“Nobody knows anything.”
--William Goldman, Adventures
in the Screen Trade
Terry Gilliam laughs, sort of, at the irony. With the film “Brazil,” he set out to do a visionary piece about the individual being forced into line by the system within which he lives. He is now trying to stop it from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“This is what the film is all about,” Gilliam said Friday, after an official at the University of Southern California refused, “as a courtesy to Universal Pictures,” to allow a screening of “Brazil” for a film class that Gilliam had agreed to address. “The movie is about people acceding blindly to authority.”
Gilliam, the lone American from England’s Monty Python comedy troupe, is going public with his bitter behind-the-scenes battle with studio head Sidney Sheinberg over control of his film, despite an extraordinary gag order in his contract that says he cannot speak out critically.
“That was a $4.5-million gun held to our heads,” Gilliam says of contract amendments that he and producer Arnon Milchan agreed to in February. “We signed it on faith that there would be cooperation.”
Gilliam says Universal put up $9 million of the film’s $15 million budget, then, after the film was completed, it held up half of the payment until the production company agreed to changes in the contract. In effect, Gilliam signed over his right to a final cut to Universal.
It also gave Universal the exclusive right to exhibit the film in the United States and Canada, which is the reason USC operations manager Roy Heidicker gave for cutting the “Brazil” screening minutes before it was to have begun Friday afternoon.
“They (Universal) called and said they had not given permission for the film to be shown,” Heidicker said, adding that the studio neither demanded that the screening be canceled nor threatened to withhold future support from the school’s film department if it were. “It’s just a simple courtesy not to screen a film the studio hasn’t authorized.”
Later Friday, Gilliam spoke to another class at CalArts College in Valencia. Students there didn’t see the whole film, he says, with a Cheshire grin, just “an audio visual aid” about two hours long.
Gilliam says Sheinberg told him in January that he liked the movie but felt that the two-hour and 22-minute version released internationally by 20th Century Fox was too long. Gilliam cut 11 minutes out, and then Sheinberg told him that it wasn’t a matter of length, that the film needed “a radical rethink.”
“What’s so weird is that Sid genuinely likes the movie,” Gilliam says. “He just thinks he can make it better.”
“Brazil” is not quite like any other film, which Gilliam says is the reason he wanted to make it. But, in their ever-frantic attempt to forecast the commercial future of a project (“Nobody knows anything”), studio executives think in comparative terms. Unfortunately, “Brazil” is most like “Blade Runner” and “1984,” two recent movies with downbeat themes that did not make money.
Gilliam says Sheinberg wants to change the ending, which shows the system winning over the individual, and end instead on a positive note. A neat trick, like getting a chicken to say how nice it was to have been eaten by a fox.
“He said to me, ‘If we had this other ending and I could show you that it would do 100 percent more business, you’d be a fool not to agree, wouldn’t you?’ I said, ‘It wouldn’t make any difference. That’s a different movie. This is the movie we all agreed to make.’ ”
“Brazil,” which 20th Century Fox released internationally months ago, has been on and off of Universal’s 1985 domestic schedule, and although several film critics who’ve seen it say it has obvious awards potential (Universal rejected requests for “Brazil” by both the Chicago and New York film festivals), the studio does not intend to release any version before the end of the year.
Odd. By December, Fox’s international cut will be available overseas on videocassette.
Sheinberg told The Times in August that he wanted to test a studio version before deciding which to release. Last week, he said the reworked film was still not ready, then stammered for a moment about Gilliam’s attempts to pressure him, then he angrily ended the conversation.
“I just don’t want to talk about it anymore, OK?,” he said.
Gilliam doesn’t intend to stop talking until he finds out what Universal is going to do with “Brazil” and won’t stop then, he says, if it’s not his version. This morning, he and Robert DeNiro, who plays a small but pivotal role in the movie, are scheduled to appear together on CBS Morning News. The studio declined to participate.
Gilliam acknowledges that he got himself into this mess by accepting a deal that drew him into the studio system. His previous films, “Time Bandits” and “The Meaning of Life” among them, were made with independent financing. With a studio’s money at stake, he says sarcastically, you get the benefit of a studio’s creative wisdom.
“I should thank Sid Sheinberg,” he says. “He’s taking this $15 million worth of raw material I’ve given him and he’s going to turn it into a good movie for me.”
Gilliam views his fight with Sheinberg as a real life version of his protagonist’s fight with the bureaucracy in “Brazil.” His life isn’t on the line, but he says people keep telling him his career is.
“They say to me, ‘You’ll never work in this town again if you take on Sid,’ and they believe it. That’s why they (studios) get away with the things they do. The system continues being what it is because people who should be creative forces (in the film industry) just accept it. People are too busy making careers here to make films.”
Gilliam, who lives in London, was asked why--pride, money and professional considerations aside--it was so important to him to have his version released in the United States.
“Films are like flares fired up from a life boat to see if anyone else is out there,” he says. “‘Brazil’ was made for America. It’s my message in the bottle.”