The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, so the saying goes. In cinematic terms, the road to Development Hell is so clearly paved with the good intentions of all the filmmakers whose dreams and aspirations sadly fell by the wayside, due to any number of reasons.
One of the most fascinating areas of study for anyone who has at least a modicum of interest in the history of motion pictures is that of the unmade or unfinished film, which is a category veritably bulging at the seams. So many projects have failed to got off the ground at all, whereas others have have fallen during production, and been unable to get back up again. The merest glimpses of these – whether in terms of scripts, production designs, or even actual footage – are rare treats indeed.
Something of a cottage industry would seem to have sprung up among documentarians, giving us looks into the how and why of varied feature films failing to reach fruition. Take, for example, Morgan Neville’s They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, all about Orson Welles’ ill-fated film The Other Side Of The Wind. Or Jodorowsky‘s Dune, which told the sad tale of the abortive efforts during the 1970s of Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s endeavours to bring Frank Herbert’s sci-fi saga to the silver screen, some years ahead of David Lynch’s version, let alone the recent interpretation by Denis Villeneuve.
One of the most famous salutary lessons came in the form of Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. This was a rather unusual example, in that while this did eventually end up being made, what ended up being released was not in fact the same film which Gilliam had set out to bring to life all the many years ago when he had first conceived it. It could still be argued, then, that the original The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is still unfinished, as the final version had radically overhauled the story, stripping away so many of the fantasy elements Gilliam had planned.
This really is, then, still a ‘lost’ movie in that sense, as we will never get to see the version faithful to the director’s original artistic intention, starring Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort. When the original production began to unravel, filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe were on hand throughout to get a full record of the ‘unmaking’ of Gilliam’s pet project. Lost In La Mancha is one of the most heartbreaking yet insightful of these types of documentaries, and it is deservedly getting a re-release for its 20th anniversary.
For Fulton and Pepe, as much as Gilliam, this has been quite the epic task, as they were there for the collapse of Gilliam’s first attempt to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, as well as being present to document its final form in a sibling project, He Dreams Of Giants. The two pieces when taken in conjunction are quite the epic story of one man’s mania and obsession, with both documentaries reflecting the change in Gilliam over the decades, and the toll which this has taken on him in finally getting it done.
Whatever your views on Gilliam, with his reputation having taken quite a few hits in recent years due to controversies in relation to his public statements about various issues, if you can manage to separate the man from the artist then you can feel some sympathy for his near-Quixotic struggle to get his personal fixation out of his head and onto the screen, with it having a deleterious effect on him. The full impact is seen in He Dreams Of Giants, but you can see the beginnings of the corrosive effect which it has on him in Lost In La Mancha, as Gilliam starts to unravel in tandem with his movie.
With snippets of extant footage peppered throughout Lost In La Mancha, it does whet your appetite for what could have been, and you cannot help but wish that there was far more to be seen. The rather more grounded, perhaps even slightly cynical, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote of 2018 reflects a shift in the worldview of Gilliam in the meantime, the lighter fantasy of his initial imagining having evaporated. Here, you see a younger, more hopeful – yet also still fearful – Gilliam, yet you also get to observe the light slowly dimming in him as the situation spirals out of his control.
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Whereas He Dreams Of Giants feels more like the process of drawing a line under something in order to move on, Lost In La Mancha still has a very positive, upbeat feel, and genuine lightness of touch too, as at that point in time the rest of the story for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was still yet to be written, so even with all the assorted chaos unfolding, there is still a sense of optimism to things. One thing you have to admire in all of this is Gilliam’s dogged tenacity, driven to do whatever he can to try and keep things on track, even as the wheels are slowly falling off, and it takes a darkly comic bent at times.
Lost In La Mancha still contains plenty of interest even after all this time, whether to fans of Gilliam, cinephiles, or casual viewers alike. Hindsight has actually rendered it even more fascinating than when it was initially released, and it rightly deserves another outing, as it still remains one of the finest examples of ‘behind-the-scenes’ documentary filmmaking of its type.
Blue Finch Film Releasing presents the 20th anniversary release of Lost in La Mancha in cinemas and on digital on 15th April.