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Interview: Terry Gilliam Talks 'The Zero Theorem,' Working With A Low Budget, Artistic Influences & More

Photo of Kevin Jagernauth By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist August 27, 2013 at 12:01PM

If anyone personifies taking lemons and making lemonade, it might just be director Terry Gilliam. The filmmaker is almost as known for the battles he's endured on various pictures than the movies themselves, but it speaks to his spirit and determination that he's created a singular and distinctive catalog of work. There are few moviemakers who could've not only made "Brazil," but turned out a masterpiece in an environment where the studio was actively working against the director (documented thoroughly in The Criterion Collection's excellent edition of the film). "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas" is still the closest anyone has come to capturing Hunter S. Thompson's fever dream prose, while "Twelve Monkeys" endures to the point that SyFy is now ordering up a pilot for a TV show based on the movie (and no, Gilliam has not been contacted about it).
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The Zero Theorem

It sounds like, compared to the experiences of 'Parnassus' or 'Grimm,' that this was a really smooth shoot.
Except for the sadness that [producer] Dick Zanuck, the force who got me involved, died just before shooting. I don’t want to keep spreading that rumor about the death rate of my films! Dick was a really good friend and an extraordinary man, and after spending bunches on me to get the film up and he never got to see it. It’s really sad.

You said the script was one you had looked at before. Is there a bigger budget version of this movie that’s wildly different?
No, it was the same script. When we were talking about doing it five years ago, the budget was over twice as big, and it’s the same movie. In fact, because of the way I like expanding things, it might be a bigger movie [now]. [Laughs]. For less than half the money, we did something slightly bigger. 

When you’re making films, do you watch movies to get inspiration?
No....I tend not to. I don’t want to see films, they depress me because I always have great doubts at any moment, and when I look at a good film I get terribly depressed [Laughs]. I tend to look at paintings, and other ways of finding an angle on it. In this one, we began with a German painter named Neo Rauch. He’s phenomenal and I said, "This is what we should be going for." His paintings combine things from different times and places and different styles so they become this weird collage, which is basically what I’ve always worked in. In that sense, the film is a collage of many things, in the same way people said about "Brazil." It’s the past, and the future, and the present all squished together. What I found interesting, was that we were doing stuff and I thought “This is the future,” and I kept referring to it as London-Sooner-Than-You-Think, and now they’re already a reality. I’m not sure if there’s any present anymore, maybe we’re just living in the future the whole time and the space between the present and the future has just disappeared.  

The Zero Theorem

How do you feel about "Zero Theorem" now that it's done?  Do you have any thoughts on how it’ll be received?
It’s impossible to predict. Fewer people have seen "Zero Theorem" during the making of it and the editing of it than any film I’ve done. The basis of any predictions is not solid. Harry Knowles, he said it was the best thing I’ve done since "Brazil" and watched it three times in a row. That kind of excitement and enthusiasm about a film is what I love and it doesn’t mean it’ll find a monstrously huge audience, but there's enough of an audience for it. I just keep clinging to the fact that "The Wizard of Oz" and "Singin’ in the Rain" weren’t big hits when they came out [Laughs].

What can you tell people about the film? What can you say about this movie and how it fits into your body of work?
That’s the hard part, trying to describe it.  I’ve never been good at describing what I do, I just do it. Here’s the simple, quick sound bite: I think I made "Brazil" for 2013. "Brazil" had things that were obsessing me about the world at that time, and same thing here. This is more about connectivity, the connected universe, and whether you can separate yourself from it. It’s a very hard thing to describe as far as storytelling but there is a man who really wants to be on his own even though his work is about a very big question; whether the universe is in control or chaos. He just wants to get away from people and everything, just be alone, and yet he’s not allowed to be. Some of that is good and some of it is bad. He discovers his humanity in the course. Where he ends up is a surprise.

"The Zero Theorem" will screen at the Venice Film Festival. There is no U.S. distributor or release date yet.

This article is related to: Terry Gilliam, Interviews, Interviews, The Zero Theorem


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