Louis Pepe & Keith Fulton

Louis Pepe & Keith Fulton

The Terry Gilliam School of Film may not be an education
in conventional moviemaking, but it’s certainly provided writer/directors
Louis Pepe and Keith Fulton with a world of experience. First chosen
to shadow the auteur on the Philadelphia set of 12 Monkeys (both
were graduate students in Temple University’s film program at the
time), that initial “golden opportunity” has resulted in an enviable
documentary career.

On January 31st, IFC Films will release Lost in La Mancha, Pepe and Fulton’s chronicle of Gilliam’s
failed attempt to bring the story of Don Quixote to the big screen.
More than a portrait of one of America’s true maverick moviemakers,
the film is a lesson in perseverance, auteurism and what truly happens
behind the scenes.

Jennifer Wood (MM): At what point did you
realize that your straight “documentary” film was turning into a
real-life drama?

Louis Pepe (LP): That’s is a really interesting
question, because in many ways we were looking for a “real-life
drama” from the start. We’re big fans of the American direct cinema
movement (the Maysles brothers, Leacock, Pennebaker, Wiseman) and
we set out with the ideal goal of creating a purely observational
documentary with no narration or interviews-one in which the drama
would come entirely from the observed moments in the subjects’ lives.
This is why it was so important to us to have an angle on the potential
conflicts from the outset.

Our proposal, which at the time was called Gilliam/Quixote,
was all about the struggle to achieve one’s artistic visions and
really played off of the whole Don Quixote metaphor-tilting at windmills,
impossible dreams, all that stuff. We laid out a plan to focus on
pre-production, the period in which all the elements of the production
must come together to get the movie off the ground. Because of Terry’s
previously unsuccessful attempt and his decade-long desire to make
the film, we knew that this would be an emotional and dramatic period.
But from the start, we were counting on a happy ending, a triumph.

Keith Fulton (KF): So, when things started
to go wrong, we just saw them as bumps on the way to that happy
ending. In hindsight, they read differently, of course. But as they
were happening, they seemed to us like the standard flow of the
process-three steps forward, one or two steps back-especially for
the early stages of a production. Even the first week of shooting
with all of its freakish disasters fit certain expectations, as
the first week of any film production is usually one of the roughest

It wasn’t until the crew stopped shooting and headed
back to Madrid that the thought of an unhappy ending entered our
minds. And at that point, we were in too much of a panic about what
we would tell our investors (who were completely independent from
Terry’s financiers) to consider that the story unfolding around
us was even more dramatic than the one we had set out to capture.

MM: Did you ever consider stopping production
when it became evident that Terry was not going to be able to finish
his film?

LP: In the midst of our panic, we called a
friend of ours to get advice on what to do. “Keep shooting! Shoot
anything that’s going on! Interview anyone who will talk to you!
Just keep shooting!” But while the advice sounded solid, it didn’t
feel right. Even on the last few days of shooting we had started
to feel like vultures. And now that the crew was back in the production
offices scrambling for a plan, hanging around with the camera felt
downright exploitative.

At this point, we called Terry and told him that we
were uncomfortable shooting; that it seemed unethical to continue
making a documentary about his misery. He replied, “Screw ethics!
Someone’s got to get a film out of all this mess, and it doesn’t
look like it’s going to be me. So it had better be you. Keep shooting!”
That was pretty much the blessing we needed.

MM: Being a directorial “team,” how do you
split up the work involved in making a film? Do you have separate
designations that you each handle, or is everything a team effort?

KF: We like to compare ourselves to the Maysles
brothers, the Hughes brothers, the Wachowski brothers, the Weitz
brothers, the Farrelly brothers, the Coen brothers, and the Brothers
Quay-except we’re not brothers!

When we first started collaborating about 10 years
ago, we said to each other that we could probably make a better
film together than either of us could on our own. Since then, we’ve
tried to learn what each other’s strengths are and to allow for
an organic way of working where each of us is instinctively doing
what we’re best at.

During the production of Lost in La Mancha,
Lou did most of the shooting while I did the field producing. In
our collaboration, I am the more aggressive but impatient personality,
and Lou is the more timid but patient one. This would translate
into me gaining the access into a meeting and Lou having the patience
to sit there for two hours waiting for the two-minute interchange
that made the scene. While Lou would be in one place shooting, I
would be investigating the next scene to shoot, lining up an interview,
or trying to extract information from someone about what was going

LP: Because so many things are going on during
a film shoot, it’s really useful to have two brains working on it
at the same time. This was especially crucial when Terry and his
crew moved from the relatively contained space of the production
office to location. For that part of our shoot we were constantly
on walkie-talkies with each other, trying to gather-in real time-all
of the shots that would tell the story of any particular event in
the day. For example, when the big storm was blowing in (and it
blew in really quickly) with each shot that I was framing up, Keith
was already planning the next one and telling me where to turn.

MM: Do you think that this same collaboration
could work in the arena of feature moviemaking?

KF: We’re hoping so, because that’s what we’re
trying to tackle next! Many of our filmmaking heroes are those few
filmmakers who’ve consistently shifted back and forth between documentary
and fiction projects-filmmakers like Werner Herzog or Wim Wenders.
What most industry people don’t seem to appreciate is the ways in
which these two types of filmmaking inform and support one another.
Documentary filmmaking is storytelling, after all. It’s like the
reverse of fiction filmmaking. You write the script after you shoot.
And in terms of honing the storytelling craft, there’s no more rigorous
exercise than trying to edit something without a script.

MM: How did you shoot Lost in La Mancha?

LP: The film was shot mostly with a Sony PD-150
DVCAM camcorder, though we did some interviews and the staged script
readings with a JVC DV-500. Sound-wise, we kept Terry leashed to
a Lectrosonics wireless kit with a Tram microphone (which he never shut off). Other audio was gathered with a Sennheiser ME-66 on the
camera or an ME-67 on a pistol grip. We never boom scenes because
of the intrusive nature of a boom.

MM: Do you think that your camera/medium
choice was well suited to this project?

KF: Shooting DV with a small camera and a one
or two-person crew was really the best way to go on this project.
So many of the situations were in small offices or taking place
between only two or three people, that a larger camera and crew
would have been too obtrusive. It’s always struck us as odd to have
the documentary crew hugely outnumber the subjects. But shooting
DV really allows you to be as unobtrusive and portable as possible,
which is a great asset to capturing truly intimate observational

MM: What are some of the biggest challenges
you find in making a film about the making of a film-in putting
yourselves in the middle of a high-stress atmosphere, where you
need to always be cautious about where you’re standing, etc.?

LP: One of the biggest challenges with the
subject matter is that you’re making a film about people whose careers
are all about making images. These are people who not only understand
what you are doing when you point the camera at them, but people
who have chosen to be behind the cameras and not in front
of them. So a lot of times what you’re doing is trying to get them
to not be so self-conscious in the presence of the documentary camera.

Fortunately, the small camera package is a huge help
with this. Because the camera is so small and can be held at chest
level instead of on your shoulder, it’s a lot easier to be just
another person in the situation rather than “the documentary crew.”

KF: You also learn very quickly how to stay
out of the way, how not to be in people’s faces at their difficult
moments and how to leave a tense situation before you’re asked to.
You always want to be in a situation where you’re going to be welcomed
back the next day, so you develop an instinct for knowing when your
presence with the camera is going to be viewed as obnoxious, sensationalist
or exploitative. So much of shooting a documentary ends up being
about the relationship of trust that you build with the subjects.

MM: Has observing Terry’s experiences in
the film industry made you more interested in shooting your own
features-or more cautious?

LP: Watching Terry’s experiences made us neither
more nor less eager to continue making our own films. If anything,
it was a sobering experience to see that even a director of Terry’s
stature is subject to many of the same difficulties that one assumes
disappears as one establishes a career. Bad weather, not enough
money, uncontrollable locations, unavailable actors-these are all
factors that we associate with low-budget independent filmmaking.

We always assume that large-scale feature filmmaking
is somehow impervious to certain difficulties and vulnerabilities.
But when you think about it, that’s because so much of what we see
represented about filmmaking is all of that glitzy and glamorous Entertainment Tonight footage. You know, the stuff that would
have us think that filmmaking is as simple as a clapper board, a
camera rising up on a crane and a bunch of happy actors all slapping
each other on the back.

KF: The reality of filmmaking-and this is probably
the most important thing we learned from watching Terry-is that
it’s an incredibly fragile process. No matter where you are in your
career as a filmmaker, it will always be a balancing act between
art and commerce, between your artistic aspirations and the grim
reality of available resources.