A Case Study on Film Authorship: Exploring the Theoretical and Practical Sides in Film Production

By David Tregde
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2013, Vol. 4 No. 2 | pg. 4/4 |

Case Study: Lost in La Manch (the making of Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote)


The story of Don Quixote appeals to Terry Gilliam’s taste in film, as noted by his past films like Brazil, which features a character struggling against insurmountable odds without a firm grasp on reality. Early in preproduction, Gilliam made himself available to his crew for suggestions and questions to avoid “making a fool of [himself].” He relied on these other artists and craftsmen to turn his ideas into reality. Gilliam thought of himself as more of a resource rather than leader in production because he had been developing the project for so long. This is due in part to Gilliam’s role as writer-director, so he was a major creative force in the story phase of the film. However, moving into the design phase, Gilliam relied heavily on his art department to bring the story to life visually. Gilliam was not concerned with designing every element himself, but he did ask for changes when the designs conflicted with the story.

Facing budgetary and logistical constraints early on, Gilliam turned to his producer and assistant director to make things happen for the production. The assistant director was responsible for coordinating meetings between Gilliam and the busy actors, which led to collaborating sessions between Gilliam and these actors. The crew was in “sheer panic” approaching production because Gilliam was relying so hard on his crew to make things happen that weren’t happening, like finding a sound stage. When Gilliam finally brought in actor Johnny Depp, he allowed Depp to develop an opening scene to explain his character and give himself some back-story. This reinforced Gilliam’s original story by building on the characters he had designed. Commenting on the actors coming together and the sets and costumes finishing for production, Gilliam said, “It’s going to be beautiful.”


When Gilliam arrived on set, his assistant director and art crew had already been working on setting the scene. However, it was Gilliam’s reliance on his crew that led to some initial problems. Scenes he believed to have been rehearsed with the extras had not been done because he allowed this duty to be taken by an assistant director. Gilliam believed in using his crew for the duties they were assigned rather than micromanaging over their shoulders. This collaborative effort made the process more cumbersome.

When the weather began to change unexpectedly, Gilliam consulted his local crew about how to proceed. They made suggestions based on their knowledge of the area and the weather. Instead of blundering ahead with his own ideas, he took their suggestions in stride to make the most of their production days. “There is a very clear plan,” he said, and he wanted to make the plan work with the help of his crew. Except for occasionally taking the camera under his own control, Gilliam defaulted to his experienced technicians to pull off the shots. He relied heavily on his assistant director to “hold this thing together” because of his [the assistant director’s] dedication to the project.


Because this film never made it to post production, we don’t know how Gilliam would have continued with his process. However, based on the evidence we can see that Gilliam is a more collaborative filmmaker, relying on the crew around him to create the world of the film. While Gilliam created the story, he was not a perfectionist about the visual elements. This left room for his cast and crew to bring their own ideas. This was a prime example of collaborative filmmaking both technically and artistically.


This author is thankful to Professor Nicole Triche and Dr. Glenn Scott at Elon University for their supervision and advice, without which the article could not be published. The author also appreciates numerous reviewers who have helped revise this article.


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