He is the Monty Python animator turned director famed for his creative genius and unique vision, but making films is still a struggle for Terry Gilliam.
“You’ll be sure and tell me if I’m talking too quickly,” Terry Gilliam says, a grin poking through his lumberjack’s beard as he flops onto an enormous couch in the Merrion Hotel. “I've been told I talk very quickly. My films are the same. Sometimes, I worry that it all goes too fast on screen and that there’s a lot of stuff going on that people miss.” I tap my tablet device and reply that I am equipped to capture whatever he says, at whatever speed he prefers. “A computer”, he snorts, “I’m no Luddite but you can’t put your trust in computers.”
Gilliam does talk pretty fast, as it happens, but then he has a lot of ground to cover. At 73, the director, animator, writer and member of the recently-reunited Monty Python comedy troupe shows no sign of slowing down. He’s in town to present his new science-fiction think-piece The Zero Theorem at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival and pick up one of the festival’s Volta awards, in recognition of his long and unique career. “It’s an honour to get any kind of award, especially one bestowed by a great festival in this fantastic city,” Gilliam says in a modest gush, “but I’ll be perfectly honest, it’s even better to be here with a film to show.”
Things haven’t been easy for Gilliam recently. The Zero Theorem is his first film since The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus in 2009, a production almost derailed by the tragic death of his lead actor Heath Ledger half way through filming. At the time of its successful release, Gilliam was quoted as saying he didn’t foresee himself making another feature. “I used to think I could will films into existence,” he says of that time, “I don’t think that anymore.” Since then, he has made a couple of short films “from stories that turned me on,” directed the English National Opera’s production of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust in 2011 and watched a series of projects burn to a crisp in development hell; including an adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s fantasy novel Good Omens, an adaptation of Mr. Vertigo, co-written with novelist Paul Auster from his book, and The Defective Detective, a surreal crime caper written with Richard LaGravenese, who scripted Oscar-winning The Fisher King for him in 1990. As we sit over steaming tea cups, watching the furious February rain beat off the windows, Gilliam shrugs his shoulders. “Hollywood”, he says with an exaggerated sigh, “is the least imaginative place on Earth.”
Little wonder, then, that for his new film, Gilliam stayed as far away from Hollywood as possible. Made for $10 million (“the least amount of money I’ve had since Time Bandits in 1981”) and filmed over the course of a month in Budapest, once it started to happen, The Zero Theorem happened very rapidly. He admits that getting to that point was, in typical Gilliam fashion, something of a complicated process. “The script from first-time screenwriter Pat Rushin came bouncing my way about five years ago. When I read it, I liked that it was full of thoughts and ideas. It seemed to ask questions about the modern world and how we communicate with one another. But I went off and made Dr Parnassus and Zero Theorem floated away, as things sometimes do. The story was always at the back of my mind, though. I keep scraps of notes in a drawer in my desk and I found a bundle of them were about Zero Theorem. Most of all, I liked the characters. I felt they were people I would like to spend some time with, so when the chance came around again in 2012, I took it.”
Ask Gilliam to describe the finished film and he winces. “I've never been good at synopsis and sound bites. I can’t tell you what I do, I just do it.” Ask him what the film is all about and he laughs. “I don’t have the answer to that question. That’s why I make movies. I hope The Zero Theorem contains some answers but at the same time, I’m always looking to ask more questions that I answer. Otherwise, what’s the point?” The film focuses on Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a brilliant and reclusive computer hacker in the near future, who works as a programmer for an Orwellian corporation called Mancom. Always referring to himself as “we”, Qohen lives in a derelict church, waiting for a phone call that will deliver him from his unbearable life. When Mancom’s mysterious ‘Management’ (played by Matt Damon) charges him with cracking the Zero Theorem, a digital equation that could provide the meaning of life, Qohen sets to work. As he attempts this impossible task, Qohen is visited by the seductive muse Bainsley (Melanie Thierry) and computer prodigy Bob (Lucas Hedges), who disrupt his micro-managed existence, forcing him out into the wider world when all he wants is to be left alone.
Even with the budget restrictions and short production time, Zero Theorem takes place in a distinctly Terry Gilliam world, with inventive production design, complicated, hand-built props and outrageous costumes. The director says that making the film “look the way I want it to under financial and time challenges” was an enormous task. “But in a funny way, finding clever and inventive ways to overcome the difficulties was the most exciting part of the whole process. I got my team together and said, just jump in there and do it. Everything we were doing was reflexive, responsive and intuitive. We were putting it down on paper, then BANG! it was done.” To illustrate the point, he tells me about the challenge of creating futuristic costumes for crowd scenes with very little money. “My costume guy found these huge bales of incredibly cheap and ugly Chinese fabrics spewed out of some factory in the middle of nowhere, carpets and shower curtains basically, and turned them into clothes. Incredibly sweaty, uncomfortable clothes that looked amazing on camera and fit the world we were making.” Gilliam says he wanted to create a colourful, happy place where the people were always smiling. “Grinning like fools, for no apparent reason. It’s buzzing with life. The people are zipping around in their electric cars in their plastic clothes, listening to optimistic pop music, constantly staring into their phones, buying into whatever it is that Mancom asks them to buy into. There’s only one guy that’s miserable.”
Funny and bleak in equal measure, the film can be read as a biting critique of corporate culture and a satire on internet culture. Gilliam says his hero is “thinking not shopping, trying to make connections and ask questions. You’ll see it in the endless billboards and advertisements: ‘Don’t Ask, Multi-task!’ and ‘Occupy Mall Street.’ Qohen only does what he’s told so the system will leave him alone. This is a damaged guy but he’s got something that the corporation wants – he can form connections, he can use logic and intelligence to figure things out – he has skills that this future society has allowed to atrophy.” There is a clear line between Zero Theorem and Brazil, the sci-fi comedy that made Gilliam’s name, released in 1984. “When I made Brazil, I was telling a story about the world as I saw it then. This film is a glimpse of the world we are living in now. Brazil was about the misery of bureaucracy and the manufactured fear of terrorism and war that politicians use to control the people. This film is more about the connectivity the internet allows us to have and whether it is possible to separate yourself from it. They are both dystopias, but Zero Theorem is about a private hell. It’s about finding solitude in a connected world. How do you know who you are if you’re tweeting and twitching all the time about nothing in particular? People have a terrible fear of aloneness now. The internet fills that gap but the side-effect is that nobody wants to spend time with themselves anymore.”
Is The Zero Theorem a warning? Gilliam shakes his head, reluctant to stand on a soapbox. “It’s a statement of concern more than a warning. I don’t have the solution to any of these problems but I wanted to find a way in which to frame the question. What about the sex suit that connects Qohen and Bainsley in the story? That’s very nearly a reality. Can you imagine the profits that are coming to the guy who invents a working internet sex suit? Every lonely guy and girl in the world is going to want one and they’ll never turn them off again – at least not for long enough to go outside and find one another and have sex in the real world. Why would any of us ever leave the house again? This is what I’m saying in the film. We think we’re connected but we’re not really. As people, we are in fact entirely disconnected. We think we’re part of this endless stream of information but it’s not making us any smarter and maybe it’s doing the opposite.”
The internet can affect positive change too, Gilliam readily admits. It was an on-line campaign that finally brought the Monty Python gang together again for a series of live dates in London in July. He says he’s not really looking forward to it. “I’m too busy to think about it, but I suppose it will be fun. It’s always fun. We sold out opening night, something like 17,000 tickets, in 40 seconds.” He expresses amazement that anyone would care, saying that the Pythons can hardly believe that they are still relevant. “It’s not about reminiscing, or at least it’s not all about reminiscing. We never thought that anyone would care forty years later, never mind quote the sketches back at us. The way Terry Jones put it to me is that the establishment we were poking fun at in the 60s are still there, even though they’ve done their best to destroy themselves in the meantime. We’ll do what we can to help them achieve that.”
Then, Gilliam says, it will be time to focus on the project that has haunted him for more than a decade. “Ah yes, Don Quixote.” His version of Miguel Cervantes’ 500 year-old novel was half-way through filming in 1998 when a series of misfortunes caused it to be abandoned. There was an injury to his lead actor, a disastrous flash flood that washed away his set and NATO fighter-jet manoeuvres roaring overhead, a disaster chronicled in the entertaining not-quite-making-of documentary Lost in La Mancha. “You say entertaining, I’d use a different word entirely,” Gilliam interrupts with a rueful grin, “but I’m still tilting at those windmills. I haven’t given up. It’s an obsession, a desperate, pathetic, foolish delusion of a film.” With some long-overdue luck, Gilliam says he’ll start shooting the film, entitled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, on the island of Fuerteventura in the Canaries later this year. “Eleventh time is the charm, right? If everything goes according to plan, we’ll shoot in October. He says the film has changed considerably over the years, “becoming more and more autobiographical, and better too, each time, I think. Certainly it’ll be a smaller film, more modestly appointed. I must cut my cloth according to my measure nowadays,” puffing up his chest and adding a wry aside that my microphone barely picks up; “cheaper cloth too.”