Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #25--Lost in La Mancha (2002)

[What is Johnny Kitties? See Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp for all the details.]

I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me. Not just me, a lot of people put an incredible amount of their life into this thing, and it all fell apart. For all of us, in that sense, [Lost in La Mancha] is the only postcard we've got of what happened.

--Terry Gilliam

This disaster actually happened.
When Johnny Depp signed on for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, reteaming with director Terry Gilliam and costarring with his real-life partner Vanessa Paradis, I instantly couldn't wait to see it! Johnny was to play Toby Grosini, a modern-day advertising executive who travels back into the 17th century, where Don Quixote (Jean Rochefort) mistakes him for Sancho Panza. Vanessa Paradis was to play Johnny's love interest, Altisidora. 

It's tragic that this project never got off the ground. (Tragic, I tell you!) But Lost in La Mancha  is a worthy keepsake. This fascinating documentary chronicles Terry Gilliam's efforts to get The Man Who Killed Don Quixote made, starting from preproduction and ending after the sixth day of shooting, by which time they accomplished completing about 7 minutes of film. Everything possible went wrong, and they were all out of the director's control--illness, F16 drills, monumental storms, floods. This was an extreme case of fate.

The curse of Don Quixote lives! 
In 1957, Orson Welles started working on his own version of Don Quixote, the story of a delusional old man wearing a homemade suit of armor who seeks adventure with  his sidekick, Sancho Panza. The film was left unfinished when he died in 1982, and I hope the same doesn't happen to Terry Gilliam! Whenever I watch Lost in La Mancha, I'm reminded that I still want to see The Man Who Killed Don Quixote--Gilliam-style!

Because I love movies, I love this documentary, which offers a behind-the-scenes look at the tedium of  moviemaking (basically lots of meetings and zillions of details). Fascinating, right? Well, what I find exhilarating is watching a team of people bring one person's vision to life--building sets and designing costumes, talking through the script and rehearsing scenes, etc.--especially when that person is as imaginative a director as Terry Gilliam is. 

Terry Gilliam began working on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in 1991. He had tried to film it in 1999, but funding for it fell through. This second attempt was to be the most expensive film made solely with European funds, and it's only half of the budget that the director needed. Terry Gilliam has a bad reputation when it comes to financing, which is why he went to Europe to make this movie. It stems from his experience making The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in 1988. During that shoot, problem after problem occurred and spending got out of control. The film was finished but didn't recoup its losses at the box office, and it got around town that Terry Gilliam was a wild director who didn't know how to manage. I'll never understand the taste of the general public, but The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is one of my all-time favorite movies, and it's because Terry Gilliam made it just right.

Lost in La Mancha  hints at how The Man Who Killed Don Quixote might become Munchaussen Revisited for the director, but these new problems were unavoidable. While Terry Gilliam is an over-the-top showman who's entertaining to watch doing just about anything, the film combats his reputation by reflecting a serious, methodical director with a clear plan.

He asked filmmakers Luis Pepe and Keith Fulton to create a diary of the making of this film. "It may be the kind of narcissism  that wants to see what the truth is--Because I don't know what reality is, let's assume that for a moment," Terry Gilliam says. "And here's a chance for someone to record what's really going on and then maybe learn something." Having worked with Terry Gilliam before on a documentary about the making of one of his other movies, 12 Monkeys, it's pretty amazing to see how much they capture in this one and how candid everyone is on film as things begin to go downhill. "It's not an exploitative kind of documentary," co-director Keith Fulton says, "It depicts a disaster, but it doesn't take it apart and look to see whose fault it was because, in fact, it wasn't really anyone's fault. It was a lot of ugly fate at work in what took this film down."   

Here's a few of the problems during preproduction and on the set of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote that get Terry Gilliam and company Lost in La Mancha:
  • Star Jean Rochefort becomes ill the day before filming is to begin. Terry Gilliam decides to shoot scenes that don't involve him until he returns. 
  • The first location to be shot is a NATO bombing training area. Officials say they'll only be training for an hour each day, which really meant all day long and ruined any chance of recording suitable audio. Johnny describes being near target practice of the F16s: "I remember being completely shocked by the sound of this plane screaming in--deafening! Between the set, where we were shooting, and the base camp, which is where our trailers were, you heard the plane scream and then a bomb exploding--and fire, a little blast of fire."  
  • During lunch on the second day, the clear sunny sky is invaded by black clouds of death. Unlike everyone else who takes cover as rain and hail drench the desert, Terry Gilliam finds a rock to sit under and waits it out: "It was a great, biblical storm. It was God's vengeance! It was everything you ever hoped for! Everything howled, shattered, and crashed, and the rain was coming down, and this barren land was suddenly full of waterfalls! Then, it turned to hail the size of golf balls! And, I'm under this rock yelling, 'Yes! Yes! Gimmie all you got! You're not going to get me!'" 
  • The rain stops, Terry Gilliam emerges from under his rock, and finds that everything is washed away--Everything. "There's nothing left. The tents are down. The sets are gone. The people are gone. There's nothing but mud as far as you can see," he describes. "I thought, 'I'm free at last. This burden of a film is off me, and I don't have to do it again!'"
  • On Day 4, the land is dry again, but the water from the storm has changed the landscape's hue and shape. It looks completely different and won't match the scenes that have already been shot on Day 1. 
  • Finally, there's some good news: Jean Rochefort returns and shoots a scene! And, then there's bad news: It's clear that he's in serious pain. A few days later, doctors discover that the star has a double-herniated disc. His return is questionable.
After a while, the filmmakers felt awkward hanging around with cameras with everything falling apart around them. They called Terry Gilliam to voice their concerns, and he told them to keep going: "I've been working for 10 years to try and make this film. It's starting to look like I might not get to make the film, which means only one film is going to come out of it, and it's not going to be mine. So, it better be yours." 

Don't worry, nothing happens to Johnny!
Because much of this documentary covers preproduction, Johnny isn't in Lost in La Mancha very much. He shows up, fresh from the set of Chocolat, about a week before shooting. If, like me, you love to see the man at work, there are some snippets of him discussing the script with Terry Gilliam and Jean Rochefort and--of course--some of him acting whatever scenes they could actually get in the can that first day. If, like me, you are also perfectly happy watching Johnny just sit around sipping coffee or whatever, there's some of that too. Among the DVD special features, he'll treat you to some interviews about the experience too. 

Johnny was eager to work with Terry Gilliam again, having really enjoyed the experience of working with him on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in the '90s. "He is a lunatic, but I mean that as a great, great compliment because Terry, in a lot of ways, is really free. He's not bound by the realities that 'this is possible, this is not possible.' Terry's a great dreamer. He's able to put his visions into an arena and make them come true."  

Despite everything, Johnny remained optimistic: "Against all odds, it felt like it was going to be a really great film." But Vanessa Paradis never even made it to the set. She arrived to do costume and makeup tests, seen to the right, but she wasn't scheduled to arrive on the set until Day 7--the day after everything shut down.

Vanessa Paradis is hugely popular in her native France as a model, singer, and actress. Johnny met her 1998 while filming The Ninth Gate in Paris, and they have two kids together. They've never worked on film together before, and I've barely heard Vanessa speak any English during their 14-year relationship, so I was keen to see her in this movie, where she would be in an English-speaking role. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. And, since she and Johnny decided to go their separate ways last June, I don't think it's going to happen. Sad, all around. 

What now?
After everything that happened, Terry Gilliam remains defiant: "I'm going to make the film. I may have to recast the thing. There are a lot of things that may be different, but it's too good a script. I just know it's good. Everyone who reads it says this is magic."As the years have gone by, he has fought to regain the rights to his script from investors, and Johnny's schedule has become increasing packed. The last I heard, our hero director had his script back and recast the film with Robert Duvall as Don Quixote and Ewan McGregor as Toby Grosini. (I'll take it!) He hopes they'll start shooting next spring. Keep your fingers crossed. 

For a glimpse of what The Man Who Killed Don Quixote could be, here's the trailer to Lost in La Mancha.

Fish fights? Giants? I don't know what it all means, but--come on--don't you want to see it?!

Do The Kitties need to know what's going on?
Rather than focus on all the disasters and unfortunate events, The Kitties celebrate what little film Terry Gilliam was able to shoot of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #25--Lost in La Mancha (2002) [June 23, 2012]

Contemplating the untimely demise of his 10-year project, Terry Gilliam (Norman) watches with (I think) Casting Director Irene Lamb (Ashes) a bit of film he shot of Johnny leading his horse through the desert. I think the horse is carrying Don Quixote (B.J.), but no one can say for sure because none of us has seen this movie!

What's next?
Johnny signs on to play a pirate in a Disney movie based on one of their run-down theme park rides. I keep the faith but am slightly worried that he may have lost some marbles.

All film images and video © IFC Films; illustration © Melissa Connolly

No comments: