Terry Gilliam Riffs on Absurdist Sci-Fi Epic ‘The Zero Theorem’

Photos of Terry Gilliam and Lucas Hedges by Paula Schwartz

Terry Gilliam, the 73-year-old “Monty Python” star and veteran director, was in New York last week to promote his wacky new sci-fi film, “The Zero Theorem.” The movie covers territory familiar to fans of “Brazil,” “Time Bandits” and “12 Monkeys.”

Set in a candy-colored futuristic London, it stars Academy Award-winning actor Christoph Waltz as Qohen Leth, a reclusive and eccentric computer savant, who works for an omniscient and mysterious corporation called Mancom, headed by Management (Matt Damon in nifty suits), who assigns Qohen the monumental task of uncovering the meaning of existence – or the lack of one. Management assigns his computer whiz son, played by talented Lucas Hedges, to help Qohen complete his task. The teenager brings out Qohen’s human side and becomes a sort of surrogate son.

During the press conference at the Tribeca Grand Hotel, Gilliam, who attended with the talented Lucas Hedges, cracked journalists and himself up often with his wry and unfiltered comments. (Note: Hedges is best known for “Moonrise Kingdom” and look for him in the terrific upcoming film “Kill the Messenger,” about investigative journalist Mark Webber.)

Here are edited highlights from the press conference with Terry Gilliam:

On the Internet:

“I’m constantly looking around the web because it’s infinite what you can find there. You just have to do the work, but it’s all there. The thing that always bothers me about the web is how few people actually use it for the knowledge that is there. Most of it is used for what, gossip? What am I eating? Who am I sitting with? And for porn sites, basically. You use them all. (He laughed)

On the dystopic vision of life represented in the film:

“Well that’s why this isn’t dystopia. This is Utopia. It’s a wonderful world! Everybody is out there! They’re dressed smartly. They’ve got a lot of color. They’re bouncing around all over the place. Cars are zipping back and forth. Shopping is 24 hours a day, seven days a week. What more do you want? The workplace, Mancom is fun. Rollerblades, scooters, zippy clothes in lots of primary colors. It’s a fantastic place. There’s only one guy who’s a dystopic element, the misery guy, and he’s called Qohen. He needs a kick in the ass. And this is one of the kicks! It’s really that. If you think the world we’re living in now is a dystopia, then you may be right.” (Gilliam laughed)

Gilliam was first given the script for “The Zero Theorem” in 2008, and he considered directing it with Billy Bob Thornton in the lead. When he circled back in 2012, the movie had a new lead in Waltz. Gilliam was asked to discuss how the conception of the film changed.

“It wasn’t the difference in the two actors. Each would have done it differently, no question. And they both would have been wonderful, let’s hope, very simple. But it didn’t come together then. I went off and made Parnassus (“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” 2009), and then eventually went back to see if we could make this and when Christoph’s name came up, bingo. The big difference was the fact that three years earlier, we had a budget of 20 million dollars and then we made the thing for 8.5 million dollars so immediately we’re not shooting in London, and we’re in Bucharest.

We’re in a very different world relying on actors that I really love working with, some who are friends, one I’ve worked together with before, to come on and work for scale and things like that… The film changed enormously. It was nice being in Bucharest because it’s such an odd, interesting city. That immediately infects what we’re doing, and the lack of money meant that you couldn’t have normal proper costumes, you had to fake it. Carlo Poggioli (costume designer) had to make things out of plastic table clothes and shower curtains. He found this wonderful Chinese market, a Chinese market outside Bucharest, where you bought fabric by weight, not by length. Not I’ll have a yard of this, but I’ll have three pounds of that.

On working with a smaller budget:

“You cut through the bureaucracy of complex filmmaking, ’cause it is a complex film, all this stuff. We have to create a world. Everything in there is invented, created in one form or another. On a larger budget, communications aren’t as direct, things end up costing more because people will do three versions of something just in case the director changes his mind to cover their ass. On this, there was no time for that. Bam, bam, bam, everything moves fast. And that’s very exciting to work like that because there’s no time to doublethink. It’s what can we do? How much we got? We can’t do that? Okay, let’s do that instead. It’s a form of guerrilla filmmaking, I suppose. It’s wonderful, so I can’t even imagine what it was going to be like back then. That’s all gone. I’ve forgotten whatever that might have been. I just know what we’ve got. (He laughed)

On being politically correct and how hung up people are on not offending:

“People are constantly asking, ‘How do you feel? What do you think?’ So nobody really has to have their individual opinion. People sort of are constantly communicating, ‘Should I say that? Is that right? Have I gone too far? Have I offended? Am I rude?’ All these words keep coming up … People have got to start being individual, and offense? I’m obsessed about offending people because you get a discussion going, maybe, if I start talking about things rather than ducking and diving.”

On the art and privilege of making films:

“Films are pretty extraordinary, and we’re pretty lucky to be able to make them, because they’re so intense when we’re doing it. At periods like this, there’s nothing before and nothing after. It’s that moment. And you have to be in the moment the full time you’re there. Then it’s over. And then hopefully, it’s like when you look back at films where you’ve done good work. You look back at it happily, proudly, and say, yeah, did all right there. And it’s not much more than that is all you need to look back and not feel ashamed or that you were compromised to the point that you didn’t do what you were capable of, all of those things, so I’m very proud of what we pulled off frankly.” (He laughed)


One response to “Terry Gilliam Riffs on Absurdist Sci-Fi Epic ‘The Zero Theorem’”

  1. Doctor Who Avatar

    Terry Giilliam is one of my all time favorite directors. Good to see he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

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