Saturday, January 06, 2007

Documentaries to Revisit: Lost in La Mancha

While every documentary should be unique, it is important for documentary filmmakers to be well-read when it comes to documentaries to see different ways that those who have come before them have dealt with the joys and challenges of non-fiction storytelling. Until recently, it has been difficult to see documentaries on demand. But now many documentaries are easily available through Netflix, Amazon, or the local video store. With this in mind, we wanted to revisit a few documentaries which reflect a wide variety of styles, but all share the power of effective story structure and character development. This time we examine LOST IN LA MANCHA by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe. The review is by Docs in Progress co-founder Adele Schmidt.

Filmmaking can be a very torturing process. Nowhere can this be seen more easily than in documentaries about the making of a film. Some documentaries have provided deep insights into how difficult it is to get a script onto a screen. Just remember the insightful documentary BURDEN OF DREAMS by Les Blank who follows German filmmaker Werner Herzog into the Peruvian jungle where he was filming FITZCARRALDO. As the documentary unfolds, Herzog encounters enormous problems during the shooting in the Amazons. Even after three years of stop-and-go, FITZCARRALDO was completed and Werner Herzog's dream fulfilled. But what happens if the fight to realize a dream ends in a fiasco? How does this affect the “Making Of” story?

Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, the makers of the documentary LOST IN LA MANCHA, lead us through that worst case scenario by documenting the making of the movie THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE, an ambitious film adaptation of Don Quixote by charismatic filmmaker Terry Gilliam. Sure, this documentary was planned with a different outcome, the “happy ending” of a finished film, but the reality unfolded itself in a different way and filmmakers Fulton and Pepe had no choice than adapt to that change. The film production of THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE failed after only one week on location. The documentary which intended to document the making of a $32 million movie turned into a film about the downfall of a production. Out of that production experience came not a feature film, but a documentary which every filmmaker should see to learn how to handle a story which goes off course from the one you expected -- and perhaps even find a more interesting story in the process.

In spite of the fact that Fulton and Pepe had just six days of shooting on location, they managed to document the passion which stands behind Terry Gilliam’s creation. At the same time, the documentary is constantly reminding us of one crude reality which waves behind every mayor film production: That next to talent, enormous management skills are needed to complete a movie and sometimes luck is not on your side.

The passion of filmmaking

Terry Gilliam is known for his eccentric futuristic fantasy films, such as Brazil and 12 Monkeys. This time, Gilliam is not projecting his imaginations into future but into the past, into the mindset of Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes who wrote Don Quixote in 1605. The plot is well known: An old man who has read so many stories about knights believes in a confused state that he himself is a knight and sets out with his horse to fight injustice. In one of his most famous adventures, he fights against windmills, believing that they are giants.

Unfortunately we never get to see the unfolding of the fight against windmills before the camera. The only thing we get to see from that scene is the casting of the three giants. Gilliam selects three big and comical looking Spanish men and does some camera rehearsals with them. What we see through the camera lens in that rehearsal makes us want to see more. Fulton and Pepe make it clear throughout their documentary that quite an outstanding film is on the way.

A look at the storyboard alone, illustrated in animated drawings, helps us to understand that. These drawings, a mix of surreal cartoons traced with extraordinary detail, are an art work unto themselves. Fulton and Pepe choose to start their documentary with these drawings to set up the high stylistic level of Gilliam’s film. These animations also give us a hint on how complicated this production will be, with huge set constructions and extravagant costumes. Gilliam, the fantasy auteur, envisions a film where magic dissolves into reality, where giants appear, and where gigantic handmade marionettes dance on enormous strings.

Most of all, we see an enthusiastic director who is in love with his project. The camera follows Gilliam as he interacts with his crew in preproduction. He macro-manages the overall look of the film, giving instructions to the set designer and at the same time micromanages details when we see him in discussion about Don Quixote’s armor. We get to know other crew members as they are all working full speed in each department to be ready for the first day of shooting.

Fulton and Pepe made important choices in editing in order to create the drama. By giving us from the start a good taste of the high production value of THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE, we fall in love with the project. We want to see the film happen. We want Gilliam to succeed with his dream.

Fighting the odds

The documentation of the downfall condenses weeks of pre-production and les than a week of production into 90 minutes. It points out the risk factors which can make any film production fall apart, especially one which aspires to Hollywood production values without being produced by Hollywood.

We are told from the beginning that the real cost of this film is $80 million. Gilliam was not able to convince any Hollywood studio to produce the film. He raises half of the money from European investors and sets out to Spain to shoot the film for $32 million. Filming at a less than an ideal budget is a scenario familiar to most documentary filmmakers. Gilliam faces similar tradeoffs and compromises that many low-budget doc-makers face.

Filming under budget means a director has less time or no time for rehearsal. Less rehearsal means more time on the set to get the acting and dialogue right. Selecting French actor Jean Rochefort to play Don Quixote makes sense for the European investors who need a hook to get the film into French cinemas, but Rochefort speaks shaky English. We are told that he started to learn English just to perform his part. All this contributes to problems on the set from the start.

Filming under budget also means crew and actors get paid less. Less payment means less commitment. Johnny Depp, who will play Sancho Panza, makes clear from the beginning that he has an extremely tight timeframe for the shoot between other film commitments and cannot extend under any circumstances.

Further, filming under budget means that the shooting schedule is extremely tight and must be executed as planned. There is no room for unexpected events, accidents or emergencies.

Fulton and Pepe select the crucial moments in the six days of shooting to document the challenges facing the production. We see Don Quixote riding his horse in a desert landscape. We soon learn that this landscape is located next to a NATO airbase, something one would think could have been identified during the location scout. On almost every take, a NATO fighter jet speeds through the sky, drowning out dialogue. The film crew spends most of the day on the rocks waiting for silence.

The next day, clouds make their appearance in the sky and turn into a severe thunderstorm with such a heavy rain fall that the crew has little time to hide in cars and secure the equipment under plastic sheets. The equipment gets flooded anyway and the next two days are used to restore it. Back on the set after four days of unsuccessful shooting, Jean Rochefort screams in pain as he unmounts his horse. It turns out that he has prostrate problems. He flies out to Paris to consult his doctor. Gilliam still hopes that the production can resume to shoot scenes where Rochefort is not needed, but soon learns that Rochefort is under doctor’s orders not to get back on a horse. Without their star, the insurance and the investors close the production down.

As we see the puppets get packed back into their boxes, we ask ourselves if everything can be blamed just on unforeseen forces that brought the production down. That is the argument Gilliam uses to convince the insurance company who has to come up with the lost money. But we have to wonder whether his unrealistic planning was also a major factor in the equation. Is it possible to act like a Hollywood director without having Hollywood behind you?

Fulton and Pepe do not get into details here because they have found a new story for their documentary. Just as Gilliam’s heart breaks over the loss of his dream, so too does the heart of the audience who had invested our hopes in the film being completed. What started out as a “Making Of” documentary found a new life as an “Unmaking of” documentary. A man dreams the impossible dream and finds invisible forces – many of his own making – block his way. Only the man is not Don Quixote, but Terry Gilliam.

When all is said and done, LOST IN LA MANCHA has two lessons for documentary filmmakers:

* Pay attention to what is within your control. Plan carefully to make your production a success. A low budget is not an excuse for poor common sense.

* Pay attention to what is outside of your control. The story you want to tell may not be the one which wants to be told. As you document what unfolds, go with the flow and you may find a new, even more powerful story.

© January 2007, Docs in Progress. Blogs and articles may not be reprinted without permission.

No comments: