In person, Terry Gilliam’s every bit as mischievous, funny, generous and entertaining as you’d hope. The director of some wonderful science fiction and fantasy films, from Jabberwocky to Time Bandits and Brazil to The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys, he’s one of the most imaginative and individual filmmakers working – and then there are the wonderful animated short films he created, which came to international prominence thanks to Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
When we meet Mr Gilliam on the fifth floor of a London hotel, the sun’s shining through the window and the director’s positively beaming. He’s encouraged because there’s plenty of light and fresh air in the room – a stark contrast, he says, to the sometimes dark and claustrophobic rooms he can end up stuck in for hours on end during press junkets. “I mean, you’re sitting in Venice, inside, with the curtains closed and everything!” Gilliam protests. “It’s stupid!”
We’re here to talk about his new film, The Zero Theorem, a characteristically strange science fiction film starring Christoph Waltz as a computer genius hired to find the meaning of life through mathematics. It’s a febrile, dreamlike film, and full of the rich visual detail you’d expect from a Terry Gilliam film. We were keen to talk to the director about how he made it on a relatively low budget, as well as about his other work and opinions on technology.
On these topics and many others, Mr Gilliam was effusive, candid and very amusing. Here’s what he had to say.
I thought The Zero Theorem proved that you can do really striking things with a relatively low budget if you have the imagination.
And you have people who’ll work 24 hours a day and work for nothing! It’s a little bit more than imagination. You need really good people who are so committed. The cast, basically, worked for scale. So that’s how you do it. You’ve got to be lucky to be in that position. The crews were great in Bucharest. They really were good.
Where the invention comes in is with Carlo Poggioli’s costumes. Because he found this Chinese market that sold fabric – crappy fabric – by the kilo. Not by the yard. By weight! [Laughs] He got these plastic table cloths and shower curtains and we ended up with something quite wonderful.
I love the suit Christoph Waltz wears to jack into the internet. It’s fabulous.
I wanted something that looked like a jester or maybe a demon. What is it? You don’t know, but it’s red. The first time we sat him down in the church at his workstation, I just howled with laughter because it looked like the devil had arrived, a demon, had arrived in this holy building!
Is this a complementary film to 12 Monkeys and Brazil?
I didn’t think of it like that, but people are writing it that way, so who am I to argue? When I read the script, it felt like a compendium of so much of the stuff that I’ve done. There’s a line here or a suggestion there, and I’m, “Oh, that’s like Time Bandits”, or “Oh, that’s like this one,” and “that’s like that one.”
The only main concern I had was that it would be compared to Brazil. And that’s why I tried not to make it dark and grey. The world in the script was a very dark, dismal world, actually closer to the reality of Bucharest. I wanted it to be colourful and bright and bouncy, with people having a wonderful time, as they are in the dining room of this hotel! [Laughs] Where they get their money to be so jolly, I don’t know!
Yeah, I’d like some. It feels very much like an internet age dystopia. Do you have an ambivalence towards technology?
Yes. I’m ambivalent about most things! But certainly technology, yes, which is overwhelming our lives for better and worse. I think what bothers me most is the “me, me, me-ness” of it. It’s all about me. I go to events, but it’s really me, and the event is the background. That kind of thing is what makes me crazy. And the constant tweeting. I had a look at some tweets, because I don’t really do any of it. I can’t understand it. It’s not really communication. It’s basically, “I’m making noise. I’m here.” It’s just neurons firing – axons and dendrites – [makes a sound like a machine gun].
It’s not an idea. There’s no shape there. It’s just, “I am here. I am here.” Then when it stops, I guess it’s, “I am dead!”
I’m obsessed about being alone. And wanting to be alone. Or trying to come to terms with who I am. I’m not talking about me specifically – I’m trying to encourage people to just be alone. Switch off. Disconnect. And see if anybody’s home. If you’re not part of that network of interconnecting tissue, are you still there? I suspect that so many people aren’t there. They’re not really thinking about things, they’re only reacting, and commenting, and that’s what worries me about it. So in a sense, that’s what intrigued me about the script.
[Qohen, Christoph Waltz’s character] is even stranger, because he does believe there’s a meaning to life, but the way he’s going to receive it is ridiculous. That’s really a comment on advertising. You buy this, you wear this, and your life will be full of beauty and wonder [chuckles].
It reminded me a bit of Philip K Dick’s work, and I know you’re a fan of his. So do you think of it as a slight homage to him?
I think I’ve absorbed all of his stuff, and I’m only aware afterwards that I’m ripping him off! It’s always been like that, because I don’t think specifically about something. The only specific thing, the only reference I had on this one, was a German painter called Neo Rauch, who most people don’t know. So I had the whole art department look at Neo Rauch’s paintings. Whether any of it’s in the film, I have no idea, but it becomes a way of focusing people. “Okay, look at that colour palette. Look at how he’s juxtaposing styles of painting or imagery, or different times all in one painting.”
It’s a nice model for what we’re doing, in a way. Because even though it’s set in the near future, I do it with retro things. I don’t even think of it in terms of retro; we live in a world filled with technology that is Victorian, Neolithic probably, in some cases, and then digital. Technology’s always a mixture, so I enjoy having fun playing with all that.
The telephone – I had them design a Bakelite body, and then put this weird little thing on. But what I really like is it has an ashtray and a place to put your cigarette. Things like that. I like that. I’m really happy I got that one made!
It’s that texture that makes it interesting, because it’s quite an interior film.
That was the biggest concern. For 85 per cent of the film, we’re in that church, so it had to be rich in imagery and things to look at. I don’t know how many people take in things like the cement mixer or the building materials at one end! The kitchen is Ikea! [laughs]
And I did it because I’m trying to build a world: who is this guy? He was in love and probably going to get married. They had a dream, they had plans there, he was going to build a lot of it himself. And then the relationship crashed, and so he’s left with all these bits and pieces. The pink couch! The chaise longue! I just wanted to put something in as outrageous as that without really explaining it.
So she says, “Oh, a surprise”, and obviously, it was much more romantic at one time. You pepper it with all these potential clues to a character, and then we get on with the story. And if you choose to explore it… it’s kind of like a videogame, and I should be doing videogames! You have all these clues, but I don’t want to stop the thrust of the tale by lingering on any of it. It’s just there.
I liked as well, that like all your films, The Zero Theorem has a sense of mischief and iconoclasm, that sort of thing. I was reflecting as I was watching it, that it’s becoming rare in mainstream filmmaking to have that.
I know. I think it’s actually happening in society. People are more serious. People don’t want to cause offence. It’s the inter-connected world, this new politeness out there, which is a kind of timidity and fear of not being liked. And so one is very sympathetic to these people who are flawed, because you’re flawed, and hopefully if I’m nice to them, they’ll be nice to me. It’s a weird kind of timidity that’s taken over, and it makes me crazy.
Because I do want to offend. I like getting discussions going, I like getting arguments going. Because out of that you learn something. Also it becomes a kind of cap on reality, and that’s why you have racist, far-right movements rising, because of the frustration. We can’t even talk about the problems we face.
It’s like when the Tottenham riots occurred. If you’ll notice, for the first several days, there was no mention that everybody involved was black. And then luckily, by the third day, some white guys turned up, and it was like, “Phew! That solves a problem!” You couldn’t say that it was black kids doing it. That means something – why are black kids rioting like that? Because there’s a problem. What are they angry about? Can we solve it? But nobody wants to talk in those terms, and it’s very weird.
So we end up in a world where we’re all kind of lying to each other, and we’re doing it all the time, so as not to cause offence.
Do you think that means we end up with a quite conservative culture: books, films, music, as a result?
Yes. Because everybody out there is trying to play it safe. Films, clearly, are expensive things to make. So the tendency, always in films, is to play it safe, and for the marketing to be conservative. And it seems very successful now, because the studios have basically given up on everything buy tentpoles. So it’s kind of like a casino. “This year we’ll bet on red. Last year we bet on black.”
That’s all it is. Enough people go to maintain that financial structure. Even though last summer was a bit of a disaster for some tentpoles. My ultimate faith is in humanity to be human; people will get bored. I’m bored, and people are now bored. We’ve seen the same trailers for 12 years. There are subtle differences, but still. And the only way you can break it is by doing different things, and that’s always going to be like little furry mammals in the rocks scurrying around while the dinosaurs crash around the place! [Laughs]
Your experiences while making Brazil were well documented. But how was making 12 Monkeys, your second science fiction film, in comparison?
It was easy. Because they came to me with a script, or Chuck Roven [the producer] did, and the studio spent a million dollars on the script alone. They wanted to get their money back. My job was basically to find a cast to make it work. Once Bruce [Willis] was on, we were off running, and Brad [Pitt] was the icing on the cake. And then we made the film.
It was a great script, but when I read it, I said, “This isn’t going to get made. This is too complex.” But we did it, and everything was handled right about it. I kind of designed a campaign, and I’m not saying that’s the reason it worked, but it started a mystery without explain anything, and nobody had done a campaign like that for 20 years. They opened it on the right day, the 27th December, after the bloodbath of all the big, pre-Christmas films – they all just killed each other! So we opened really well, and Brad had also become a big star from Legends Of The Fall.
It was just all these coincidences leading to the success of it. But it proved that there was an audience for intelligent films. But immediately after it became a big success, I had a meeting with the studio, and their reductionist theory of its success was very simple.
Two words: Brad Pitt.
I was saying, “Wait!” But of course that’s the way it works. Then afterwards they threw Brad into Seven Years In Tibet, The Mexican, Joe Black – all failed. Eventually, it worked out for him, but you can’t do that, and yet they do it. When you can spend $80m on promoting a film, there’s a reasonable chance of people coming in.
You don’t see that on something like this [The Zero Theorem]. You haven’t seen a single poster for Zero Theorem in town. There are none. They haven’t spent any money on it. Instead this [interviews] is how we’re selling the film, and for me it’s an interesting experiment to see whether, by almost entirely being on the web, whether we can bring people in, I don’t know.
Is it a bit like Brazil, getting a film made in Hollywood? Like dealing with a brick wall of bureaucracy?
It’s worse now in a strange way. Because the guys who run the studios now… before there used to be a few odd characters who I liked or disliked, but at least they were characters. Now it’s just bland, bureaucratic middle-men running everything, and they’re just frightened about their stockholders. They’ve got to make money, so they play it safe.
The independent business is out there, but even they’re struggling because of the financial situation at the moment. They’re frightened, and they’re playing it safe. We’ve had a hard time selling this film. We only just sold it to America, and it’s like, “Man, give us a break”. Because I know we have an audience out there; I don’t know how big, but I know there’s a substantial audience that will pay for the cost of this film and a profit. But you’ve got to reach them!
Well, I hope you do! Do you think you’ll ever direct an animated film? You’d be the perfect fit for something like that.
I know. There’s the guys who made Coraline [Laika], who keep wanting to get together with me. They’re good people. I don’t know. I’m really quite confused as to where I’m going to go next or what I’m going to do.
I keep saying, “Why aren’t I designing videogames?” I’d be perfect for it! I keep suggesting it in interviews, and I’m waiting for someone to come forward and say, “Come on, Terry!” [Laughs]
You could use Kickstarter. That’s what you should do: Kickstart a videogame.
I might have to use Kickstarter for Don Quixote.
Well, we’ll support you all the way. Terry Gilliam, thank you very much.
The Zero Theorem is out in UK cinemas now.