Terry Gilliam‘s new film The Zero Theorem touches on a lot of his established aesthetic signposts while exploring new thematic ground with its questions about the universe and how we all wait for permission for the wrong things. The film stars Christoph 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. Melanie Thierry, Tilda Swinton, and David Thewlis also star.
I recently hopped on the phone with Gilliam to talk all things The Zero Theorem, his reaction to the film’s philosophy as well his take on why people do what they do without thinking ahead. Be sure to check out the trailer and hit the jump for my Terry Gilliam interview.
Collider: Watching this movie it became kind of clear to me that this Sisyphean sort of task that the protagonist has can be really subjective to the viewer. Can you talk about his psychology and why you feel he is initially beholden to this task?
TERRY GILLIAM: I suppose my feeling about him is that he basically is a guy who is good at something, at one thing, which is manipulating entities. He’s brilliant at it. That’s his skill and that’s what he does. That’s the only thing he does. What’s odd about it, he doesn’t think about what the job means. He’s so distracted by this hopeful phone call that’s going to give him the meaning of life. So he’s doing this job just because he’s a workaholic, I guess. It occupies his time and he’s good at it, and that’s about it. That’s what surprised me about the character, he’s so distracted by this phone call that’s supposed to tell him the meaning of his life that he doesn’t think about what he’s doing, he just does. That, to me, is what a lot of people are about. They do their job and they don’t think about the larger ramifications of it or even consider it. They’re happy to have a job. I’m not sure if I even like him as a character, because he’s so self-absorbed, selfish, and wants somebody to tell him what it’s all about rather than solving the problem of life, of his own life. There’s not much more about him than that other than the fact that he’s certainly been scarred by life. He’s had relationships that have not worked out and rather than fighting on he’s just given up relationships. He’s a very fucked up human being [laughs].
Oh yeah. It doesn’t appear that you’ve worked with Pat Rushin before, so is this something where you came across the script or is this something that you developed together? It seems like it very much has your voice in it as well.
GILLIAM: What really happened, Dick Zanuck, the famous Dick Zanuck who is no longer with us, had been trying to get me to do this film for some time, and when I first read the script I thought “Ah, this is good. It’s full of a lot of really interesting ideas, a lot of questions, I like the characters, I like the dialogue.” And also it felt like he had seen every movie I had made because there are references, in different ways, to all of them in there and I thought, “Okay, this is kind of easy.” That was how it began and I had a few thoughts about the script and shared them with Pat on email, I had never met him until we were actually shooting the film, a few things back and forth. And then it all went belly-up and it didn’t happen. I went off and did The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and then I was involved in Quixote after that. Then Quixote fell apart and I said, “Jesus, this is another year going by without another film.” My agent suggested checking to see if Zero Theorem still had interest for the financiers, and it did, so I said, “Fuck, let’s just go for it and do it.” That was kind of it. It was a very different approach than normally. I said we’ll just jump in and go to town rather than brooding about it for a couple years. I kind of discovered what it was primarily in the editing room when it was all over. I kind of worked out what it was and what we needed to fix and change, so there was a lot of interesting work in the editing room.
Christoph Waltz is in almost every scene of the film and his character goes through so much, there must be so many things that are difficult to relate in an initial meeting. How do you communicate to an actor that you’re going to guide him through?
GILLIAM: Well I didn’t, I don’t. I said, “Christoph, this is your film. You’re on screen almost non-stop. I’ll follow you.” [Laughs] We had bumped into each other a couple years earlier and said, “We’ve got to work together.” I was a huge fan of his work and apparently he was the same with me. So we just jumped into in that way. I knew that with Christoph – he’s an interesting character because unlike a lot of big name stars now, because he is a bankable name, he spent a half a century before he was recognized as a great actor, so there’s a lot of stuff going on inside him for all those years that he was bypassed or ignored and I thought he could dredge that stuff up, which he did. He’s just breathtaking to work with because it’s so small, it’s so delicate what he’s doing, and it’s always watchable and believable. We talked about various aspects of the character and initially he didn’t like the idea of the character referring to himself in the third person all the time, but then he did some research and talked to psychiatrists who explained to him that if you spend a lot of time alone you start doing just that, so he was happy. Christoph was very – he does his work, basically. Then we started shooting and we’re having a good time because I make it enjoyable and he’s smart and he’s funny. We just every day, “Oh, I don’t know. I think it should be a little more like this, a bit more like that” and we both kind of feel our way through it, but he basically led the whole way.
Do you take comfort in the fact that the universe will eventually contract into nothing? Do you share the philosophy?
GILLIAM: No, I wouldn’t say comfort. I take comfort in the fact that I wont be around when that happens [laughs]. Fuck, whatever happens, happens. It’s nothing to be proud of or look forward to, if it happens, and it probably will happen assuming contemporary theories about big bang and the way the universe functions are correct – they may be completely wrong – but based on what we know now that seems to be what’s going to happen. [Laughs] So make the most of it while you’re here folks, and try not to fuck it up and speed the process too much.
It’s interesting that we look to that as sort of permission to go with that philosophy since I doubt any human being will be around anyway at that point. We should maybe be looking at our own mortality as the signpost for that.
GILLIAM: Your Republican will do that, yes. Your Republican thinks like that. I remember when Reagan was president, the secretary of the interior was a guy who was an Armageddonist who actually believed the end of days were not too far in the distant future. He was put in charge of the environment and his approach was of course, not to protect it, but let’s get as much money as we can before Jesus comes back. And I despise that. We’re here and we’ve got to do whatever we can to keep the place running. We think in terms of quarterly statements and we should be thinking a little bit further in advance of that. At least the communists had ten year plans. We don’t have that anymore.
A lot of times that kind of thought absolves people of responsibility. I think a lot of times they go with it because it’s the most convenient thing and it makes the most sense for those quarterly reports.
GILLIAM: Yeah, I know. It’s about how you are inside and there will always be those people and there will be all the others that worry about every single thing we do that might cause damage to the planet. I’m somewhere leaning more towards the damage to the planet side, much more towards that. This is the problem, it’s like if you happen to be a Presbyterian, which I was as a kid, there’s a thing called predestination that creates the same situation. You’re going to heaven or hell no matter what you do in life, because you’ve been predestined, so your job is to lead an ethical, moral, and hardworking life while you’re here, but you’re going to go to hell anyway [laughs]. But it’s what you do while you’re here, and what you should be doing is living hopefully and trying to balance your needs and the needs of the world and the planet, and don’t fuck the place up. So that’s the problem with the idea that it’s all going to go to rat shit eventually so let’s make as much money as possible. Those people will always be a fungus and if I was running the country I would take them out and shoot them frankly, but that’s something else [laughs].