What is What is Brazil?
Back in 1985, Universal Studios released the offbeat film Brazil which starred Jonathan Pryce (who six years later came to fame winning the Tony Award as Best Actor in a Musical for Miss Saigon) with Michael Palin and Robert DeNiro in supporting roles, along with Bob Hoskins and Ian Holm -- the latter to play Bilbo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings films. It was directed by Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, who co-wrote the screenplay with the estimable Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown.
It was a somewhat controversial film for the studio, in part because of the length which they wanted trimmed, and in part because of the title, which they found inexplicable. I was working at the studio at the time, as an assistant production executive to the studio president Bob Rehme. During the controversy, I had a chance meeting with Terry Gilliam who, though I know he was a demanding fellow and could be very difficult (which doesn't inherently mean he was wrong) endeared himself to me with our exchange.
I had to go up to Bob Rehme's office on a business matter, and Terry Gilliam was there waiting for a meeting with the studio head, standing outside for Rehme's preceding meeting, which was running long, to end. Gilliam and I chatted a bit, but eventually it got around to the film's title, which I think was one of the points he was there to discuss. I commented that I knew the studio wasn't crazy about the title, and Gilliam defended it by noting, among other things, "That DeNiro likes it," which seemed to be the point that proved it all.
I knew that one should walk carefully on egg shells with any filmmaker, and with Terry Gilliam in particular, but the conversation was personable enough, so I took a gamble (and in retrospect a huge gamble) and quipped, referring to the just-named actor -- making sure to have a smile on my face -- "But then he's a guy who put on 40 pounds for a movie role and banged his head repeatedly into a brick wall."
Needless-to-say, I wasn't sure how Gilliam would react, and there was a few-seconds pause. And then a big smile broke out across his face, and he replied, "Well, yes, but I think that's the target audience for this movie."
I'm sure that if I ever got into an argument with Terry Gilliam, it would be rough. But how could I not have fond memories of the guy for that?!
The title issue got settled for absolute certain when the movie won the Los Angeles Film Critics Award for Best Picture. And Gilliam won for Best Director. When a movie wins prestigious awards like that, you don't throw away the PR and change the name. And so Brazil it stayed.
As it happens, a good friend of mine, Rob Hedden (who I've mentioned in this pages) had been hired to make a documentary about the making-of Brazil. Rob is a wonderful screenwriter and director (who co-wrote the film Clockstoppers, was on the writing staff of McGyver and many other series, and has directed several feature films and half a dozen TV movies -- including, Any Place But Home, written by my pal, the oft-mentioned here Bart Baker.) But this documentary came at the beginning of Rob's filmmaking career.
During the filming of Brazil, Rob and his wife Jan had flown over to England for several months -- a joy for me, because it gave me a place to stay when I went there for a brief vacation -- and were given extensive access to the movie production and actors. Though the resulting 30-minute documentary was done for the studio and to help promote the feature film, it was a wonderful little film in its own right, more off-beat than most such "behind-the-scene" documentaries. Not just showing How Wonderful it all is, but touching occasionally on problems and points of contention (though it was completed before the later studio battles). And loaded with clips from the finished-movie. It is terrifically crafted and with a quirky sense of humor -- starting with its own title and point of documentary: what in the world is the feature film about and what on earth does the title mean?? And it has fun with participants at a loss -- including the two screenwriters and Gilliam himself -- attempting to explain. Michael Palin makes a noble try, by calling it a "Viking musical."
(Palin is a special joy in the documentary, and according to Rob every bit as nice and supportive as his reputation. Getting actors to sit down and being interviewed for documentaries is always a challenge. Michael Palin however threw himself into it wholeheartedly and rather than do the traditional sit-down, actually played around with doing his interview as as a collection of skits and as characters, all the while making suggestions to help as much as he could. There is material of Michael Palin on the cutting room floor which could make a hilarious comedy all on his own, as he did these little sketches, but alas not everything ultimately just fit the final version. And as if that wasn't enough, during the break in filming at his home he made the documentary film crew lunch.)
And by the way, just to prove that this isn't a friend saying how terrific something is when it really isn't -- the documentary really is that fun. Indeed, the fact that it won both a CINE Award and a CINDY Award (Cinema in Industry, created 57 years ago), and was officially selected for exhibition at the Smithsonian is my evidence, your Honor. The defense rests.
So, here is that documentary. What is Brazil? it asks. And to its humorous credit -- it never quite answers.
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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