Belching fire and wielding a slab-size sword, the towering monster bears down to crush the little man who dares to oppose him. The moment is fantasy, of course, part of a recurring dream sequence in Brazil, writer-director Terry Gilliam's $15 million futuristic vision of humanity struggling to get out from under the boulders of bureaucracy. Ask Gilliam, though, and he'll tell you the gallows humor of the scene is part of his everyday reality. In February 1985, Gilliam faced a monster he calls Universal Studios, Brazil's American distributor. After seeing the film, he says, the studio executives came out swinging. "It was clear I had wasted a lot of their money on a turkey," recalls Gilliam, 45, one-sixth of England's wacky Monty Python troupe. Studio chief Sidney Sheinberg claimed the movie was depressing (especially the end), interminable at two hours and 22 minutes, and unreleasable. When Gilliam cut 11 minutes but refused to make other changes, Sheinberg shelved the film.

Not one to move mountains when he can go around them, Gilliam tried a sneak attack. In December he cannily arranged an unauthorized showing of Brazil for Los Angeles film critics, who promptly voted it Best Picture of the Year. Accepting his accolade, Gilliam told the critics' association, "I feel like Lazarus looking into the face of the man who brought him back to life." He was not far off. The publicity generated by the acclaim essentially shamed Universal into distributing Brazil as is. Now in wide release, Brazil has a shot at a happy ending, offscreen at least, with a $10 million gross to date and two Academy Award nominations (for screenplay and art direction).

But don't invite Gilliam and Sheinberg to the same Oscar party on March 24. "As people rise in the studio system, great chunks of their brains get cut away," says Gilliam. "I have to get through them to reach the public." Though Sheinberg won't speak to Gilliam, he admits to "a grudging respect for a guy who feels so deeply about his film that he'll go out and do crazy things. My problems with Terry have to do with how he behaves as a human being."

Wake up, Sid. Gilliam the man and the filmmaker are the same. You should have known that when you hired him. Gilliam projects, from Monty Python to such movies as Jabber-wocky and Time Bandits, have always outraged as well as entertained. With his pop eyes and loopy grin, Gilliam may look like a clown but beware taking him for one. Listen to Michael Palin, 42, Gilliam's Python pal: "Terry is best described as a cross between Rambo and Leonardo da Vinci. He likes to fight for artistic rights."

For the next studio chief who takes on Gilliam, here's a primer on what you're up against: The only non-Brit in Python, he was born in Minneapolis, the eldest of three children of a carpenter and a housewife. By age 10, Terry displayed a talent for winning art contests. "The first time, I cheated with a book on my lap," he says. "I copied a bear. Boy, it was so good." He pauses to laugh. "So I began my career cheating, and I've been cheating ever since."

The Gilliams moved to L.A. when Terry was 11. He graduated from L.A.'s Occidental College in 1962 as a political science major ("It had the least number of required courses"). Terry eventually worked in L.A. as an art director for an advertising agency. "I was their token hippie," he says.

These were the Vietnam War years, and Gilliam—ever the rebel—was at the fore of antiwar demonstrations. "I kept getting pulled over in my car and hassled by cops," he says. "I was really getting disillusioned with this country, and I believed that I'd either end up a full-time revolutionary or dead."

That's when Gilliam headed for England, where he did animation for the BBC. In 1969, when BBC colleagues John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman and Palin formed the Monty Python group, Gilliam signed on as the animator. Though he seldom performed, Gilliam's way of combining old photos with drawings in a surreal mix of madness, sex and violence became a Python trademark.

The sheer perversity of the enterprise pleased Gilliam and, lo, he began to mellow. In 1974 he met Maggie Weston, a makeup artist on the Python set. "Marriage never entered my mind until I met Maggie," he says. They now live in a 17th-century, 24-room mansion in suburban London with daughters Amy Rainbow, 9, and Holly Dubois, 5. The serene sound of that is a sham, says Maggie, 38. "Terry spends most of his spare time socializing with people who are somehow linked to his work. I don't think we would have ever married if I didn't do the makeup on his films. We don't have a family life—our lives revolve around film."

Palin agrees. "I'm sure Terry must reintroduce himself to his children several times a year. Maggie is extremely long-suffering. She should have married me, actually." Palin despairs of ever moving his friend into independent production where he could be his own boss. "Terry would never think of shunning the bureaucracy," says Palin. "Not because he couldn't but rather because he prefers the fight."

Potential employers should be warned that the trials of Brazil have not dampened the Gilliam spirit. As his face crinkles into a watch-out-I'm-dangerous grin, Terry gleefully announces his next project. "It's called The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. It's about the world's greatest liar. I'm looking for a 75-year-old unknown to star in it." Raising money for this production could be tougher than it was for Brazil. "That," says Gilliam, rising to the challenge, "is exactly what appeals to me."