This was River Phoenix's favorite movie, and he had been filming Dark Blood (2012) with Jonathan Pryce. As a gift, Pryce arranged for Phoenix to meet Terry Gilliam, his hero. The meeting was set to happen the day he died outside the Viper Room. Phoenix never met him.
Terry Gilliam was asked to do a film class during the battle of this film at USC. Terry agreed, and took advantage of the situation by preparing to bring an "audio visual aid", which was his cut of the film, which would have been allowed. Unfortunately, two days before the event, students advertised a free screening of the film. When he arrived it was announced that Universal would not allow him to show the film. During his speech to the class, he was interrupted by studio executives' phone calls. They eventually allowed him to show a clip of the film. He showed the entire film, and repeated the screenings for over two weeks. It was during one of these screenings that Los Angeles film critics saw the film, and awarded it the Best Picture of the Year award, which was responsible for getting the film released the way Gilliam wanted it.
During his trouble with a studio, Terry Gilliam asked Daily Variety for a full page ad, which cost around $1,500 at the time. He had it bordered like a funeral invitation and it said: "Dear Sid Sheinberg, when are you going to release my film? Signed: Terry Gilliam."
In the autumn of 1985, Terry Gilliam and Robert De Niro appeared on Good Morning America (1975) to promote this film which was finished but not yet released. Gilliam was struggling with the studio and the studio head, Sid Sheinberg, quite publicly. De Niro rarely made television appearances but agreed to help Gilliam out. According to Gilliam "Bobby [De Niro] said very little, he was talkative that day so we might have gotten him to ten words." Host Joan Lunden asked Gilliam "I hear you're having trouble with the studio, is this correct?" Gilliam responded with "No, I'm having trouble with Sid Sheinberg, here is an 8x10 photo of him," and showed the entire nation his photograph. Sheinberg was reportedly furious with this incident, and it helped Gilliam get the release of the film done the way he wanted.
Terry Gilliam and his crew were excited to have Robert De Niro on board at first, but as time wore on they found De Niro's need for "research" and obsession with details increasingly irritating, saying that he "wanted to strangle him".
Universal executive Sid Sheinberg didn't want the film released because he thought it too pessimistic, the ending was downbeat, and it was not commercial enough for mainstream acceptance. Terry Gilliam refused to back down and showed the film to several LA film critics. They declared it the best film of the year. Gilliam eventually won out and Sheinberg, rather than face embarrassment at keeping such a lauded film from the public gave into Gilliam's demands. It's especially ironic what with the film's themes of a man standing up to the state. The only difference is Lowry loses, and Gilliam wins. The struggle is recounted in The Battle For Brazil, written by Jack Matthews in 1987.
The myth behind the name of the film relates to Terry Gilliam being at a beach in the UK one day. Apparently the weather wasn't particularly great, but a man was sitting on the beach alone listening to the famous song (on a stereo) that we hear in the film. Gilliam was fascinated by the man sitting there despite all the "adversity", and this became the theme and name for the film.
During the time when the studio was blocking the release of the film and were re-editing it for the infamous "Love conquers all" version, copies of the director's cut were circulating on video around Hollywood. At one point a number of critics began asking if a film that had been completed, but not released, could be eligible for a Best Picture Oscar. It's said that the potential embarrassment of this happening forced the studio to release the original version instead of their new one.
Jonathan Pryce's role as Sam was written years earlier with him in mind. The character was originally designed to be in his mid-twenties (Pryce was only about 30 when Terry Gilliam was developing the script), but after many years in limbo, Gilliam changed the character's age to mid-to-late thirties so that then-37-year-old Pryce could still play the role.
Director Terry Gilliam was reported to have been rather unhappy with Kim Greist's performance, and as a result many of her scenes were drastically cut and/or trimmed down. Some of these were added for the Sid Sheinberg "Love Conquers All" studio version.
The technician who, right at the start of the film, swats the fly which falls into the printer causing the fatal misprint is Ray Cooper, the percussionist who, among other things, accompanied Elton John on his famous Russian concerts in 1979.
The poster which reads "Information the key to Prosperity / Ministry of Information" (at about 12:00) is a reference to Soviet 1923 advertisement poster "Rezinotrest" made by Vladimir Mayakovsky. The movie poster uses the same colors and style (half of word "Prosperity" green, half red, similar to word "Rezinotrest" on the original poster).
When Mr. Kurtzmann discovers the cowboy movie playing on the computer monitors in the Records Department, the accompanying music is "Flying Messenger" by Oliver Armstrong, the same music used during Lancelot's attack on Swamp Castle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) which Terry Gilliam co-directed.
In the scene where Harry (Robert De Niro) rescues Sam (Jonathan Pryce) from the Ministry of Information, as they escape through the lobby, the Security Police walk in unison down stairs in a single rank firing their guns. Meanwhile, a vacuum cleaner rolls down the stairs ahead one step at a time. This is an homage to the film Battleship Potemkin (1925) and the massacre by the Cossacks of the people on the Odessa steps, while a baby carriage rolls unharmed down the steps in the midst of the ensuing carnage.
Lots of significant names: - Mr. Kurtzman: (German for "short man"): small in stature and success. Named after the editor of "Help" (Harvey Kurtzman), a magazine that director Terry Gilliam worked for in the mid-60s. It was at a photo shoot for this magazine that Gilliam met John Cleese, who would later invite him to join the Monty Python team. - Mr. Helpman: "helped" Sam - Mr. Warrenn: works in a rabbit-warren style place: a maze of corridors - Harvey Lime: possibly a reference to Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949).
The dream scenes were initially meant to form just one long sequence in the middle of the film, but technical difficulties made this impossible. The most important part of the dream sequence was intended to be a scene where Sam flies over a field of eyes, which then start slowly moving to follow his descent on a pillar. The eyes were made of snooker balls with false irises added; the eye symbol is also seen in other Terry Gilliam films including Twelve Monkeys (1995). The decision was later made to split the remaining dream scenes to fill the "empty" spaces between chapters.
During the opening scene where you see the paperwork floor with all of the runners dropping and picking up receipts. There is actually only one row of typing stations they just pass forward and backward along the same set of stations.
While most of the actors needed only 2-3 takes, Robert De Niro insisted on 25-30 takes for his character, and he still managed to forget his lines. His part was eventually filmed in two weeks, rather than the one week Terry Gilliam envisioned.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Terry Gilliam had trouble with studio producers over the black ending he wanted on the film. The producers wanted a "happy Hollywood" film which eliminated (among other things) the final transition and a critical line of dialogue which reveals the fate of Jill. These changes were made, and this "butchered" version was shown on US television at least once. Gilliam threatened to disown the film, and consequently the cinematic release and all videotape versions show the film essentially as he intended it to be seen (although the US cinematic release still omitted the line about Jill).
When Mr. Helpman spells out the code that Sam's father used to get to Helpman's floor on the elevator, the letters are ERE I AM JH. When you rearrange those letters it spells JEREMIAH, Sam's father's name.
The "Brazil" theme is heard several times within the film itself. When Sam types "Ere I am JH" into the secret elevator's control panel, it plays the first eight notes. This is also what he hums when he sends the refund check up the pneumatic tube at Mr. Kurtzmann's office. It is playing on the radio in his car, and Tuttle whistles in his flat.