Lost in La Mancha – A Review

Some have said that every movie is a little miracle.  From conceiving the story, to writing it, casting actors, hiring dependent filmmakers, and having enough money to film it, there are a thousand reasons why a movie may not be made.  Every time a movie is finished, regardless of whether or not it actually turns out to be good, it is a product of dozens, maybe even hundreds, of people working very hard to achieve a certain goal.  Unfortunately, for every movie that remarkably gets made, there are 5-6 other movies that don’t.  Lost in La Mancha (2002) is a story of one of those movies.

Terry Gilliam, the star of this movie, is himself a visionary director.  Starting out working with the Monty Python crew, Gilliam has made a career out of making films that are both unique in its story and elaborate in its visuals.  These films include Brazil (1985), Twelve Monkeys (1995), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), and most recently The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) the last film of the late Heath Ledger.  Early on in La Mancha, it is said that Gilliam had been working to get his film, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, made for nearly ten years.  Little did he know that the chance to make it wouldn’t last more than two weeks.

Perhaps the story of Don Quixote is better suited for the page rather than the screen.  I have yet to run across a film that tells the story of the delusional adventurer and his servant, Sancho, in a way that is worth remembering.  Orson Welles had attempted it in his time; it would become his career obsession, yet he never completed it.  In 2006 an independent Spanish production would take a stab at it, and the result turned out to be Honor de cavalleria, the worst movie I’ve ever seen.  Others would make films about this subject as well, but none would have a lasting impact.  From the very beginning, Terry Gilliam and his crew had the odds against them.

This is a fascinating documentary on two fronts: one about the behind-the-scenes activities of a real film production, the other about the damn-near unbelievable events surrounding the making of Gilliam’s movie.  One could not write the things that happened during the making of Don Quixote, because it would simply be too unbelievable.  Right from the start, the film had problems.  Hollywood would not finance the film, so the production was moved to Spain, the budget was cut by nearly ten million dollars, Gilliam made it even harder on himself by adding a more fantastical spin to the story, which involved a business executive being transported in to the imaginary world of Don Quixote, large colorful set pieces were made, giant puppets were carved out, and locations that were chosen were already suspect to be difficult to shoot on, one of which was on military land.

One can already see, before a single frame is shot, that this production was headed for trouble.  But all the while, Gilliam continued to chug along, working with his crew, demanding their best, describing how wonderful and imaginative their film was going to be.  You have to admire a person like Terry Gilliam, because that kind of passion is what’s needed to make a film at all.  Although I believe after having the story brewing in his head for ten years, Gilliam never quite saw the impossibility of their task given their situation.  Gilliam is described in the film as “Captain Chaos,” a bit of a Don Quixote himself, and maybe he would agree.  At one point in the film Gilliam describes that when someone tells him that his idea is impossible to do, it makes him want to do it even more.

Things go from bad to worse as the film moves in to production.  With a month left before shooting, the crew gets a soundstage that’s more of a warehouse and the actors’ schedules don’t allow them to meet together for proper rehearsals.  Vanessa Paradis (the future Mrs. Johnny Depp, who’s also in the movie) isn’t even shown on screen because her agent doesn’t allow her to arrive early without signing a contract.  Jean Rochefort, who plays Don Quixote, has trouble speaking proper English, yet it will be an English speaking film, and also suffers from an infection that may knock him out of the entire thing.  The crew runs around frantically trying to get things in order.  This is something you would see out of an episode of Entourage.

I sat in my chair wide-eyed, dumbfounded by the events that happened during the filming.  On day one, shooting is interrupted by jet planes flying over head (amazing being that they were on military land).  On day two, a thunderstorm rolls in, leading to a flash flood that stops production for days.  There’s a hilarious sequence where the crew scramble around the wet desert, trying to salvage what’s left of the damaged equipment, something straight out of a slapstick comedy.  On day three, Jean Rochefort’s health issues cause him to have problems riding his horse.  Within ten days, Rochefort would leave the location.  To top it all off, the insurance company covering the film would be forced to stop production by the end of week two, citing that it would not cover time and equipment losses due to random “acts of God.”  Someone (or something) out there really did not want this movie to be made.

Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, the directors of Lost in La Mancha, have made a film that is unique in every possible way, capturing the very essence of what’s known as Murphy’s Law: “what can go wrong will go wrong.”  This movie is about the dreamer never quite achieving his dream.  We see the struggle, the hope, and the despair of making movies, all the while being entirely engrossing.  I have recently read that Terry Gilliam and Johnny Depp are in talks to try and re-shoot the entire movie, but I don’t know how they could possibly make a movie that’s more entertaining than this documentary.  This is a gem of a film, for all those that love the movies, even the ones that don’t get made.


Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

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