The Brazil FAQ, Section A
by David S. Cowen
|BRAZIL Frequently Asked Questions
Copyright 1994-1998 David S. Cowen
Release 1.4, Last-modified: 1998/7/17
Over a decade after the release of BRAZIL, Terry Gilliam's film
remains one of the most valued movies by individuals on the Internet.
As the complex plot and unique style of BRAZIL have endeared fans,
the legendary battle about BRAZIL's release between Gilliam and
Sid Sheinberg (then president of Universal pictures, the studio
responsible for releasing Brazil in the US) has become an essential
part of film history. As is rarely the case, an underdog director
successfully battled a studio to get his film released as he intended
it... resulting in a great degree of confusion over the different
available versions of BRAZIL. This FAQ has been created to answer
frequently asked questions pertaining to all matters regarding the
This FAQ contains spoilers.
Watch the film before reading this FAQ.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. I didn't understand the film at all. What's it all about?
2. Why were problems with BRAZIL's release in America?
3. How many versions of BRAZIL have been released? What are the
differences between them?
4. How do I get the version I want to see (on laserdisc or DVD)?
5. What is the title BRAZIL supposed to mean?
6. How does BRAZIL fit in with Gilliam's other movies?
7. What are the lyrics to the song _Brazil_? Is a soundtrack available?
8. The sets are stunning. Where were they filmed?
9. What do all the signs say?
10. What is Information Retrieval Charging?
11. What does the singing telegram girl sing?
12. Miscellaneous questions, answers and observations.
13. Where can I get more information about BRAZIL?
14. Notable Quotes.
1. I didn't understand
the film at all. What's it all about?
BRAZIL is a film rich in depth -- the plot does not focus on just
one subject, but instead contains many different themes which weave
together. The film follows the character of Sam Lowry, a clerk in
the records department of a huge government bureaucracy -- the Ministry
of Information. Sam's perception of the world alternates between
being trapped as a mere "cog in the machine" in a grim
world of paperwork and escaping from his grim existence by becoming
a hero in his own elaborate dreams. His life and these dreams begin
to merge together, with his dreams becoming more realized as his
life tears apart. Eventually, the government imprisons him, finding
him guilty of none other than "wasting the Ministry's time
and paper" after Sam embarks on a messy pursuit of the girl
he sees in both his dreams and in real life -- who was unrightly
wanted by the Ministry as a suspected terrorist.
Still don't get it? You probably won't, not until you've seen the
film multiple times. The structure of BRAZIL often uses peripheral
devices: interviews heard in the background, lines of conversation
running over action and posters seen on walls, to give the viewer
cues as to what's going on in the film. It seems nearly impossible
that a single viewing of BRAZIL could possibly supply the viewer
with all of the information needed to fully digest what's happening
in the film.
BRAZIL is a film which rolls up many of the problems of the century
into one big plot: industrialization, terrorism, government control
and bureaucracy (from both capitalist and socialized countries),
technology gone wrong, inept repair people, plastic surgery, love,
and even modern filmmaking. Especially love.
Gilliam has claimed that the film is about the fear of love: the
consequences of the Sam Lowry character pursuing his dream girl
are steep. However, if the film can be said to focus on a single
topic, it would have to be described as the dehumanizing effect
of technology and bureaucracy on today's society -- although the
film is much more than that. In the world of BRAZIL, set "8:49
p.m., somewhere in the 20th century", fantasy is the only escape,
and the happy ending is that of a man going insane. The film certainly
isn't everyone's cup of tea, shifting abruptly from comedy to despair,
something Gilliam has described in interviews as "cinematic
rape." Gilliam approaches the style of the film with his trademark
wit and stunning visuals, both honed during his years as the animator
for _Monty Python's Flying Circus_ and during the production of
his film _Time Bandits_.
Words from Gilliam himself, part of an interview for The South Bank
"BRAZIL was a film
that sat around for some years, I mean like 10 years I'd been sort
of thinking about this thing. I mean on a very simple level it's
just its just very cathartic for me. It's all about my own frustrations
and my seeming inability to achieve what I wanted to achieve and
my inability to affect a system that is clearly wrong. The fears
of BRAZIL are not so much that the world is spinning out of control
because of the system, because the system is us. What BRAZIL is
really about is that the system isn't great leaders, great machinating
people controlling it all. It's each person performing their job
as one little cog in this thing and Sam chooses to stay a little
cog and ultimately he pays the price for that.
"Now on the other
hand I also felt that there's the ideal that if we all do our bit
the world will become better. Then there's the pessimistic side
that says enough of this 'do our bit, ain't gonna make a blind bit
of difference as we're all gunna, lemming like, go over the abyss'.
And so then there was 'how do you escape from that world?' and Sam
escapes by going insane. I actually started this film with that
idea of 'can one make a film where the happy ending is a man going
Keep in mind, however, that Gilliam has been quoted as saying:
"Because I dislike being quoted I lie almost constantly when
about my work."
2. Why were there problems
with BRAZIL's release in America?
In January of 1985, Terry Gilliam delivered his completed film BRAZIL
to Universal Studios, on time and on budget. BRAZIL's complex and
interweaving plot demands a lot of screen time in order to tie up
all the loose ends -- and Gilliam was happy about the way the film
worked in its 142 minute cut. Fox Pictures International had just
signed the international agreement to the film and had accepted
the 142 minute length without any sort of protest, so Gilliam expected
Universal to accept it for distribution in America.
Not so. Sidney Sheinberg,
the president of Universal studios had taken an interest in BRAZIL
-- Sheinberg "liked many parts of BRAZIL, and thought there
were many moments of bravura filmmaking," but what Sheinberg
saw lacking was commercial potential. The cure for this in Sheinberg's
eyes was a re-edit, one that took the various parts of BRAZIL that
were commercially viable (Sam's pursuit of his dream girl, the stunning
set design and Gilliam's off-beat style of humor), while removing
those things that were not (the film's dark ending, the overtones
of the dehumanizing effects of the government, Michael Kamen's witty
but dark orchestral score).
This began a personal
battle between Terry Gilliam and Sidney Sheinberg for control of
the film. Sheinberg had forced Gilliam to sign a time provision
which said that the running time of BRAZIL would have to be 132
minutes for Universal to accept it, and that even then Universal
could follow up with any editing it deemed necessary. A rough cut
of BRAZIL which ran at 132 minutes was created by Gilliam's editor
Julian Doyle in order to fulfill the contractual obligation on time,
and was sent to Universal pictures. Gilliam worked on a 132 minute
edit, while Sheinberg himself began work on the studio's edit of
Sheinberg's editors Bill Gordean
and Steve Lovejoy created an edit which cut out many of the dream
sequences and essential threads in the plot of BRAZIL, while splicing
in all elements of humor and all usable footage involving Sam Lowry
and Jill Layton, the "dream girl". If that wasn't bad
enough, Gordean and Lovejoy also lopped off the entire ending sequence
which involved Sam Lowry's interrogation (and eventual loss of sanity)
by his coworker Jack Lint. Instead, they chose to end the film where
Sam finally consummates his relationship with Jill, and escapes
with her to the country. Also suggested was the replacement of Kamen's
symphonic score with one of rock music -- in order to "attract
Ultimately, this edit subverted
the entire point of BRAZIL, making the movie a futuristic fairy
tale about a man's quest for a dream woman, with a lot of action
and a sub-plot about terrorism thrown in. Gilliam's original message
of dehumanization and technology gone wrong was subverted by Sheinberg's
edit, which sent the message that if you play the game and stay
a good little cog in the machine, that one day you'll end up with
your dreams come true.
Scheinberg, upon seeing Gilliam's
second 132 minute edit, decided to test the studio's version instead.
Gilliam would not stand for this. Arnon Milchan, the producer
of the film, began making public declarations on how the studio
had taken away Gilliam's film because it was only a few minutes
over contractual obligation, and began calling for critics to
see the film in England, where it was available from Fox Pictures.
Sid Sheinberg responded back by saying that no amount of critical
praise could reverse the studio's decision about BRAZIL. Gilliam
told Sheinberg that if he was going to release to studio's edit
of BRAZIL that he wanted his name off of the credits, and then
started an out and out publicity war. In Gilliam's own words:
"It became a stalemate situation and Arnon Milchen, the producer
said, "We've got to get lawyers in here and we've got to deal
with this" and I said "Nah, can't get lawyers in. They've
got all the lawyers in the world. They've got all the money. They
don't have to release the film, it's not going to kill them. They
can sit on it". and I said "we'll just have to approach
it in a much more personalized way". So the first thing I did
was to take a full page ad out in Variety which was this blank page
except for this black border and in the middle of it it said:
Dear Sid Sheinberg,
when are you going to
release my film 'BRAZIL'?
and eventually what happened
was the LA critics became very interested in the film and some
had seen it and they set up a whole series of clandestine screenings
of this film around Hollywood in peoples homes. It came time to
vote at the end of the year for their films and they realized
in their bylaws it didn't say that a film had to be released to
be able to be voted upon and so they all voted upon whether BRAZIL
could be voted upon and they agreed it could be and then it went
out and it won Best Picture, Best Direction and Best Screenplay.
[The awards were] announced the very night of the premiere of
Out Of Africa in New York which was Universal's big film that
year. All the big brass were there in their ties & DJ's and
they were told that Out Of Africa had won nothing and BRAZIL,
this film that they won't release has won all these awards. They
had to release it and what was wonderful was I was getting all
these phone calls from people saying "Oh well done, maybe
now the flood gates will open we'll get films out, blahblahblah".
Of course it didn't, just like BRAZIL, the system doesn't change,
you just escape in your madness, that's all."
- Terry Gilliam, The South Bank Show, 6/29/91
Universal finally opened Gilliam's
132 minute cut of BRAZIL at two theaters in Los Angeles on Christmas
Day, 1985, later slowly bringing it across the country in a limited
number of theatres with limited advertising.
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