When Terry Gilliam set out in
2001, after a decade of financial difficulties, to make his
independently financed version of Don Quixote—called The
Man Who Killed Don Quixote—he had no way of knowing that
the production would be dead within a month of shooting’s
start. Fortunately, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe,
a documentary team who’d previously shot The Hamster Factor,
about his 1995 success Twelve Monkeys were along, and
their documentary Lost In La Mancha represents the
only record left of Gilliam’s schemes and ambitions. The result
is a compelling mixture, part cinema verité, part defense
of Gilliam for his alleged creative excesses, and all tragicomic
elegy. The day after I saw it, I sat down on the tail end
of a full day of press for a quick discussion about their
sudden rocket to documentary fame.
hybrid: Considering that Terry Gilliam’s last three movies
have come in on time and on budget, and have been fairly profitable,
and that the Don Quixote story is not that outrageous—there
was even a recent cable TV version of it starring John Lithgow,
and considering its moderate budget, why was The Man Who Killed
Don Quixote rejected by all the studios, especially Universal?
Louis Pepe: I think two reasons. The industry is afraid of
Terry. He has the reputation of being somebody dangerous and
excessive and there’s a way that’s an unfair reputation, and
part of the goal of our documentary was showing that, you
know, things, are not his fault. The second reason I think
Keith Fulton: He has a reputation also for making adventurous,
intelligent movies, which is always dangerous in the United
States, so it makes it harder for anyone to get financing
if you‘ve got a brain.
Louis: It was a $32 million film in Europe, but when it was
originally being shopped around in Hollywood, it was a much
higher budget because whenever you make something in Hollywood
all the prices go up, because people think there’s just more
money to go around, so you know, it was a hard thing for him
to get that much money. He initially tried, because they were
giving him so much hell—
Keith: He did not want Hollywood money in this film. He knew
he was going to have a harder time.
hybrid: This didn’t even originate with him. This is the
first film in a decade he’s done that’s his original screenplay.
Louis: Right, and that’s another thing that frightened them,
the studio executives. At this point, you have to realize
most of the people he’s pitching to are half his age, so they’re
just people who’ve heard about Baron Munchausen, Baron Munchausen,
and they don’t even know the true facts about it, so they’re
terrified. They are not risk takers, and they’re reading this
thing that’s a dark story, that isn’t someone else’s script,
that’s straight out of his head—they’re afraid of it.
Hybrid: There’s a part of the movie where you show the
investors—some 40 strong—they’re each bringing what, a million
to the project?
Louis: They were a group of people, 60 German dentists and
Keith: Mutual fund.
Louis: It was a mutual fund and until recently it was actually
a huge source of film financing because of German tax laws.
These people have these cinema mutual funds where they put
their money in the tax shelter, but they were half of the
budget. These people were $16 million, so it was a huge portion
of his film.
Hybrid: Do they actually have control—do they choose the
specific projects they want to finance?
Louis: I think the head of the fund chooses, definitely.
Hybrid: But do the individual investors?
Louis: I’m not sure. They must have the same rights as the
individual investors of a mutual fund would have. They are
shareholders, but I don’t know exactly how it works. But they
were all very excited to have their funds in a Terry Gilliam
film. When you see them show up on the set, they’re thrilled.
Little do they know...[laughs].
Hybrid: You’re kind of in a weird genre of documentary.
I know that between Hamster Factor and this that y’all
spent six years doing something which is not well known and
there’s no information about those projects out there. I don’t
know what it was—
Keith: We’re not gonna tell you.
Louis: We did a fiction short, and The Hamster Factor
was really our big feature documentary. Everything else in
between has been sort of a job.
Hybrid: Did y’all initially attach yourselves to the project
or were you asked to come in?
Louis: Because we had done this film about Terry before,
we’d been trying to get other projects going with him, so
we had tried to do something about Fear and Loathing
[in Las Vegas]. Terry said, “Look I’m doing this, do
you want to come along” and we couldn’t get the money for
that and then he mentioned Quixote, and said do you want to
do something about this. He suggested it and we said yeah,
we want to do it. We wrote up a proposal and went out and
got the money and approached the producers. It was basically
travel costs, which were expensive because we were in Spain
for three months, and then the other thing was editing, because
the process of editing the documentary was eight months, so
the whole budget for the thing was about $400,000, including
transferring it from video to film, which is not a cheap process.
Keith: Hiring a composer, editor, sound mixer...
Louis: Both of them are good guys. Both of them are filmmakers.
The guy who did the Quixote illustrations of the Doret
drawings is a filmmaker named Stefan Avalos who did
a film called The Last Broadcast [a 1998 low-budget
horror film which was later a major source of inspiration,
if not actually ripped off for, The Blair Witch Project].
And the other guy is a guy named Chaim Bianco, who
we knew in film school and is a brilliant animator.
Hybrid: Who financed this?
Keith: This was financed by private investors mainly.
Hybrid: So it’s separate from the financing from Quixote?
Louis: Yeah, that was really important to us, because we
did not want to do anything where we were beholden to a studio
or someone who was financing Terry’s film. It was very crucial
to us that we have the flexibility to have independent financing
so that there wasn’t anybody saying “We don’t like the image
that you’re portraying of this thing that we’re selling.”
Hybrid: Did you deal with that on Twelve Monkeys?
Louis: Yeah, that was independent until the end, when Universal
bought the film [and put it on the DVD]. We were not in contract
with anybody at the beginning, because we weren’t paid.
Keith: So when we made the documentary on Twelve Monkeys,
Terry basically gave us a little bit of money for tape stock,
and then we worked for free and weren’t paid until the end
when we sold it. So it was basically Universal saying “OK,
we like it and here’s how much money we’ll give you for it.”
But they didn’t have any ability to alter it. Of course, the
big difference—you ask about these six years in between—is
you get older, you’re not able to do the labor of love just
for love anymore, so this one had to be financed up-front.
Hybrid: Was this a conscious attempt, on some level, to
return to prominence?
Louis: Well, initially that wasn’t in it because initially
we thought we were going to do an hour-long piece for TV and
so it was a very different film but what happened was when
Terry’s film collapsed, we realized, you know, this is a very
unique story we’ve captured and our film has to stand on its
own now because there is no film, so we need to make it a
feature and we need to get audiences to realize that this
is a documentary that is incredibly unique. You have never
seen anything quite like this before.
Hybrid: Do you have any documentary influences? You’re
in a weird kind of documentary sub-genre, the making-of, it’s
kind of a gray area normally for publicity purposes.
Keith: We’re not working in a weird documentary sub-genre.
Hybrid: I mean, you’re not but that’s how it’s perceived.
Louis: That’s a negative influence, so we’re always saying
“If we’re doing something that looks like a making-of, that
you would see on HBO, we’re doing something wrong.” So we
always made conscious decisions not to do things that look
like a promo.
Hybrid: But were there anybody who influenced you in that
Keith: The Maysles Brothers, Pennebaker, Leacock—all
the direct cinema documentaries. Basically the film school
we went to, the graduate school at the university, the big
emphasis was on that generation of filmmakers, you know, the
’60s, direct sound, handheld cameras, making really great
films. That’s the kind of documentary we like. So on Lost
In La Mancha we set out to make a kind of film that didn’t
have any narration, that didn’t have any interviews—that’s
very hard to do when you’re making a film about filmmaking,
because there’s always pieces of information you want to get
in. But the film plays for about an hour as a direct cinema
documentary, which was the goal, and we would have loved to
be able to do that for 90 minutes, but there’s too much information,
you can’t do that. It would have to have been a six-hour film
if you didn’t do it with any narration.
Louis: Our approach is more like the classic direct cinema.
Even a more recent film like Startup.com which is,
you know, Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim.
Hegedus works with Pennebaker, so that classic American observation
documentary style. Or Hoop Dreams, or films that are
less talking heads and more throwing you into the action and
you watching stuff unfold the way you would watch it unfold
in a fiction film.
Keith: Any time anyone says “making of”—
Both: We cringe.
Keith: We can’t stand it. We’ve done those kinds of films,
we’ve done those kinds of projects. In the period you’re talking
about, between The Hamster Factor and this, we did
publicity pieces. We did one for HBO about Three Kings,
and a couple of cases where we tried to do more substantial
documentaries while being paid by studios. Your perspective
has a lot to do with where the money comes from, so if you’re
paid by one of these studios, you have no creative freedom
whatsoever. They don’t want you to look at interesting stuff,
they don’t want you to portray it.
Louis: And even in the classic films about films—we would
look at Les Blank’s Burden Of Dreams, which
is about Herzog, and that’s the kind of thing we want
to capture. Even something like Hearts Of Darkness,
interesting as it is, there’s a way I think that film actually
glamorizes filmmaking which is “Okay, here’s the crazy director
and he’s becoming his character but he makes a brilliant masterpiece.”
And I think filmmaking is actually a lot more interesting
if you get underneath that layer like, “Well Gilliam, yeah
he’s got some quixotic components to him, but he isn’t the
crazy director, he’s a guy with a strong vision and he’s got
all these things going on and he’s very pragmatic and constantly
troubleshooting,” and it isn’t always the case that genius
is enough to get them through this process, because there’s
the hard realities of money, and money, and money, that threaten
the process every step along the way. So I think we would
watch Burden Of Dreams and that was one that was a
little bit more like a model for us, because in a way it doesn’t
glamorize the process.
Keith: But Herzog is crazy.
Louis: Herzog is crazy, and Gilliam is in a way.
Hybrid: What do you think of Herzog?
Louis: Brilliant filmmaker, crazy person.
Hybrid: Although exceptionally polite in person. [Herzog
had been in town the previous month to present several of
his works, including Lessons Of Darkness.]
Keith: Can be.
Louis: He did this documentary Lessons Of Darkness,
and it came out in Philadelphia and we were in grad school
there and the political climate was very peace-y and people
were like “How dare you aestheticize the horrors of war.”
He goes [with Germanic accent] “I’m Werner Herzog, and I’ll
do whatever the fuck I want,” which is... you gotta admire
the guy, but he’s a little out there.