Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem has been simultaneously touted as a return to form and nothing more than more of the same from the 73-year-old auteur and expatriate Python—as if either were, in this day and age, an unwelcome proposition. Anyone who’s ever been hypnotized by Gilliam’s florid totalitarian satire Brazil owes it to themselves to check out Zero Theorem. Starring Christoph Waltz as a desolate data-cruncher named Quohen, it abounds in the contradictions between sharing (in the digital sense) and growing ever-more isolated, and it’s a rare and meticulous commentary on 21st-century life littered with incisive gags from an auteur written off by many long ago as nothing more than a fabulist. The day before release, Gilliam and I sat down to discuss the film’s many meanings and anti-meanings.
I’m going to use my iPhone to record us.
We actually dubbed some of the dialogue for this film on that thing, rather than doing ADR, having to get in the studio and all that. Christoph was staying in Berlin, and so I just put the scene on QuickTime, as we had done it, sent the new dialogue to him, he looked at it, recorded the lines on his iPhone, emailed it back, and now it’s in the movie.
It was clean enough?
Oh, it was brilliant. Just brilliant. Melanie Thierry was in the south of France and she did the same thing. I don’t know how these phones succeed in doing what they do, but they do.
So does this mean you’re gonna be doing your next film entirely in post-production?
[laughs] Yeah, my new Holy Grail.
Your mise-en-scène is refreshingly old-fashioned. The takes are longer, but they’re usually these long, elaborate shots. Those shots are becoming more of a rarity. Was that a preference of yours going into it?
No, it’s just an efficient way of working. We put a small jib on the camera and we can find the shots quicker; it also allows the actors more room to play. I’m getting more and more bored with watching films where it’s so precise, where somebody turns left and the camera is there to receive them, if you will. C’mon. I’m seeing that too often, so I just wanna give Christoph, or whomever it is, space. I can very easily find the shots with those things, because there’s just a very limited amount of time to work.
I’m sure you’ve been drubbed over the head with the Brazil comparisons already, but one interesting thing is, you were interviewed saying you wanted that world to be as drab, as gray as possible. The Zero Theorem is full of colors, but they’re still insidious.
Well, I was really trying to separate it from Brazil, and to say, “The world is a happy place! Utopia! It’s all bright, bouncy, and lively!” And, because I knew the two films would be compared. There’s a German painter named Neo Rauch, who I really love, and he uses color in these jarring and interesting ways. Once you get into it, I’m not saying this type of red symbolizes this or this blue symbolizes that; for me it’s just, let’s make the set look as good as we can, let’s make the costumes as bright as possible, Quohen is gonna be the only gray. And it’s as simple as that.
You’ve said that in the case of this film, a smaller budget actually let you get away with a bit more world-building.
I wouldn’t say it’s vast, but we had to be clever with what we did to cheat it. When you see shots outside of Quohen’s church, it looks like the street’s packed with so much. It’s probably only a hundred extras, and 15 of those Renault Twizys, and about six other cars. And they’re moving so fast, they’re looping. We’d get ’em around, then they’d come back really quick, and there they are again. That whole wide shot, the first time we see Christoph stepping outside, we started early in the morning and by 11 o’clock we were finished. That’s how we had to work. If you have more money, you’ll then do a lot more takes, you’ll be happier with some things and unhappier with others, but we didn’t have time. And we achieved what we wanted.
Can you talk a little bit about rearranging or condensing the dialogue scenes once you were editing the film?
Well, when I got Christoph on board, I really, seriously, said, “Okay, now we start thinking about the film.” And we had, basically, 11 weeks before we were shooting. So, it wasn’t like rewriting anything; it was Pat [Rushin]’s script, okay, let’s just go for it. Each day, we would always adjust and change bits and pieces, but we essentially shot it as it was, and it was in the editing room that we’d go, “Okay, need to tighten that, cut that in half,” et cetera, and rearrange the quilt work. And ended up with the same film, but told in a slightly different way than it was originally written.
I know you studied political science and considered yourself something of an anarchist in the ’60s, if that’s the correct term…
No, just a disaffected sort of human being. [laughs]
My mistake. One of the filmmakers getting their due here in the States, finally, is the Czech animator Karel Zeman…
Oh, he’s a great inspiration! You’ve seen his version of Munchausen? Some Czech friends are doing a documentary about him, for which I’m being interviewed in a couple weeks.
So, he was thoroughly censored in Czechoslovakia. I was wondering if you had influences, starting out, that were both phantasmagorical and political.
Well, you have to go back to Metropolis. All these things, it’s just…if you’re gonna make a political statement, I find it easier, and more fun, more interesting, to do it in a world that’s different from the one you’re commenting on. This applies to Life of Brian too; it’s the same thing. Because I find it hard to make, quote, “realistic,” or “naturalistic,” films. Or even, like, heightened reality. The Fisher King is probably the only naturalistic film I’ve ever done. [laughs] It allows me more freedom to play, and the moment you start abstracting something from the reality that is, you can distort or emphasize it in different ways. You can make your points that way—and, it’s more entertaining!
So how do we classify you? More of an existentialist than a protest artist?
No, no, no. A political cartoonist of cinema, maybe. [laughs]
I like that. When he died, there was a roundly circulated story about Robin Williams doing this insane impromptu set in the middle of the night when you were shooting Fisher King...
I was wondering if you had any interesting stories from his Munchausen cameo, a few years back. It might be my favorite part of the film.
We only had him for a very brief time, so we had to work very fast. So much of the dialogue there is adlibbed; it’s the only bit of the film where that happens. Because he was just on fire. After the day’s shooting, we went out, spent some time together, and with him. He’s always elevating the moment, and the characters would just come out of him. We had dinner one night and he was just doing this character. I don’t know what triggered it, but he was just doing this guy, the kind of guy who sits at a bar one night and tells you his life story. And he’s going through all this shit. Well, as he’s talking, Robin begins to reveal that, you know, this guy has done some not-great things, and it turns out he’s a serial killer, and Robin begins to tell it all. And it was so unbelievably funny. Extraordinary.
Then, a couple nights later, I went out with him and Eric Idle, and at some point I told him to bring that guy back—so he does, but what’s interesting is, he started doing the bit again, but he’d edited the character already. And just did jokes this time. It was the character, but not the jokes before, but his instinct was, “I’m a stand-up comedian, so I harvest the jokes.” I preferred the character piece, of course. It was subtle, disturbing, surprising. And I still have never understood how he managed to do what he did. He was like a great antenna, bringing all knowledge, everything in the cosmos, sucking it all in, and then churning it out in a form nobody had seen before. Shocking, genius, you name it. A kind of channeling—like, I don’t know, the Oracle of Delphi or something. [laughs] I have never met anybody as extraordinary as that.
Is there a pragmatic reason he’s credited as “Ray D. Tutto”?
It wasn’t my choice, it was his manager’s—as they said, because it was a small part in the film, they didn’t want us “pimping his ass.” I think that was the phrase, i.e. that we’d be selling the film on Robin Williams. And so he became Ray D. Tutto, which translates to “the king of everything.” I thought it was kind of stupid on their part, I mean, it’s a wonderful performance, and it would’ve been nice to get people to come and see him doing it.
So much of the new movie is about “happy surveillance,” and also self-surveillance: I have to assume you were working on it when…
Yeah, when the Snowden thing went kaput.
Yeah, I thought it was really funny. [laughs] That’s why I put the very last shot in, after the end credits: Jesus spying on everybody. But at the time, it wasn’t…the surveillance wasn’t political in that sense, it was corporate. Which is, there’s always a slight difference: In our case, it’s within a specific organization. What I find now is, people don’t mind surveillance, it’s almost like, with social media, the government is doing selfies of everybody as they walk down the street.
Are there filmmakers working today, maybe newer to the game, who you like?
You know, I haven’t been watching films, that’s my problem.
Could be a good thing.
I don’t know. I’ve gone onto Netflix, so I binged on Breaking Bad last year, and the original Danish version of The Killing. I’m completely obsessed, I’m finding the writing is so good, it’s better than what you see in the cinema these days, and it’s reaching its audience. The smaller, independent, interesting films, how does the audience even know they’re out there anymore? They’re all competing with the big boys.
Well, people have to know about it in some way ahead of time.
Yeah, and so…the intelligent people find stuff, but I’ve always been interested in taking the less-intelligent people and educating them. It’s harder to do now. [laughs].