“What is Brazil?”: This 1985 TV doc provided a behind-the-scenes look at Terry Gilliam’s dystopian black comedy

By on March 4, 2016

The 1985 TV documentary What is Brazil? — an amusing, behind-the-scenes look at Terry Gilliam‘s classic dystopian black comedy Brazil — features movie, on-set footage and interviews with members of the cast and crew, including the film’s director, who opines emphatically about his love of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, his dislike of bureaucratic meddling by ignorant movie studio execs, and what it was like to work with Robert De Niro.

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The 30-minute documentary, directed by Rob Hedden — a writer, director and producer with lengthy credits in both television and film, penning episodes of “McGyver,” “The Commish,” “The Twilight Zone” (2002) and Jason Takes Manhattan for the Friday The 13th franchise, to name just a few — was included on the Criterion DVD/Blu-ray release as a bonus feature.

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Gilliam’s Brazil, if you’re unfamiliar, is set in the not-so-distant future, in an unnamed, consumer-driven city set amid a futuristic urban hi-tech setting. We meet Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a daydreaming everyman who works in the Department of Records. His is a dull job, and so at night he has vivid dreams about living another life, that of a winged superhero who fights against evil and saves the life of a lovely woman.

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One day, a bug gets squished in a computer, causing a name to get misprinted — Tuttle becames Buttle — and soon Lowry, through no fault of his own, finds himself caught in the soul-crushing gears of a nightmarish bureaucracy, where his life is turned upside down. An innocent man is arrested, tortured and killed, and when Lowry meets with the man’s widow, he sees the literal girl of his dreams, Jill Layton (Kim Greist), and soon they are both on the run as suspected terrorists in a story that has been described as encompassing “social alienation, terrorism, the hazards of high technology, and the bureaucratization of absolutely everything.” It’s also been called a “dystopian satire” and a “fantasy/satire on bureaucratic society.” Brazil is all of that, and more.

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Brazil featured in smaller roles are the real Harry Tuttle, a guerrilla ventilation duct repairman (played by De Niro); two officially-approved repairman named Spoor (Bob Hoskins) and Dowser (Derrick O’Connor); Sam’s plastic surgery-addicted mother, Ida (Katherine Helmond); her physician Dr. Jaffe (Jim Broadbent); Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm), the timid head of Sam’s department; Mr. Helpmann (Peter Vaughan), the pompous Ministry of Information chief; and the ever-smiling Jack Lint, a government interrogator (played by Michael Palin, one of Gilliam’s gifted colleagues in the Monty Python troupe).

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The story was mainly written by Gilliam, who brought two other screenwriters aboard the project to help with the script: Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) and Charles McKeown, who also appears in the film as Harvey Lime, the co-worker who shares Lowry’s office desk.

All three appear in the documentary and talk about how the film evolved into its final form after nearly a decade of development. McKeown says that the film is “like lifting the top off Terry Gilliam’s skull… and glimpsing inside,” while Stoppard admits he “doesn’t even know why it’s called Brazil.”

Gilliam, meanwhile, says the film is about “the impossibility of escape from reality,” and then, more precisely, declares that Brazil is about “late night shopping and terrorist bombing.”

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We also get to see interviews with SFX supervisor George Gibbs, prosthetic make-up artist Aaron Sherman, model photographer Tim Spence and model effects supervisor Richard Conway, who had worked on previous Gilliam projects — Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Jabberwocky (1977), Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983; co-written but not directed by Gilliam).

Gibbs, who also worked on The Meaning of Life, had just shared an Academy Award for effects in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).

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Gilliam faced many personal artistic and beauracratic struggles during the making and marketing of Brazil, battling with Universal chairman Sid Sheinberg to have his film released in its original form in American cinemas. Universal were unhappy with the film’s confusing and downbeat storyline and particularly with the film’s ending.

The distributor seized final cut control of the film away from the director, trimming Brazil down from 2 hours and 22 minutes to a meager 94 minutes, and botched the ending with a sentimental conclusion that didn’t fit with everything that had preceded it.

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Gilliam believed that the film’s original ending was much more appropriate and he arranged for private screening of what was deemed his “European cut” (now referred to as “Terry’s Final Cut”) in the U.S., over Universal’s objections, and in December of 1985, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association gave the film its top honors — best picture, best director, and best screenplay of the year — although Brazil had never been publicly shown.

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Universal eventually released a 132-minute compromise cut in theaters, but Brazil was deemed a box office failure, failing to recoup about a third of its production costs, but the film nevertheless has become a cult favorite.

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Brazil — a cautionary Orwellian tale, to be sure, no doubt inspired by Franz Kafka’s The Trial (Gilliam says that Brazil is “Franz Kafka meets Walter Mitty”) and George Orwell’s 1984 — was released around the same time that Hollywood studios and audiences were tending to prefer seeing upbeat escapist futuristic  comedies like Ghostbusters (1984) and Back to the Future (1985), but today it stands proudly apart from those films.

You can see its influence in many of the films that followed, including Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s The City of Lost Children (1995) and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006), to name just a few, not to mention the retro-futuristic aesthetics of the “steampunk” design movement.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.