Life Imitating Art: Terry Gilliam And BRAZIL

A tale as old as time: Terry Gilliam at odds with a movie studio.

“Bad sportsmanship. A ruthless minority of people seems to have forgotten certain good old-fashioned virtues. They just can't stand seeing the other fellow win,” Mr. Helppman in Brazil.

It’s a tale as old as time: life imitating art, art imitating life, and Terry Gilliam remaining creatively at odds with a movie studio. Gilliam is a creative terrorist who will stop at nothing for what he believes in, and, frankly, when the results are some of the greatest fantasy films to ever be put to celluloid, it’s hard to argue with his methods.

If you devoted your life to something that was going to be unleashed upon millions of people with your name attached to it, you should have every right to fight to the death for the vision in which you believe. The odds are never in the favor of the creative mind when it comes to studio pictures. Today we live in a world of special editions and directors’ cuts, but, for Gilliam, that wasn’t a reality, and even if it was, I doubt it would be enough. He’s a creative genius first and foremost and a businessman second, and if you find yourself at odds with what he believes in, he will punch your mother and leave you for dead in an alley soaking in your own filth.

Brazil is the story of Sam Lowry, a low-level bureaucrat who stands up to the needlessly convoluted system of inefficiency and endless paperwork in a near-future dystopia. Sam’s a dreamer in a world full of dreary boredom. Those dreams are what ultimately led Gilliam to create one of the best films of all time and, by happenstance, engage in a studio battle for the ages.

It’s 1985 and Gilliam is sitting in the projection booth of the Hitchcock Theater in L.A. for an executive test screening of his latest film, the Orwellian sci-fi/fantasy Brazil.

Hot off the success of his 1981 classic Time Bandits, Gilliam has become quite the commodity for making an expensive-looking film with crossover appeal to audiences of all kinds on a tight budget. If it weren’t for Time Bandits, Brazil probably would never have gotten off the ground. And, here he is after nine months of production and six months of editing, spilling his blood, sweat and tears at 24 frames-per-second to a roomful of people who hold the keys to his future.

“When we had what I thought was the final cut and were very happy with it, the film was released in Europe (via international distributor 20th Century Fox). We had fantastic reviews from the French critics in particular, which gave us confidence that we had made an interesting film,” Gilliam has said.

But “interesting” doesn’t always translate to box office success stateside, and Gilliam needed to impress Universal Pictures, the studio that owned the domestic rights to the film, in order to release it in the U.S. This is where he stood, in a dark projection room as the final ten minutes of his opus unfolded.

“I saw the back of those necks, and that’s when I knew we were in big trouble. Every muscle was knotted, and there was such hatred written on the back of those heads.”

It was at this screening that studio head Sid Sheinberg said, “We’re going to have to sell this film as ‘the film of the decade!’” Some of the production team took this as a compliment, but Gilliam knew it meant that the studio was going to need to hard-sell what they deemed to be an artistic disaster.

Universal said that they wouldn’t release the film, and Sheinberg suggested Gilliam alter his dark, twisted dystopian satire. “It made people think about the society that they lived in, and a lot of people don't want to do that,” Gilliam says. But he stood his ground. “I said, ‘Unfortunately, this is the story we set out to make. People like Robert De Niro and Jonathan Pryce agreed to be in this movie because of the story that we're telling, and we don't change the story for the sake of a larger audience.’”

Sheinberg originally asked Gilliam to let him be “the friend who tortures you,” naively believing he and Gilliam could work out a new cut together. But Gilliam would have none of it, and Universal and Sheinberg placed an embargo on Gilliam releasing his cut of the film while they went hard to work on a version of their own. Their hope was to create a cut that was marketable to mass appeal, which would later become known as the “Love Conquers All” version.

Months pass, and the movie is still going nowhere. Gilliam is getting frustrated and sends the following letter to Mr. Sheinberg:

Dear Sid:

Once upon a time you told me that you were not the one that put me in the chair at the end of BRAZIL. I'm afraid that this is no longer true — unable as I am to think of anyone else who is directly responsible for my current condition. Your later offer to be the friend who becomes a torturer has more than come true. I am not sure you are aware of just how much pain you are inflicting, but I don't believe ‘responsibility to the company’ in any way absolves you from crimes against even this small branch of humanity. As long as my name is on the film, what is done to it is done to me — there is no way of separating these two entities. I feel every cut, especially the ones that sever the balls. And I plead, whether they are done in the name of legitimate and responsible experiments or personal curiosity, if you really wish to make your version of BRAZIL, then put your name on it. Then you can do what you like. ‘Sid Sheinberg's BRAZIL’ has a nice ring to it. But, until that time, I shall continue to decline. Please let me know how much longer must I endure before the bleeding stops.

Deterioratingly yours,


Ultimately this letter falls on deaf ears, and Gilliam is forced to come up with more creative, anarchist tactics to capture the studio’s attention. Two months later, he takes out a full-page ad in Variety, leaving the page completely blank with nothing but a minimalist border and small, plain text reading, “Dear Sid Sheinberg—when are you going to release my film Brazil? Terry Gilliam."

This grabbed the attention of the press, and a buzz started to build for a film on an indefinite hold. This got Gilliam and De Niro to appear on Good Morning, America, where Gilliam officially takes the gloves off and lets Sheinberg know he’s going for the throat. Maria Shriver says, “I hear you’re having a problem with the studio.” To which Gilliam responds, “I don't have a problem with the studio. I have a problem with one man, Sid Sheinberg, and he looks like this," as he pulls out an 8x10 of Sheinberg for all of America to see. The underground movement had been given the face of their enemy, and that enemy was Sid Sheinberg.

Gilliam was ruthless in his attack, and no amount of bureaucracy was going to obstruct him from sharing his film with the world. And so it began. Rumors circulated of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (and Gilliam himself) holding screenings in private homes and cinemas. People were finally seeing his original 142-minute cut of the film, and they were liking it.

Then, in the fall of 1985, Universal was dusting off their top hats and long coats as they prepared to toast their movie of the season, Out Of Africa, the $37 million epic starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. At the black-tie New York premiere of the film with all the stars and executives in attendance, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association announced their awards for the year. The same day as Universal’s prestige picture was about to be the talk of the town, Brazil was awarded Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Director...without ever being officially released.

Abandoning their retooled version, Universal quickly grabbed Gilliam’s cut off the shelf and rushed it into a couple of theaters in New York and L.A. without so much as a poster to promote it. Over that holiday release, those couple of theaters posted the largest per-theater averages of any film that season. The little movie that knotted up the necks of studio executives was now on its way to a full release and two Oscar nominations.

While far from a box-office success, Gilliam had won his fight. He didn’t change the system, but he managed to put a crack in it and, in the meantime, piss all over the bureaucratic system he so masterfully satirized in his greatest personal and cinematic achievement. The “Love Conquers All” version still exists and was even broadcast on television a few times, but, rest assured, it’s low-level thinking for the dumbest audience possible and should be avoided at all costs.

“Getting the film released was the only important thing. It didn't matter how it was released as long as it was out there for the public to find it in their own good time. That is what we call an obsession, and we won.” - Terry Gilliam

This was originally published in the January edition of Birth.Movies.Death. See Brazil at the Alamo Drafthouse this month!