Watching the movie Brazil is a bit like experiencing a dream: It just sort of washes over you, a wave of images and ideas, and when it’s all over it’s hard to understand what just happened or if it even happened at all.
That’s in part by design, as director Terry Gilliam has always had a knack for stories with philosophical convolutions; but it’s also the result of a drawn-out battle with ruthless film industry executives.
A Story of Bureaucracy
From the start, Brazil was a tale of the state run amuck — even before it became a real-life cautionary tale of its own. Creatively, it fits neatly between Gilliam’s other two films Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. The first is a story of a young boy’s imagination, the third is about an elderly man reflecting on his life. And Brazil concerns a middle-aged office worker who wants nothing out of life until he catches sight of a dream-like woman trapped in the machinery of the grim dystopia in which they live.
Other titles considered for the film: 1984 1/2, a perfect pun on the story’s Orwellian themes of surveillance and distrust, as well as the confusing surreal imagery comparable to Fellini’s 8 1/2. For a time, the project was nearly saddled with the title So That’s Why the Bourgeoisie Sucks before finally acquiring the name of the ironically jaunty tune that plays throughout.
The Fight for the End
Terry Gilliam has a bit of a reputation for working on doomed projects, and Brazil certainly helped. It was the conclusion of the film that caused the most difficulty; Universal executive Sid Sheinberg insisted that it should end happily. (Another of Sheinberg’s brilliant ideas: renaming Back to the Future to Space Man From Pluto.)
That was a bridge too far for Gilliam, who had specifically crafted the movie to have a dark, sinister conclusion. Nevertheless, Sheinberg ordered a new ending, know as the “Love Conquers All” ending in which the hero unambiguously finds all his dreams realized.
Gilliam was furious. In response, he started taking his original edit to reporters, showing them the version that he had crafted in rogue screenings. At one point, he was invited to give a talk at the University of Southern California, and brought the entire cut of the film with him. Universal leadership frantically called the school to have the screening cancelled, to no avail.
Scorched Earth Tactics
As months wore on with no release for the film in sight, Gilliam resorted to ever-more-hostile measures. He took out an ad in Variety, demanding that Sheinberg give the film a release date. He went on Good Morning America, and when asked if he was having trouble with the film, answered, “No, I’m having trouble with Sid Sheinberg, here is an 8×10 photo of him.” He held up a picture of his nemesis, knowing it would infuriate studio leadership.
Finally, Los Angeles film critics awarded Brazil a slew of awards on the night that Out of Africa was released. This was a major humiliation for the studio, which had wanted the media to be discussing their prestige picture instead of Gilliam’s strange creation.
Confronted with the possibility that Brazil might be nominated for major awards without ever being released, they finally gave it a tiny exhibition in a handful of theaters. Ultimately, it was a financial flop, but Gilliam was able to share a cautionary tale about the destructive power of bureaocracy — demonstrated as much by the making of the picture as by the content.