To film the impossible film

Nobody knew if Terry Gilliam, world-class filmmaker and longtime member of the Monty Python comedy team, would show up at the Toronto Film Festival last fall.

Most movie folks are eager to tout their newest effort at the prestigious venue, and Gilliam is both star and main character of "Lost in La Mancha." But the subject of this hugely entertaining documentary, made by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, is something Gilliam feels very sensitive about.

In 2000, Gilliam traveled to Spain to begin preproduction on his dream project, "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote." It had taken 10 years, but he had managed to raise the $31 million needed to start filming. His cast was assembled:

Jean Rochefort would don the Spanish knight's suit of armor, and Johnny Depp would play a modern man who ends up in the idealistic Don's world.

The entire project fell apart after less than a week of shooting.

The unraveling was as swift as it was unforeseeable. The movie was beset by a host of problems almost biblical in proportion. The only thing missing was the locusts.

His star left to seek medical treatment, and never returned. One location had to be abandoned, thanks to noise from US military planes, whose pilots remapped training flights to get bird's-eye glimpses of Depp. Even the weather seemed to conspire against Gilliam: A flash flood washed away the sets and scenery.

"Lost in La Mancha," opening in theaters today, chronicles the "Quixote" tragicomedy in detail, capturing the grandeur of Gilliam's vision and the heartbreak of its collapse. Nobody would have blamed Gilliam if he'd turned down the festival's invitation and stayed quietly at home.

But once a showman, always a showman. Gilliam not only trekked to Toronto, he ballyhooed "La Mancha" to the press and made a surprise appearance at its première - waving and smiling with such enthusiasm that you might have thought the documentary was a celebratory "making of" film, not an "un-making of" movie fueled by the greatest disappointment of his career.

"Every time I watch it," he said in an interview, "it takes at least a week to recover.... It brings back all the nightmare and anxiety. It's that weird thing of thinking I'd got over it, but then realizing I hadn't got over it."

So what brought him all the way from his London home to watch the collapse all over again?

"I do think it's a really good film," he says. "People get excited and moved by it [because] it's ... the first time they're seeing something truthful about filmmaking. It isn't all about how wonderful everything is and how happy we all are."

He wanted to support the documentary for a practical reason, as well.

"It's the best sales tool a guy could ever hope for," he says with enthusiasm, "to get 'Quixote' up and running again!"

As optimistic as his windmill-jousting protagonist, Gilliam is still working on ways to get the camera rolling again. He talks about the possibility of shooting beginning again next September.

If this actually happens, it will add yet another twist to one of the movie world's quirkiest careers. If it doesn't, it could hamper future projects, and reinforce the view of some studio executives that Gilliam is the most unmanageable maverick since Orson Welles (who also tried unsuccessfully to film "Don Quixote") walked down Sunset Boulevard.

'I've stopped imagining'

This has taken a toll on Gilliam, causing anxieties he says he'll have to overcome before stepping behind the camera again - whether the movie is "Quixote" or one of the other, smaller-scale productions he's been thinking of.

"I was talking with Maggie, my wife," he says, speaking in a soft voice, "and I said, 'I've stopped imagining. I can't afford to imagine anymore.' Because every time I have a good idea I get excited ... but it's like a writer's block has taken over. I have to dive in and get through this. I've got to shoot."

Gilliam draws comfort from the fact that production fiascos have dogged many a director before him. "Most filmmakers have gone through something like that. They may have ended up with a film in the end, but they've gone through those kinds of nightmares."

What most major filmmakers haven't had to endure is the degree of skepticism Gilliam faces in Hollywood, where some executives refuse to see him as a bankable director.

This began in 1984, when Universal Pictures took a look at his science-fiction epic "Brazil" and decided it was too offbeat and risky to release. It might have languished on the shelf indefinitely if the Los Angeles Film Critics Association hadn't stepped in, giving it awards for best picture, best director, and best screenplay on the basis of private screenings. Its theatrical première soon followed, and many now consider it Gilliam's greatest movie.

He says Hollywood has never forgiven him. "I took on the system and won," he says, "so I must get my comeuppance."

Things took another downturn in 1988, when his fantasy "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" went over budget and then fared poorly at the box office. Gilliam claims it would have succeeded if he hadn't been forced into last-minute trims, and if its distributor had given it a chance in a larger number of theaters - only 117 prints were made, he says. But the damage was done. Even the healthy grosses of "The Fisher King," with Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges, and "12 Monkeys," with Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, couldn't change Hollywood's view of Gilliam as an uncommercial dreamer.

None of which is very surprising if you look at Gilliam's penchant for offbeat projects from Hollywood's point of view.

"Hollywood regards someone like Gilliam as a kind of hobbyist," says Boston University scholar Ray Carney, who runs the film website "Studio producers live in terror of confusing a mainstream audience they perceive as craving clarity and convention," Mr. Carney says. "Gilliam thumbs his nose at those conventions. As far as Hollywood is concerned, he's speaking to a coterie of self-elected fans, and there's no reason why they should give him money for that sort of film.

"I don't endorse that attitude," Carney adds, "but it's easy to understand why Hollywood is unsympathetic to the Terry Gilliams of the world, who aren't interested in speaking to the masses."

Gilliam has as many misgivings about Hollywood as it has about him, but the divide isn't always rigid. Gilliam says two Hollywood-backed films, "The Fisher King" and "12 Monkeys," rank with the "smoothest" productions of his career.

He's also willing to make concessions. He originally had a $40 million budget for "Quixote," but scaled it down to $31 million when he had to replace his original backers with European funding. "We brought a much smaller crew down to Spain, we picked up more local people ... doing everything to keep costs down."

Such attempts at prudence cut a limited amount of ice in Hollywood, where you're only as good as your last picture. Gilliam's last picture was "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," a wildly unconventional 1998 comedy about two drug-addled misfits. Its box-office failure revived studio memories of his previous misadventures.

"It's one thing for Hollywood to paint you as a temperamental artist," notes critic Jack Mathews, whose book "The Battle of Brazil" tells the inside story of how that movie reached the screen. "It's another thing - and a lot worse - if they think you're profligate. That's why 'Munchausen' really hurt him.

"But he just won't compromise," Mr. Mathews adds. "Anyone who's worked on his movies says it's a nightmare and a joy."

Gilliam admits his frequent criticisms of Hollywood have played a part in weakening his credibility there. "I'm stupidly outspoken," he remarks with a wry smile, "and there's a payback for that. I got a new agent this last year ... and they were getting all this feedback: 'Gilliam's out of control, he's dangerous, you don't know what he's going to do....' [The agent] actually suggested I spend a few weeks in Hollywood doing a charm offensive, to let everybody know what a nice guy I am.

"Wait a minute! This is what you do at the beginning of your career! I'm over 60, and they're wanting me to go back and start again!"

Looking back over Gilliam's career, it's likely he would have faced fewer problems if his talents had been easier to pin down. He started as an artist and cartoonist, yet he always hoped to direct live-action features. As the Monty Python animator, he worked apart from the troupe, yet he relishes collaboration. He's been pigeonholed as a humorist, but pictures like "Jabberwocky" and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" reveal dark streaks in his creative personality.

"Terry may be the only truly original thinker I've ever met," says Mathews, who has known him for years. "He talks in terms of images that come from some unique place inside him - they're not based on anything else and they don't remind you of anything else."

Putting up his own stone walls

In short, Gilliam refuses to play by the rules. He navigates by his own compass, insisting that unfettered imagination is the heart and soul of any art worth practicing. "I can't get excited by doing the normal stuff," he says. "I don't want 'jobs.' That's my problem. I'd rather go to my place in Italy and build stone walls. And that's exactly what I do - just build stone walls, because that's good, solid, basic work.

"I mean, I hate the waste of my life," he adds reflectively. "The years are going by, and so few films are being made. But ... I'm not interested in making movies, per se. I'm interested in doing things that blow people's minds, that change the view of the world."

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