Terry Gilliam's Brazil letter to Universal (1985): "I feel every cut, especially the ones that sever the balls."

One of my favorite websites is Shaun Usher's Letters of Note, which runs interesting letters written by notable people. Today, Shaun posted a 1985 letter from Terry Gilliam to the head of Universal, Sid Sheinberg. Shaun says, "In August of 1985, many months after its successful release outside of North America, Terry Gilliam's iconic movie, Brazil, was still being cut for the U.S. market. Universal head Sid Sheinberg wanted a shorter, happier film; Gilliam, on the other hand, could think of nothing worse. He wrote the following letter to Sheinberg on the 8th and pleaded for mercy."

August 8

Dear Sid:

Once upon a time you told me that you were not the one that put me in the chair at the end of "Brazil." I'm afraid that this is no longer true — unable as I am to think of anyone else who is directly responsible for my current condition. Your later offer to be the friend who becomes a torturer has more than come true. I am not sure you are aware of just how much pain you are inflicting, but I don't believe "responsibility to the company" in any way absolves you from crimes against even this small branch of humanity. As long as my name is on the film, what is done to it is done to me — there is no way of separating these two entities. I feel every cut, especially the ones that sever the balls. And I plead, whether they are done in the name of legitimate and responsible experiments or personal curiosity, if you really wish to make your version of "Brazil" then put your name on it. Then you can do what you like. "Sid Sheinberg's Brazil" has a nice ring to it. But, until that time, I shall continue to decline. Please let me know how much longer must I endure before the bleeding stops.

Deterioratingly yours,


c.c.: Jack Lint

This letter ran in a book that I can't wait to read, called The Battle of Brazil: Terry Gilliam v. Universal Pictures in the Fight to the Final Cut.

Gilliam became so frustrated by Sheinberg's refusal to release the film that Gilliam made it public in a big way.


  1. “The Battle of Brazil” is my favorite book about the movie industry. The best part is the two-page list of titles Universal suggested instead of “Brazil”, which were insanely dopey (like “The Electro-Circuit Ball-Bearing Memory Buster”.)

    Note that if you have the 3-DVD Criterion edition of “Brazil”, it includes a video documentary based on the book, as well as a copy of Sheinberg’s bowdlerized version of the movie.

    Another fun behind-the-scenes tale of a director trying to make his film his way (but with far unhappier results for all involved) is Steven Bach’s “Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists”. (The spoiler’s in the title.) http://www.amazon.com/Final-Cut-Making-Heavens-Artists/dp/1557043744

      1. Yup.  best DVD set in the history of mankind for this exact reason.  It includes not only the three cuts of the film for you to compare, but a complete history of this epic battle (including all the letters) which, thankfully, Terry won.

  2. One of my favorite films of all time.  “I feel every cut, especially the ones that sever the balls” just became a part of my personal vernacular.

  3. I’m sure I’ve read this book, but it was back in the mid-90s when I took it out of the McGill Library. Maybe this is a reissue – or could there be more than one book about the making of Brazil?
    Great read, anyway, about one of my all-time favourite films.
    I remember watching it when it first came out at the cinema, and how half the audience left, sighing with relief (the film obviously not their cup of tea) after the fake, happy ending, before the real ‘I think we’ve lost him’ ending.
    Then ABC ran it on TV a few years later and the fake/fantasy ending *was* the ending, among other travesties.

  4. I was really happy when the main character married Sandra Bullock in the end and they moved to the French countryside … and then that snarky pupper voiced by Rob Schneider pops up in the back seat and makes some wisecracks! Ah, classic!

  5. A further note to Sid:  every time you see “Brazil” on someone’s list of their favorite films of all time (and it appears a LOT), they are not referring to the studio cut, they are referring to Gilliam’s cut.

    That is all.

    1. I have a terrible terrible confession to make: I love Terry Gilliam. I’ve watched all his work back to Marty. He changed my life. But I’ve always found Sid’s ending more moving than Terry’s. Sid’s was such a contrived flail at making people walk out happy – such a complete schizoid-denial disjuncture from everything the film had worked so hard to set up – that it made Sid’s version the profoundly more surrealistic.  Breton knows that wasn’t what Sid was after… but that’s what happened. It was like Sid was actually living in the film as a character – with a job as government censor – and knew he had to do something, anything, or he’d end up toast on the street. The same kind of meta the film itself did such a great job of, stuffed full of Christmas and released in the holiday season so you walked out of the Bruin theater right into a Westwood Christmas… and you hadn’t left the film. That kind.

  6. The director’s cut of Brazil is on my short list of greatest films of the 80s. The American release? Not so much.

    The sad thing is, it seems like we have the same ‘flog the original idea to pablum, and spoon-feed it to the idiots’ school of filmmaking operating today from time to time… *cough* Jack and Jill *cough*

  7. I’m intimately familiar with this book because I read it while still in film school. Terry got a short stick on this one, I’m afraid. Universal’s management changed from the time that Gilliam was given a green light to make Brazil and the new management was simply trying to “reposition” their films for younger audiences, and make the best of what they thought was an impossible film to market well.

    Sadly, Sheinberg was less artist and more businessman. If he’d really understood Gilliam’s vision, he might have let well enough alone. But more to the point, Sheinberg’s willingness to drastically recut another artist’s work—an artist who had previously been told his would be made his way—severely undermined Universal’s integrity. 

    1. Universal’s integrity?  These are corporations that exist make money.  If you go to Hollywood to make art, you are sadly misguided.  Art happens by accident over there.

    1. European version = the complete movie — Gilliam’s intended version

      American theatrical version = same thing, but with Gilliam making a lot of small trims here and there, and one pivotal scene (containing a crucial plot point) removed entirely. This was done for contractual reasons to deliver a movie under a specified length (due to the short runtimes preferred by American theaters.)

      Sheinberg’s studio cut = completely different (and terrible) movie made out of the same raw footage and released to TV, with the intent of giving it a different ending and making the tone light ‘n’ wacky instead of darkly satirical. (As others have noted below, this is known as the “Love Conquers All” cut.)

      The 3-disc Criterion release has the first and last versions; there’s no reason to see the one in the middle once you’ve seen the full cut. I think all the single-disc versions are the European cut.

  8. It seems the Pythons liked to take their grievances public. Another great exchange of letters Letters of Note recently published is John Cleese defending himself against charges of racism on the set of Meaning of Life. Since the Sun, who had fabricated the story, refused to publish his answer he published the exchange with the editor in the book to the film:


  9. Had this on laserdisc years ago.  Netflix offers 2 versions, one generic ‘Brazil’ and a ‘Love conquers all’ edition.  I assume the latter is the Sid cut, but is the former Terry’s?

    1.  That would be a reasonable assumption. I actually didn’t see Sid’s version, but in no way could “love conquers all” be applied to Terry’s.

      It was a great film, in a “Christ, live really is meaningless, isn’t it?” kind of way. Not recommended, IMO, for people struggling with nihilism. But for those who are comfortable with their nihilism, go for it.

      1.  You know, I always used to insist Terry’s cut DID have a happy ending.  I mean, sure, he’s  sitting there in the torture chair, but he’s really off in a beautiful dream world, and it seems real enough to him.  They can torture our bodies, but (at least in this film) our fantasies are still our own.

        1.  That’s always been my take as well. And, damn it, this is a very funny movie, not just a bleak depressing dystopian film as it is often portrayed.

  10. The book is one of the best ever written about the studio/director relationship.  I wrote a paper on the two versions of Brazil when I was in college.  The funniest bit was that Gilliam named his production company “Poo Poo Pictures” just to see all of this legal paperwork on letterhead with his custom drawing. 

    The movie is about so much that has happened since it was released, but it’s also about the process of its own creation. 

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