There's no shortage of disaster stories in the history of film production, but none have been recorded with such frankness, immediacy and aching sense of disappointment as in "Lost in La Mancha," Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's warts'n'all docu on the debacle of Terry Gilliam's "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote."

There’s no shortage of disaster stories in the history of film production, but none have been recorded with such frankness, immediacy and aching sense of disappointment as in “Lost in La Mancha,” Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s warts’n’all docu on the debacle of Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.” Tucked away in the Berlinale’s Panorama section, this entertaining and instructive look at how one ignores the basic rules of big-budget filmmaking at one’s peril gathered good word-of-mouth at the fest, and looks likely to have a long career both on the circuit and in TV slots, with some limited theatrical exposure also in the cards.

Fulton & Pepe dub their film the first “un-making of” docu. After being invited by Gilliam in March 1999 to chart the production of his film, they eventually found themselves with a film about a film that didn’t exist, following the production’s final collapse in October 2000. From more than 80 hours of video footage, they crafted a tantalizing memorial — complete with shot scenes and animated realizations of others — to a movie which Gilliam still hopes one day to make.

“Lost in La Mancha” is not the usual chronicle of Hollywood excess, rampant star egos, nefarious producers and seat-of-the-pants rewrites. The money was in place, the talent supportive and disciplined, and the script finished and storyboarded.

Though Gilliam had tried for 10 years to finance the movie with U.S. money, in the end the entire $32 million budget came from within Europe, with France’s Rene Cleitman as producer and Bernard Bouix as exec producer for Hachette Premiere & Cie. With a crew made up of Brits, Italians and Spaniards, and locations around Madrid, the only noticeable Yank element was the casting of Johnny Depp as a modern-day ad exec who travels back in time and is mistaken by Don Quixote for Sancho Panza.

Gilliam admits the idea had obsessed him for years. The project encompasses his favorite themes and personal experiences: a world of fantasy and baroque imagery, and a wild dreamer tilting at windmills. When Fulton & Pepe joined the production in August 2000, eight weeks before the start of filming, pic was already one of the most expensive movies made in Europe with purely European coin.

Footage from Orson Welles’ aborted ’50s project sets up the idea of the “Don Quixote curse” that runs through the docu. And as the budget is scaled back from its original $40 million, hairline cracks start to appear. Lenser Nicola Pecorini, one of the most astute observers, notes how Gilliam is trying to make a Hollywood-type movie on a European budget, and a week later Gilliam admits that “there’s a lot of potential for chaos here.” Phil Patterson, his hard-nosed a.d., even nicknames Gilliam “Captain Chaos.”

The actors — including Depp, Jean Rochefort and Vanessa Paradis — are all over the globe; production personnel are still in the U.K.; Gilliam is quietly fretting in Madrid; and four weeks before shooting, some key contracts aren’t even signed. Recalling the nightmare of his 1988 folly, Gilliam notes, “There are so many echoes of ‘Munchausen’ that I’m scared.”

A week before the start, Rochefort panics and doesn’t get on the plane from Paris, thinking he has a prostate infection. For a few tense days, the movie has sets, costumes but no lead actors; then Depp arrives to discuss the script, Paradis flies in for costume tests and Rochefort finally shows up in Madrid.

Pic charts the six days during which production was officially active with a grim irony, as the weather, the Spanish air force and Rochefort’s physical discomfort finally forced shooting to stop. (Thesp was eventually diagnosed with a “double herniated disc.”) Even Gilliam’s natural confidence occasionally cracks: “Is this ‘King Lear’ or ‘The Wizard of Oz?’ ” he wails.

There’s nothing especially new in the movie’s catalog of disasters; what makes the docu instructive is showing what happens when you try to buck the unstoppable forces that are unleashed once a film starts rolling. With a budget that left no room to maneuver, and (as Patterson repeatedly points out) a lack of attention to nuts-and-bolts preparation, once one domino fell the whole line toppled with a natural inevitability. Once the insurance adjusters arrive on Day 6, the small print spells the end and the lawyers move in to pick the bones.

“The most painful thing was seeing reality win over Don Quixote in the end,” says Gilliam’s co-writer, Tony Grisoni. Six months later, Gilliam was still trying to resuscitate the picture.

Saddest thing is that the surviving few minutes of widescreen footage hint at a remarkable movie — not so different in look from “Munchausen” but with an actor seemingly born to the central role, and a sine qua non of the entire enterprise. Though his English sounds awkward, Rochefort shows all the fusty but aristocratic bearing of Cervantes’ misguided hero, and the tragic feeling that we may be witnessing a great performance that will never be informs Fulton & Pepe’s entire docu.

However, they and producer Lucy Darwin (who five years ago documented the making of Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys” in “The Hamster Factor”) have done the next best thing: realizing parts of the script by having Chaim Bianco animate Gilliam’s storyboard illustrations. These, and Miriam Cutler’s lively Hispanic score, give the docu an upbeat flavor that not only parallels Gilliam’s irrepressible optimism but also make it almost a promo for raising further finance.

Docu’s one weakness is its look which, in a 35mm blowup from DV, is rather fuzzy on a bigscreen. On the tube, however, it should look just fine.

Lost in La Mancha

U.K.

Production

A Quixote Films/Low Key Pictures production, in association with Eastcroft Prods. (International sales: Tequila Gang, London.) Produced by Lucy Darwin. Directed, written by Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe.

Crew

Camera (color, DV-to-35mm), Pepe; editor, Jacob Bricca; additional editors, Fulton, Pepe; music, Miriam Cutler; sound, Michael Kowalski; animations, Chaim Bianco, Stefan Avalos; associate producers, Andrew Curtis, Rosa Bosch; assistant director (Spain), Jaime Sicilia Nistal. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 11, 2002. Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Narrator: Jeff Bridges.
With: Bernard Bouix, Rene Cleitman, Johnny Depp, Benjamin Fernandez, Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Phil Patterson, Nicola Pecorini, Gabriella Pescucci, Jean Rochefort.

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