Terry Gilliam is talented
“The Zero Theorem” is the latest fantastical journey from Terry Gilliam. It stars Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz (“Django Unchained,” “Inglourious Basterds”) as Qohen Leth, a computer genius with existential angst. Qohen lives isolated in a burnt-out chapel, waiting for the one phone call that will answer the question, Is there any meaning to life?
Qohen craves to be left alone, yet he is constantly interrupted. That’s where Qohen and my similarities end. He is nearly apoplectic over his distractions, which include the flirty and fetching Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) and Management’s wiz kid, Bob, played by the perfectly cast newcomer Lucas Hedges (who also plays Jeremy Renner’s son in the upcoming “Kill the Messenger”).
Qohen works relentlessly on a project assigned by Management (Matt Damon). His assignment is to prove whether or not there is a purpose to life. Qohen is in a permanent freak out. He shouts, “Why would you want to prove all is for nothing?” Indeed. So the company has him talk to psychiatrist Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton) through a computer monitor.
My Gilliam fan days began with “Monty Python.” Then, in 1985, Gilliam permanently rearranged the structure of my brain with his mind-blowing movie “Brazil.” If you have never seen it, rent it or buy it right now.
Then came “The Fisher King” starring Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges, “12 Monkeys” starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” starring Johnny Depp.
So, it is with sadness that I must report “The Zero Theorem” is not going to become a cult classic like “Brazil.” While “Zero” has many pluses — including staggering sets, high production value and expert actors — there is something that doesn’t quite work. “Brazil” is a 5-star film, but “The Zero Theorem” is a 2-star.
Don’t get me wrong, any Gilliam devotee should see it. Many of the wondrous and fantastical pluses have stuck with me. They could only have come from the quirky and beloved mind of Gilliam. But don’t get mad at me if you leave pining over what might have been if only the plot were tighter and the through-line more consistent.
I’m thrilled to say I had the honor of speaking with Gilliam for TheBlot Magazine last week. The Minnesota-born ex-pat sounded American until he said words like “process” the way Brit’s do: “pro-cess.” Every time the great Gilliam laughed, it gave me an adrenalin rush. It is a giddy sound, like a tot receiving a birthday present.
Q: How did you get such magnificent effects without a big studio budget?
Terry Gilliam: Anything that is cheap, quick, clean and efficient, that’s what we go for. There’s lots of dialogue in the film that we recorded on an iPhone. Modern technology makes the pro-cess a lot easier. You go on the web and find things, like the sunset on the beach, a lot of that was from Shutterstock. We mixed a lot of them together. I’ve always been intrigued by GoPro, so we stuck [cameras] all over the set. We didn’t know exactly how they were going to be used, but as long as they were doing their surveillance, nobody played to them; in fact, you couldn’t even see them, but they were right there in the scene recording.
Of course, we cheat and lie through the whole thing; that’s the pro-cess of making film. All that technology is very useful. It makes everything about filmmaking easier and cheaper, which to me is the key. The cheaper you can make a film, the more you can say exactly what you want to say, exactly how you want to say it and not have to listen to a lot of corporate dickheads tell you what the public really wants.
I’m constantly lurking around the web. It’s infinite what you can find. You just have to do the work, but it’s all there. The only thing that bothers me is that people don’t use it enough for knowledge. Most of it is used for gossip and “What am I eating?”, “Who am I sitting with?” And porn sites. [Giggles]
Can you describe the development of the script?
This is very different than other films I’d done because I didn’t write the script. Pat Rushin wrote it, and I liked it. It was full of ideas. I didn’t do much fiddling with the script. I did more fiddling when we were editing. I start playing around in post [production] and rearranging things. I was cutting scenes in half. Bum, bum, bum.
When you’re working with good actors, they’ve got their own ideas, and hopefully we’ve all convinced ourselves that we’re making the same film, only in Bucharest [where it’s cheaper] instead of London. And that’s how it works. Every day we changed things. A script is not a finite thing. It’s the first stage. Then everything is changing and shifting all the time, and that’s the fun of it because you surround yourself with good, talented people.
“Brazil” and “12 Monkeys” represent dystopias. “The Zero Theorem” does, too. Do you agree?
This isn’t a dystopia. It’s a utopia. It’s a wonderful world. Everybody is dressed smart, they’ve got a lot of color, they’re bouncing around the place, cars are zipping back and forth. Shopping is 24 hours a day, every day of the week. What more do you want? Qohen’s workplace, Mancom, is full of rollerblades, scooters, zippy clothes. It’s a fantastic place. There’s only one guy that is the dystopia element, and that’s Qohen, who makes himself miserable. He needs a kick in the ass. [Giggles]
If you think the world we’re living in now is a dystopia, maybe you’re right, but we’ve been looking forward to this time for so many years. Now we have all the goodies. I didn’t choose this. This is what the world has become. It seems we’re more infantile. “There’s something interesting. Oh! I have to put it in mouth.” I mean, you don’t literally, but you want it now. “I’m not going to work towards it. I’m not going to wait. I need it now.” That’s infantile. That’s what we’ve become.
For me, coming to New York is like Qohen going out his front door. It’s just like WHAT?! In London, we’re overwhelmed by stuff, but it’s provincial, and everything looks pissy-small compared to walking into Times Square. What is this about? Where do we fit into it? Are we just these little dots that connect? Are we just becoming social insects like worker bees? Our job is to keep tweeting and connecting and spreading those pheromones, and they go through the ether across a great distance. “How do you feel?” “What do you think?”
Many people prefer the virtual world to the real world; it’s kind of sad really. Nobody has to have their individual opinion. People are constantly communicating. “Should I say that?” “Have I gone too far?” “Have I offended?” “Am I rude?”
My feeling is fuck this. People have got to start being individual. I’m obsessed about offending people. You get a discussion going. You might start talking about things rather than ducking and diving. I watched my daughter say, “That was very rude.” [Shrugs shoulders] And? It was an idea. It was a thought. What do you think of that thought? Want to talk about it? [Giggles]
“The Zero Theorem” is playing in select theaters now and available on Amazon. Drama, Sci-Fi, Fantasy. Rated R. 107 min.
Watch the trailer:
Watch excerpts from this interview: