Terry Gilliam on Dystopia, the Rise of VOD, Guerrilla Filmmaking, + ‘The Zero Theorem’

Image via The Zero Theorem

Terry Gilliam’s new  film, The Zero Theorem, which has been in the works for several years, was finally released to theaters last Friday. The movie completes Gilliam’s dystopia trilogy, which began with the now-cult-classic Brazil in 1985 and 12 Monkeys in 1995. Needless to say, it had a lot to live up to.

While Gilliam’s original conception included stars like Billy Bob Thornton, Jessica Biel, Al Pacino, as well as a much bigger budget, the lead role of a dystopian worker Qohen ended up going to Christoph Waltz, who nonetheless provides the film with a committed performance. Lucas Hedge (Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel) joins him as a techie youth who breathes new life into the stale misanthropy of Waltz’s character.

Last week, we sat down for a conference with Terry Gilliam and the young Lucas Hedge to chat about The Zero Theorem. What followed was an impassioned take on our society’s technological dependence and communication conformism as the legendary filmmaker riffed on Facebook, Video on Demand, low-budget filmmaking, and the importance of not compromising when it comes to your vision.

Gilliam on his use of technology—Shutterstock imagery, GoPro cameras, and Google Earth—to help with the film’s lower budget:

TERRY GILLIAM: Anything cheap, quick, and efficient, that’s what we go for. I can include the iPhone as well. There are many lines of dialogue in the film that were recorded on an iPhone. The sunset scene on the beach, that’s from Shutterstock. But we mixed a lot of them together. It was basically that. All these technologies. GoPro! I’ve always been intrigued by those, and so we stuck them all over the set. But of course we cheat and lie throughout the whole thing, that’s the process of making films. So there are shots that look like GoPro shots but they’re not. We took our normal camera shots, warped them, made them black and white, and made them look like GoPro. But all that technology is very useful and it makes filmmaking easier and cheaper which is, to me, the key because the cheaper you can make a film, the more you can say exactly what you want to say the way you want to say it and not have to listen to the corporate dickheads telling you what the public really wants.

The Internet is another great resource. I find on the web I’m constantly lurking around because it’s infinite what you can find there. You just have to do the work, but its all there. The thing that always bothers me with the web is how few people actually use it for the knowledge that is there. Most of its used for gossip, ‘what am I eating’, ‘who am I sitting with’, and porn sites, basically. And [Lucas] uses them all, don’t you?

On the process of developing the script:

GILLIAM: This is very different than the other films I’ve done because Pat [Rushin] had written a script. I liked a lot of it. I found it full of interesting ideas. Pat and I never met until we were actually shooting the film.

HEDGE: He hadn’t been out of the country until he came to Romania, which was funny! And what does he teach?

GILLIAM: Creative writing.

HEDGE: And European history or something like that.

GILLIAM: In Florida. And he’s actually an extra in the scene when they’re in the park.

HEDGE: And you sort of threw him off to the side so he couldn’t ask any questions.

GILLIAM: Well that was probably the best thing! [laughs] But he wrote the short story. The script was only vaguely related to the short story. But in this instance, I didn’t do much fiddling with the script. I did more fiddling with the script in post, in the editing. Because we basically shot what he had done and then I started playing in post. Rearranging things, cutting scenes in half.

HEDGE: Christoph was very, very diligent about changing words around. Both of you were.

GILLIAM: That’s what we do. Because when you’re working with good actors, they’ve got their own ideas. Hopefully we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re making the same film. That’s how it works. Every day we change things, we see what’s going on. ‘Why not do it this way?’ ‘This way will work quicker.’ A script is not a finite thing. It’s the first stage of the whole process. Then, over the course of making the film, you know, you go to Bucharest instead of London. Everything changes. You’re constantly shifting the whole time. And that’s the fun of it because you surround yourself with good, talented people.

On his dystopian visions of the future:

GILLIAM: This isn’t a dystopia, this is a utopia! It’s a wonderful world! Everybody’s out there, they’re dressed smartly, they have a lot of color, they’re bouncing around the place. Cars are zipping back and forth. Shopping is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week! What more do you want?! The workplace is full of rollerblades, scooters, zippy clothes, lots of primary colors. It’s a fantastic place. There’s only one guy who’s the dystopic element. He’s called Qohen. And he needs a kick in the ass. And this is one of the kicks [referring to Hedge]. Everyone keeps referring to it as a dystopia! If you think the world we’re living in now is a dystopia, then you may be right. But we’ve been looking forward to this time for so many years. We’ve got all the goodies.

HEDGE: It’s a matter of what perspective you see it from. And we see it from Qohen’s perspective. And I guess his perspective is very much nihilistic and dystopic and sad.

GILLIAM: He’s the odd man out! My tendency in films is to see the less good things in society, in the world we live in. Because at least those are the things you can criticize, and possibly comment on, and possibly it might change something in some small way. Not likely, but we can pretend. We can have some potency in our ability to help change the world. [Lucas] has got to believe things like this. He’s got his whole life ahead of him. I’m old. I know the truth!

On the film industry’s distribution shift and the film’s VOD release:

GILLIAM: I didn’t choose this. It’s what the world has become. With small distributors, they don’t have the kind of money that Hollywood has to get the audience’s attention. So basically we’re relying on people who might like a Gilliam film or want to see a Christoph Waltz film to take interest. It’s a way of making the grassroots work. So if people see it on Video on Demand then hopefully the word gets out. What I love on my Facebook page – because I use Facebook to promote, not to converse – I watch people on it who say ‘I saw it on Video on Demand but I can’t wait to see it in a cinema’, or other people who say ‘I’m waiting to see it in a cinema, if only there was one within a thousand miles of my house.’ And that’s the problem, getting films that don’t ‘fit in’, it’s hard to get them into cinemas. So maybe Video on Demand is the only way some people are going to see it. The reality is, in the past, when I look at my films, they’re made for a big screen. But I know that in reality more people have seen them on DVD then they have in the cinema.

HEDGE: Even I grew up in a different generation than the ‘Video on Demand’ generation. I went to DVD stores with my dad and I went and got VHSs. So I feel somewhat dated. This is very new to me. I don’t feel comfortable watching videos on demand. I get to a theater when I get to a theater.

GILLIAM: It is very interesting because my complaint it seems is that we’re becoming more and more infantile in the fact that, ‘Oh, there’s something interesting! I’ve got to put it in my mouth!’ It is essentially that. ‘I want it now! I’m not going to work towards it. I’m not going to wait. I need it now!’ And that’s, in fact, infantile. But that’s what we’ve become. A lot of the film is a resistance to that. Escape it. For me, coming to New York, it’s like Qohen going out his front door. It’s just like, ‘WHAT!?’ In London we’re overwhelmed with stuff but it’s provincial and pissy-small compared to walking into Times Square. What is this about? Where do we fit into it? Are we just these little dots that connect around a way? Are we just becoming social insects, like worker bees? And our job is to keep cleaning and connecting. Spreading those pheromones so that they sort of go through the ether. ‘How do you feel?’ ‘What do you think?’ So nobody really has to have their individual opinion. People 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. Fuck this! People have got to start being individual and offensive! I’m obsessed about offending people, because then you might start talking about things, instead of ducking and diving.

On the evolving nature of the project and reconceptualizing with a new cast:

GILLIAM: The big difference was the fact that three years earlier we had a budget of 20 million, and then we made the thing for 8.5 million. So immediately we’re not shooting in London. We’re in Bucharest. We’re in a very different world. The film changed enormously. It was nice being in Bucharest because it’s such an odd, interesting city. And 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. We had to make things out of plastic tablecloth and shower curtains. We found this wonderful Chinese market outside of Bucharest where you bought fabric by weight, not by length. We had to be incredibly clever. And I like that situation because we were a small group, it was mainly Romanians. I think I brought five people from England or France, people I worked with before. And that was it. It wasn’t the big American operation pouring in and using the locals as slaves. They were our equals. So you cut through the bureaucracy of complex filmmaking. Because it is a complex film. We have to build a world. We have to build everything in there. Everything is invented, created in one form or another. And 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. We had no time for that. Everything was fast. And that’s very exciting to work like that, because there’s no time to double-think. It’s a form of guerilla filmmaking, I suppose.

On the change from a Hollywood ending and developing new ideas not intended in the beginning:

GILLIAM: I had a lot of arguments with the producer. I felt it was very important to leave [Qohen] with dignity and something we’d never seen in the course of the film. To me it’s a very sad ending but I also think it’s an honest ending when you think of how many people find the virtual world more comfortable than the real world, how much time is spent in the virtual world now. And it may be the moments when they feel they’ve got control and they’re not just completely impotent in the world. But it’s sad. It’s not where people should end up. They should end up in the real world, with all the messiness of it. So we have a sad ending. But at least one I feel honest about.

Lucas on his perspective shift after working with Gilliam:

HEDGE: It’s changed more and more as I’m able to look back on it. You sort of realize an experience like that seems infinite in the moment, and two months can seem like a lifetime, especially to a 15 year old. But it’s so fleeting, it’s so ridiculously fleeting. You have to really be in it and you have to be taking risks all the time. Otherwise you’re just looking back on regrets.

GILLIAM: Films are pretty extraordinary. And we’re lucky to be able to make them. They’re so intense when we’re making them, it’s like 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. And then it’s over. And then when you look back at films where you’ve done good work, you look back on them happily, proudly. That’s 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.


The Zero Theorem is out now in theaters across the country.

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