Copacabana Palace

When I got the news about working on a film about the Copacabana Palace in Rio de Janeiro, I thought there must be a catch. The programmes I’ve worked on over the years have rarely been glamorous. I've been into the Amazon and stayed in a hotel where I had to sweep the cockroaches off the mattress before turning in for the night. Then there was high in the Andes and the freezing and seedy hotel in a mining town. Not to mention "Altar Inn" on the Mexican border, where the wake call was the sound of guns firing in the distance. Those were the kind of programmes I usually worked on and the places I’d stayed in were definitely some of the least glamourous.

For those who wanted to feel like a celebrity it was fun. But after a while it seemed everybody thought it was madness.

But there was no catch. We were making a film about the most historic and luxurious hotel in South America and I was going to be working on it.

My suitcase for the trip was unlike that for any other filming trip. I allowed myself to take vintage dresses and elegant shoes, not the flak jackets and emergency medical packs I was more used to taking. All in the name of access. (I did later regret many of my outfits when I had to stand in them for the long hours that it takes to film observational documentary sequences.)

Madonna, Tom Cruise, the Rolling Stones... Over the years, hundreds of big stars have stayed in the Copacabana Palace. The hotel is so used to receiving an avalanches of fans for its celebrity guests it even has its own elegant barriers with the Copacabana Palace logo to contain them.

Two days after I arrived, I witnessed the mayhem first hand when Justin Bieber checked in the hotel. The front of the hotel was flooded with screaming teenage girls. Cafu, the doorman, took painkillers to be able to make it to the end of his shift, so intense was the noise from the crowd. It was a constant high pitch chorus of screaming that was so loud it could even be heard from the back of the hotel. Suddenly the most highly-prized rooms with a sea view at the front of the hotel were the least requested. Every guest who opened their balcony at the front of the hotel was greeted with screams, tears and fainting girls all believing they'd caught a glimpse of their idol.

For those who wanted to feel like a celebrity it was fun. But after a while it seemed everybody thought it was madness. A huge crowd camped there day and night for three days hoping for the slightest glimpse of Bieber. I had never seen anything like it. But for many of the staff at the Copacabana Palace it was nothing new.

Despite the glamorous location, soon the assignment revealed its difficulties. In a way, many of my previous locations had been much easier to make films in, despite the cockroaches. The hotel business is about protecting the privacy of the guests, and at a five star hotel this is paramount. And there we were, with cameras and so many questions wanting to find people and stories for our film. Nosing around everywhere. The truth, however, is that any observational documentary needs time and trust. So we had to resign ourselves to spend a long time in the Copacabana Palace.

Eventually we built the trust that we needed and the doors of this grand hotel on the beach opened. We were allowed to go around hunting for stories both front of house and behind the scenes. By then we were running out of time to make the film so we had to make up for it working some long days. The story could be anywhere. A lady who cleaned the rooms. Or somebody in the lift, or by the pool, or at a cocktail party.

On the surface it looked like I had the life of a full time socialite. I probably spent more time socialising in the hotel than the famous playboys who frequented the hotel in 1930s. It might sound crazy, but it was actually really hard work. I found it fascinating to be chatting to guests on the majestic balconies by the seafront, and then go through a door like Alice in Wonderland and find myself underground spending time with the hotel staff who came from a completely different world in Brazil. Often a very tough world. We got to know everybody. The hotel staff didn't see us as guests. And the guests welcomed us into their glamorous world. What I hope is that we were finally able to reveal Brazil today through the incredible people who opened up and talked to us. And I promise, despite the glamour, that this is actually one of the toughest films I have ever worked on.

Almudena Garcia-Parrado - Assistant Producer

Clips from Copacabana Palace

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