Almost Famous: Films About Films That Never Got Made
by Howard Feinstein
Most “making-of” docs are as boring as a set visit — or a production story. (Notable exceptions: Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper’s 1991 “Hearts of Darkness,” about Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” and Les Blank’s 1994 “Burden of Dreams,” on Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo.”) A far more interesting genre is comprised of the “unmaking-of” films, those that track, on set or off, exceptional movies that might have been. One opens this week: Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s “Lost in La Mancha,” an uncensored, behind-the-scenes account of the rise and rapid fall of Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” in 2000. Among “Lost in La Mancha”‘s notable predecessors are “It’s All True” (1993), co-directed as a painstaking labor of love by Bill Krohn, Richard Wilson, and Myron Meisel, based on the accidental discovery of footage from an ambitious Orson Welles project shot right after “Citizen Kane.” Also, “Tigrero” (1994), Mika Kaurismaki’s doc that, director in tow, tracks Sam Fuller’s trip along the Amazon in search of locations he found for a film aborted by Fox 40 years earlier. Fulton, Krohn, and Kaurismaki talk about their own bizarre journeys into fictions that never were, and the tough, talented artists who ultimately succumbed to the monolith known as the film industry.
“‘Someone’s got to get a film out of this, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to be me.'” Fulton quotes Gilliam’s pronouncement after weeks of pre-production uncertainties and six days of shooting problems that rival in bad luck the plagues pronounced at the Passover table. The L.A.-based Fulton and Pepe had shot a doc on the making of Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys” (the 1995 “The Hamster Factory and Other Tales of 12 Monkeys”). “We were not sure we wanted to repeat ourselves, so we decided to focus on pre-production, an aspect of the process to which we didn’t have much exposure in ’12 Monkeys,'” Fulton explains. “It’s a good thing: There wasn’t much else!”
Legendary maverick Gilliam (“Brazil,” “Munchhausen”) had given up on studio backing for a project he had been trying to put together since 1991 about the idealistic but demented 17th-century “Don Quixote,” who mistakes for Sancho Panza a modern-day ad exec who has fallen into a time warp. He finally got the go-ahead eight years later from a European investor for a $40 million budget, but the deal fell through, and $32 million was quickly culled from other Europeans — the most expensive continental production. The cast of this English-language project included 70-year-old French veteran Jean Rochefort, who had to study a foreign tongue for seven months, as Quijote; Johnny Depp as his unwilling sidekick, Toby Grisson; and, as Altsidora, Toby’s love interest, chanteuse Vanessa Paradis, Depp’s French wife. Gilliam was proud that he was mounting a film of this scale, in Fulton’s words, “without Hollywood money, without the big business restrictions that go along with Hollywood money.” He would discover that the hazards of large commercial ventures are universal.
In the doc, all of the talented behind-the-scenes techies and designers are discombobulated, because their stars are often unavailable on set in Spain for fittings and rehearsals. Depp is often unreachable. Paradis is not only a no-show, she hasn’t signed her contract. The weather is unkind: unseasonably heavy rains change the colors of the landscape and flooding damages equipment. Tension ensues between the French executive producer and Gilliam’s longtime first A.D., who desperately attempts to find alternatives to the tight shooting schedule and to maintain decorum. The amiable Rochefort goes to Paris for treatment of a mystery illness, and keeps postponing his return. It soon becomes clear that he is not coming back. Gilliam, Depp, and Rochefort had been deemed by the insurers “essential elements:” if one of them drops out, the film must be refinanced. The production grinds to a depressing halt. The insurance company gains rights to the project.
“Documentaries like fiction films, are driven by good conflict and strong characters, and this subject seemed to have both,” Fulton says. “Terry is the best and most candid subject you’re going to find in the film industry.” In fact, no matter how bad things get, Gilliam never turned off the microphone he had agreed to wear throughout. “And we knew that ‘Quixote’ had built-in conflict: 10 years of development, a tight budget.” He says that the tenacious Gilliam is trying to buy back the rights from the insurers.
“This is the curse of Don Quixote!” Gilliam shrieks one day on set. For two decades, beginning in 1955, Orson Welles had also attempted to shoot an adaptation of the Cervantes novel — and failed. “The project outlived his ‘Quixote,'” says Jeff Bridges in voiceover in “Lost in La Mancha.” The making of a film entitled “It’s All True” was an even more exasperating experience for Welles, whom RKO had sent to Brazil in 1942 as part of the U.S.’s Good Neighbor Policy (whose chief proponent, Nelson Rockefeller, was a major shareholder in the studio).
Krohn, Wilson, and Meisel begin their doc of the same title with footage of Welles talking to the camera (in his inimitable radio voice) about the curse of a voodoo witch doctor. Welles had had to break his word about paying the man to shoot a ritual ceremony in a favela: increasingly exasperated execs at RKO were sending no more funds. That turned out to be no palliative for the chief.
One section of the film, “Bonito,” was shot in Mexico (and co-directed with Norman Foster). What remains of “Bonito” resembles Eisenstein’s “Que Viva Mexico.” A poor village boy watches the annual priestly anointment of everyone’s animals. But Welles spent most of his time in Brazil, which seduced him. He shot endless footage of Carnival, then decided to shoot on a soundstage a docudrama about samba and its artists: poor, mostly black people from the favelas. The honchos back home abhorred the rushes, and Brazil’s dictator Vargas decided that this kind of film would not bring in the tourists.
Persistent, Welles remained in Brazil, unfortunately editing the doomed “Magnificent Ambersons” by cable. He came up with another idea: a reenactment of an amazing true story about four fisherman, jangaderos, from the northeast of Brazil who had traveled 1600 miles on a homemade raft to Rio to protest the feudal conditions under which they lived. Welles added a love story. Without adequate equipment, he improvised, putting cameramen in the sand to shoot low angles, borrowing lights and other equipment. He entitled this segment “Four Men on a Raft.” The shoot went well until the four men finally arrived in Rio’s harbor. The boat capsized, and the group’s leader drowned. Was it the curse, or just bad luck?
Vargas had also started a rumor that one of the jangaderos was a Communist. RKO pulled the plug. Back in the U.S., Welles acted for four years to save enough money to buy back the rights to “It’s All True.” The effort was fruitless — until chance played its hand more than 40 years later.
Krohn tells a fantastic, convoluted tale of how what remains of “It’s All True” was discovered in 1982 at Paramount, which by then owned RKO. An employee searching for a Welles TV pilot for Krohn to take to Paris on the occasion of the maestro’s receiving the French Legion of Honor came across a vault in an area labeled “Welles.” Inside were more than 300 cans of footage marked either “It’s All True” or “Bonito.” A sympathetic Paramount exec brought in the original producer, Richard Wilson. “It took several years to arrange a donation to the AFI, who turned it over to UCLA for eventual preservation, with Paramount retaining all rights,” Krohn explains.
“During that time we figured out what the footage actually was: everything black and white shot in Brazil, the unfinished ‘Bonito,’ documentary footage of Carnival, and the complete ‘Four Men on a Raft.'” Krohn and his pals made repeated efforts to raise preservation money, and ultimately raised enough-in France, not in this country — to preserve the footage as well as make a documentary that would include “Four Men on a Raft.” Among those going to Brazil to make the doc was Welles’ original cameraman, Gary Graver. He shot additional footage, including interviews with survivors of the original raft trip and the village woman who had played the fictional love interest. The new, documentary version of “It’s All True” was finished in 1993, eight years after Welles’ death.
Fuller, cigar tucked between his lips, gives the curse on his project a human name. He is speaking to Jim Jarmusch, whom Kaurismaki had asked to accompany him to Brazil while Fuller looks for the Indian village where he had shot footage in 1955 for a film to be called “Tigrero.” (Jarmusch becomes an interviewer, then a participant.) “It’s not WHAT was behind this, it’s WHO: Daryl Zanuck!”
Zanuck, then head of Fox, had sent Fuller to the Amazon to scout locations. Armed with a 16mm camera and a rifle, Fuller shot a few scenes. The film would star John Wayne as a tigrero, or bounty hunter; Tyrone Power as a prisoner in a Rio jail; and Ava Gardner as Power’s wife, who kills a guard to help him escape. She hires Wayne to get them through the Mato Grasso, but only the Indians know some of the shortcuts. The last part of the story is set on a disintegrating island in the Amazon. The husband won’t risk his own life on the island for her. He gets killed anyway, and the tigrero also saves himself first. “I attack love!” Fuller exclaims proudly.
Zanuck had actually cancelled the project for the same reason that Gilliam’s fell through: insurance problems. Fuller had given Zanuck footage of what he considered a place safe for shooting. “The insurance company wanted to work around it,” Fuller, who died in 1997, says in the doc. “And they wanted $18 million to insure the three stars. Zanuck nixed it.” The footage was not wasted: Some appears in other Fuller movies, like the protagonist’s mad scene in “Shock Corridor” where he hallucinates a dance by village men in grass skirt.
According to Kaurismaki, who had moved from Finland to Brazil years earlier, his doc began by chance. Fuller told him over dinner in Paris that he still possessed amazing footage of men in grass skirts performing hunting dances in an isolated village, but did not remember where in the Amazon it was. “I told Sam and his wife, Christa, that the whole episode could make a nice film, and they agreed. A week later I received a package containing the footage Sam had shot in the jungle. I watched it with a Brazilian friend who is an expert on Indians, and he knew right away which tribe and which village. I visited this village of Karaja Indians with my friend and prepared the filming, then returned with Sam and Jim.” Encroaching “civilization” had altered the tribe to its detriment since Fuller had first arrived.
“It was a very improvised and fast project where all of the pieces fell in place naturally,” Kaurismaki adds. Why did he undertake it? “I wanted to draw some parallels between the Indians and independent cinema. Both are endangered species.” It’s too bad Fuller is not around to chew on that one.