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Now widely regarded as a masterpiece, Terry Gilliam’s 1985 dystopic dark comedy Brazil was very nearly shelved by Universal. But one of its stars — Robert De Niro — played a hand in rescuing it from oblivion.
“The studio did not like the movie at all,” says Gilliam on The Hollywood Reporter‘s It Happened in Hollywood podcast. The director recalls standing at the back of a room filled with “knotted backs of necks” as Brazil screened for Universal execs for the first time.
Then-Universal chief Sid Sheinberg told Gilliam he “hated” the film and insisted he radically change it. When Gilliam refused, Sheinberg refused to release it.
Gilliam recalls strategizing at the time: “We can’t fight them with lawyers. Let’s go about it a different way.” And so the director took out a full-page ad in Variety, reading, “Dear Sid Sheinberg: When are you going to release my film, ‘Brazil’? Terry Gilliam.”
“That’s when the shit hit the fan,” Gilliam recalls. “They literally did everything to stop [the release].”
Refusing to give up, Gilliam put out a call to “honest, decent journalists” who wanted to see the film: He would bus them to Mexico, where the film was in theaters, to see it for themselves.
“The film was released in Europe already and received really good results, but in America they weren’t going to do it. This fight went on and on,” he says.
Sheinberg and Gilliam refused to communicate directly after their first disagreement. But they did lob messages to each other through a middle man.
“I had the good luck of meeting a guy named Jack Mathews, a reporter for the LA Times arts section, and he saw the film and he really liked it. He started making noise about it,” Gilliam recalls. “He maintained a conversation between me and Sid Sheinberg.”
Then De Niro, notoriously press shy, hatched a plot to get the film some free publicity.
“Maria Shriver was running that show Good Morning America. They had wanted to interview De Niro for a very long time. Bobby never did publicity for films. That’s why he’s a hero to me. But he said, ‘OK, they want to talk to me. We’ll go on the show — you and me,'” Gilliam says.
At one point, Shriver turned to Gilliam, seated next to De Niro, and said, “Terry, I understand you’re having a problem with the studio.”
“I said, ‘I’m not having a problem with the studio. I’m having a problem with one man. His name is Sid Sheinberg and he looks like this,'” recalls Gilliam. “And I pulled out an 8×10 glossy and shared Sid with the world. This was me just having fun and being outrageous and getting more and more publicity.”
After that, a series of at-home screenings around Beverly Hills started to build word of mouth for the fantasy film. “Then the [Los Angeles Film Critics Association] had seen it,” he continues. “They discovered in their bylaws a film didn’t have to be released to qualify for awards.”
In the end, the LA Film Critics Association voted Brazil best picture, best screenplay, and Gilliam best director of 1985, a massive upset that shocked Sheinberg and the rest of the Universal brass, who were expecting their awards darling Out of Africa to sweep everything.
That finally convinced Sheinberg to grant Brazil a U.S. release.
The film went on to be nominated for two Academy Awards — best screenplay and best art direction — and is now widely considered one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.
Listen to Gilliam’s entire retelling of the making of Brazil below and be sure to subscribe to It Happened in Hollywood for more gripping tales of movie-making mayhem!
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