Sympathy For The Devil? Michael Palin Discusses Brazil’s Jack Lint

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The following is an interview with Michael Palin originally intended for the the Voyager Criterion Collection 1996 Laserdisc release of Brazil. Parts relating to his discussion of his friendly torturer Jack Lint are presented here – you can read the full interview which goes into Terry Gilliam’s working method, and struggles to get Brazil released as intended, at Wide Angle / Closeup.

 

When did Terry first discuss brazil BRAZIL with you? Was it toward the end of TIME BANDITS or was it earlier than that?

Palin: I can’t actually remember the first time Terry discussed BRAZIL. I mean, we shot TIME BANDITS together I think in 1980. And BRAZIL was not filmed until late ’83, early ’84.

He first probably talked to me at some depth maybe 18 months or a year after we’d done TIME BANDITS, possibly while we were shooting THE MEANING OF LIFE, which is of course we were working on together in late ’82.

Did he write the character of Jack specifically with you in mind?

I don’t think Terry did have me specifically in mind when he wrote Jack Lint. You’d have to ask him that. As far as I know, he’d written the script, he and Charles McKeown had written the script, and Arnon Milchan sort of, if you like, dangled before Terry the prospect of major stars including Robert De Niro, and De Niro was shown the script and he had a look-through and he said, of all the parts he’d like to do, Jack Lint was the one. So Terry said (this is Terry’s story anyway), ‘I’m sorry, my friend Mike is going to do that. You have to choose something else!’ [LAUGHS] So that must be a rare example of De Niro being turned down!

And I think that probably Terry once he’d written [it] may have thought of me as doing it because we worked quite closely on JABBERWOCKY and TIME BANDITS and I think he felt sort of, not exactly morally obliged just because we were good friends and had worked productively before, to offer me something on BRAZIL. But needless to say it was the part that De Niro had definitely wanted and De Niro was shifted off, so I ended up doing it.

What intrigued you most about the character of Jack?

Well, this we did talk about. We talked about the nature of evil, if you like, and the way it manifests itself. And Terry and I both felt that it is a cliche and possibly a sort of absurd generalization to think that all evil people look evil and they have scars on their faces and go heh-heh-heh and all that. We felt that very often the most dangerous people are the ones who appear most plausible and most charming. So that was how we set about the idea of playing Jack Lint, as someone who was everything that Jonathan Pryce’s character wasn’t: he’s stable, he had a family, he was settled, comfortable, hard-working, charming, sociable — and utterly and totally unscrupulous. That was the way we felt we could bring out the evil in Jack Lint.

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The scene that comes to mind is the office, where the two of you are discussing terrorism and so forth, and there’s a little girl there playing ball that you do cootchie-coo with. I understand that wasn’t the original way the scene was shot.

I had a great problem with playing Jack which is I’d not really played a character like this before. It was also scheduled for the first day of shooting and it was about the most complicated scene in the film, which was really in retrospect a ridiculous bit of scheduling. You don’t schedule your hardest scene involving complicated character dialogue and character playing until your cast have had time to get to know who they’re playing and what they’re playing. You schedule some gentler stuff. But there we were, crack in.

I’d just spent a week in the Belfast Festival doing a one-man show so I was pretty exhausted, and we went in on day one and there was tremendous pressure to get the scene done, and get it done fast. Now, all sorts of things militated against that. I’d not worked with Jonathan before; Jonathan Pryce, he’s quite an intense actor, and I’m a, you know, Python actor — we were intense for short periods but basically we rely on the love and the comfort and the easiness and the bouncing off lines one from another. Jonathan was searching for exactly how he should play his character, which was going to have to go through the entire film — he had another three months to go. And I was like, I felt the whole atmosphere was a bit tight and a bit tense and I wasn’t particularly happy with my performance by the end of the day (two days actually we spent). We got it down and we’d done a couple of more scenes as well, and people were saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got 12 pages of script under our belts. This is, this is great, what a start!’ But of course once Terry looked at it and Julian the editor, I think they both felt that there was something lacking in the scene.

It was a scene which relied a lot on knowing a complicated plot and being able to, in my case, spin out jargon very, very fast — you know, Buttles and Tuttles and all this, E/23 and a B/24 and all that sort of thing, which again was not easy to grasp. So after the two days we spent on it, I think it must have been November ’83, I felt relieved that we’d done it, I thought we’d cracked it, [but] a little voice in the back of my mind said, ‘you know this could be better.’ So I was actually quite relieved when after a month or so, maybe longer, Terry said, ‘You know, there are some problems, it might be worth it trying this scene again.’ And after I got over the feelings of hurt pride — couldn’t get it right the first time — I realized yes, well there were things wrong, and maybe we’d be able to improve on it.

We talked about it, and between us we came to the conclusion that the great thing about Jack is that he is a family man, that he is a personification of the good citizen. And that there was no real indication of that in the first scene — it was just between the two of them. And if we could have some elements of family life in it, then that would make it all the more dark, sort of playing off his family, so Terry said, ‘Well let’s go straight into it, let’s have presents around and let’s give you a daughter. Hey! I’ve got a daughter!’ (My daughter at that time was only 1 year old, she wasn’t eligible.) And Terry said, ‘You know Holly, I’ll get Holly to do it.’

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So I think several months after we’d shot the first scene, we got back together again and it just felt easier, it felt better. I enjoyed having Holly there, it gave me something to do which enabled the sort of jargon and the sinister side of what Jack is saying to come out as though he’s just sort of playing with his girl, playing with his family at the same time he says these things about, ‘Well, you have to be destroyed, you’d have to wipe him out,’ and all that sort of thing.

I think it was quite audacious of Terry to play it with Holly, it really worked extremely well. There were some extremely funny moments. I can remember when we had done my shot on another day, we were doing reverses on Holly, and Terry had the studio cleared, and Terry operated the camera, and Maggie, Terry’s wife, was there, so it was this little family group! And me in the background. And that’s when she says the memorable line about ‘I see your willy,’ whatever it is. So that felt very much better the second time around.

I was intrigued by the irony with which the scene was originally like any other scene you have in a movie when two people sit across a desk and spin out the plot, and that by introducing a positive aspect — family — it made the characters darker.

Yes, I think because that scene was eventually played with an element of humor, it actually concentrates the disturbing element much more, because if it’s just desk-to-desk it is more like a stock scene out of any thriller, and you’re not quite listening to the lines, you’re just observing the tension between the two people. If you’re laughing then you’re becoming much more involved in the scene, and I think an audience is beginning to feel a sort of catharsis. You know, we’ve all been children, a lot of [the audience] have children, they’ve been through that before, and suddenly the chilling line will come through — ‘There’s nothing I can do for you, that’s it,’ you know? — and I think it makes those lines much more memorable, makes Jack’s attitude much more memorable.

And also the point is that I don’t think Jack has to be seen to be nasty in that particularly scene. What we’ve had is two disturbing things: one is, you come in and you see there’s blood on his coat, you assume he’s orchestrated some awful torture. The next thing is, he’s playing with his daughter and he says, ‘Well, we’ll just have to get rid of him’ or whatever he says. And then in the next scene you go into the real implications of what’s gone on in this nice little family scene. So the interesting thing was, it wasn’t necessary to put it all on the line: here’s a nasty man saying nasty things. Here is a nice man having a good time, but oh Crikey! What he said! This is what it means, you know, when you’re away from the family background, you see exactly what the implications are and they’re very unpleasant.

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In the torture chamber at the end, in the re-edited syndicated version, they inserted a closeup shot of the two of you, face-to-face. You can see anxiety and sweat on you face as if you worry for the both of you. Whereas in the regular version of BRAZIL, we do not see you face, so you sound worried only for yourself. What do you as an actor think about the ability of a director, an editor to reshape a performance with a bit here, a tweak there?

Well, I have no illusions: Actors are hacks basically! The real power is in the hands of the director, the editor, and enormously in the hands of a distributor. I believe, it doesn’t necessarily change the movie, but they can make or break the fact that your performance is seen or not seen. But the real power lies with the director, the editor, and in some cases the producer and the studio, and that’s the fact of life. You do the best you can do and you hope that you offer them in every way the best you can possibly give, so when they come to put it together, you know you’re not discredited, you’re not seen to be doing an uninspired, soft, flabby performance.

I think if you as an actor, or I as an actor, are asked to do a performance which is not good, and I feel this isn’t good and I feel I’m not doing it right, I think you really ought to be able to say so. That is about as much power as an actor has. And they may say, well we’ve paid your money, just do it the way, do it the way we want it done. And you sort of have to fulfill your side of the contract. Actors have very little power indeed, in spite of the vast amounts of money they give you.

 

Originally posted 2014-06-08 12:43:39. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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