We were invited to a press conference with famed writer, director, animator, Terry Gilliam at Dragon Con in Atlanta to talk to him about his latest film, Zero Theorem, but we learned a lot of other things during the event. Gilliam is always willing to share his views on the world, the state of the movie business, and his place in it. Here are just some of the thoughts he shared.
On his new movie, Zero Theorem:
I find the character [of Qohen] interesting because he’s been so damaged by life in advance of the time we get to know him, and to me, the real heart was trying to reclaim his humanity, his ability to care, to love, actually get outside of himself. The world around him is my invention, and that was just fun to be able to play with.
The most important scene to me, and the most moving scene, was when Bainsley says, “Come away with me;” he can’t do it! It’s about impotence; impotence is at the heart of it. The world we live in, those of us who pay attention to the world, read the news, feel we can do something about it. The older you get, you realize how impotent you are to change things. That’s the sad thing, and in the end, I just wanted to leave him with one moment of control of something, some power. I decorated it as opposed to directed it; I created the world around him, but that’s not really the movie. Some people get it immediately; some people identify or feel something for Qohen, understand where he is. Other people are just confused by it. I like the fact that when I check statistics on the film, when they’re rating it from 1 to 5 or whatever it is, the fives are great, and the zeroes are great, and the middle is very vague, and I like that!
We call [Zero Theorem] a one size fits all, full gate, semi-vinyl motion picture! In my perverseness, we shot it such that the proportions are 16:9. It’s what you see on your television screen now, and so it’s ‘one size fits all.’ I thought since people are going to watch it anyway on their phones and their iPads and all, I want them to see exactly the same thing as you see in the cinema. So there’s no cropping when you get to the TV format or anything. ‘Full gate’ is because it is: what you see is the full gate in the camera, and it has the little rounded edges, and that’s what it is.
Within most films – all films – there’s a safety area inside which is how normally you see films. We went for the whole thing, so you see the full gate, and if there were hairs in the gate, you would see them. But we had a good crew, so there aren’t hairs in the gate. There is a funny little scratch down one side, and the last time people have seen that is with silent movies because subsequently, we don’t show that. So, I thought that’s more fun as well. And then it’s ‘vinyl’ because of vinyl being analog, and we shot on film. However, there were 260 digital effects shots, so I couldn’t lie and say it was full vinyl, so it’s ‘semi-vinyl.’
And what was interesting about the rounded corners, the producers and even some of the quality-control guys for the distributors were saying, “No, we won’t accept this. This is wrong! It’s rounded corners!” Because what happens in 16:9 – there’s little strips of black down the sides because we don’t go to the full side. But how many times have you gone to the cinema and you see the side curtains pulled, and half the film is on the side curtains? It doesn’t matter!
But there were all these people who were frightened by this ‘new’ stupid idea, and were resisting it, so I had to write a letter claiming, “This is my creative choice. It was a creative decision.” Nobody’s ever complained, but you have to go through this gauntlet of people who are hired to make sure that nobody complains.
On his involvement with dystopias in his films:
I’m not even convinced I’m dealing with dystopias. It’s just this version of what I see the world is now. Brazil was about then; it just happens that now is even more like Brazil than it was then! I do take full responsibility for the creation of Homeland Security, because it’s a clear the Ministry of Information meant a lot to a lot of people. And Zero Theorem is about now, but what’s interesting is because the film takes place almost entirely inside the church, my only moment to deal with what I thought was now was outside on the streets the few times we get out there – just the overload of information and STUFF that’s out there, and then it’s my chance to nail advertising. We turned ‘Occupy Wall Street’ into ‘Occupy Mall Street.’ That’s the side that I get to be more satirical, and then inside is this other story that is hopefully interesting.
On the uses of technology:
I only have an iPhone now because of some Apple products in [Zero Theorem], and I got one for free. I’m a very Luddite character; I didn’t even have a mobile phone until years after they came out, and I love my iPhone now because it’s an incredible piece of equipment. When we were making Zero Theorem, I had to change some lines in some of the scenes, so I did a Quicktime of the scene, sent it to Christoph who was in Berlin. He with his iPhone recorded it; it’s in the movie. Melanie Thierry, same thing, South of France. These are the sides of new technology that I love; it’s fantastic.
On Robin Williams:
Robin is the most exceptional person I ever met. I don’t understand how he was able to absorb so much information; there seemed to be nothing he didn’t know. It was in this reservoir that he could then take and reassemble in forms and shapes and juxtapositions and combinations we never imagined, and it was a constant delight with Robin to see that functioning. And when you’re with Robin, it was almost as if he was as surprised and amazed as we were. He was just channeling all of the knowledge of the universe and making it funny! It was like you were dealing with a genius child because it was playful; it was fun, but it was so smart.
I think [The Fisher King] part was maybe the closest to who Robin really was of anything he did because it had the innocence; it had the madness; it had the pain, the anguish, and the love – everything! When he’s being pursued by the Red Knight, it’s painful to watch because Robin was feeling that, and to have that range of joy and pain is a very difficult burden to carry.
On the upcoming 12 Monkeys television adaptation:
Nobody even contacted me to say, “We’re going to do this!” I have never heard anything other than what I read in the press. But I do think the idea of Jeffrey Goines, Brad Pitt’s character, being a woman is such a [presumably sarcastic] major breakthrough! I think that’s why it’s going to work! I have no idea! What they’ve got, basically it seems to me, is just another time travel movie. It won’t have much to do with the film, but my ex-agent was quite impressed by the lack of decency or politeness on the part of those who are going to make money off it.
On Breaking Bad:
The last thing that got me excited was – I finally, after all these years, watched it. I got onto Netflix, and the first month was free! I got through four series in three days. My wife was away at that time, and I finished the fifth over Christmas while the rest of the family was downstairs. I thought, ah, now I’m seeing something different; I’m seeing something really good. I’m seeing great writing, great characters, something that isn’t trying to force itself into the formula that is the demand of Hollywood now. It intrigued me: the idea of this long-form. It affected me in the way films used to affect me.
Terry Gilliam is definitely an iconic entertainer, going back to the Monty Python days and through his many eccentric films. Time travel fans revere both 12 Monkeys and Time Bandits, whereas fans of his satirical style will enjoy Zero Theorem as much as they enjoyed Brazil. His latest film is as whimsically imagined as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and although opinions may vary from film to film, Gilliam’s unique point of view in inarguably compelling.
Zero Theorem is in theaters and on VOD now.