Terry Gilliam Talks The Zero Theorem, Television, And Radiohead

We sit down with Terry Gilliam for an exclusive interview about his new film, The Zero Theorem, and the changing culture of storytelling.

In a climate that has the masses clamoring for original content to be brought to movie screens around the globe, Terry Gilliam still has to fight tooth and nail to get his imaginative visions seen by everyone. Finishing it’s run with Video on Demand, his newest film, The Zero Theorem is heading to American cinemas today. Written by Pat Rushdan, The Zero Theorem is striking a chord with film lovers everywhere. We jumped on the phone with Mr. Gilliam to talk about the film and life in general in preperation for the film’s release.

Hi, how are you doing today?

Terry Gilliam: I’m surviving having to listen to myself say the same thing, again and again.

We’ll try and give you something a little different. And thank you so much for your time, and really, just thank you for being! Your films not only helped shape my thoughts on filmmaking as an art form, but kind of affected who I became, when I was young.

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TG: Oh thanks, or apologies, I’m not sure which.

I take it on a good level, don’t worry about it.

TG: Okay good.

On that thought, though, Qohen (Christoph Waltz’s character), like most of your protagonists, really has to bear the burden of the rest of the world, and where it’s heading. Whether it’s a character that germinated in your own head or not, do you feel that you’re just portraying versions of yourself in ways?

TG: It’s kind of weird. I don’t know if I set out to do that or not, but by the end of it, maybe I become the character, but I’m not sure which came first…eventually I start inhabiting. The script itself—that Pat Rushdan wrote—he wrote the character, he wrote the premise of the whole thing, and then I start decorating it, I suppose, building a world it all takes place in. And little by little, I start identifying with the character. At the end of the day, I don’t know if the character came first or I came first.

Well then, not to just jump back into the ideas of happy endings and not happy endings, and so on and so forth. Whether you follow your characters in your own mind, past where we leave them, is it safe to say that somebody like Bainsley end up as the only character with a better outcome because she realizes what’s really going on?

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TG: Yeah, I hope so. I think she will. She’s at least got out of a rather sordid job, so she’s free in that sense. The boy (Bob), he might be okay, I don’t know. Qohen at least finds a kind of peace at the end. In my version of it, a sense of control – it might just be a virtual sun that he allows to set. At least it’s something. It ended up, it’s an ending that left Qohen with dignity, that’s what I felt, and I thought the happy ending was just ridiculous, and was no dignified ending for a guy who we put through the troubles we put him through.

You’ve quoted before, a while ago, about this being the end cap on this kind of dystopia trilogy (Brazil12 Monkeys, The Zero Theorem). And obviously you can make a lot of ties, back and forth, but I instantly connected it with Time Bandits, because of this idea of manufactured living. That we’re being told we’re supposed to have what’s natural and what’s unnatural. Do you find yourself piecing together from films you’ve made in the past while you’re making something like this?

TG: What was interesting is that half of the original script, when I read it, intrigued me because it was full of interesting ideas, but it also seemed like he had seen every film that I had, and had incorporated elements all through it, so it was familiar terrain, right from the very beginning in that sense. That’s why it was easy to be seduced by it. I kept thinking, “Here’s my chance to make a compendium of everything I’ve done.” And then, as you start working at it, it became clearer to me that it became a chance to say something about the current world, like the way Brazil did with 1984. It was about the world we lived in then. The way I saw the world we lived in.

This is another way of approaching where we are now, from a different angle, and that intrigued me, and that’s why the world [intrigued me]. I sort of built around Qohen’s chapel – it wasn’t in the script, but it was very much about where we are, at the moment.

Yeah, that was another thing I was thinking the whole time was, the last film I think that did something like that was Children of Men. That’s us today, really. Do you feel that we have a way of bringing ourselves off the edge? As a society, do you think we’re too far gone to bring ourselves back to a certain point of humanity?

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TG: I think that’s what happens. Look at the human race; it seems to be unable to stop itself. Certain momentums seem to build up, and there’s nothing you can do until you fall off the edge, i.e. wars, world wars, plagues, everything. I don’t quite know how this one stops, at the moment, because it’s getting more and more frenzied, the speed of change is faster. It’s clearer that nobody is in control any more. Everything is working on the basis of what its need is, whatever it is, whether it be a corporation or whatever. And I don’t know how it stops itself. We’re very good at going over the edge, and then building it back up again, so we’ll see what happens!

Well to switch it a bit to something not necessarily cheery: the idea of funding or getting the money to produce these films. With having a general burden of sometimes worrying about getting money to fund a production, do you find yourself worrying about smaller aspects of the production, like how having to get a license for a Radiohead song [A cover version of “Creep” is featured heavily in the film]?

TG: No, we had a budget of eight and a half million. That’s nothing for what we’re trying to do here. Here’s what’s funny about that song. At the beginning, we did a little pre-shoot, which was Bainsley’s website. The first day of shooting, and the sound guy had a bunch of music with him, and we tried this, that, and the other thing, and nothing was working. And then that song “Creep” came on and I had never heard it. I didn’t know it was a Radiohead song, originally, or nothing. I thought, “This sounds good,” and Melanie [Thierry] felt comfortable using that as her music. And off we went! That was the end of it.

As the film finished, and we were in the editing room that song just seemed so emotionally evocative. The weird thing is, I had never listened to the lyrics until very late in the day in the editing room. When we put it on, in the end, which was not our original plan. I thought, “Fuck! These lyrics. It’s like it was written for the film!” That’s one of those weird things, that’s where the serendipitous nature of filmmaking comes to the front. I don’t know how one is pulled to all these different things. I didn’t do it, it just happened by chance.

That’s when I get mystical and think the film is making itself, and just does these things. We seemed to have enough money to get the Radiohead song. We couldn’t get the Radiohead version, but we got a cover version, which is the one we wanted anyway. I had never even heard the Radiohead version – I still haven’t heard the Radiohead version.

The female voice probably works better for what you are using it for anyway, so it works out well.

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TG: Yeah, it’s beautiful! It’s so funny when I didn’t know the lyrics until very, very late in the day. I tend to work that way. I don’t do my homework, sometimes, and I don’t intellectualize. It feels right, let’s do it! And that’s how the films get made.

Talking about her website, and she and Qohen communicate via, we’ll just call it the web, at this point. I’m always amazed because I remember when the internet was first being promoted…here’s what you’re going to have in your house. Here’s surfing the web. It was billed as the information age; but it seems like we’re in the disinformation age, because of the internet.

TG: Because it’s basically gossip, what the web seems to be, especially in the form of tweeting. You’ve got to work harder to find solid information. I mean, there’s plenty of information out there. I don’t know what people do with that information. The main thing with the web is porn, so it seems only right that Bainsley would be center of that world, there. It’s like, I don’t know how online dating services work, where people are on there as an avatar, not as themselves, describe themselves however they choose to. I wonder what happens when they finally agree to get together, to meet at a restaurant. The one who arrives first, the other one lingering to see if the one who arrives is like the one who was described, and whether they get together or separate, or never meet.

I don’t know how it works anymore when it comes to dating. I just remember that people had to see somebody, and to be able to talk to them, and move from there. We’ve actually kind of gone back to the 19th century when people out west would write east to get a wife. The woman would describe herself, the man would describe himself, she would then travel across country, and they’d get married or not. Those were interesting times. We seem to be reverting to the 19th century, more and more. Especially with corporations being as big and powerful in society, as great as it is now. We’ve moved back in time.

I remember earlier in the year you were talking about the possibility of crowdsourcing to help get The Man Who Killed Don Quixote made. And I was reading an article recently about when you were rehearsing for the Python reunion, and how it was getting in the way of all those things, but as it was happening, you were starting to feel a little more at ease with everything. Obviously, funds from a Python reunion aren’t going to fund a movie, but does it help to have that extra piece there, to now make what you need to make?

TG: I don’t know, I’m not going that route. I’ve really held off. It may be foolish, but we’ve gotten the money from more normal sources. I don’t know why; crowd funding, if I need it, I’ll do it, but it always feels a little bit like begging, and taking advantage of my fans. They may see that they’re involved, but that’s fake. I just want their money, as most people do. Crowd funding; I just think it’s kind of desperate to throw in a lot of money to feel that they’re part of something. That’s where the sadness is. They need that to feel that they’re part of something. It just feels a little bit abstract and distant for my taste. And I may just be an old, emotional luddite, as opposed to a technological one.

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Have you ever thought about moving on to different mediums? I know TV now is becoming more where filmmakers are going. I know you’re not part of it, but I was first shocked to hear that there’s a 12 Monkeys TV series coming out, but after seeing the response to the Fargo TV series, things may end up working out well. Have you ever thought about moving into something like that?

TG: The 12 Monkeys thing I have no connection with. I wasn’t even told about it until I read about it on the web. It has nothing to do with me. I find it interesting to find out that Jeffrey Goines is being turned into a woman. I think that they’ve got just another time travel series. Of course, Chris Marker is dead, so he doesn’t have to see it, what Le Jetee spawned.

What’s happening with television, with cable, that’s where all the good work is coming from. With Breaking Bad, I finally saw it at the end of last year, and it’s still the best thing I’ve seen for a long time. I think films are really getting in trouble, because the writers are moving to television. There’s not the great writing available for film anymore, because you just have to keep doing Marvel Comics, it seems to me. And when you do something that is more interesting, the problem is, how do you get it seen? What we’re doing here, for the first time, I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing, but The Zero Theorem is coming out first on Video OnDemand, and then, a month later, in the cinemas. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing, but it’s the world we’re living in when you make films that don’t fit the big tent pole pattern. It’s a strange time.

So, yes, I am in fact talking about a project for television, for a miniseries – like an eight part miniseries. It’s based on an old script that hadn’t found life in the world of cinema. The problem is, I like making things for the big screen. The scale of the experience is very different. For what it’s worth, Zero Theorem was shot sixteen by nine, as opposed to 9.5:1 or 2.3.5:1. It is exactly one-size fits all. It’s exactly the same size on your TV, your iPhone, or the cinema. It’s the exact same image. But it’s a very different experience, when you see it big.

Thank you so much for your time! I can’t wait for whatever else is coming out.

TG: Brilliant.

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