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Behind the Scenes of Brazil

Rob Hedden’s 30-minute on-set documentary ‘What is Brazil?,’ included on the DVD release for the film. The documentary, basically a television plug for the coming release of the film, combines clips from the film, on-set footage and interviews with the cast and crew to form a quick overview of ‘Brazil’ and to hopefully entice viewers enough for them to see it at the cinemas. Curiously, there is no mention whatsoever of Gilliam’s epic struggle with Universal chairman Sid Sheinberg to have his film released in its original form in American cinemas. One must presume that the documentary was completed before these events took place.

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So… what is ‘Brazil?’ Unfortunately, none of the cast and crew members seem to have any idea about this, either. Co-writer Tom Stoppard admits that he “doesn’t even know why it’s called ‘Brazil.’” Rather than trying to explain the symbolic meanings behind the events of the film – which would be impossible to an audience that is yet to actually see it – this documentary serves to pique the viewer’s curiosity, to persuade them to find out for themselves what ‘Brazil’ is.

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The on-set interviews with the cast and crew members are interesting enough. Terry Gilliam sits himself down on a step to share a few moments with the camera crew, tracing through such production problems as the complex visual effects, the casting decisions and the difference of work habits between himself and co-writer Tom Stoppard. Stoppard and Charles McKeown, the other co-writer, also appear in the film. Special effects supervisor George Gibbs, model effects supervisor Richard Conway, prosthetic make-up artist Aaron Sherman and model photographer Tim Spence are also included to relate their experiences in producing ‘Brazil.’ Many of the main cast members (no Robert De Niro, unfortunately) also give interviews about their roles, with Michael Palin, in character, being the stand-out, pretending to be an upper-class acting veteran and giving his interviews into the telephone.

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Hedden’s documentary, ‘What is Brazil?,’ basically exists to pose that question, and never really attempts to answer it in any specific way. The interviewed cast and crew members each offer their own opinions: Gilliam calls it “the impossibility of escape from reality,” and then, more enigmatically, “it’s late night shopping and terrorist bombing.” Michael Palin amusingly declares the film to be “a Viking musical,” but I’m not sure if many would agree with his individual assessment. Perhaps Charles McKeown’s brief description is the most appropriate: “it’s like lifting the top off Terry Gilliam’s skull… and glimpsing inside.”

Previously on Cinephilia & Beyond:

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Lost in La Mancha is a mesmerizing documentary about the unmaking of a movie—Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Cervantes’s Don Quixote, starring Johnny Depp, which began filming in Spain in September 2000 and shut down several weeks later after a string of calamities.

I have so much love or this movie and for Terry Gilliam. So. Much. Love.