EXCLUSIVE: While I was exiting a panel at Comic-Con in San Diego last month, a voice over the loudspeaker in Hall H said there was going to be a surprise look at The Zero Theorem, the new film by Terry Gilliam. After a conspiratorial intro in which Gilliam said he’d been kidnapped and laid out the plot, he proceeded to show the first 10 minutes of his movie. It introduced a brightly colored, high-tech futuristic world and a hairless protagonist (Christoph Waltz) who wants only to be away from the bombardment of messages and find a purpose in this noisy world. David Thewlis, newcomer Melanie Thierry also star, and Matt Damon’s in the movie too. The images were textbook Gilliam, but the circumstances were highly unusual. Film distributors usually lobby to get Hall H space at the Con; this film was financed by Voltage’s Nicolas Chartier after Gilliam failed yet another attempt to make his film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. A distributor probably won’t be in place until after the film premieres at Venice. Gilliam and cohorts arranged Comic-Con with a phone call: Whether for his Monty Python artistry, 12 Monkeys, Time Bandits or Brazil, Gilliam is an icon to the geek crowd. Intrigued, I seized the chance to talk with him about the film. Gilliam is no stranger to struggling with studios and budgets (The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, for instance), but he finds today’s Hollywood summer film gambles to be dizzying. And at a time when production and marketing costs have hit unimaginable heights, Gilliam made The Zero Theorem for closer to what he spent directing Monty Python And The Holy Grail back in 1975 than the going price of a blockbuster these days.
DEADLINE: That 10minutes of The Zero Theorem you showed at Comic-Con established a world where the protagonist is assaulted by advertising messages that speak directly to him. Aren’t we already being assaulted that way?
GILLIAM: It’s a pain in the ass, all this technology. It’s all around you. In some ways, it’s good. Just yesterday, we were doing work — people in several different countries, working on the same project at the same time, communicating with others. That intrigues me.
DEADLINE: It also plays well into the totalitarian themes you’ve occasionally explored. Brazil seems like old-school repression compared to what is possible in a tech world where you can’t hide.
GILLIAM: That obsesses me of late. How can you be alone? I have a house in Italy; we’re up on a hilltop. There is no phone, no television and no Internet. We have to drive down to the local village and go to the local bar, which has Wi-Fi, to look at email. I prefer this, but when making films, this technology couldn’t be better for us. It makes life simpler, makes it possible for a guy who is a good matte painter to not have to be in the office next to me. He can do it in his log cabin in Oregon. But the other side is having the NSA keeping tabs on everything you do. And there’s Amazon, constantly suggesting to me all the things I need to buy. Fuck off!
DEADLINE: Is there connective tissue between The Zero Theorem and Brazil?
GILLIAM: Only in the sense that Brazil was me commenting on the world as I saw it in 1985, and this is me, commenting on the world now. A year ago, I was talking to Tom Stoppard and saying, “If we were to try making Brazil now, what would we do?” It’s so diffused now, so scattered all over the place that it’s very hard to find the center of anything. In a strange way, this film deals with several aspects of that modern world. I’m obsessed with this challenge of being alone. How do you know who you are when now, nobody lives for the moment? They are all commenting about the moment — tweeting, on Facebook. We’re here, having dinner, and here’s a picture of the dinner, look at this! Rather than being there, enjoying the meal and talking to the people who are there. It might sound schizophrenic, but I feel there is a scattering of our lives. A couple years ago, I did this Arcade Fire webcast live at Madison Square Garden. The first song is on, and I notice halfway through, we were getting tweets of people’s reactions. I thought, this is madness. You’re not experiencing the moment. You’re already commenting and making judgments. This is no good, as far as I am concerned.
DEADLINE: I just wrote a piece in Deadline about how World War Z broke the $500 million worldwide gross mark to become Brad Pitt’s biggest movie. And there was widespread disagreement among my readers on whether the movie has broken even. When you made 12 Monkeys with Pitt, it was a different business. WWZ cost more than $200 million to make. How do you relate to the current climate in Hollywood, these all-or-nothing dice rolls?
GILLIAM: Ugh. I had to walk away from it. Zero Theorem, I won’t tell you how cheap it was, but it was incredibly cheap, the lowest budget film I’ve made in over 30 years. It doesn’t look it, but that is the reality of the world I live in now. I don’t want to do a Marvel movie, I don’t want to do any of that stuff. The film industry in a sense is a perfect mirror of society. The 1% are those tentpole pictures where all the money goes. What happens in society is that the middle class is getting hammered, and films in the middle range cost-wise are just not happening now. When I was looking to do this film five years ago, it had a budget of X. We’ve just done it for a third of X because of how things changed for movies like this one. That forced me to go to Bucharest to work. Basically, the cast we have is made up of friends, coming in and working for scale, because they wanted to help out.
DEADLINE: Commanding a high studio budget makes things convenient. What does filmmaking on a shoestring bring out in a filmmaker like yourself?
GILLIAM: I do get great enjoyment putting stuff on screen that looks really interesting and expensive, when it costs nothing. You saw the street scene and Renault, the car company, gave us 15 privies, what these small cars are called, and we said, “That’s not enough for the street.” So we got some golf carts, built panels on the sides, and taxi lights on the top, because we had no money. The costumes that Carlo [Poggioli] made were extraordinary. Outside of Bucharest, he found this Chinese market, and a lot of cheap crap stuff from China. He was buying fabric, not by the yard but by the kilo. Horrible stuff, but it looked amazing when he was done. He made all these costumes out of cheap tablecloths and shower curtains. When you are put in that situation, without the resources, it takes a considerable burden off your back and requires you to rely on your imagination and your ability to play and have some fun and throw things together out of nothing. That’s very much what this film is, even though I promise you, it doesn’t look like that.
DEADLINE: It didn’t look cheap at all. When I saw the scenes on the streets, it looked like that high-tech landscape in Blade Runner, except it was daylight and not raining.
GILLIAM: [Laughs]. What you find is that much of the action later on takes place in this converted chapel Chrisoph’s character lives in. When you are restricted in certain things, you find other ways. I mean, I don’t want to do another one like this for a while, because more money leaves more room to maneuver, but we had 27 days to shoot the film. Everything was very fast. You grab it, there’s no time to reshoot, and you move on.
DEADLINE: Big budgets bring pressures of a different kind that is evidence in the high-tech world you showed in The Zero Theorem. WWZ got slaughtered in the press before anybody saw a frame. You can’t hide problems unless you shoot in Bucharest for no money. How does that affect an artist like you who has these images in his head, trying to get them out?
GILLIAM: It’s very frustrating, and I spent a lot of time beating my head against walls, basically. The problem is, I’ve got a visual imagination that’s as good as anybody out there, but now I don’t have the resources. But then solutions come up because you don’t have the money to do it the way you’d like to do it, or do it the way everybody else is doing it. You’re forced to be better than yourself, in many ways. This movie was so tight, it was painful and there was bleeding, but for me the important thing is to have the freedom to say what I want and say it the way I want to say it, without having to compromise because you’ve got this huge budget that has to be protected. And we weren’t inundated with a lot of very nervous studio executives who were worried about whether their heads are going to roll if the film doesn’t work. From that sense, it’s just me and our gang of people, going for it. It’s always a fine balance. I do like having restrictions, otherwise my imagination, my brain and my ambitions just spread. I want more and more and get greedy. Having those limitations focuses me and you become more aware of the priorities.
DEADLINE: Brazil is Nicolas Chartier’s favorite film, and Voltage put up the money and covered risk with a foreign sale. How tough was getting this made compared to some of your other films?
GILLIAM: What happened was this: Last May, after Cannes, our latest attempt to get Don Quixote off the ground almost came together until key elements in the financing pulled out and the film started crumbling again. By June, I was without a job. I told my agent, “If I don’t shoot something this year, I’m going to shoot somebody.” My agent said, “Well, what about this other film?” We called Nicolas Chartier to see if he was still interested, and he was, but not for the same amount of money as before. The deal became very simple after we focused on Christoph and I was told that if he said yes, than it was a yes.
DEADLINE: When you look at the movies made into sequels, the originals had small expectations and grew organically. Now, studios try to build franchises by throwing so much money at the budgets and then a sum like the $125 million they spent to launch World War Z around the world…
GILLIAM: Is that what they spent? Jesus.
DEADLINE: I am told by the studio that is fairly common these days when you take a shot at a billion-dollar gross, that you spend $125 million to launch it. It is a different world from what you’re doing now.
GILLIAM: You keep waiting to see what’s going to be the new Cleopatra, the one that suddenly takes out a studio. That’s the part I don’t quite understand about this, these economics and how they are able to survive with losing this amount of money as often as they are doing it. But even when you are doing a low-budget movie, they’re still asking you, “Oh, can you get Brad or Johnny or one of those guys?” I say, “What are you talking about?” Luckily, in this instance, Christoph after Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained excited enough people for this to happen, which is wonderful. I’m curious — do you think they spent that much to launch The Lone Ranger?
DEADLINE: I bet they had to on a movie that cost $220 million or more.
GILLIAM: That is the problem with these films. By the time you’ve spent $250 million, add another $100 million on top, you’ve got to hit half a billion or more before you break even. It’s madness. I think Hollywood has gone Las Vegas. Let’s put all of the money on red this year. Next year, we’ll put it on black. Hopefully, we’ll hit it.
DEADLINE: What does it say to Hollywood that you’ve managed to make this movie for a price, and you’ve got Christoph Waltz and Matt Damon in it?
GILLIAM: Well, it says I’ve got some good friends. Which is a very nice feeling, to have those kinds of friends. [Laughs.]
DEADLINE: The screenwriter of this movie, Pat Rushin, was a complete unknown. What sparked your interest in exploring this world he created?
GILLIAM: The world in the script wasn’t what you saw in the footage. It was a gray world in the script. But the character intrigued me. He’s somebody who wants to escape in a sense, from the world. He wants to be alone. And at the same time, he’s waiting for this phone call that will give real meaning to his life. We all, in a sense, want something that will give meaning to our lives. It may not be as simple as waiting for a telephone call. Although I am still waiting for a telephone call, for someone to say, okay, we’ve got the money for you to make Quixote. So that intrigued me. The other thing that might be good or bad is, it was clear Pat had seen everything I had ever done. There were so many references to my other films that I felt it was like doing a compendium of my best work. There were all those elements. But also, it was controllable. You had one person living in this burnt out chapel, and people enter his life. It was so simple. His superior at work, this mysterious girl, and a kid. That becomes nicely archetypical. And where it went was surprising to me, which was nice. It was intelligent writing, good dialogue and good ideas. That’s all that interests me now. When it comes to creating the world that you saw, that’s decorating the film, it’s not directing the film. I’m filling the world full of imagery and ideas I’ve got going on, but that’s not the heart of the movie. This was a script that you don’t read that often. Even its failings created opportunities; a lot of the writing was done in the editing room in this instance. I liked that it was containable; I just wanted to do a movie where there were not a million complex problems to solve. And, I had nothing better to do.
DEADLINE: I can recall as a kid being blown away by the incredible animation you did on Monty Python and in movies like Time Bandits. When a visualist like you gets a script like this, do you respond mostly to the ideas on the page or to the visual opportunities they present you?
GILLIAM: It has to start with the ideas and the story and characters. Then I do what I do, just start decorating it, filling it up with visual stuff. When you saw the footage of that street, with all the ads and everything, none of that was in the script. I just wanted to create a world our hero wants to escape from. It was as simple as that. Occupy Wall Street was going on at the time, and I wanted this to be Occupy Mall Street. Shoppers of the world unite! Everybody is getting rich but you! It’s what was going on at the time we worked on the script.
DEADLINE: So you did this after another failed attempt at Don Quixote. Do you still intend to make that movie, and why can’t you let it go?
GILLIAM: Probably because I can’t make it. That’s why. If I could make it I could let it go [laughs]. Certain things just possess you, and this has been like a demonic possession I have suffered through all these years. The very nature of Quixote is, he’s going against reality, trying to say things aren’t what they are but how he interprets them. It’s ridiculous and it is who I’ve become, with age. In a sense, there is an autobiographical aspect to the whole piece.
DEADLINE: Describe the struggle to make it in a logline.
GILLIAM: A waste of life [laughs]. What is strange, it has become a kind of Holy Grail, it became a focus I’ve poured a lot of energy towards, even obliquely while I was doing something else. It’s very odd, but I’m almost at the point where I’m ready to give it up. I’ve just spent too many years on this, and each time I had a go at it I’ve rewritten it again, to reflect what I’ve been through or how I’m seeing the world. So I then sometimes steal ideas from what I was going to do with Quixote, and incorporate them into whatever film might come along. It has been a kind of idea warehouse. Now, I’m being shouted at because we’re mixing sound. I was told to give you half an hour.
DEADLINE: Feel free to cut me off like a gangrenous limb; I’ve got plenty here.
GILLIAM: That was how we edited Zero Theorem! We would see a bit of gangrene, and bang, it’s gone and the body that has been stitched together and it’s all very healthy now.