From her flat in Hampstead London we spoke to spoke to Lost in La Mancha’s producer, Lucy Darwin about the project, and working with Ex-Monty Python and visionary filmmaker Terry Gilliam.

Terry Gilliam is a man with a wonderfully gifted imagination and an uncompromising filmmakers vision for bringing it to life.

Gilliam with the Lost filmmakers

When given no budget Gilliam has delivered unique things like the animations that linked the sketches of the “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” television series and the gritty realism of “Holy Grail”(1975) and “Jabberwocky”(1977), but it seems that when given free reign to create a film, something (usually outside of his control) drags his films into controversy and disaster.

It is uncanny the way that Gilliam’s productions mirror their subject matter. His first dance with disaster occurred with arguably Gilliam’s finest work “Brazil”(1985). Gilliam wanted film where the main character has to go insane to achieve a happy ending. The films producers, Universal Pictures did not like what they were delivered and used a clause in the contract (the films running time) to suppress the film’s distribution in America.

Gilliam’s following film, “Baron Munchausen”(1988), dealt with the well known European fictional character who thrives on tall tales. The films production was disastrously helmed by a producer who had a similar view – promising things to Gilliam that simply had no basis in reality, resulting in a legendary budget blow out.

After these two experiences, Gilliam reduced his scope and directed some films based on other peoples stories that met with little difficulty and much acclaim, “The Fisher King”(1991), “12 Monkeys”(1995) and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”(1998). Cashing in on this success Gilliam decided it was time to attempt the film he had been developing for over 10 years, a version of “Don Quixote” called “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”. Gilliam was tempting fate to stop him again. Unlike Gilliam’s previous disasters, this time he was stopped dead by an unbelievable series of events that conspired to have the windmills that he tilted at fight back with very real consequences.

Lucy Darwin first got involved with the phenomena that is Gilliam when handling the British distribution for “Baron Munchausen”, and the two became friends. Darwin has continued to be involved in the postproduction of Gilliam’s subsequent films including “12 Monkeys”. Lucy describes working closely with Gilliam on this project as “wonderful”.
“It was a fantastic experience seeing it being cut together. [I organised] a shoot for the special effects and working with the composer – it was a marvelous experience.

The happy days when the project was on track

She also arranged the fascinating “South Bank Show” profile on Gilliam in October 1991 and was executive producer on the documentary of the making of 12 Monkeys – “The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of the 12 Monkeys”.

When Gilliam started pre-production on “Quixote” he invited the directors of “Hamster Factor”, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, to document his production again and they asked Lucy Darwin to be the producer. “When Terry was about to start shooting this one, we decided that we would put together a proposal and pitch for the job.”
When production begun on “Quixote” the documentary team still didn’t have funding for their project, so they did what any keen crew would do, “we sent the boys to Spain on our credit cards.
“The idea for the film was to make a film about pre-production, and about how films get off the ground, so we didn’t want to miss any of those eight weeks that they were in Madrid before they started shooting.”
And it is a good thing that they did, because as the documentary “Lost In La Mancha” shows, Terry’s film barely moved out of pre-production and into principal photography. This must have given the documentary team a sinking felling.
“We didn’t know that we had a film at all until we sat down and watched 120 hours of footage. And then we had an issue with what do you do with a film that doesn’t have a movie.

Many film critics have hailed Lost in La Mancha as one of the best documentaries on the problems associated with film making, but it has an unusual obstacle to overcome. Unlike other film documents like “The Hamster Factor” on “12 Monkeys” and “Hearts Of Darkness” on “Apocalypse Now” or books like “Future Noir” on “Blade Runner” and “Final Cut” on “Heavens Gate”, this time the film maker hadn’t even managed to finish the film. So instead of having a film that could generate some kind of publicity, which the documentary could benefit from, the filmmakers found themselves high and dry. It was hard to imagine a television documentary on the making of a film that didn’t get made.
“We spend a lot of time working out how we could tell the story. I felt strongly that we had a film that was worthy of a wider audience.” So in March 2001 Lucy raised some more money and “Lost in La Mancha” was turned into a feature in it’s own right.
“The film was first shown at the Berlin film festival in February [2002] and it was literally hand carried to the festival – wet prints.” And indeed it was Lucy who did the carrying. The reaction was “extraordinary”.
“It has made people very, very desperate to see the film. People came out of the cinema and just wanted to see the movie made and that’s been the case ever since. Terry really wants to make the film. Johnny Depp really wants to make the film with him. Jean Rochefort unfortunately wont be able to take that roll because he’s not allowed to get on a horse now” (due to problems which are related in the documentary).

People came out of the cinema and just wanted to see the movie made

So in this instance, instead of the documentary just providing insight into the film making process, it is all that is left of it’s subject.
“You don’t know when you start out to make a documentary what you are going to shoot. You can only pick on strands and hope that what you shoot gives you the materials that you need to make a story. We were very lucky in his misfortune.
“The first time I watched the footage, there was a couple of times I cried. I am reassured by the fact that Terry really admires our film, and I think he comes out of it as a very genuine, forceful, creatively fascinating character.

Gilliam with the co-directors

Gilliam has often said that he doesn’t consider himself a performer. During the Python days he was happy to hide under a sheet and produce the eccentric animations. When he did appear it is usually reluctantly and in heavy make up. It was only the untimely (though hardy unexpected) death of Keith Moon that forced Gilliam into an additional character, the Blood and Thunder Prophet, in “Life Of Brian” (1979). It does seem odd that he is the subject of so many documentaries and numerous commentaries on his films.
“He is a very open individual. I don’t think that there is another director on the
Planet that would allow the sort of access that he gave us. He doesn’t have an ego that prevents people from participating in what he does, creatively.

In the “La Mancha” there is a very definite feeling that Gilliam is portrayed as a sort of Don Quixote, with Phil Patterson, the first assistant director, as his Sancho Panza.
“The first proposal we wrote up for the people we hoped would finance the film, the story we wanted to tell, would link the idea of Quixote and Gilliam as a Quixotic character. It seemed a very obvious choice, considering the battles he has had over the years with the studios. And he says himself that it is one of the major things that gets his creative juices flowing is the conflict and difficulties.

Indeed when Gilliam is filming one of his own stories, it may seem that trouble is not far away. “He is not unique. There are millions of films made where there are problems that are very similar to these [on Quixote]. He is just very open and honest about it and willing to share this experience. In the time that we were in postproduction on this film, three major films collapsed in [England]. It’s very, very common, but it is something that is not talked about, or known about in the public.”
“He is uncompromising in his want to produce complex and fascinating and visually arresting films. Therefore they are difficult to make.
“If you look at “Fisher King” and “12 Monkeys” you will see two films that were made under budget and were very successful. People tend to focus on the disasters and they don’t think about the successes.
“I know for a fact that [“12 Monkeys”] was made for $28 million, and any other director would probably spend well over $60 or $70 making the same sort of film. And that film made [a profit of] over $250 million worldwide.

Having the publicity background, Lucy knows that a thing that would make the documentary easier to market is to have a famous name doing the commentary.
“I made a short list of people who had worked with Terry before, who would be good names and good voices. Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges. [Jeff Bridges] immediately said he would do it, and he did it for free. Robin Williams also wanted to do it, but I think that Jeff Bridge has the best voice on the planet.

Despite the failure of Gilliam’s first attempt to film “Quixote”, it is the success of the documentary that may once again breathe life into Gilliam’s windmills. The film has generated enough interest in the project that Gilliam is on the verge of buying back the script from the German insurance company who now own it, and attempting another tilt at it.
“Since our film has been out, [Terry] has had offers of substantial finance for the next version of Quixote, when it gets off the ground. All that is stopping at the moment is getting he paperwork sorted out so that he can get the script back.
“He will made the film. They’re very close to finalizing the paperwork, which is very complicated. It was a $15 million insurance claim. The single larges insurance claim in European film history.

In the mean while Gilliam is filming a tale of “The Brother Grimm” and has had his name associated with an adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s novel “Good Omens” and we do have “Lost In La Mancha” to enjoy while he prepare his next tilt at the project.

This article was originally published in Tabula Rasa – June 2003