13 Fascinating Facts About Brazil
By Garin Pirnia
, writer-director Terry Gilliam’s dystopian satire, took a while to become the cult classic it is today. But in 1986 it managed to score two Oscar nominations (for Best Original Screenplay and Best Art Direction/Set Decoration). Set in a retro-futuristic time period, the movie centers on Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), who lives in a bureaucratic world of nonsense. In February of 1985, Brazil was released in Europe without any issues. But when Gilliam tried to get it released in the U.S., it ran into trouble. Eventually Universal Studios acquiesced to Gilliam’s demands, and it opened in select cities on December 18, 1985. Budgeted at $15 million, the film grossed just $9 million domestically, but 30 years later it remains an influential film.
1. ACCORDING TO TERRY GILLIAM, BRAZIL DIDN’T PREDICT THE PRESENT WORLD.
When Terry Gilliam released his latest film, 2013’s The Zero Theorem, critics saw a resemblance to Brazil. “Those films are not really about the future,” he told Esquire, which offered up how much Brazil supposedly predicted our current times. “I think both films were really about the present, which I tried to disguise with some future elements. There are many elements in The Zero Theorem that I thought would be in the near future, but by the time we were shooting the film they were already in existence.” He also said a similar thing to Rolling Stone: “It’s just easier for me to put something outside of a contemporary time, because then I can amend things.” He further emphasized his non-soothsayer status to The New York Times. “People think I am a prophet and that Brazil described the world we’re living in now a few years ago,” he said. “But we were living in that world then; people just weren’t paying attention the way they do now.”
2. KATHERINE HELMOND GOT BLISTERS FROM HER MAKEUP.
Katherine Helmond previously worked with Gilliam on Time Bandits. He called her up to play the part of Sam’s mother, who is really into plastic surgery. In an interview with Emmy TV Legends, Helmond recollected the grueling process of shooting the film in England and having to wear a glued-on mask for 10 hours a day. “I broke out from the glue and had all sorts of blisters on my face and they had to postpone my shooting, and I had to come back to the States and go to a doctor to clear up my face,” she recalled. “And the doctor said, ‘Don’t ever do this again,’ but I went back and had one more scene to do, and they glued my face again, and I broke out again. I think, ultimately, it was worth it because the character had such a fabulous look to it.”
3. BRAZIL’S THEME SONG BECAME U.S. PROPAGANDA.
In 1939, Ary Barroso wrote the samba song “Aquarela do Brasil”, which translates to “watercolor of Brazil.” Before Geoff Muldaur and Michael Kamen reworked it for Brazil, the song landed in the U.S. in 1942, in the Disney film Saludos Amigos. Walt Disney had heard the song while visiting Brazil, as part of FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy, which involved Brazil’s president Getúlio Vargas wanting to “regard America as a friend,” according to a BBC article. The song and Disney film aimed to portray South America in a better light than just as “feckless Latinos.” Since then, the song has been covered by Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, Kate Bush, and Arcade Fire. “Its appeal transcends genre as well as politics—few songs with such political baggage have such a strong melody, or are quite as danceable,” read the BBC article.
4. GILLIAM WAGED A SUCCESSFUL WAR AGAINST UNIVERSAL STUDIOS.
It’s well-documented that Universal, which released the film in the U.S. (Fox released it overseas), refused to release the film in America with Gilliam’s original ending. The studio re-cut the film to portray a happy ending, a.k.a. the “Love Conquers All” ending, where Sam gets the girl instead of descending into insanity. In order to get the film released, Gilliam took out a full-page ad in Variety, directed at the head of Universal, Sid Sheinberg. Gilliam corralled L.A. film critics to watch the film in clandestine screenings, even though there was an embargo in showing people the film. The movie won three L.A. Critics awards, and Universal decided to release the film. “They [Universal] were in such a flap—they immediately released it in New York and Los Angeles, and they had no posters,” Gilliam told The Believer. “They had nothing—they had a Xeroxed copy of the artwork they were going to eventually make a poster of. That’s all they had. And it did proceed to do the most business per theater of any film at that time.”
5. SID SHEINBERG HAD MORE PROBLEMS WITH BRAZIL THAN JUST ITS ENDING AND RUNNING TIME.
The big problem with the film at first not being released in the U.S. came down to a contract dispute over the length of Brazil. Gilliam delivered a film 17 minutes over what he was contracted to do (over the two-hours-and-five-minutes limit) so the studio chopped it down to 94 minutes. But Sheinberg told the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t want a happy ending; I want a satisfying ending,” and he said that 52 percent of viewers responded negatively to test screenings.
Sheinberg also felt that Gilliam, who had only directed three films at this point, didn’t have the clout to be so demanding over final cut. “If Steven Spielberg brought me a movie four hours long and said, ‘It has to go out this way,’ I guarantee you that’s the way it would go out,” Sheinberg said. “But Terry Gilliam is not Steven Spielberg.” At one point Sheinberg contemplated selling the film for half price, and Gilliam was willing to do whatever he could to salvage the film. Well, almost. “I will talk to Sid, I will get in a Jacuzzi and drink wine with Sid,” Gilliam told the Los Angeles Times. “I will do anything to get this film released, except get in the editing room with him.”
6. JACK LINT BECAME MORE SINISTER DURING A RESHOOT.
Robert De Niro wanted to play the part of villain Jack Lint, but Gilliam said fellow Monty Python member Michael Palin needed to play the role. In the scene where Lint meets Sam at his office, Palin didn’t feel good with the way it initially turned out, so they went back and reshot it. “A little voice in the back of my mind said, ‘You know, this could be better,’” Palin told Wide Angle/Closeup. “So I was actually quite relieved when after a month or so, maybe longer, Terry said, ‘You know, there are some problems, it might be worth it trying this scene again.’ And after I got over the feelings of hurt pride—couldn’t get it right the first time—I realized yes, well there were things wrong, and maybe we’d be able to improve on it.”
The second time around they added more of a family element, integrating Lint’s young daughter, played by Gilliam’s real-life daughter. “I enjoyed having Holly there,” Palin said. “It gave me something to do which enabled the sort of jargon and the sinister side of what Jack is saying to come out as though he’s just sort of playing with his girl, playing with his family at the same time he says these things about, ‘Well, you have to be destroyed, you’d have to wipe him out,’ and all that sort of thing.”
7. GILLIAM THINKS FALLING IN LOVE IS A BAD IDEA.
The director told The Believer what he felt the movie was about: “To me, the heart of Brazil is responsibility, is involvement—you can’t just let the world go on doing what it’s doing without getting involved. And of course what [Sam] does is he falls in love, so he falls vulnerable and his whole world starts falling apart. Never fall in love.”
8. GILLIAM CONSIDERS HIMSELF AN OPTIMIST.
Gilliam admitted that he’s “terribly optimistic about things,” which comes through in the film’s ending. “I have a theory about Brazil in that it was a very difficult film for a pessimist to watch but it was okay for an optimist to watch it,” he told Wide Angle/Closeup. “For a pessimist it just confirms his worst fears; an optimist could somehow find a grain of hope in the ending. Cynicism bothers me because cynicism is, in a way, an admission of defeat, whereas skepticism is fairly healthy, and also it implies that there is the possibility of change.”
9. THE LOCATION WHERE SAM WAS TORTURED IS NOW AN IKEA.
The torture scene at the end of the movie was filmed in a former coal- and gas-fired power station in Croydon, England. In 1991, everything but two chimneys was demolished. In a strange turn of events, IKEA opened a storefront where the plant used to be, causing shoppers to engage in capitalism.
10. WHEN BRAZIL WAS RELEASED, PEOPLE WALKED OUT OF THEATERS.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Gilliam said “Brazil's going to be on my gravestone,” but he also finds it funny that people revere it so much today. “What people don’t remember is half the audience would walk out. Now it’s held as a classic, blah, blah, blah—bulls--t! They were walking out. So I’m used to some of my films not being appreciated at the time.”
11. GILLIAM OFFICIALLY RENOUNCED HIS U.S. CITIZENSHIP IN 2006 BECAUSE OF GEORGE W. BUSH.
Gilliam was born in America but has spent most of his life living in England. In 2006, after George W. Bush was reelected, he finally gave up his American citizenship. In an interview with The Economist, Gilliam joked about Bush: “The situation today is depressing because we kind of predicted it in Brazil back in 1985. A couple of years ago I was considering suing Bush and [Dick] Cheney for infringement of copyright! The best way to control people is to keep them scared.”
12. WITH BRAZIL, GILLIAM POSSIBLY POPULARIZED STEAMPUNK.
The definition of steampunk is taking designs from the 19th-century Victorian era and infusing them with the retro-future, which is basically what Gilliam did with Brazil’s production design. Anna Froula, who co-edited the book The Cinema of Terry Gilliam: It’s a Mad World, attributes the invention of steampunk to the director. “His anarchic ability to make absurdist art on the cheap and expose the guts of any system—often literally through the guts of a cartoon human or plumbing system—informs the playful DIY at the heart of steampunk,” she said. “Just look at the weird cut-outs in his Monty Python animations: the way he would trace classical and Renaissance art in the British library and then combine the illustrations with ducts, images from Edison's early films, and Victorian and World War I imagery to create absurdist humor has developed one way or another in all of his films."
13. COLOR SCHEMES AND THE 1930S PLAYED IMPORTANT ROLES IN THE MOVIE’S DESIGN.
Norman Garwood, Brazil's production designer, purposefully had certain sets be enveloped in grays—such as Sam’s workplace—whereas other moments were filled with colors. “The characters like Sam’s mom, that’s where the beautiful bursts of colors would come insomuch as that was the difference between her life and the other poor people who were in this very colorless bureaucracy,” he explained to Wide Angle/Closeup. Her life was full of color, and I tried to emphasize that with her apartment. The bedroom where [Sam and Jill] finally make out together was just again very beautiful and colorful, but Sam's apartment was again a gray world which was attached to the world in which he worked.”
In developing the look of the film, Garwood took inspiration from magazines of the 1930s and 1940s. “It was these inventions that you would find in the ’30s books, it was almost like ‘the shape of the world to come,’ what people thought armored vehicles would look like in the 21st century, and what airplanes would look like,” Garwood said. “And then it was just taking that and building upon that.”