‘Robert De Niro prepared to play a plumber by watching a brain surgeon’: Terry Gilliam and Jonathan Pryce on making Brazil

<span>Photograph: UNIVERSAL/Allstar</span>
Photograph: UNIVERSAL/Allstar

Terry Gilliam, director

I had this vision of a radio playing exotic music on a beach covered in coal dust, inspired by a visit to the steel town of Port Talbot. Originally the song I had in mind was Ry Cooder’s Maria Elena, but later I changed it to Aquarela do Brasil by Ary Barroso. The idea of someone in an ugly, despairing place dreaming of something hopeful led to Sam Lowry, trapped in his bureaucratic world, escaping into fantasy.

Brazil is often described as “a futuristic dystopia”, but I tried to make it clear that the past, future and present are intertwined. I hadn’t read Nineteen Eighty-Four, though I knew the tenor of the book. Early on, I even considered calling the film Nineteen Eighty-Four-and-a-Half.

I worked on the script with Chuck Alverson and Charles McKeown, but it was Tom Stoppard who eventually pulled the whole thing together. There were a lot more fantasy sequences in the original screenplay, but 12 weeks into shooting it became clear we were going to go way over budget and would end up with a five-hour film. We shut down for a week and I spent that time tearing out my favourite bits.

Jonathan Pryce is breathtaking as Sam – funny, desperate and touching, and his physicality was extraordinary. I like to give actors space to play and surprise us all and Brazil is full of wonderful, enriching touches, like Ian Holm’s wrist going limp when he’s asked to sign the cheque and the range of reactions Katharine Pogson crams into a couple of seconds when Sam treads on Shirley’s foot.

We used a lot of real locations. The huge torture chamber was the inside of a cooling tower at Croydon power station, and a redressed flour mill became the Department of Records. During those fast tracking shots through the clerk’s pool, the wide-angle lens meant I needed to get even closer to the extras than they appear on screen. Luckily, they were good at avoiding getting hit.

I wanted Michael Palin’s character, Lint, to be an ambitious family man who doesn’t recognise the great harm he’s doing – torturing is just his job. The scene where Sam surprises him in his office didn’t work until I introduced one of Lint’s children – the juxtaposition of him playing with his little girl while still wearing his blood-soaked apron made all the difference. That girl was played by my own daughter, Holly, who objected to a second day’s shooting when we didn’t manage to finish on time. She actually chopped her bangs off to try to ruin the continuity.

I remember some cinema executive telling me that what he loved most about Brazil were the hats. Our costume designer, Jim Acheson, was brilliant at finding quirky things, and the shoe hat worn by Katherine Helmond was actually real, a Schiaparelli. I don’t really invent much, I just copy unusual details I’ve spotted in real life. The dog with its bum covered over with tape is another example – that’s something I’d actually seen on the streets of London.

Robert De Niro was suggested by the producer, Arnon Milchan – it turned out Bobby was a big Python fan. Though his character, Tuttle, is a relatively small part, he’s the hero really, as he’s the only person who’s achieving anything. I said to him: “You’re a plumber, but I want you to treat the plumbing like it’s brain surgery.” He actually found a New York neurosurgeon and sat in on an operation as part of his preparation, though when you see Tuttle handling equipment in closeup, those hands are mine.

Christmas seemed a great season to place the film – presents for executives, goodwill to all men, an ironic contrast to the grim reality of that world. Mr Buttle’s arrest would feel much more shocking and horrible with the family gathered around the tree and carols floating in the background; the paperwork floating through the air after the Ministry is blown up would be like snow falling; and what better than deputy minister for information Mr Helpmann turning up in Sam’s padded cell dressed as Father Christmas?

Jonathan Pryce, played Sam Lowry

Nowadays, if I get stopped in the street it’s almost invariably by people who remember me from Game of Thrones, James Bond or Brazil. Those first two have been watched by a gazillion people, but with Brazil I think it’s because it had such a big impact on those who saw it.

Terry originally offered me Time Bandits, but I’d just finished playing Hamlet at the Royal Court and was completely broke, so I accepted another offer, for a heist film called Loophole, which paid better but disappeared without trace. Not one to hold grudges, two years later, Terry offered me Brazil. I read the script and knew immediately it was something I absolutely had to do. Terry’s wife, Maggie, was doing makeup on the film – she had a boxful of old Monty Python wigs, which came in useful for the screen test, as I’d just finished playing the priest Martin Luther and still had a tonsure shaved into my head.

[Producer] Arnon Milchan didn’t want me to play Sam – he was quite vehement about it. Terry arranged a meeting which was going terribly until Robert De Niro walked in with his young son, Raphael. De Niro pointed at me and said, “Do you know who this is? It’s Mr Dark!” At which point, Raphael recoiled and hid behind his leg. Mr Dark was a character I’d played in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes – apparently I’d made an impression. After the meeting Terry called me at home to tell me I had the part. “Bobby likes you,” he said. “And if Bobby likes you, Milchan likes you.”

I was on set almost every day for months, while all these visiting players came and went – Bob Hoskins and Derrick O’Connor, Palin and De Niro – and that kept the energy going. I saw Brazil as a way of marrying my theatre experiences with film. I had done a couple of films early on with Stephen Frears where he told me to make my face a blank canvas. I thought that was what you did for cinema. With Terry, it was the opposite – after every take he would say: “Do more!” There are very few closeups in Brazil, nearly everything was wide angle, full figure. I was encouraged to speak with my whole body.

A lot of the scenes of Sam swooping in his angel costume were done with a 13in model, but I did get to do some flying on wires. Mostly that was fun but it could be painful. I’d be hanging from the top of the studio saying: “Can we go? This is agony!” And Terry would shout up: “This is your punishment for turning me down for Time Bandits!” Also, I’m claustrophobic. There was one sequence where I was bolted to a big metal arm having layers and layers of costume strapped on and I started to panic. We had a nurse on set who gave me some Valium. If you notice me looking a little glazed in some shots, that’s why.

One thing Terry and I do disagree on is the ending – he sees it as optimistic, I think it’s horrible, an absolute nightmare. But then that’s partly the joy of the film, that it’s open to interpretation. I think the end credits were the first time I got to sing on screen. Since then, in anything I’ve done, if I can get a song in, I’ll do it.

• Terry Gilliam will discuss his film work at Bristol Old Vic on 18 February, followed by a screening of Brazil, at the Slapstick festival (14-18 February). Jonathan Pryce will play Prince Philip in The Crown on Netflix this Thursday