Duct Soup: The Daffy, Dystopian Design Nightmare of Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’

Written by Tim Pelan. Photo credit: David Appleby © Embassy International Pictures, Universal Pictures, 20th Century Fox

By Tim Pelan

Brazil is the demented, surreal flip-side of George Orwell’s dystopian warning—1984 1/2 was director Terry Gilliam’s originally mooted title. Yet it is Gilliam’s comic vision that depressingly reflects and permeates our everyday culture. One of the bureaucratic balls-ups, government catch-all catchphrases (“We’re all in this together”), and an ineffectual war on terror that, in Brazil, may be down to no more than bad plumbing. Where is Brazil? Somewhere on the hinterland of L.A and Belfast, said Gilliam, summing up the lunacy of la-la land and the then 1985 Troubles town. An expressionist, alt-present sci-fi Gotham inspiration rooted in a 1940s vision of a possible future, with unwieldy gizmos and gadgets, yet timeless in its themes. “It’s about the impossibility of escaping from reality,” as Gilliam says, but trying all the same. Gilliam threads this satirical and increasingly dark tale through a designer’s dream of a film. In an unnamed city, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) keeps his head down in the Department of Records, covering for ineffectual boss Mr Kurtzmann (a brilliant Ian Holm). Meanwhile in his dreams, he is a winged warrior, who soars amongst the clouds, battling a giant samurai creature and rescuing a Botticelli Venus from her aerial cage. When he meets her earthly counterpart Jill (Kim Greist), determined to right a wrongful arrest, he seeks to help by correcting the clerical error that led to her neighbor’s death (“Buttle, not Tuttle!”). From then on, events quickly spiral out of his control. That’s just the surface of Brazil. Gilliam and his co-screenwriters (an uncredited Charles Alverson (Jabberwocky), Charles McKeown and most famously, Tom Stoppard worked on it on and off over six years) stuff the film with subversive bon mots, furiously paced slapstick and sight gags, and the blackest of humour—it is at once thrilling and hilarious. Jonathan Pryce is in virtually every scene, and has probably never been better than here—he absolutely sells this everyman’s descent into the abyss.

Gilliam began writing the script in 1979, partly influenced by a book he discovered in fellow Monty Python alumni Terry Jones’ home. The book recounted how during the Middle Ages, those accused of witchcraft, convicted and burned, had to pre-pay their torturers for the expense of the trial and questioning/detention. This bureaucratic element comes up in the film—after the Special Patrol Group drill a hole through the unfortunate Buttle’s ceiling and haul him off in a sack, having his shaken wife sign his arrest dockets (“Press harder this time please”), the also charged-for replacement for the piece cut out of the ceiling is predictably too small. “Bloody typical,” says Nigel Planer’s Dept of Works gaffer. “They’ve only gone back to metric without telling us.”

Robert De Niro’s rogue heating engineer Harry Tuttle (the real target of the earlier mix-up) becomes Sam’s hero after a calamitous air-conditioning foul-up in his flat (“Trouble with your ducts?” Bob Hoskins’ Central Services engineer enquires almost menacingly). “This whole system of yours could be on fire and I couldn’t even turn on a kitchen tap without filling in a 27b/6,” Tuttle tuts, before setting to fix it himself. The address is a nod to dystopian author George Orwell’s address in Islington, London—Apartment 6, 27B Canonbury Square. Red tape permeates every facet of Brazil-life. Central Services’ cephalopod-ian ducts are everywhere, from high-end restaurants (glammed up to fit the overall decor) to basic citizens dwellings (Tuttle memorably dispatches the meddling Hoskins in a particularly disgusting pipe-switch shit-storm).

Brazil was rightly Oscar-nominated for its script and production design. Wide Angle/Closeup has a fascinating interview with designer Norman Garwood, who’d worked with Gilliam (as Art Director alongside Milly Burn as Production Designer) on Time Bandits. Garwood spent a lot of time brainstorming with Gilliam and costume designer Jim Acheson. “The overall design was art deco with a futurist twist—I started to look at a lot of ’30s and ’40s, mostly ’40s magazines… these inventions they would find… it was almost like ‘the shape of the world to come’. Everything fit into a path, once we’d established what the world was and what Central Services was—really there wasn’t much terrorism around, it was really Central Services’ bad, bad workmanship kept blowing up.”

Lowry’s apartment is a daffy version of Deckard’s in Blade Runner, badly designed—the teasmade that pours out over his toaster, for example, and the switchboard-like telephone controls. Brazil extrapolates earlier period visions of the future, bulky and absurd to our eyes, incongruously chirpy in other ways—such as the Messerschmitt bubble car Lowry drives to Shangri-La Villas to attempt to reimburse Buttle’s widow with a troublesome cheque (Lowry is actually not that sympathetic a character, just wanting a quiet life—“You’re not being very helpful,” he flaps as Mrs. Buttle understandably has a breakdown).

He and his fellow clerks watch westerns on their computer monitors behind Kurtzmann’s back, like present-day office workers on Youtube, Twitter, or Facebook. The film is filled at times with Chaplin-esque humor, such as when a newly-promoted Sam struggles to retain his half of a desk in his tiny office/cell, disappearing through the wall to the next grim-faced drone’s sweatbox cubicle. Hot-desking in DoubleSpeak.

The film made use of several locations, dressed for the film, as well as studio space. The office was a big studio build, deliberately very monochromatic, grey and somber, cramped and busy, with over-sized machinery and office boys constantly scurrying around. The exteriors around the apartment blocks were shot in France, a post-modernist block in Marne-la-Vallée.

A lot of the oppressive Ministry interiors were forced perspective shots of endless drab corridors, and wide-angle hallways, designed to wear individuality of expression down to a nub. The amazing torture chamber where Sam is to be questioned by his creepy-baby-masked friend Jack (Michael Palin) was a cooling tower for a closed down power station in Croyden (Battersea was used as an exterior only). Gilliam and Garwood (they sound like a sinister secret police duo!) originally were considering the basement area of the location. Garwood recalls: “We found some amazing basement areas of machinery and pipework and tubes and whatever for the chase at the end, then we were just looking around the perimeters of the closed-down power station and there was a huge cooling tower (they were all abandoned and had been left for some years). Basically all it was this huge tower where the water would be shot up in the air at amazing hot temperatures and then it would filter down and cool off and recycle again. We walked into this cooling tower and it was just a wonderful location. I was going to build a torture room and we had very much a different image for that in mind: it was going to be white and clinical. And we walked in and Terry and I both said, ‘Well, it’s gotta be the torture room.’ That was how that arrived. That one was really just an amazing find we had.”

Roger Pratt, the cinematographer (he later did Batman), lit it with floodlights on an enormous crane. Pratt was involved at an early stage in the planning of the sets, giving his input into how they could be best lit, showing them off. With Lowry being wheeled into the torture chamber, Brazil seems to predict State cruelty through enforced assessment. “Don’t fight it son,” a seemingly kindly guard tells a terrified Sam. “Confess quickly! If you hold out too long you could jeopardize your credit rating.”

Gilliam apparently had nice guy Michael Palin in mind all along to play the state torturer Jack Lint. As Palin recalls, “De Niro was shown the script and he had a look-through and he said, of all the parts he’d like to do, Jack Lint was the one. So Terry said (this is Terry’s story anyway), ‘I’m sorry, my friend Mike is going to do that. You have to choose something else!’ [LAUGHS] So that must be a rare example of De Niro being turned down!”

Palin and Gilliam settled on playing Jack “as someone who was everything that Jonathan Pryce’s character wasn’t: he’s stable, he had a family, he was settled, comfortable, hard-working, charming, sociable—and utterly and totally unscrupulous.” (So much so that when his boss mistakes his wife’s name, he insists on her responding to the new moniker in future–career is everything). Nowhere is the “banality of evil” better portrayed than when Sam comes to Jack’s office for help. As he enters Jack has his back turned, gripping his face in some existential crisis, white coat bloodied. Quick as a flash he spins around, all smiles, whipping the coat off. They discuss Sam’s problem as Jack tidies his little daughter’s toys (the little girl was Gilliam’s daughter Holly).

“I think because that scene was eventually played with an element of humor,” Palin recalled, “it actually concentrates the disturbing element much more, because if it’s just desk-to-desk it is more like a stock scene out of any thriller, and you’re not quite listening to the lines, you’re just observing the tension between the two people. If you’re laughing then you’re becoming much more involved in the scene, and I think an audience is beginning to feel a sort of catharsis. You know, we’ve all been children, a lot of [the audience] have children, they’ve been through that before, and suddenly the chilling line will come through—‘There’s nothing I can do for you, that’s it,’ you know?—and I think it makes those lines much more memorable, makes Jack’s attitude much more memorable.”

It is around the point in the film where Sam “escapes” that difficulties with the studio really came to a head. Universal Pictures refused to release Gilliam’s cut, allegedly insisting on a happy ending. Sidney J Sheinberg was the then president of MCA, Universal’s parent company (Brazil was joint-financed by Universal and 20th Century Fox). At the studio screening, Universal’s suits hated it (Gilliam said Fox had no problem with it). Sheinberg insists he thought it was brilliant, but needed trimming to bring the running time down. He insisted to Total Film in 1998 that, contrary to popular belief, he didn’t want a happy ending, just a more satisfying one—he believed audiences were left confused by it. He also claims Gilliam’s attitude hardened once he’d been paid. He refused to budge, even though he had no contracted final cut. Sheinberg ordered his own cut, with Lowry and Jill escaping, Blade Runner original cut style, into the countryside. But Gilliam, like his later cinematic obsession Don Quixote, began tilting at Sheinberg’s windmills, making the battle personal. He took out a full-page ad in Variety, personalizing the struggle, boldly asking Sheinberg, “When are you going to release my film Brazil?”

Asked about the problems with the studio raised by his Variety ad on TV show Good Morning America, Gilliam pulled out a large photo of Sheinberg and held it up for the camera. “I don’t have any problems with the studio. I have problems with one man—his name is Sid Sheinberg and he looks like this.” Gilliam told David Morgan in 1986:

“I wasn’t going to budge, and Sid Sheinberg 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… One thing I knew we couldn’t do was take them on in 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.”

By the end of 1985, Sheinberg began to sense that the dispute was generating renewed interest in the film, and that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Brazil was finally released in December 1985 in a limited run. Sheinberg insists it did better than it would have had the dispute not arisen.

As for the original, retained ending, Gilliam insists it is a happy ending–of a sort. As Jack and avuncular Deputy Minister Mr Helpmann remark, gazing at the catatonic, grinning Sam in the torture chair, he’s got away from them. Jack wheels Mr Helpmann away, as Sam unblinkingly begins to hum the song, Aquarela do Brasil…

Written by Tim Pelan. Tim was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »

In the video above, Terry Gilliam reveals insights about Brazil, his Orwellian retro-futurist fantasy. Gilliam also talks about his love of 2001: A Space Odyssey, his dislike of middle management bureaucracy, and his experience of casting Robert De Niro.

Below: Terry Gilliam’s storyboards for Brazil.

Rob Hedden’s 30-minute on-set documentary, What is Brazil?, which includes behind-the-scenes footage, as well as interviews.

Born in Minnesota and a British citizen since the late sixties, Gilliam started his career as a cartoonist before becoming Monty Python’s resident animator. He developed his unique voice through writing, directing and co-starring with the comedy troupe, subsequently establishing his trademark cinematic vision with films such as Time Bandits, Brazil and Twelve Monkeys as well as the recent The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Gilliam talked to film critic Mark Kermode about his career highlights, and discusses his animation work on Monty Python, working with Johnny Depp on the set of Fear and Lothing in Las Vegas, and his infamous fight with the studios to get Brazil released. He went on to talk about the challenges of making The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus after the untimely death of actor Heath Ledger, stating in good humour: “All the problems of the previous films were preparation for this one…”

Screenwriter must-read: Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard & Charles McKeown’s screenplay for Brazil [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection in new, restored high-definition digital transfer of Gilliam’s 142-minute director’s cut, approved by Gilliam, with DTS-HD Master Audio surround soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Photographed by David Appleby © Embassy International Pictures, Universal Pictures, 20th Century Fox. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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