The Saga Of BRAZIL

Terry Gilliam discusses the making and near un-making of his dystopian fantasy in a 1986 interview

Terry Gilliam filming BRAZIL

Morgan: Could you describe your typical work habits in translating a script to the shooting stage?

Gilliam: I work in this strange sort of magpie approach. I just start collecting things, and having an idea, a central idea, works like a magnet. Things just start sticking to it. I might end up with basically all these ideas that I start shuffling around like a jigsaw puzzle, trying to make a story or some sense out of the thing.

BRAZIL went through a lot of different versions. I had first written a script that was basically about this guy working at the Ministry, guy dreaming, guy falling in love, da duh, da duh, everything that happens, and I wasn't happy with it. Then I got Tom Stoppard involved. He was commissioned to do three or four drafts, and it started changing a bit there, and new elements were coming in. He was making certain sense out of some of the things like "Buttle/Tuttle," because those people didn't have similar names at the beginning.

So it starts coalescing and at the end of his period, I started working with Charles McKeown and starting making a bit of a mess of the neatness that Tom had brought to the film, and then tried to make it a bit more murky, to get us back into the mire.

So then when we start actually shooting it, and discover that we've got a five-hour film on our hands, and we're gonna be ten million over budget, I start cutting things out. It's this weird process. I just find the film is being made all through the shooting and even the editing and it's not till we do the final cut that the thing is finally written. I don't actually see films in the way you write a person's film and then you go out and film it and it's done. Each time you bring something new to it, it changes. It's a strange, ad hoc, organic approach to making films. It's the only way I know to work.

It's really like doing a painting, with a big canvas. You sit there, and you know what you're doing from the start, and as you're doing it, you're painting and it's changing and it's finally done. It took years to get the film finally written and then made and then at the end the film is quite different from what we began with and yet it's exactly the film we set out to make, which is rather strange and paradoxical but it is.

Unlike many directors whose technical prowess seems to come at the cost of good performances, you draw some excellent work from every member of your cast. How do you balance the visual and dramatic elements?

There's a script and a storyboard there to give us something to talk about, and we do spend a lot of time. I think the main trick is casting the right people, because if you get the right people it's quite easy to make a film. You don't spend a lot of time "directing" the performances because they understand exactly what it's about. And things they bring to the film which may be different from what I was originally intending, may be better than what we intended.

Now Ian Holm is just technically an unbelievably good actor, and some of the things that he was doing as Kurtzmann in BRAZIL just surprised everyone who was working on the film. He was doing things as Kurtzmann that he had never done before, and it was partly because he trusted me after playing Napoleon in TIME BANDITS, because I didn't make him look anything other than as good as he is. And so he allowed me more material than a lot of people would have given me as Kurtzmann because he was taking chances in his performance, and some of the parts didn't work and other bits did work but at least he tried it and so it's on film. You know with careful editing you can use those bits. It makes the character more interesting than he had been written, or even more interesting than Ian would have done if it had been the first film we had worked on together.

I really like working with actors; I've discovered that an awful lot of film directors don't. I think they think the actors get in the way of their special effects. The trick on BRAZIL that's so difficult was that the actors did have to act in these very technically complicated scenes with lots of effects going on and yet they had to behave as if it's all ordinary, as if nothing is happening, and still put in a good performance.

How does your work approach differ from that of other directors?

Some of these big American films get made in this very efficient way, where a script is written by a scriptwriter and the director comes in and makes his comments, gets a storyboard artist to draw the thing up, and he hires a designer who designs it, a costumer comes in to do the costumes, and the films get made and they're fine, and they work in a system that works very well. I just try to break that down, by trying to get everyone involved in doing everything on the film. So the costumer is coming up with ideas for sets, and the set designer might be coming up with an idea for the costumes. You try to get the right team of people to feed it and then they feed you, and it goes back and forth. I think that's why there's so much detail, because people are thinking about it and the detail becomes as important as the characters in the film. On a thing like BRAZIL, where the world we create is just slightly askew from where we are now, it gets even more complicated because it's hard for people to know how far they can go or how safe to play it. Everything starts coming back through me, and I become the filter that says, 'Yeah, that's good, that's bad.'

The detail to be found is a bit much to absorb in one viewing.

I actually design it that way so that, I hope, people will go back and see it again and again. Because I find that most films are a little bit like fast food. I mean you have them and it's fine and it's over and done with and that's the end of it. And I like the idea of going back and rediscovering, or discovering new things all the time. It's partly this thing of trying to create a world, certainly a world within some logic, and you've gotta have all the things in there. A telephone isn't just a regular telephone; it does things, and it becomes a character that our protagonist has to deal with. To me, that's what life seems to be about: it's dealing with things. Either they help you or they get in your way, they frustrate you, they drive you crazy, you spend your life trying to make money to buy them so they can serve you and then they don't serve you properly – it goes on and on. I think we're living in a fairly materialistic world – that's why things are so important in it.

How did the European distributor of BRAZIL react to the film, as opposed to its American distributor?

Fox in Europe behaved just as most film companies would: there's the finished film, it's got its flaws but there it is, and they were really excited by it. And, in fact, in their contract they had the same time clause as Universal had, which is a running time of 2 hours 5 minutes, and they just waived the clause. And unfortunately with Universal, for a variety of reasons — some to do with internal politics, some to do with the fact that it's a different group of people and that Universal is far closer to the bureaucracy that was portrayed in BRAZIL — they were just stunned by it. And they didn't know quite what to make of it. And even though the script was shot as approved and all of those things, they just weren't sure, because they're very nervous people. They're paid enormous sums of money to be able to predict exactly what the public wants. And I think that can lead to real neuroses on their part because it's an impossible task.

And so their immediate reaction was a nervous one: 'We're not sure what we've got, so let's try to change it into something that we do understand.' And I refused to play ball with them. I said, 'Sorry, this is the film that we agreed to make.' And then it got into this legalistic argument. And the only thing they really had over us was the time clause, and that's what they used to try to make us change the essence of the film. There is in fact a cut version of BRAZIL which I haven't seen but I've heard what it is and it's a totally different film. And then it just got into this battle: I wasn't going to budge, and Sid Sheinberg [President of MCA, Inc., Universal's parent company] in particular had to show that the studios were in control. So we were locked in this sort of silly, long, drawn-out war of attrition. I don't think they were expecting me to be as immovable as I was, because they're used to working with people who live in Hollywood, and whose bread and butter is very much dependent upon the whims and friendship of the people at the studios, and I sit here 6000 miles away in London saying, 'Why should I change it if it's the film we agreed to make?' And I don't think they were prepared for that attitude. And on it went.

I think what was awful about it was that it wasted a year of my life, when I should have been getting on with the next film. The frustrating thing about it was that it became like a repeat of the film itself. It was so identical to the story, and the depressing thing about it was that I knew how the film ended!

One thing I knew we couldn't do was take them on legal ways because they had the lawyers, they had the money, they had all the time in the world and we didn't. There was no way we could win with them on it. It would just get tied up in the courts and go on for years. And so that's why I decided the only way to deal with it was to go very public and do a public battle, and to name names which was something they were totally unprepared to deal with. Rather than say Universal was involved, I said, 'it's not Universal, it's one man — his name is Sid Sheinberg. And that really drove them crazy because they didn't know how to deal with that. I think the only thing that kept me sane throughout all that was how funny it was. So terrifying. The film could have just disappeared and all I could do was keep being outrageous publicly and hopefully get a few people on our side to make enough noise to get it out of their clutches.

Could you comment on the rather cynical tone that infuses your comedy, from JABBERWOCKY through to BRAZIL, and even in your animated films?

It's amazing that you say cynical because that's come up before. I don't think I'm cynical. I'm skeptical; I don't think I'm cynical about things. The terrible fact is that I'm terribly optimistic about things. I have a theory about BRAZIL in that if was a very difficult film for a pessimist to watch but it was okay for an optimist to watch it. 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.

Strangely enough, the characters in BRAZIL I actually like. I don't agree with them, I don't approve of them, but I somehow feel that they're all trapped in a world of their own making. Even the bad guys, the shock troops. One takes his helmet off and he's talking about his eyebrows. I left that in just because I wanted to give those guys a moment, too, of being human beings, with their own little sets of problems.

And they apologize for being rough to people.

Yeah. They're very polite but they still bash his brains out. I think at times I despair at the way things are in the world, but I haven't given up.

Did you have an extensive artistic background, something to prepare you for filmmaking?

Not that much. I always drew when I was a kid, I did cartoons because they were the most entertaining. It's easiest to impress people if you draw a funny picture. And I think that was a sort of passport through a lot of my early life. The only art training I had was in college, where I majored in Political Science. I took several art courses, some drawing classes and sculpture classes I'd never actually taken oil painting, any of those forms of art. And again, I was always criticized because I kept doing cartoons instead of more serious painting. My training has actually been fairly sloppy. I've been learning about art in retrospect. But I've always just kept my eyes open. Things that I like I am influenced by.

When I came to Europe I was illustrating for magazines, newspapers and comic books back in the States. So that's basically what I was doing until Python came along and I started doing animation and that was just a fluke really. I was on a program doing caricatures of the guests and they had some materials they didn't know how to present, and I suggested I make an animated film and they let me. So overnight I was an animator, 'cause it was seen by over ten million people — 'Oh, this guy's an animator.' So they started offering me work as an animator. Then when HOLY GRAIL came along, Terry Jones and I decided to be film directors. We had never done that before. We make these quantum leaps and once your name is up there with the credits behind it, people believe it.

Why have you continued to make films in England, rather than in the Hollywood industry?

I grew up out in L.A. A lot of it came from the fact that I wanted desperately to get into movies and didn't have any idea how one got into it, and I didn't like the rules of the game if you were going to work your way up from the bottom. I didn't really like the lifestyle, I didn't like a lot of things out there. So when I came to England and started to make films here I just had no desire to go back and work in that world.

What I dislike about that system is that there's such a big pot of money out there that it attracts all the wrong people. I think the majority of people out in the Hollywood film business are out there for the money and the power, and if you're working out there you have to spend time with them, you have to talk with them and if you do that you're going to be influenced by them and their attitude.

What I like in England is the film industry is not a very healthy thing here, so those that are involved in it are there because they love films. So when you spend your time talking you're talking about the real things that should count, as opposed to the deal or who your lawyer is or what executive's where and what you've got to do to appease him. I really just spend my time working in a very useful way as opposed to going to a lot of silly meetings with a lot of inane discussions.

Could you discuss your next film, THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN?

I think it's gonna be impossible to make! MUNCHAUSEN was originally written in the 18th century. It's just a series of outlandish tales that were all massive lies, and Charles McKeown and I have finally got the script sorted out. We've invented a narrative structure for the thing because the tales themselves have no connecting link. And I've been storyboarding it for the last week-and-a-half. If we can make this thing as I've storyboarded it, it will be the most fantastic thing ever made, which is the last thing I would want to say.

I'm beginning to think everybody is getting a little bit bored with sci-fi and the same creatures that keep popping up all over the place, and what's nice about MUNCHAUSEN is that it's 18th Century science-fiction, so it's a different attitude about things. He ends up sailing on a ship to the moon, and on the moon are 50-foot-high giants whose heads detach from their bodies and run around separately so that the heads can be getting on with more intelligent behavior while the body is doing manual labor. And it goes from there to Mt. Etna and Vulcan and Venus and into the bellies of whales with entire fleets of ships stranded inside. The imagery is quite different from what people are used to seeing at the moment. It gets quite closer to things like THIEF OF BAGDAD where it isn't about machinery — it's about people and gods and mythological things. There's a lot more flesh and blood to it.

I'm at that stage where I'm quite enjoying it. So we've written the script and tried to keep it as concise as possible; now that we're storyboarding it I'm elaborating everything. Every page becomes a major adventure, and with every stroke of the pen it becomes more expensive.

How do your fellow Pythons react to your work?

It varies. As with everything Python does, opinion is divided on everything we do. I say at least half the group really has been impressed with what I do and that there are probably two members who are bemused, confused and don't have any idea why anybody likes my stuff. That's what's good about the group, because we don't agree. It's far healthier than agreeing on everything.

Are you all planning to do another film together?

Strangely enough we've been talking in the last couple of weeks about another film, but I can't see it happening for another couple of years. It all just depends on people's moods. We all sort of help each other; we'll work in different combinations. Michael Palin always turns up in my films. We're trying to set up a production company at the moment to focus a bit more energy on all our different projects. It's very nice because when you're out doing your own thing you feel fairly isolated battling away trying to get it done, and the minute a couple of us get together and start talking about the Python project, it feels wonderfully homey and cozy.

For Related Articles on BRAZIL by David Morgan:

  • Interview with Michael Palin on how the "nicest Python" played the most evil person in the world
  • Capturing a 'BRAZIL Look' — An interview with Production Designer Norman Garwood
  • Selected Sketches by Norman Garwood
  • Audio clips from a read-through of the BRAZIL screenplay, featuring Gilliam, Jonathan Pryce and co-writer Charles McKeown; also, a musical jingle for "Sammy the Seal"

  • copyright 1986-2009 by David Morgan
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