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Death marchs and Don Quixote

I just finished watching ‘Lost In La Mancha’ which chronicles Terry Gilliam’s attempt to film his version of the story of Don Quixote, ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’. (More reviews here.) The attempt failed, though there was a postscript that indicated that Gilliam was trying again. (An aside: not the best date movie.)

It was interesting to watch the perspective of the team start upbeat and slowly descend into despair. There were many reasons the filming failed, but what was most fascinating is that it was a death march project that just happened to take place in the sphere of film.

Of course there were certain ‘acts of God’ that contributed to the failure, but there always are difficulties beyond control. What’s more interesting to me is the disasters that could have been planned for. Read through some of the aspects of ‘Lost In La Mancha’ and see if you recognize any (plenty of spoilers, so don’t read if you want to watch the movie):

1. Gilliam tried to create a $60 million film on a $32.1 million dollar budget. He actually smiles while saying words to this effect!

2. Not all key players present during planning. In pre-production, none of the actors are able to schedule time to rehearse, partly because they all took pay cuts to make this movie (see point 1), partly because they were all busy.

3. Tight timelines. Due to money and scheduling, every day of filming was very carefully planned out; any problems on early days required changes to the entire schedule.

4. A visionary architect wasn’t willing to compromise. Gilliam is well known for his mind-blowing films (Twelve Monkeys, Brazil) and had been working on this movie in his mind for decades. This led to perfectionism, which, given the tight timelines and lack of money, wasn’t always the right use of resources. Addtitionally, Gilliam had a lackadaisical methodology: he mentions several times that his philosophy is ‘just shoot film and it will work out.’ That sounds freakishly similar to ‘just start coding and everything will be fine.’

5. Project history worked against success. This is one of the most interesting points–there were really two kinds of project history present. Film versions of ‘Don Quixote’ have a checkered past–Orson Welles tried for years to make a version, even continuing to film beyond his Don Quixote dying. And Gilliam has had at least one bomb–The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a box office failure which haunted him for years. In both of these cases, there past actions cast a shadow over the present, affecting morale of the team.

6. When problems arose, the producers didn’t trust the technical staff (the directors). In particular, when weather struck, the directors wanted to allow the team to regroup, whereas the producers, because of points 1 and 3, wanted to film. Strife at the top never helps a project.

7. The equipment and setting was not optimal. Due to, I’m guessing, point 1, the outside scenes are set in a location next to a NATO air base, where jets will be flying overhead (‘only for an hour a day’ according to the first assistant director). The last sound stage in Madrid is reserved–it turns out to be a simple warehouse with awful acoustics.

And then there were some factors that simply were out of the blue. These included some bad weather and the illness of the actor playing Don Quixote. These were what pushed the film over the edge–but it wouldn’t have been on the edge if not for the other factors above. And you can also see that factors snowball on each other–timelines are tight because actors aren’t around; trust between team members is lost because of money and time issues.

It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion, but it was also illuminating to see that the lessons of project management not only are ignored in the software development, but also in film. Misery loves company.

One thought on “Death marchs and Don Quixote

  1. nancy says:

    i sat down and watched this last night after a particularly bad day of project managment. when the F-16s flew by in the middle of filming, i suddenly felt a lot better about my scenario. the flood was a nice touch too.

    thanks for sharing. i dont think i would have watched the whole film without your recommendation.

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