October 22, 2002|Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe--the team behind the Terry Gilliam documentaries The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys and this year's excellent Lost in La Mancha--define a collaboration of complementary parts. Meeting the pair in a below-street level conference room at Denver's chichi Hotel Monaco, I was stricken by the realization that the two themselves resemble a Gilliam dyad (the duct repairmen of Brazil, perhaps)--they're an exercise in interesting, opposing body types. Gilliam, one can only conclude, is infectious.
Speaking with Fulton, bald and hale in a smoky trench coat, and Pepe, smaller with a decidedly Griffin Dunne-esque quality, I was impressed by their erudition, if not terribly surprised: Lost in La Mancha is a documentary possessed of an unusual artistry and vision and a product, clearly, of the same. Recruited to be Gilliam's unofficial archivists from Temple University's graduate filmmaking track, the two began our interview by explaining why they believed Gilliam wanted a behind-the-scenes camera crew on-site in the first place, starting with Twelve Monkeys.
LOUIS PEPE: They were shooting a huge part of Twelve Monkeys in Philadelphia when Terry was looking for a couple of film students to do a documentary, so we put ourselves on a list, went in and interviewed, and showed him a reel of our stuff and that was basically it.
KEITH FULTON: Right. I think Gilliam tells you why he wanted us there at the beginning of The Hamster Factor: he wanted witnesses. (laughs)
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: I thought that was just a joke, but he was serious?
KF: Well, it's a joke, but it's also the truth. He's been saddled by a bad reputation since [The Adventures of Baron] Munchausen in Hollywood--he's been considered an irresponsible filmmaker even though many of his films have been very successful financially.
All but the one, really.
KF: Right, right--I mean, I don't know if Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas did that well, but I don't think it lost money. (With a budget of $18.5M, it grossed approx. $11M domestically. -Ed.) So that was basically why he tolerated having us around, documenting everything.
LP: Terry is also an incredible archivist--I mean, he saves some record of everything he does. He wanted some kind of diary, I think, in addition to covering himself. And even though we made a ninety-minute feature--a pair of ninety-minute feature documentaries--he said, "Okay, when you're done with all that, can you send me the box of all your original footage?" So he has the box of all 130 hours or so of footage that we shot on each film so that y'know in his spare time, I guess, he can sit and watch it if he wants.
Were you in the documentary track at Temple--was there such a thing?
KF: Temple had sort of an old guard documentary focus. They had a lot of guys there from the direct cinema period, that time when the first synch-sound cameras came out and people used them to make documentaries. So we had the Maysles brothers types, the Weismans, these were all the Temple heroes. Temple at the time we were there--we started in 1990 in grad school--was starting to make the shift to fiction filmmaking, but it still had all these people who were very experienced in direct cinema filmmaking.
LP: But then what came out was a tremendous amount of encouragement to use documentary techniques in fiction films and to use highly stylized fiction techniques in documentary films. So we were watching a lot of Mike Leigh films, and Cassavetes films that have these very improvisational qualities to them--then we were watching Errol Morris' documentaries that have this incredibly cinematic feeling to them. So the emphasis became more on the storytelling medium--the techniques you need to use to tell a good story no matter what genre of film you're working in.
Too often, documentary filmmakers don't realize that their films need to have a narrative in addition to a point of view. All the rules apply.
KF: That's correct. Part of what's allowable in a documentary, and that's fine, is that they can be a polemical tool. You can just have a point or an issue. You look at a film like Bowling for Columbine for instance, and it doesn't have a story so much as just a point of view.
I would say two things about that: first that I think that Bowling for Columbine is a continuation of the Michael Moore story, and second that when you were talking before about blurring the lines between documentary and fiction, Moore is the poster boy for that.
KF: (laughs) Right, right--there's that element of stretching the truth.
LP: This is true--he's the main character on a quest to unravel a central mystery.
KF: His character is also a fiction, I mean, he's not an everyman by any means--he's not what he appears to be, this fat guy with a baseball cap. One of the most interesting things about these documentaries where the filmmaker is a main character is that's just another "truth vehicle"--you assume it must be true because someone's standing there with a microphone. Our style is that people think it must be true because it just happens and there's seemingly nobody there. So there are different ways of getting that "truth feeling" but is it ever really the truth?
There's a theory in science that as soon as an object is observed, its nature is essentially changed.
LP: Right, and the Heisenberg Principle does apply to documentary filmmaking.
There's a moment inThe Hamster Factor where you film a lunch buffet while you, Keith, describe a meltdown happening off-camera. What was happening physically?
KF: Physically what was happening was the special effects supervisor was getting the shit beat out of him, verbally of course, by a lot of people--including Terry--who were very angry with him. What we were confronted with was that, all right, we can shoot this and we might even get away with it, but who would ever let you near them again? The thing to remember when you're doing a direct cinema documentary, which is not like a Michael Moore going into the General Motors factor and knowing that he's going to get thrown out--I mean, if we get thrown out, we're out of a job.
LP: The other thing is you're doing this balancing act--pushing your access to its limits--but you have to know when to back off and disappear and not make people self-conscious.
How did you handle that balance during Lost in La Mancha?
LP: Well, at that point we had a more established relationship with Terry so we were more omnipresent, but there did come a time when at a certain point we started to feel like vultures. We were thinking that, Um, this is not the film we came here to film--I mean, this is our friend, here, and this terrible thing was happening to him. It doesn't feel right to be standing there with a camera so we went to him and said, "Hey, this doesn't feel ethical to us"--and Terry said, "Screw ethics, you came here to tell the story so tell the story. It might very well happen that you're the only ones to get a film out of this." We really needed that blessing.
KF: We were tortured without it.
LP: Because we had already made a film with Terry, a lot of the people there knew what to expect from us--they knew that we weren't there to do a fluff piece, it was a warts and all approach. Terry was able to say, "I know these guys, I trust them."
KF: You actually get a lot of trust from film professionals just because they know that we're not trying to do a puff piece--you get respect for doing a documentary about filmmaking that isn't just publicity. Which is not to say that we didn't get some awkward looks all the same when things were really going down.
Have Gilliam's trials given you a sour taste for your chosen vocation?
KF: For big-budget feature filmmaking, for sure.
LP: I don't know that we ever had our targets set on that scene anyway--but the flipside of all this was that Terry is someone who totally sticks to his guns. This is a guy who constantly worked against the system for his vision. He's a filmmaker who manages to capture his dreams often within this Hollywood system and he gives a lot of hope to independent filmmakers that you can work with that machinery and still produce something of integrity.
KF: We are trying to make a fiction film right now, but we're more interested in the small-scale character-driven dramas.
KF: Well, we just watched American Beauty recently. Um, In the Bedroom...
LP: Right, Election, Donnie Darko... Right now, really, our sights are aimed on what we can realistically accomplish. I mean, we're showed scripts sometimes and we say, "Er, wait a minute, there's an action sequence in this--I don't think we're ready for an action sequence." Really, let's just start with a small drama with conflict, good characters, no horses, no windmills.
What's your fiction piece about?
LP: The basic premise is that a sheriff finds this guy wandering naked and brings him into this small town and all the townspeople project onto him who they think that he is.
There's an issue of Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman" comic series called "24 Hours" that sounds a little like that--Gilliam was set to do a Gaiman adaptation, wasn't he?
LP: Yeah, that's a really tough sell post-September 11th.
Good Omens, right? The book Gaiman wrote with Terry Pratchett? Why is that a tough post 9/11 sell?
LP: Well, it's kind of apocalyptic.
KF: People were like, "Oh wow, this'll be great, it's about an eleven-year-old kid, it'll be like Harry Potter!" And Terry had to say, "Well, yeah, it's about an eleven-year-old kid but he's the Antichrist."
Sounds like a great holiday film to me.
LP: (laughs) Yeah, me too--he's got one in development now called "Scaramouch" with Warner Bros. which is like a swashbuckler set during the French Revolution about a traveling theatre troupe.
And it'll bring meaning to that Queen song for millions of burnouts.
KF:(laughs) That's the first thing that I asked Terry--that song was the only relationship I had with that word.
There are images in Lost in La Mancha I want to talk about in particular: Gilliam walking on a mudflat, and Vanessa Paradis, the actress playing Dulcinea, in a series of screen tests.
KF: Right--that was the only way that we saw her ourselves.
How much design was there in framing images that are so essentially quixotic: the hero, forlorn, the inamorata as a flickering dream?
KF: It was all by design, really.
LP: Right, but those images were there before things really started going wrong. If you look at our proposal it was called "Gilliam Quixote"--this is in the pitch process.
KF: Yeah, we started by saying, "Terry Gilliam has been tilting at windmills ever since Universal held Brazil captive in 1985."
LP: Here's a guy whose entire body of work is a theme in variation of the Quixote story so now he's finally taking on the story of his life, really, the thematic underpinnings. He's a guy who admits he thrives on conflict, that it energizes him creatively.
KF: That image you mention of the mudflat--the reality of that scene is that Terry was laughing and enjoying the ferocity of the storm and he went as the rest of the crew was taking cover, he went out in the desert under a rock or something to fully experience the storm. That shot that you talk about is actually a shot of him coming back to the trailer after spending the entire deluge out in the elements, huddled underneath an overhang or something. Y'know, just like Quixote was delighted in a way by the giants, Terry was delighted by the storm.
LP: Originally in that scene we showed Terry very excited after the storm before asking, "Hey, is this covered by insurance?" We had to decide how much we wanted the mood of the piece to go up and down and up and down like that, so in the process of editing, we actually took out a lot of the humour of the situation.
You couldn't have predicted just how quixotic the whole production would become, though.
LP: Correct. We were careful to frame out a lot of those images, but for what happened to end up so close to the text was completely a surprise. The storm hits and it's frightening, but we were thinking that this is a great bump in the road on the way to a triumphant moment like in The Hamster Factor.
Why are people going to go toLost in La Mancha? Schadenfreude?
KF: I would like to think that...well, yes, people go because they're interested in failure but I hope that the buzz is that it's not an exploitative piece, that it's a very sad movie by the end. I hope that you find that the film is about the belief in this guy's dream or in dreams in general, regardless of how miserably it can turn out.
That's very quixotic.
KF: (laughs) Right. There was a man in Berlin after a screening who came up to us and said that if he didn't know any better he'd think that this, Lost in La Mancha was in fact the film that Gilliam always wanted to make: the Don Quixote story.
LP: I think, too, that there's an interest in the process of filmmaking and in the underdog tale that people can identify with--one guy with his own creative dream struggling to achieve it against all these odds. Like Cervantes' novel, it's easy to look at Terry and say, "Oh, you crazy old man, why?" and at a certain point you realize that you like his world so much more than the reality that he battles against. Not to say that Terry is a crazy old man, but his creative spirit--his process of filmmaking--embodies that creative story.
You can look at Quixote as a "crazy old man" or you can look at him as a "romantic visionary."
KF: That's Terry.
LP: Right--you want to go to those places with this romantic visionary because that place is so much more wondrous than this one.