Natural Disaster

Was Terry Gilliam the man who killed Don Quixote?

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Tony Grisoni can always tell when his old friend Terry Gilliam, the visionary who sees too far for his own good, is in pain: He laughs. The worse the pain, the harder the laughter. If that is the case, then the Terry Gilliam seen throughout Lost in La Mancha, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's painfully hysterical documentary about the collapse of a filmmaker's long-awaited project, should have been hospitalized, or at least force-fed fistfuls of Vicodin. He laughs throughout, a girlish giggle that slowly builds into a fierce, high-pitched cackle--the sound of Woody Woodpecker trapped in the tightening jaws of a lion.

Gilliam, maker of such films as Brazil and 12 Monkeys, laughs as NATO airplanes roar across the Spanish desert sky, ruining shot after shot. He laughs as thick blankets of gray clouds blot out the perfect sunlight and dump blinding sheets of rain and hail on sandy desert settings that become bloody-red rivers of mud thick as glue. And he laughs when the star of his movie, the long-dreamed-of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, departs Spain for France and is diagnosed with a double hernia that will keep him from riding a horse--or even returning to shoot the movie.

As a founding member of Monty Python, as the illustrator responsible for the Flying Circus' beautifully demented animation sequences, Gilliam has made audiences laugh for decades. Now, what makes him chortle so fiercely is the sight of his dream--one of dozens, each slipping further out of reach--becoming a nightmare as it dies a slow and horrific death.

"And when he laughs, it's a terrible thing to watch," says Grisoni, with whom Gilliam wrote The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, as well as 1998's adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. "I think the collapse of Quixote has hit everyone hard, but it hit him hardest of all, and it's there on the screen. You can see it. But Terry's not going anywhere. He's not going to give up."

In the fall of 2000, the now-62-year-old Gilliam set out to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, in which a 21st-century advertising exec, played by Johnny Depp, time travels to the 17th century and becomes the Sancho Panza to French actor Jean Rochefort's Don Quixote. Gilliam had wanted to make the movie since at least 1991, while he was making The Fisher King, which bears an eerie resemblance to Miguel de Cervantes' story of the horseman so enamored of romantic tales he begins to imagine his own mundane life as one of intrigue and adventure. Robin Williams' Parry, the homeless man who witnessed the murder of his wife and began seeing knights coming to slay him, might as well have been named Don Quixote; he tilted not at windmills, but at skyscrapers. He had his own Sancho Panza as well, talk jock Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges, who narrates Lost in La Mancha)--the reluctant sidekick who, by film's end, had succumbed to his new friend's visions.

Gilliam did not write The Fisher King--it was penned by Richard LaGravenese, an author of treacly melodramas--but it stuck with him, perhaps because like all of his films it dealt with the very same things: "reality, fantasy, madness, sanity," as Gilliam says during the opening moments of Lost in La Mancha, which opens February 28 in Dallas. One could draw a very straight line from Gilliam's earliest work as a Python co-director (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) to Time Bandits, his beleaguered Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (yet another troubled production), The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys (both works for hire) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. They all deal, more or less, with how the imagined takes hold in reality and drives the sane mad, or, for those more fortunate, vice versa. Don Quixote's always been there in Gilliam's films, lurking around in the shadows, and finally Gilliam was going to put him front and center in a film of his own writing.

"It's almost as if all the other films Terry has made had their feet in Cervantes somehow, their roots in Cervantes in some way," Grisoni says. "I don't think that was the case. I don't think at some very early point he read Cervantes and then everything came from that. It certainly feels that way."

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote existed as a screenplay well before Grisoni got to it in 1997. Gilliam had written a version with Charles McKeown, his collaborator on Brazil and Munchausen, and then it was but one screenplay among many Gilliam was trying to get made in the 1990s, including a retelling of A Tale of Two Cities, The Defective Detective and an adaptation of Alan Moore's epic comic book Watchmen. Grisoni thought the first Quixote sprawling and messy but ultimately admirable and workable. Gilliam told him he wanted it to feature a modern-day adman, who didn't yet exist in the screenplay. "It's in my head," Gilliam told Grisoni, because that's where everything the filmmaker holds dear resides. They spent two and a half years on the script, during which the movie fell apart more often than a child's toy model. Finally, two years ago, they got to Spain, and what you see in Lost in La Mancha tells the rest of the horrific story.

Gilliam wanted Fulton and Pepe to shoot a making-of film, the trio's second together after 1995's The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys, which can be found on the 12 Monkeys DVD. They met when Fulton and Pepe were students at Temple University, and Gilliam brought them along to document his first attempt to make a "European art film" while working for a major Hollywood studio (Universal, which ironically enough had tried to sabotage Brazil in 1985). Back then the two were loath to shoot anything too terrible--say, myriad clashes between Gilliam and the producers and set designers. At one moment, they film a buffet line and simply tell us the noise we hear in the distance is the sound of shouting.

But midway through The Hamster Factory, a glum Gilliam is captured at a moment of near-total disaster--a regular occurrence every time the former Monty Python member steps behind a camera. A journalist arrives on set with a tape recorder she holds close to Gilliam's face. She asks him if he's depressed or frustrated. "All of those things are there all the time," he tells her. "The reality of making films for me is it's hard work, and I am disappointed I can't actually achieve what I can imagine." As he would discover five years later, on the set of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, old habits die very, very hard--like old dreams.

Fulton and Pepe didn't set out to make a tragic movie this time around; far from it. They arrived in Spain, weeks before production began in September 2000, thinking theirs would be a document of a friend's making his dreams come true, the uplifting tale of the underdog overcoming limited funds (Gilliam began shooting with only half of his $32 million in hand, and even then he knew he needed $60 mil to make the movie he wanted) and naysayers who thought him too erratic and rash to control the proceedings. But as soon as they began rolling, they captured a movie falling apart: Actors weren't available, sets weren't constructed, money wasn't coming and nobody was paying any attention to the sound of the train barreling down the tracks to which they'd tethered themselves. When the storm arrived, literally, and the entire project fell into ruin, Pepe and Fulton began flinching again--and this time, it was Gilliam who told them to keep their camera rolling. He wanted someone to bear witness to the catastrophe for two reasons: He wanted people to know it wasn't his fault (this time), and, as he told them, "At least someone will get a movie out of this."

"When you're making a documentary you want conflict," Fulton says. "You don't want just an easygoing experience. When we entered into this, we figured no matter what happens, there's gonna be conflict, because Terry's all about conflict. He seeks it out. He thrives on it. But the double-edged sword is we're finding great conflict--we're looking at the storm thinking, 'My God, you couldn't ask for higher production values'--but at the same time, Terry Gilliam's become a friend of ours over the past seven years, and we wanted to see his film."

"Terry mocks us for being sensitive, but there's an issue here of documentary ethics," Pepe adds. "A lot of our hesitance at the moment the story was changing had to do with the fact we are now documenting something the participants haven't necessarily given their consent to having us document. Even throughout the editing process, Terry watched it, and it was an issue of, did he feel our portrayal of him and the circumstances was a fair and honest and ethical portrayal, and he clearly does, because not every moment in the film makes him look great, but he's given it his overall seal of approval."

Indeed, Gilliam not only loves the film but has spent the better part of the past 12 months promoting it, as though it were a birth rather than an autopsy. Part of that has to do with his indefatigable optimism: He hopes someone will see this and pony up the scratch for him to buy back the movie, which now resides in the hands of the insurance company.

At this moment, Gilliam is slated to make a Brothers Grimm film, but he has shut down, in his head, all the other projects he's ever dreamed of making, including an adaptation of the Neil Gaiman-Terry Pritchett fantasy-farce novel Good Omens, which he and Grisoni spent 18 months writing. If Gilliam is, once more, written off as being as irresponsible as he is irrepressible, then Lost in La Mancha will prove doubly sad: Not only will it have documented the death of a movie, but it will have captured the end of a great director's career.

"Neither of us have read the script since the collapse of Quixote," Grisoni says. "I think we're both a bit nervous, because when the Don gets back in the saddle--and he will--we'll have another look at it then, and I'm sure we'll discover all kinds of things that need to be fixed. But by the time we got to the beginning of the shoot, we felt very good about the screenplay. It used a lot of things that Terry's always been very interested in. It was just right. But believe me, Quixote will ride again. We all look forward to it."

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