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« Sons of the Midwest | Main | Advice to Artsies »

December 09, 2003

DVD Journal: "Lost in La Mancha"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

Looking back at it, why would you say you gave up on the dream of making movies professionally?

[Note to anyone who happens to read this: Friedrich and I were college film-going and filmmaking buddies of a gleeful and maniacal type: we must have read every book about film in the college library, and we watched "Rules of the Game" -- really studying it -- at least 15 times each. FvB had "Clockwork Orange" and much of the rest of the Kubrick oeuvre down cold; I could storyboard out from memory long passages from Buster Keaton movies. After college, we both spent a few years trying to get our feet on the filmbiz ladder -- making short movies, taking acting classes, and writing scripts. Really awful scripts, in my case ...]

My own moviemaking dreams started to evaporate when when I got a taste of what it is to make movies professionally. In NYC, I met filmmakers, spent a few days on film sets, and attended parties with ambitious young film geeks. That did away with about 80 percent of my desire to make features. A few years later, I spent a stretch in L.A. There I saw yet more of the moviemaking world -- and, oh, the nightmare that is a Young Hollywood Wannabe party! And with that visit, my remaining moviemaking dreams crumbled into cinders.

Up to that point I'd thought, in true young-fool style, that making movies would be a matter of talent, brains, and the abililty to play well with others. Talent? Judging from a few months I spent at film school, I was one of the kids who had a little talent, not one of the kids who didn't. Brains? Sure: enough, anyway. Plays well with others? Heck, I'd enjoyed the occasional stint of ringleading.

But what quickly made its way through even my thick skull was that succeeding in feature films requires all kinds of things that simply aren't in my range. It's a fantastically desirable field; tens of millions of people would love to have one of those thousands of jobs. Because the competition is ferocious, behavior leaves all traces of principle, trustworthiness and honor behind very fast. As far as I could tell, what the ambitious young filmperson needs is the hide of a rhinocerous, a lust for scheming and networking, pride in your ability to eat shit and then demand seconds, and the physical constitution of the Terminator. Talent, brains, sensitivity? Sure, those too.

Dreamy, polite, raised-in-the-middle-class, mid-American kid that I was, I got a look at this world and concluded, Hmmm, y'know, I don't think I'm temperamentally suited for this life. I'm barely able to yell and scream, or to take being yelled and screamed at, for instance -- and there's a lot of yelling and screaming in the moviebiz. Unrelenting tension makes me take to my bed. Power-games make me want to step aside and hand the reins to whoever happens to be standing there.

I never took my "failure" personally, I'm pleased to say. It was a decision I took after looking into the field, not a fantasy I didn't have the guts or time to commit to. So I have no regrets about it. Like you, I've known people who got a look at the film world, fled from it -- and who then decided that it had been the world's fault that their dreams hadn't worked out. Me? The facts of the matter, as well as my utter unsuitability to the life, hit me 'way too hard for me to need to invent a cover story about why I gave up.

Hey, did I ever tell you about the day I ventured my theory about how polite middleclass kids have no business going into the moviemaking field to a successful woman film executive? She looked at me with surprise and said, "Really? But I know some polite middle-class types who are in the business." Then she frowned and said, "Of course, they haven't done very well."

These are memories and ruminations triggered by watching a DVD of Lost in La Mancha, a good-enough British documentary about the writer-director Terry Gilliam and his unsuccessful attempts to make a Don Quixote movie.

Gilliam seems to have given the project his best at least three times over, but the documentary largely concerns one specific attempt. During it, Gilliam and some Euro producers pulled together money from a tricky variety of sources, and enlisted a promising crew and cast for a few months of filming in Spain. The documentary is unusual in the amount of attention it pays to pre-production. When have you ever gotten to spend a lot of time following pre-production? It's fascinating to meet the crew, to flip through the drawings and storyboards, to sit in on the meetings about money and schedules, to watch the costume fittings, to go out location-scouting ...

It's hard not to like Gilliam, who seems to have thrown the project open to the documentary crew and to have kept it open even after things started to go sour; I admired him for this the way I admired Brian DePalma for allowing Julie Salaman such complete access for her book "The Devil's Candy," about his fiasco film "Bonfire of the Vanities." Gilliam's jolly and frank about how his imagination seems to go to sleep whenever a project isn't a daring-enough one; he knows that his energies only stir to life when everything's teetering on the brink of disaster. He also goes into the project carrying the burden of a reputation as a madman filmmaker; although he's finished many movies on budget and on schedule, his early "Adventures of Baron Munchausen" had been a much-gossiped-about film-out-of-control. So Gilliam feels he still has to prove that he's a responsible filmmaker.

After agonies and anxieties that would have sent me to a dark bedroom never to emerge, day one of filming arrives. The cast and crew head into the dusty desert countryside to start work -- and it's a disaster. Nothing goes well. The cast is shakey; the horses are balky; military jets on training missions never stop flying by overhead, ruining the live sound. Day two's much, much worse. The skies cloud up, then open and dump a torrent of such Biblical proportions that some of the crew's equipment gets washed away. And then things really start to go bad. After a week, filming shuts down; after another week, the project is put on permanent hold.

It's a well-enough done documentary about a fascinating non-event, in other words. The documentarists (Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe) could certainly have explained some facts, problems and details better than they did. They chose to work with a minimum of voice-over; like many serious documentarists, they seem to think they're violating Good Documentary Ethics whenever they use voice-over. Sigh: ditch the idiot ethics, troops. V-O is a good technique, especially for imparting explanations and facts. There's much that can be told far more simply than it can be shown.

A pointless aside: I'm not a big fan of Gilliam's films, are you? He's clearly super-talented; for all I know, he may also be the rare mid-American who's actually made his way in the film biz. But I'm not sure why he wants to realize his visions in terms of photography and actors. His main ambition seems to be to achieve images, and I don't find that the way he dramatizes them and embodies them adds much; I'm happier looking at his sketches and paintings than I am watching his movies. The Gilliam movie I had the easiest time with was "12 Monkeys" -- and that may have had more to do with my love of its source material (Chris Marker's wonderful short movie "La Jetee") and my fan-ish adoration of his female star, the divine Madeleine Stowe. Otherwise ...

But what the documentary mainly got me thinking was: If this is what making movies is -- and by "movies" here I'm talking about feature films, not Imovies -- I can't imagine ever wanting to take part. In press accounts, feature filmmaking can sound like a glamorous and cool activity. But the pressures, the expectations, the decisions, the egos, the financial worries ... There must be many, many days when you wake up feeling like you've dug yourself into a hole as big as the Pacific Ocean.

How can you rise above the frustrations and command these kinds of forces without being a bit of a sociopath? One guy who was raised in the film business (his dad was a director) told me that the directors he knew growing up were all disasters as people. They had horrible relationships and families that hated them, and they were specialists in divorces and heart attacks. And a film exec once told me that of the many directors he'd known, only two fell within normal-people range; the rest were charismatic egomaniacs.

Makes sense. But the documentary also got me thinking: thank heavens for these people who are willing to go through all the agonies of making movies. I love watching movies; I'm seldom happier than I am when stretched out on the bed next to The Wife, watching a DVD together. (I wonder, by the way, how much longer it'll be until TVs are of such size and quality that it won't matter much whether you see a film in a theater or on a TV screen. Terry Teachout has some meditations on this question here and here.) Making movies is obviously a crazy, life-wrecking thing to devote yourself to. But this happy filmwatcher's very glad some people go ahead and do it anyway.

"Lost in La Mancha"? Well worth a rent, and as interesting a film-about-filmmaking as "Hearts of Darkness" and "Burden of Dreams."

So, looking back: how and why would you say you left behind your youthful dreams of making movies? Any juicy brushes-with-the-filmbiz tales from visitors?



posted by Michael at December 9, 2003


I was fortunate: while I was in college I was able to work as a production assistant on a film, namely the Merchant Ivory production The Bostonians. And I followed that up with another job on a film, also as a production assistant. And here's what I came to realize. I wanted to write and maybe direct movies, and the only way to do that is to, well, write and direct them.

In other words, you generally don't become a writer or director (at least in my day) by actually working in one of the thousands of jobs in the trade. In the case of becoming a writer, you sit and write and produce the screenplay and finally parley that into paid work. Directors usually have varied and unpredictable paths, few of which (with the exception of cinematographer) have anything to do with most of the work on a set.

Of the, say, 100 people working on a movie I found that at least 95 percent of them were doing logistical work--grips and gaffers and teamsters and scouts and lens pullers and the like--many of them highly skilled and well-paid union members who loved the gypsy life of great pay for intensive work and then a full break; but I wanted creative control, and saw that its virtually impossible to work your way into it on the set. Even the first director, who makes everything possible for the director to do his work, doesn't go on to become a director; s/he then goes on to produce.

So I left. Took to writing, as a journalist, a scribe for hire, and the like. No regrets.

I do remember one great quote from one of the guys on the crew. I asked him about how to avoid going through the ranks, how to escape the years of humiliation on the road to the payoff. And he said, straightfaced, "Just start at the top."

Posted by: Tom on December 9, 2003 4:39 PM

At 38, I'm just beginning to dream of a movie-making career -- although I want no part of Hollywood. Thanks to digital capture and distribution, I think my dreams are at least somewhat realistic.

My main takeaway from "La Mancha" was the extraordinary sense of entitlement the director seemed to have -- that so many people would respect and work for his often-silly "vision."


Posted by: Paul Worthington on December 9, 2003 5:47 PM

Tom -- That's a great story. I always liked meeting crew and craftspeople types -- few ego problems, lots of skills, got it all in perspective, interesting in their own right ...

Paul -- He's got a staggering sense of entitlement, doesn't he. I always think that people (as Tom would point out, creative people) who make it in film either have to poor and want to succeed or die, or psychotically ambitious for no reason at all, or rich and spoiled and "entitled" beyond belief. Imagine waking up in the morning and thinking that 100 people ought to be helping you get your silly fantasy up on its feet ... Inconceivable to me. But Gilliam can't see any reason why it shouldn't be so. Lesson: if you want to direct, it doesn't hurt to have a really, really gigantic ego.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 9, 2003 6:12 PM

Sydney Pollack said that once the cameras start rolling, a director is purely a "disaster management specialist." The creativity is in pre-production and in editing; nothing creative is really going on while the cameras roll, it's all frantic activity. It takes a special patience to deal with an actor who needs a "moment" when the director is sweating the fact that the sun is just about to set. A particular ego and temperment.

However, on the middle-class kid issue: Sam Raimi, who directed "Spiderman", graduated a year ahead of me from my nice midwestern highschool. He was an avid (and good) actor and amateur moviemaker then.

I think what it takes is the belief that you simply can't do anything else and survive. You must do this. Several actors have said that if anyone thought they could be anything else but an actor and be even remotely happy, they should do it. Meryl Streep said that if she hadn't become an actress she would be a madwoman. So when you say directors are wrecks as people: but maybe less so than if they hadn't been directors. Maybe that's who sticks with it.

Posted by: annette on December 9, 2003 6:14 PM

Your list of the attributes one needs to succeed in feature films checks all the boxes except the biggest one: LUCK. Thanks for the insightful post.

Posted by: Outer Life on December 9, 2003 8:28 PM

Annette - your point sounds a lot like something that I think was credited to Andre Gide: Someone at a social gathering told him that he was finding it harder and harder to be motivated to write, and Gide said something like "Good heavens! It is possible for you to do something other than write, and yet you do not do so?"

Posted by: Cryptic Ned on December 9, 2003 9:23 PM

Annette, amazing! I went to the same H.S. as Sam Raimi as well. (W.E. Groves, no?)

Two of my best friends were very interested in making movies in high school. They wrote and directed, and I did things like take bit parts, or shoot the scenes with my friend Scott's video camera. One of them actually made it to Hollywood, and is a writer for several shows on the Sci Fi channel - the Dead Zone, and the Invisible Man (since cancelled). He even got a directing credit on one of the episodes of I-Man. He's actually met Sam Raimi in L.A. The other friend tried his hand at film scoring as a music major in college. It didn't work out, but he also had a major in CS, so he went into software instead.

My impression from being an unpaid, unskilled crew member on these amateur video sets was that it was really difficult to bring any project to completion. One of the videos we made took 4 years. It was very humorous, since we started making it in 6th grade and completed it in 9th. I had an acting role in it, and grew about a foot between the first scene filmed and the last. Good thing that scenes were filmed in chronological order. Our heights grew and voices dropped smoothly enough in the movie so that it wasn't jarring. If adjacent scenes had been filmed years apart, the video would probably have been bizarre to watch.

Getting into a creative position in television was certainly not easy for my friend. He spent a couple of years working odd production assistant jobs, and spending his evenings writing. I wouldn't, however, describe him as "entitled" or "borderline psychotic."

Posted by: cks on December 9, 2003 10:02 PM

Small world, CKS. You know, your comments made me think---when you said your friend "actually met Sam Raimi"---it's hard to feel awestruck by somebody you went to highschool with. No shortchanging of his accomplishments intended, it's just I still remember this goofball teenager with his shirt hanging out carrying his books under his arm...

Posted by: annette on December 9, 2003 11:44 PM

I never pursued movie making for two reasons, I think:

(1) I'm not a fiction writer at heart, and it seems to me that to be a commercial movie maker that kind of emotional involvement or exercise is critical. I lacked the emotional commitment to story telling.

(2) I have major authority issues. I liked amateur movie making because it didn't require that I ask anyone's permission to do it. I gradually realized that commercial filmmakers are, by and large, very much not their own bosses.

Also, a small aside: from everything I ever heard about the business, it seems like a pretty bad place to work. I mean, if you want a career, do something sensible like get an MBA and go to work for GE.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 10, 2003 12:28 AM


As usual, a fascinating thread.

I was in the employ of an A-list director for two years, and I can certainly confirm that ENTITLEMENT HELPS if you want to become a director. If you have shitloads of family money and connections at your disposal, you can gain easy acceptance to an unusually special center for graduate film production, blow tons of cash on a ghastly thesis project, and still come out of it all hooked up to people who will give you a quarter mil to make a shabby indie that will get you noticed. I don't want to take too much away from the guy, though: I think he's talented. And just last year he made a pretty good action flick that earned a studio boatloads of box office. He'll work for as long as he wants to. As people here have already said--t-a-l-e-n-t ~ there's no substitute. Oh, yeah, there is. It's called money. (I'm sure Jon Favreau will work as a director for years because of the success of Elf, and he's as big a hack as they come.)

The old adage that "casting is 90% of a director's work" is also undeniably true. I've heard--from an associate producer who worked on The Company--that Altman barely talks to his actors on set.

I happen to be currently embroiled in the whole "trying to make movies" thing, and I've come to conclude that being a director is essentially a political job. You've got to be loyal to your crew: these are the people who are MAKING your movie. If they don't support you 100%, you're dead in the water. Producers, on the other hand, are only impressed by what ends up on screen; and that's what you have to keep in mind at all times. As David Lynch is known to say, "Keep your eye on the donut, not the hole."

People who are naturally combatitive will find it hard to get a crack making a short, but you've still got to be able to fight your battles convincingly. Sure, once you're successful you can be the biggest prick in town and still have people fighting to work with you. But, egos have no place in the small-time world: there are just too many nice, talented people out there.

Posted by: Dick Ranko on December 10, 2003 9:58 AM

"I lacked the emotional commitment to story telling." FvB.

I feel the same way. I've written three sit-com scripts and sold one for a nice chunk of change, but I just lack the need to write fiction. I have to write non-fiction, but fiction I can take or leave.

So, what I've always wanted to be is a script doctor. Bring me a nearly finished script and I'll find unobtrusive ways to fix all the problems that make it unrealistic and illogical, and toss in some more jokes, all without changing the author's overall intent or tone.

I'm struck by how many movie scripts seem unpolished compared to, say, the average Simpsons' script, which is worked over by a lot of hands. So many comedies look like they could have used another two weeks worth of working over by a pro bring a fresh perspective. The upcoming "Something's Gotta Give" with Diane Keaton supposedly playing the most distinguished woman playwright since Lillian Hellman is a good example. Through the vagaries of casting, they ended up with an actress who is great at playing ditzes but nothing else in the role. But, they don't bother to tweak the script to adjust for this. Hey, I'm available and will work cheap!

Posted by: Steve Sailer on December 10, 2003 9:16 PM

At 38, I'm just beginning to dream of a movie-making career -- although I want no part of Hollywood. Thanks to digital capture and distribution, I think my dreams are at least somewhat realistic.

There's a guy out in San Francisco with real moviemaking chops (and experience), who has eschewed film for fast-and-loose digital video productions. It looks like he's doing pretty well at it. Check out his website at

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on December 10, 2003 11:56 PM

Thanks for all ideas and in-the-trenches reports. Fascinating world -- I'd love to see an open-eyed econonist/sociologist wade in and try to make some sense of it. My own problem where writing's concerned is that I don't "need" to do it at all. Seems to be something that comes pretty easily; I get a kick out of the craft elements; I'm full of admiration for those who use writing imaginatively ... But I can take it or leave it. As I can take or leave many things. About all I seem to "need" to do is sleep, eat, take some walks, and hang with The Wife. Add an occasional yoga class into the mix and I'm pretty happy. I remember being bewildered when I'd meet people in the movie business who'd look at me and say things like, "How badly do you want it? How badly do you need it?" A snotty young brat, I'd think, Well, certainly not badly enough to hang around with the likes of you. These days I think, eh, they've got a point.

Tim -- Nilsson's an interesting guy, thanks for the reminder. He's been anticipating the digital movie world for a few decades now.

I love feature films, but I do think the barriers to entry, so to speak, have been bizarrely high. And I'm looking forward to what people do with Flash and Imovies and such. I suspect it's likely to be a bit like blogging. Not many people have what it takes to write a good book -- but that may just mean that while they have brains and imagination and talent, they don't have obsessiveness, push, ambition, etc. Now that it's possible to "publish" without going to the enormous amount of work demanded by publishing a book, all kinds of interesting voices are emerging, including many (who have nothing to apologize for where brains and writing are concerned) who seem to come from a much different range of humanity than the usual writers of books. Hard to believe something similar won't happen with movies. We'll get "movies" from all kind of people who'd never have made movies before. I wonder what we'll see?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 11, 2003 12:13 AM

Michael: I'm surprised to hear you don't much like Gilliam, considering that as a New Yorker you basically live in the world of Brazil. ;^)

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on December 11, 2003 3:00 AM

great weblog!thanks for the service

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