Universal Irony: A Look
at the Parallels Between Themes and Production Conditions in Terry Gilliams
By: Andrew Clayman
The list of infamous battles between demanding directors and overbearing studios is a very long one, with its first instances dating back to the dawning ofHollywood. There may be no such confrontation, however, with as much undeniable irony as that of director Terry Gilliamís heated war of wills with Universal Pictures in 1985. The subject was Gilliamís dream project, Brazil, and the much publicized conflict that surrounded it would pit the forces of business and art against one another in a manner perhaps only rivaled by the plotline of Brazil itself; a film which proved a near self fulfilling prophecy for its director. Through an auteur study, this paper will present the creative and ambitious Gilliam as a man suffering under bureaucratic control, much like the main character of his film. Furthermore, by examining film history and the influence of Universal Pictures on the completion of Brazil, comparisons will be drawn between the themes of the film and its post production saga respectively.
The Plot: Brazil
Simply attempting to summarize the story and themes of Brazil begins to shed light on how those in the Universal marketing department were unsure of how to handle Gilliamís new production in 1985. Contributing screenwriter Tom Stoppard said he felt the film was about ìthe myth of the free man in the unfree society (Mathews 27). Many critics would eventually relate Brazil to an interpretation of George Orwellís 1984 with a twist of Monty Python style black humor (Brazil 22). According to Gilliam, however, the admitted influence of 1984 did not include a sharing of that novelís primary theme or concept of a bleak future. Instead, he called Brazil ìthe flip side of now and described its theme as the ìimpossibility of escape from reality (Mathews 27).
Brazil was eventually released by Universal in 1985. In its simplest form, is it the tale of a man whose wild imaginings are confined and contrasted by the cramped, dismal, paranoid reality in which he lives and works. Sam Lowry, the daydreaming protagonist, is simply a cog in the dominant government machine. He slaves over a computer screen, works in an office large enough for only half of a desk, and spends his time collecting and creating endless amounts of paperwork. Eventually, sparked by the discovery of his dream girl in the realm of reality, Sam attempts to fight against the unjust system of which he is a part. His rebellion against the authoritative regime, in the name of love, ends tragically. Sam falls victim to the system and loses himself into a dream world from which he can never return.
Clearly, Brazil is not the type of movie that will put smiles on the faces of Americaís families at Christmas time, which is when the film was finally released. Nonetheless, when Gilliam and producer Arnon Milchan signed a contract with Universal marketing President Bob Rehme in 1983, the general storyline and pessimistic conclusion of Brazil were very much a part of the script. With that fact in mind, Gilliam went to work with the right to direct the film he had envisioned; a dark, but beautifully imaginative commentary on the restrictions of passion in a corporate society. Most of the parties involved felt that the filmís content and mid range budget made it a clear art house picture, but Universalís affection for the commercial potential of some of Brazil would lead to the eventual dispute over the fate of the film as a whole.
The battle lines were officially drawn on July 17, 1985, when Gilliam finally lost his temper with the President of MCA-Universal, Sid Sheinberg (Mathews 1). Sheinberg had become directly involved with the Brazil project after Bob Rehme had left the company. Now, Sheinberg was attempting to help improve the marketing possibilities for Brazil by recommending considerable changes to the film itself. Sheinberg, along with several other high ranking individuals that worked out of the famous Black Tower at Universal, felt much of Gilliamís work on the film was brilliant, Oscar caliber material. But marketing research, and Sheinbergís gut instinct, indicated that the love story between Sam Lowry and his dream girl Jill Layton needed more emphasis. Furthermore, Sheinberg believed the depressing ending needed to be lifted entirely. Needless to say, Gilliam disagreed. Such changes, he felt, would completely undermine the entire message of the film. Gilliam argued that it was his right as an artist to make the film he had been promised, but Sheinberg found a contractual loop hole (the film's overly long running time) that gave him a direct point of attack on Gilliam. Under the Brazil contract, a good ten to fifteen minutes needed to be cut from the European version of the film in order for it to be released in the United States (Gilliam 149). Sheinberg believed those edits could best be done in a manner that would help Brazil market to a wider audience. Gilliam just wanted to keep his vision alive. The battle between business and art was underway, and the dramatic parallels between the players and events in this plot and the ones within Brazil became astonishingly apparent.
The Auteur: Terry Gilliam as Sam Lowry
The old phrase "life imitating art" never seemed so appropriate, as so many of the factors affecting the production of Brazil seemed to be following a pattern established within Brazil. During the height of his dispute with Universal, Terry Gilliam was far from ignorant of these parallels. He even publicly aligned himself with the protagonist of his film, the much victimized Sam Lowry (played by British actor Jonathan Pryce).
In Brazil, Sam Lowry comes to work for the Ministry of Information Retrieval, a symbol of oppression and inhumanity. Lowry is a respected creative thinker and problem solver, much like Gilliam, and earns a promotion to a high level of the organization. However, much as Gilliam worked with a large studio solely with the hopes of bringing his dreams to the screen, Lowry only accepts his promotion in order to gain more classified information on Jill Layton, the girl of his dreams. Lowry does not enjoy the coldness and inflexibility of his occupation. Instead, he finds his peace and refuge through incredibly vivid dreams, in which he is a winged superhero saving his endangered dream girl (Jill) from various monsters representative of the heartless government machine.
Aside from his dreams, Sam tries escape through other means. One interesting scene, early in the film, takes place at a crowded office complex. Rows of workers are at computers, performing tedious tasks for Information Retrieval. However, each time the workersí superior (Ian Holm as Mr. Kurtzmann) exits the room, each man switches his computer screen to a playing of an old Western movie. Sam and the other workers enjoy watching the film, and each time the boss steps back into the room, the screens are quickly shifted back to normal. This is one of the more symbolic scenes, showcasing the prevention of artistic expression and free will on the people of the film. Sam is imaginative, romantic, and a dreamer, but his communication of those traits is denied by the overpowering authority under which he works.
Thus, it is easy to understand the reasons that Terry Gilliam would relate himself with Sam Lowry. For Gilliam, the authority at Universal was denying him the right to express himself uniquely and in the fashion that has arguably made him a true cinematic auteur.
Having begun his career as a cartoonist for Help! magazine and later, Monty Python, Gilliam took a very original, unusual style and vision to the art of film making
(Gilliam 21). When Brazil was in production, Gilliam had a few feature projects under his belt, including Jabberwocky, a segment in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, and the surprisingly successful Time Bandits. Brazil would be a far greater undertaking, but stylistically and thematically, the Gilliam approach had already been established. With his films through Brazil, and his acclaimed work after it (including The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Gilliam has unquestionably established himself as an auteur.
A movie becomes a trademark Gilliam film in a number of ways. There is still a general acknowledgment of Gilliamís link to the Monty Python troop and their dark brand of biting satirical comedy. Even in his later films, where Python members no longer played a role in writing or performing, that influence remained.
Secondly, Gilliam's themes and characters are familiar across his work. In fact, Time Bandits, Brazil, and Baron Munchausen are considered a trilogy, despite wide differences in the films worlds and time frames. The connection is a constant message in support of the freedom and goodness of imagination (often expressed through child characters) and the evils of commercialism and overly powerful authority.
However, the most important element in support of Gilliam's stature as an auteur is the visual imagery in his work. This is a logical carry over from his days as a cartoonist, as he still uses cartoons, in storyboard form, before filming most scenes. There are motifs in Gilliam visuals that have spanned across his entire career. The gigantic samurai warrior which Lowry fights in a Brazil dream sequence is very similar to the massive red knight that plagues the mind of Robin Williamsí Perry in The Fisher King. Furthermore, the memorable final scene of Brazil, in which Sam Lowry's final dream is overlapped with the almost surreal staring faces of the Information Retrieval workers, parallels several shots from Twelve Monkeys, a movie made a decade later. In that film, there is a point of view shot from Bruce Willis' character, Cole, in which men in white coats are staring into his eyes; a very similar scene to that which concludes Brazil. Gilliam's association with fantasy stretches beyond his clear cut fantasy films. The same unique visions he institutes to present the magical powers of a Baron Munchausen appear again in a film such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where Gilliam uses fantastic visual imagery (such as casino players turning into dinosaurs) to reveal Johnny Depp's drug induced state.
Just as Gilliam tends to emphasize the importance of the innocence and imagination of children, he has succeeded as a director by staying connected with his own inner child, and working to bring his highly ambitious visual ideas to the screen. Being a free spirit, he never enjoyed the thought of being fenced in by Sid Sheinberg, let alone having no power to release his film as he saw fit. Gilliam had already sacrificed many scenes, mostly dream sequences, from Brazil, and the thought of losing the movie's theme itself was unbearable. Over all, the director felt creatively restrained by Universal just as Sam Lowry was similarly held in check by Information Retrieval. Sheinberg, meanwhile, was doing what he felt was best for his studio and everyone involved in the film.
Film History: The Black Tower as The Ministry of Information Retrieval
While identifying himself with Sam Lowry, Gilliam was more than willing to associate the businessmen at Universalís Black Tower with the oppressive Ministry of Information Retrieval in Brazil. He connected Sheinberg with either the character of Jack Lint, a smiling family man who tortures dissidents for a living, or Mr. Helpmann, the deputy minister (Mathews 11). For Gilliam, making such a comparison may have been a mistake, if he truly believed the message of his own film. For it is Lint and Helpmann who are left standing over the comatose Sam Lowry at the movieís end; victors in a world where one cannot escape the unfortunate truths of reality. Nonetheless, Gilliam chose to fight back against Sheinberg and new Universal Chairman Frank Price's efforts to alter his vision.
Sheinberg felt the film could be much improved with a shorter running time and a happy ending. He believed the solution was simple. Rather than having Lowry's final joyous dream sequence (in which he and Jill escape to the country) cut off by a grim return to the torture chamber scene, Sheinberg recommended simply ending the movie with the happy scene of Sam and Jillís country cottage. Price, who didn't like the film and had inherited it from the previous office holder, agreed that the ending needed to change. Gilliam continued to refuse, saying he would burn the negatives, and maybe the Black Tower as well, if the ending was altered (Matthews 40).
This was Gilliam's stand, but much like that of Sam Lowry, he had severe obstacles in his way. Mainly, there was the contract that indicated Gilliam would have to edit out more time from the film. With the Black Tower now holding out hope that some late year awards buzz could save the film, they gave Gilliam several weeks to edit the film one last time. Meanwhile, Sheinberg had hired his own editors to craft Brazil the way he wanted. Like Information Retrieval, Universal hoped to capitalize upon the sacrifice of individual creative expression. The existence of a second editing team was kept from Gilliam, and the two editing crews worked at the same time toward very different goals. Gilliamís editing had to be paid for by the production company rather than the studio. He found this another case of irony, as he would have to pay the costs to edit against his will, just as dissidents in Brazil have to pay for their own torture sessions (Gilliam 146).
During this same time period, Universal was approaching the criticsí awards season with several potential winners under their belts, including Out of Africa, Mask, Back to the Future, and Legend. Sheinberg and Price recognized the importance of critical awards in leading to Oscar nominations and thus more acclaim and sales for the company. With huge budget and hopes put into Out of Africa, Universal started substantial advertising campaigns to push it and several other films for the award season (Mathews 67). Even after Gilliam and his crew had made the last frustrating changes to Brazil, however, Universal hesitated to release it, and especially to market it. With the unhappy ending still in place, the studio felt the film would fail.
Gilliam's last desperate effort was to make a full public assault on Universal by talking to the press about the ongoing battle over the film. Producer Arnon Milchan, who had stuck by Gilliam's side, actually broke the ice by telling the Los Angeles Times that Brazil was the most faithful execution of a screenplay he had ever seen. He also said control was being taken from the director because of a few minutes of extra running time and the studio head's dislike for the film. Furthermore, Milchan talked about the fact that Universal was also denying him the right to show the movie anywhere in the U.S. or Canada (Matthews 49). Gilliam went public in a key interview on the CBS Morning News, and he brought an important ally with him. In another parallel of Brazil, actor Robert De Niro, who plays the rebel hero Harry Tuttle in the film, chose to make a rare television appearance in an effort to earn some public support for Gilliam's cause. For Gilliam, he felt as if the public could relate to and get behind this real life David and Goliath story. He was one man, a visionary director with a script to which he had remained true, and the studio was a massive monetary giant that was attempting to first alter his work, and then simply brush it under the rug. Gilliam, Milchan, De Niro, and all the other supporters of the film achieved success, as some final wheeling and dealing (Milchan was forced to pay the final costs for the film's release) led to Brazil's release in New York and Los Angeles before year's end.
If Terry Gilliam saw himself as Sam Lowry fighting against the oppressive Ministry of Information Retrieval known as Universal Pictures, then the results of the 1985 Los Angeles Film Critics' awards would be on a par with Lowry, Tuttle, and the rebels blowing up the Ministry in the last dream sequence of Brazil. Despite the fact that Sheinberg and his colleagues had pushed back the release date, forced extra cuts, and failed to advertise the film, Brazil took home best screenplay, best director, and best picture from the L.A. critics (Brazil 27).
Sid Sheinberg had the mixed reaction of seeing a Universal picture win awards, and having to cope with it being the dreaded Gilliam picture. Sheinberg believed that the critics had voted in such a manner purely for rebellious reasons, having jumped on Gilliamís publicity bandwagon. He would later use Brazil's failure at the New York awards, Oscars, and general box office as evidence for that fact and for his over all stance on the issue (Mathews 89). If the L.A. Critics' Awards paralleled the destruction of the Ministry of Information Retrieval, then the failures that followed could parallel Sam Lowry's downward spiral into insanity, during which the flying paperwork from the Ministry actually consumes the symbolic representative of rebellion, Harry Tuttle. However, in many ways, it was Universal's poor decisions in marketing and eventual, unwise broad-scale release of the film that dug Brazilís grave.
Gilliam had been intelligent enough to realize that the L.A. awards would be the high point in his battle. He had proven to Sheinberg and the business elite that an artistic vision belongs to its director and works best in his hands. Brazil would eventually suffer under the thumb of an uncaring studio, but its critical success among audiences in New York, Los Angeles, and knowledgeable film communities cemented Gilliamís faith in the truth of his convictions.
Sheinberg's personal edit on Brazil was completed and aired on television, but never earned the attention of the darker Gilliam version.The theme of Brazil still proved evident; dreamers like Lowry and Gilliam cannot hope to fully escape the confines of reality. However, unlike Lowry, Gilliam had fought the system and lived to tell about it, still using his dreams as his best defense against those who would sacrifice art for business.
Booker, M. Keith. Dystopian Literature: A Theory and Research Guide. Westport, CT. Greenwood Press, 1994.
ìBrazilî. Film Quarterly. Fred Glass; reviewer. V. 39. Pages 22-28. 1986.
Gilliam, Terry. Gilliam on Gilliam. Faber & Faber. New York, 1999.
Matthews, Jack. Battle of Brazil. New York: Crown Publishers, 1987.
The Unofficial Website for Terry Gilliam's Brazil.