Had everything gone according to plan in August of 2000, the film that became Lost in La Mancha would have been an extra on the DVD edition of a new Terry Gilliam film called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, starring Johnny Depp. Instead, this film shows an often bizarre sequence of events that explains why there was never any such film.
Terry Gilliam’s loose adaptation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha would have been the most expensive film ever shot solely with European money. On paper, at least, Gilliam had every reason to be optimistic. Not only did he have a big budget (for him) and a major star in Depp, he also had legendary French actor Jean Rochefort on hand to play Don Quixote.
Even if you are not superstitious, this film will almost make you start believing in curses, because little else could explain the run of horrendous luck that plagued the production. For thing, someone forgot to mention that their first location is next to a NATO bombing range. Fighter planes ruin shot after shot, but that’s nothing compared to what happens at the next location. The set is deluged by a rain storm of almost biblical proportions, destroying props and equipment. To top it off, star Jean Rochefort is in pain, a lot of pain. Production is shut down while he returns to Paris to see his doctors. After one more half-hearted day of shooting, the word comes down: Rochefort is out of action indefinitely. The film has lost one of its stars, a lot of a equipment, a location and several days of shooting. Almost before it’s begun, production on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is over.
We’ve all seen documentaries and featurettes on DVDs that show us what it looks like behind the scene of a successful motion picture, but we’ve never seen a film in the process of self-destruction, at least not in this much detail. It’s fascinating like a slow motion train wreck. Lost in La Mancha is actually quite educational about the business side of film production, in that we learn more than we ever wanted to know about the role of the completion guarantor. This is the party that insures the film against going over budget and, when the film is not finished, they indemnify the film’s backers against the loss. In return, the completion guarantor winds up owning the film. This is what happened to The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Not only did Gilliam not get to finish his film, he also no longer has the rights to it.
Toward the end of the film, Gilliam speaks of buying back the rights to finish the film. Having seen little snippets of the footage that was shot, you want to believe him but you get the feeling that, like Don Quixote, Gilliam is tilting at windmills.