Terry Gilliam wants to offend you, he wants to shock you, and above all, he wants to make you think. The Monty Python funnyman and notoriously Hollywood-hostile director aims to achieve all three of those things with his newest film, The Zero Theorem. In addition to talking up the sci-fi fantasy movie while attending Atlanta’s DragonCon, Gilliam shared a personal story about his experience working with the late Robin Williams, talked about landing Christoph Waltz in the lead of his latest film, and even commented on the long-running success of the British comedy troupe.
The Zero Theorem, which stars Waltz as Qohen Leth, a computer hacker who searches for the meaning of life while being distracted by Management, a shadowy figure from an Orwellian corporation, is now available on VOD and will enjoy a limited theatrical release on September 19th. Melanie Thierry, Tilda Swinton, and David Thewlis also star. Hit the jump for our DragonCon interview with Terry Gilliam.
Question: A lot of us were saddened recently by the death of Robin Williams. You directed one of his finest moments that really revealed him as amazing all across the board. What set him apart as a performer and as a person?
Terry Gilliam: Robin, and I keep saying this, he was the most exceptional person I ever met. I don’t understand how he was able to gather and absorb so much information; there seemed to be nothing he didn’t know. It was in this reservoir which he could then take and reassemble in forms, and shapes, and juxtapositions we’d never imagined, and it was a constant delight with Robin to see that functioning. When you’re with Robin, it was almost as if he was as surprised and amazed as we were. He was just channeling all the knowledge of the universe and making it funny, unlike most of the knowledge in the universe which is not funny at all, but he could turn it into something wonderful. And, as everybody who knew him, he was just the sweetest person on the planet. So you get this extraordinary combination. It was like you were dealing with, I don’t know, a genius child, because it was playful, and it was fun, but it was so smart. I’d never seen anybody like it.
At Billy Connolly’s 60th birthday, it was a big, big to-do, and we were at Billy’s place in Scotland where a huge marquee had been set up. At one point in the evening, they piped in the haggis, that horrible stuff… [laughs] Anyway, it came in with pipers, and then Robin got up and gave this speech in praise of the haggis. It was if he was Bobby Burns. It was all in rhyme with a Scottish accent, and it went on, and on, and in the midst of this whole thing a baby started crying, and he somehow took the baby’s cry and incorporated it into the poem, and went on. Five minutes later, it was done, and we were all in hysterics, falling around, just amazed. Later, I said, “Robin, how long did it take you to write that?” “Write that? They just asked me about a minute and a half before to come up and do something.” And it was that ability that was extraordinary. And the audience, of course, was full of stand-up comedians and everybody, in awe. Nobody had that power that Robin had, and that was wonderful.
When we did The Fisher King, I think the part was maybe the closest to who Robin really was of anything he ever did because it had the innocence, it had the madness, it had the pain, the anguish, and the love, everything. I was saying the other day when I watched a couple clips of it because it was on the news, when he was being pursued by the Red Knight, and it’s painful to watch because Robin was feeling that. To have that range of joy and pain is a very difficult burden to carry.
I think that the outpouring of love for him when he died was just breathtaking. And, yeah, some of Robin’s later films were not as good, but it didn’t matter overall. His life had meant so much to so many people in so many different forms over the years, he was just incredible.
Your work has always combined fantasy and the real world. It feels like that transitions into The Zero Theorem very much. What is it about that meeting of reality and fantasy that fascinates you and how does that play out in The Zero Theorem?
Gilliam: Reality and fantasy, we need both of those to survive. If we don’t have fantasy, dreams and all of those things, what’s the point of carrying on? And you need to watch out for reality because buses come. [laughs] All those things are necessary, but I find so often they’re split into two different categories. Oh, should we do a fantasy film, or a realistic film? I try to mix the two because I find the battle, the balance between the two aspects is what makes life interesting. I’ve never thought, necessarily, that I do fantasy because I’ve thought that I’m dealing with reality that just happens to be through the eyes of a cartoonist. I’m a cartoonist, it’s what I am at heart, so cartoons take reality and deform it and make it grotesque, you make it funny, but you alter it. If it works, it’s based on reality. That’s what I try to do.
Zero Theorem is kind of a satirical version of the world we’re living in, just a little aspect of the world that has to do with the connected world we live in … or those who choose not to be connected to that world. Even yesterday, we walked out the front door of this Georgian house in London. This beautiful house was all designed to almost be in the 18th century; it’s quiet, it’s sweet, it’s on what I thought was a quiet street. We’d been inside for a few hours doing interviews, and I opened the door, and outside was light, and noise, and … it’s the opening of Zero Theorem. It’s the shock of the world if you allow yourself to disconnect from the world and forget it’s out there, how noisy it is, how busy it is, how invasive it is. So I was playing with all those things and basically the fact that I’ve been intrigued with so long about is trying to disconnect from the connected world.
Most people now … what are they? Are they just a neuron connecting other people’s tweets? The world is becoming like Hollywood executives, that’s really what it’s about. Hollywood executives exist only for the moment when they get a phone call saying, “Oh, there’s a new idea,” or, “Somebody’s doing this,” because then they can pass it around to other people in Hollywood. They’re just neurological connections with the rest of them, and they’re available 24 hours a day, and I fear the real world is becoming like Hollywood executives, or life is because, as they say in France or as Rene Descartes would say, “I tweet, therefore, I am.” [laughs] It was my reaction to that, is what Zero Theorem was. How can you live disconnected? You lose your ability to relate and love with others. How do you get it back? Or not, as the case may be.
Christoph Waltz is one of those actors who, most of the world had no idea who he was, but he shows up on the scene and gets two Academy Awards. What was it about him that made you want him as your lead for Zero Theorem? What does he bring to the story you’re telling?
Gilliam: He had become bankable. That was enough. [laughs] No, I bumped into Christoph a couple of years earlier across a crowded room of award winners; I wasn’t one of them. I said, “We gotta work together.” It struck me that Christoph was uniquely qualified for this particular character because Qohen’s got a whole backstory of a life that’s gone wrong and that’s one reason he can’t deal with humanity anymore. Here was Christoph at 52 suddenly becoming an international movie star. Before that, he was a jobbing actor working, working, working and nobody paying any attention. So during that period, I would assume that he was probably very frustrated because other people were slowly becoming big names and you can build up a real reservoir of frustration, anger, envy, blah, blah, blah, which are very useful to dredge up when you’re playing a character like this because he’s never off screen; he is the movie. And because there’s no action of any sort, any interactions are subtle and limited, he’s got so much work to do to keep that character alive, and to keep us connected to him and caring about him, despite the fact that he’s, at times, a real pain in the ass, frankly. And he’s a wonderful actor to work with because you can’t go wrong. When we were cutting the film, there isn’t a single take that isn’t useable. Each is subtly different, he gives us so much to play with.
You mentioned getting caught up on your film watching. What have you watched recently that you’ve liked?
Gilliam: Not much. [laughs] I’m watching less and less because every time I finally start looking at what’s out there, I go, “Oh no, I’ve seen it all before. It doesn’t surprise me.” Technically, films are so brilliantly made now, but what is the content, ladies and gents? Literally the last thing that got me excited was Breaking Bad. I finally, after all these years, watched it just before Christmas last year. Netflix. I got it through Netflix. And the first month was free. [laughs] So I got to check out what that world was like after hearing about it for so many years. And I got through four series in three days. My wife was away at that time. [laughs] I finished the fifth over Christmas while the rest of the family was downstairs. I thought, “Oh, 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 a formula that is the demand of Hollywood now.” It intrigued me, the idea of this long form. It goes up and down, some episodes are much better than others, but it doesn’t matter; the totality was powerful. It affected me in the way films used to affect me. That’s the point that when I watch so many films now that, Oh, I’ve seen that one before, or that one’s a bit brighter, or a bit noisier, but it’s not affecting me. To me, films are about really getting inside of people.
The worst thing is that I believe so strongly in watching films on the big screen, but I watch most films on my screeners at home. Having just watched Transcendence and The Amazing Spider-Man on the plane coming over, I think I’ve done justice. So I’m a hypocrite, let’s be honest. [laughs]
It’s becoming easier and cheaper for independent filmmakers to get access to higher-end cameras. How do you think that’s going to affect the industry going forward?
Gilliam: Well there have been cheap cameras around for a long time. How are the films? Are they any better? The equipment is not what it’s about, it’s about ideas, talent, and skills. Everybody gets excited about technology, but it doesn’t interest me in the least. I’m only interested in it if it makes my job easier or cheaper. They’re tools. Now, anybody can make a movie, and I don’t see that many great movies, because I think there’s only a limited amount of talent out there. It’s great that everybody has a chance to play, but don’t expect to succeed, I think, is the only thing I’m saying. On the other hand, the fact that somebody wants to play and make a movie can now for very little money, that’s great. It’s nice if you can try and fail before you get a make a Hollywood blockbuster and do your failing big-time. Do it small-time and learn, it’s great.
In Zero Theorem, an iPhone, I only have an iPhone now because there are some Apple products in the film and I got one for free. [laughs] I’m a very Luddite character. I didn’t have a mobile phone until years after they came out. I love my iPhone now. Apple, oh, this is the product placement. [laughs] 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, emailed it, and then wrote the new line. He, with his iPhone, recorded it, and it’s in the movie. Mélanie Thierry, same thing in the south of France, we did the whole thing on the iPhone. It’s an incredible tool, and we couldn’t have done that years ago, or it would have cost a lot of money because we’d have to rig up an expensive telephone line and somebody’d have to go to the studio. These are the sides of new technology that I love, it’s fantastic. But it doesn’t necessarily make a good movie.
I’m wondering, where are you at in your Don Quixote movie?
Gilliam: We are trying. I’m not going to say anymore; it’s my default position. [laughs] I’ve gotten to the point now that anytime I start saying anything about it, I doom it. So I’m trying to keep my mouth shut.
I watched Zero Theorem last night. One of the things I was struck by was the format of the screen, the size and the rounded corners.
Gilliam: This is the question I’ve been waiting for! This may be the first time it gets written. I’m glad you spotted that, that’s brilliant!
Gilliam: That’s why we call it a one-size-fits-all, full-gate, semi-vinyl motion picture. Please write that down. [laughs] It’s “one size fits all” because, in my perverseness, or I’m not sure what it was, we shot the proportions as 16:9, not 1.85:1, or 2.35:1, which is widescreen, it’s what you see on your television screen now. So it’s one size fits all. I thought, since people are going to watch it anyway on their phones and tablets, 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. That’s the one size fits all.
Full-gate is because what you see is the full gate in the camera and it has the little rounded edges. In all films, there’s a safety area inside which is normally how you see films. We went for the whole thing, so you see full gate. And if there were hairs in the gate, you would see them, but we had a good crew. There’s a little funny scratch down one side, but anyway, the last time people had seen that was with silent movies, because subsequently we don’t show that. So I thought, that’s more fun as well.
And then it’s vinyl – vinyl being analog – because we shot on film. However, there were 260 visual effects shots, so I couldn’t lie and say we were full vinyl, so I said we were semi-vinyl. And that’s what was interesting about the rounded corners having huge problems, because the producers and the quality control guys for the distributors said, “We can’t accept this. This is wrong.” What happens at 16:9, there’s little strips of black down the side, because we don’t go the full size, but how many times have you gone to the cinemas and they pull the side curtains back and half the film is on the side curtains? It doesn’t matter. There are all these people who are frightened by this new – “new” – stupid idea, so I had to go and write a letter claiming that this is my creative choice. [laughs] It’s a creative decision. So it’s out there. Nobody’s ever complained, but you have to go through this gauntlet of people who are hired to make sure that nobody complains.
I’m personally excited very much for the 12 Monkeys television series and I’m curious to know how you think that will translate.
Gilliam: [laughs] I have no idea. I don’t have a fucking clue. [laughs] Nobody even contacted me. My producer never even contacted me saying, “We’re going to do this.” I have never heard anything other than what I read in the press, but I do think that the idea of Jeffrey Goines, Brad Pitt’s character, being a woman is such a major breakthrough, and I think that’s why it’s going to work. [laughs] I have no idea. What they’ve got is based on the time-travel in the movie. It won’t have much to do with the film. 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 of it. [laughs]
Gilliam: I’m with you all the way. [laughs]
You said that your inner twelve year-old is a little girl, and I was wondering if you still feel that way.
Gilliam: Well that was a joke. [laughs] But, making that movie was getting to play with dolls. Whenever I make a new film, I have to be the character, as many as possible. Jeliza-Rose … I had to become like a little girl to play. It was almost as good as being a dragon on the Python shows. [laughs]
Going back to Zero Theorem, I thought about the movie for a while trying to figure out what the greater point of it was. For me, it was about clinical depression. Do you think I’m on the right track with that?
Gilliam: I never define depression, clinical or otherwise. It’s the basis of most life, it seems to me, in the modern world. We’re all depressed. The sense of it was a guy who felt that if only he had a meaning to his life, it would be okay. The black hole was the meaninglessness of everything. He’s so busy waiting for someone to tell him rather than finding it himself or living. I find the character 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, to actually get outside of himself. The world around it is my invention which was just fun to play in. The most moving scene is when Bainsley says, “Come away with me,” and he can’t do it. And even after that, the boy brings some paternal instinct out; he cares about him.
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, the more you realize how impotent you are to change things. That’s the sad thing. In the end … the ending was not in the original script. I just wanted to leave him with one moment of control of something, some power. It’s really, I talk about all these other things, but that’s the heart of it. I decorated it, as I said, as opposed to direct, the outside world, I created the world around him, but that’s not really the movie, that’s the stuff around it. I think some people get it immediately; some people identify with Qohen or understand where he is, other people are just confused by it. I like the fact that when I checked on the statistics on the film, who rated it from one to five or whatever, the fives are great, and the zeroes are great, and I like that. [laughs] Because I know that the fives are experiencing something. And that’s, going back to what I’m saying earlier, it’s trying to get into people. That’s all I’ve ever tried to do is leave bits of shrapnel in them, like I had shrapnel left in me from other films. We entertain as best we can, but we’re also trying to reach something.
And when people talk about an audience, there’s a million audiences out there. The trick is, some people are going to like this, some people are going to like that, and yet the system doesn’t seem to think that way. It’s also very difficult to reach the ones you think will like it, because I don’t have any idea who’s going to like it. It’d be easier if I could tell, but I’m always surprised with audiences. “That person liked it? God, I didn’t expect that.” I know that guy, that 20-year-old computer geek, he loves it because he’s exactly at that point in his life. There’s a 15-year-old in France that loved it, and I thought, “What? Where’d this come from?” And then I find 60-year-old people who get it, and yet huge swaths don’t have a fucking clue what’s going on. [laughs] Worst picture I’ve ever seen! Kill Gilliam! [laughs]
I’ve been thinking a lot about Chrétien de Troyes and the Perceval Myth, and obviously you’re a fan. I’ve been thinking about the way that that archetype has become not only a recurring theme in your films, but also emblematic of your frustration with Hollywood. What is the way forward to get to a middle ground?
Gilliam: The key for me with Perceval was, here’s this young bright guy who actually gets to where he’s supposed to go, but he doesn’t ask the right question. He spends the rest of his life trying to find where he’d already got to. It’s about asking questions rather than accepting things. In Perceval’s case, he’s polite. That’s his great sin, he’s polite and doesn’t ask the question. Don’t be polite. Right now, we live in a world where everyone’s terrified of offending. Fuck that! Offense is important folks! [laughs] If we behaved like that, there wouldn’t have been Monty Python. We went out of our way to offend, to shock people. It’s not to offend in a cheap way. It’s like when you do cheap racial jokes or ethnic jokes, some are really funny, but just too many are just too easy, but if you do a good one, then Wow! That’s good! It’s like when, in college, we’d do practical jokes, and the joker had to put in more effort than what the jokee had to go through. It’s about that, and it’s trying to get people to think, is all I’m really saying. Some of that means shocking them, saying rude things. My daughter says, “That’s rude!” and I say, “And?” Am I causing harm, or am I doing or saying something that someone might react to and start thinking? I don’t know if that’s exactly how Chrétien de Troyes meant his Perceval, but that’s my translation. [laughs] But I do think that we’re at a stage where people are so frightened of saying things because if they say the wrong thing, they cause offense. So people aren’t being honest, they’re speaking with all sorts of self-censorship going on, and that gets into Hollywood.
Writers do the self-censoring before they even get to the studio executive, because they know the film will not run that gauntlet. They, because they want to get their films made, they censor it. When we made The Fisher King – we’ll keep the Perceval thing going here because Parry is Perceval – I thought Richard LaGravenese’s script was fantastic, except there were certain elements in there I just didn’t buy, they were stupid, it seemed to me. He said it was under pressure from the producers to do these things so that it was more likely the film would get financed. I said, “Rich, let me see your first script,” and we went back basically to that, because it was there, it was pure, and it was honest.
The ending of Zero Theorem was not in the script. There were three scenes that followed that moment. The ending that was in the script was a crap Hollywood ending that just violated the world that we had created, but it was there because obviously the producers thought that we would get funded more easily. Now, when I cut the film together, I watched and I just couldn’t stand that, so I just chop, chop, chop and left it where it was. Pat Rushin, who wrote it, when he saw it said, “Thank you for that.” [laughs] Because, again, it’s how you want to succeed, you want to achieve and get your work done, and on the way you made all these little compromises, but in the end you’ve violated what you set out to do. It’s a very hard balance of how to play this game and get films made because they’re expensive, but mostly it’s self-censorship of the writer is where the problem begins. I wish … I don’t know how you get around it frankly. Do what we did. Write the happy ending, then cut it off. [laughs]
You were talking about leaving pieces of shrapnel in people. Which films have left shrapnel in you?
Gilliam: As a kid, Thief of Bagdad, the great Korda and William Powell film. The scene where the native kid is in the big spider-web and the spider’s coming down, I used to wake up in the middle of the night trapped in that spider-web, all my bedclothes wrapped around me, strangling me. That’s a kind of shrapnel that was in there. The one that woke me up to the power of movie-making and ideas was Paths of Glory. I’d never seen such injustice on the big silver screen, I’d been watching Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, which was great, but it didn’t deal with injustice. It also was the first time I was aware of the camera, ie the tracking shots through the trenches. It woke me up. That was the one that woke me up. So that’s the kind of thing that I’m talking about, ideas that still stick with me and inform the way I see the world.
We’ll do a Brazil one since I really like Brazil. There was a lawyer who saw Brazil, this is a second-hand story, and he didn’t know what happened. He went back to his office and locked himself in for three days. The publicist from Universal, this is a first-hand experience, she said when she saw the film that she went back home that evening and was taking a shower and just started weeping and couldn’t stop. Now, on the good side of it, you do Fisher King. Dave Crosby, of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, he got in an accident the year before and his wife died, and I’m not sure but I think he was driving the truck. He couldn’t come to terms with that. He saw Fisher King, and like Robin, there’s a catharsis, and he said he could live again. Now that’s interesting that a film does that to someone. So that’s what I’m talking about. Here’s another one. There’s a woman who lived in New York; she saw the film and walked 20 blocks home, only she realized she’d walked 20 blocks in the wrong direction. And that’s what so many films have done for me, and I suppose that’s what I’m trying to do. When that works, you feel like you’ve pulled something off that’s worth it. And hopefully they’re ideas, or attitudes, or views of the world that are different than the straight, mainstream road.
Gilliam: Yeah, I’m not the one who said that, but that’s fine. No, I’m not even convinced that I did dystopias, 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. [laughs] What’s interesting is that 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 I get out there, the overload of information and stuff. That’s my chance to nail advertising, so we turned Occupy Wall Street into Occupy Mall Street, and “Shoppers of the World Unite!” and bring back good ol’ Communist. That’s the side that I get to be a more satirical, and inside is this other story.
The Zero Theorem, why do they want to solve it?
Gilliam: People do. People want to understand the meaning of life, or in the case of ManCom, is if you can prove that everything is nothing, that’s really important information. That’s what advertising feeds on. Advertising feeds on your incomplete life, your frustrations, your dreams are never fulfilled, and the more incomplete you are, the more easily we can get you to buy! It’s just good business, it seems to me. I don’t really know what ManCom is up to other than, get a lot of information together and then we can start controlling people. There’s an interesting thing: when we first started showing it to people, they compared it to Brazil and said, “It’s a dystopia.” I don’t think it’s a dystopia! I think it’s the world that’s out there. Everyone’s in colorful clothes, having a good time, shopping away! There’s only one misery-guts in the whole thing, and that’s Qohen. Everybody else is having a fine time out there. That’s a utopia! They thought, “Oh, it’s big government again, the power of the state,” that’s what they thought ManCom was. And I said, “No! It’s not about government anymore. It’s about corporations.” Governments are second-rate folks. Who’s really running the world? Wake up! Your government is just doing the show. You think, because you live in a democracy, you have control. It’s a corporate world we live in, folks. And it’s a joy, because I love my iPhone. [laughs]
A quick Monty Python question: Four decades later, the troupe that was so British with references that none of us get, yet people remain fascinated with the work. Why?
Gilliam: That’s the great mystery of life that we’ll never know the answer to. I really don’t. It’s a strange mixture of very intelligent stuff, very silly stuff, rude stuff still, we still aren’t afeared to offend. I don’t know. I remember when we were doing And Now for Something Completely Different, the film, I was fighting with [John] Cleese all the time because he was saying that all these references that we don’t understand and trying to Americanize them. I was saying, “No, no, no!” The Beatles’ Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields, I didn’t know what they were specifically, but they were poetic and they meant something. My imagination could grow. And Penny Lane, or Strawberry Fields, if you went there, it’s just another street. It’s important that it’s this rather archaic thing as well. I really don’t know. The fact is that when we were doing the show, people were coming from everywhere; Brazil, Argentina, Korea, Japan, everywhere. I don’t know. I’ve got a friend who translated into Czech. I know the Germans translated into all these other languages. I don’t know how those jokes work in all those other languages. [laughs] It’s one of those things like neither am I looking for the answer to the mystery or life, nor am I looking for meaning to the success of Python.