plagued Welles for most of his life.