Zero Must Equal 100%: An Interview with Terry Gilliam

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Zero Must Equal 100%: An Interview with Terry Gilliam
Photo: Jay Brooks/Saga

Brazil was one of the first films that got me interested in the medium as an art form, as opposed to just entertainment. Interestingly, I had seen the trailer before a screening of Jeunet and Caro's City of Lost Children, a film very much influenced by Gilliam's aesthetic. What led me to that film, I don't quite remember, but as soon as I saw that Sam Lowry miniature soaring through those cotton ball clouds, I knew I'd be taking a trip to Brazil.

But that wasn't my first exposure to Gilliam. One of my favorite films growing up was Time Bandits. I would watch it over and over again on HBO, fascinated by its cast of little people and their wacky adventures. It is a fascination that has stayed with me as an adult.

When I was a little older, my father would let me watch Monty Python when my mother wasn't around. He liked it for its subversive British wit; I liked it for the silliness. Oh yeah, and the boobs.

So really, my relationship with Gilliam's work began long before I realized. So it is only fitting (to me, at least) that I got to speak with him on the eve of his latest release. The Zero Theorem, like Brazil, is a dystopic snapshot of the time during which it was made. It, too, concerns an over-worked drone searching for a grander meaning in life, albeit a more literal one. Along with Brazil, it bookends Gilliam's directing career nicely (sorry, Jabberwocky). A career that's been a hilarious, turbulent, often frustrating ride, one which I've happily followed through the years.

Gilliam the man is what you'd expect: exuberant, boisterous, and larger than life. But he's also gracious, humble, and truly thankful for one of the more unique filmmaking careers of the last 35 years. I was lucky enough to sit with the man, as a fan, and pose him a number of questions about The Zero Theorem, the meaning of life, and The Meaning of Life.

[Editor's Note: To get the full, Gilliam effect, insert maniacal cackles after every second or third sentence.]

***** 

The Zero Theorem was originally announced back in 2009 with Billy Bob Thornton attached to star. Has the project changed much since then?

Basically, we had to do it for 8 1/2 million instead of twenty, and that changes a lot of things. But the script didn't change. I was off doing other things and not thinking about it. It was only when, as it does, Quixote went [weird vocalization that evokes a ship unsurprised at its own sinking] skew-wiff [???] again... and I was thinking, it's gonna be three years since I've done anything, I gotta do something, and my agent said, well what about Zero Theorem, is there still interest?

And there was, so we just jumped into it, it's as simple as that. Which I've never done before, but that's what made it interesting, because it was all working on instinct, rather than, you know, analyzing this, analyzing that. Just go for it. So I shot the script as written, and did the rewriting that I would normally do beforehand in the editing process.

I read Billy Bob dropped out because he was scared of antiques?

This is what I was told. He didn't tell me that directly. We got that via agents, that he didn't like old things at that point, and London was an old city. So the idea of flying to London was not part of his game plan.

To be fair, he's kind of an old thing himself at this point...

I only talked to him on the phone when we first came up with the possibility of him doing the film, because I've always admired him, I always thought he was an extraordinary actor.

The Zero Theorem was written by Pat Rushin, but some reviewers are calling it a distillation of all the themes you've explored throughout your career.

I know. When I read it I thought, well Pat's certainly seen all my films. There are references to every film in there, some subtle, some very subtle, and my concern was that it's most obviously like Brazil in many ways, which, I then went out of my way to try to make it less like Brazil. All my decisions were, anything that made it look more like Brazil, let's go in the opposite direction and see where it leads.

You've said that Brazil was a snapshot based on the world back then and The Zero Theorem is a snapshot based on now, so they're kind of like bookends in that way.

I think they are, in that way. It's just me trying to make sense of the world we are in at any particular moment, or make sense of my obsessions with the world at that moment.

Did you go back and watch Brazil at all?

No. I avoid those things.

When was the last time you saw it?

Years ago. I don't watch my own films. Because once I'm finished with them I've seen them hundreds of times and I kind of want to escape from them.

My theory has always been, I would love to be able to watch them as somebody who didn't make them. And if I can stay away from them long enough, I might be able to do that.

There's some great blink-and-you'll-miss-it satire in The Zero Theorem, like an advertisement for an Occupy Wall Street department store sale.

It's Occupy MALL Street.

Oh! See? It went by so fast. That's funny.

"Shoppers of the Mall Unite!" You take political statements, and you turn them into something to get shoppers going.

Do you find that sort of activism more of a fashion statement than anything? Is it a futile endeavor?

No, no... I just like satirizing things. I'm not in any way believing it's going to change the world, but if I can take the piss out of things that annoy me, I will. I drew that huge mouth behind him, with those perfect teeth, "Occupy Mall Street!" It's like, we'll have to go through this and I should put subtitles on it, so nobody misses those moments.

Do people Occupy things in the UK?

This happened way back, in the 60s, when we were all very... we were changing the world, my generation, and it was the Dodge Rebellion that came out. It's like, okay, we've got all these people really fighting the status quo, and there's Wall Street, take their words and use them to sell whatever the product is. So that's my approach. I just make fun of that, when I can.

There is an awesome moment in the film where Tilda Swinton raps. Was this scripted or did she "freestyle?"

It was scripted, but then she rewrote some of those lyrics. The thing I liked most about the rap is, the idea of her being bald, that was her idea. It wasn't in the script. I designed a hairstyle for her when we first met to talk about costumes and everything, and she said, "As a psychiatrist I should identify with my patients more, so they feel comfortable. Qohen's bald, I think I should be bald. And that's how it came about.

The ending of the film is pretty ambiguous. Is that how it was originally scripted? Or did you mold it to your sensibilities?

No. I chopped the last three scenes off the movie because they were bullshit. It was a happy ending, and I wanted to leave him in a place... with an attitude... he's dignified. He looks like he's accepted something, he has a zen quality to him. I just wanted to leave him strong, and with the ability to do something, to actually achieve something, i.e.: letting the sun set. And that was it.

I like the ambiguity of it, because I don't want to provide answers to anything. And if it gets people thinking, that's great. Some people think he's dead. Some people think he committed suicide. I think he's accepted that this virtual world he finds himself in is easier, more comforting than the real world, and that's why I think it's a very sad ending. A lot of people are doing that right now, and that's why I felt, it's the right thing. It's the internet, the web, and it's so seductive, and you can get in there and have your avatar or whatever. You can do all these things, and they're easier and more comforting than your real life, which is messy and complicated and difficult.

One thing I noticed, as the credits rolled, I heard Bainsley's voice. Was that part of what existed in those scenes you cut?

No. What happened was, I thought the beach ball coming in, and then the song, I thought that did the job, but then we screened it and I thought, some people couldn't make what to me was a very simple leap, that the ball represents her, the ball and that song. So she's there in one form. And then I thought, well, okay, we'll make it easier on people, so there's her calling in and giggling and laughing, and it's pretty sweet. It just softens it a bit for some people.

So you didn't shoot what came after at all?

No, I did shoot it. I shot the whole thing. And then when we first assembled the movie, I looked at it and thought, I just don't buy this. It's a Hollywood ending, and I'm not gonna end this film with something that's just that unbelievable. I'm very, very cautious about endings because too often they ruin the whole film, because, oh, it's a happy, hopeful ending... Stop it! Leave it. This is more intelligent than that and I'd rather leave the audience with a puzzle, and in a sense I always go back to 2001, when the little baby... what does it really mean? Everybody's gonna have a different interpretation. I prefer to get people to use their own imagination.

Did you get any resistance to cutting off the ending like that?

Oh, of course. Luckily I had final cut.

One of the recurring ideas in the film is that zero must equal 100%. Do you believe everything is for nothing?

I don't know what anything means, but no, I don't. I think we all will probably end up in a black hole, this place will eventually die. Whether we've moved on to other miserable planets to survive or whether it's worth it... is the survival of the human race really that important that we have to have people living on Mars? I don't know. But that's where we're going at the moment. But I'm not as nihilistic as some people think.

To me, the movie is essentially about the meaning of life, or the search for the meaning of life...

It's the search that's important.

Do you have a different view of what that meaning is, as compared to when you made Monty Python's The Meaning of Life?

We never knew how to end that one either! Our answer for The Meaning of Life was, be nice to your neighbors, don't over-eat, that was about all we could come up with. Those answers... I don't even want to go down that road and try to provide answers for people on that. I mean, that's what religion does.

It's funny you mention being viewed as nihilistic, because I always thought of you as a very positive and exuberant person, despite all the setbacks you've experienced and your pessimistic view on the film industry. What drives that positivity? Why do you continue to fight to get these stories told?

I really don't know. I have to be honest with you, the older you get, the harder it is, because you grow weary of the same... here we go again. I spend a lot of time in pleasant depression. It's just a fact. But the world's an extraordinary place, how can you just sit and mope the whole time? I find cities and all this interesting, this is what man does. But I'm actually happier looking out the window watching the silver birches blowing in the wind. Watching the squirrels leaping around.

Speaking of continuing to fight, What's the current status of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote? Are you going for it again?

Well, that's what we've been going for, but I'm not sure what's happening at the moment, because we've been tripped up as of a week ago. The choice is whether we stay with a particular actor or start looking for another. We'll see where it goes.

And what is it about that story that you keep coming back to it?

Why does Sisyphus keep pushing the same rock up the hill? I don't know. At a certain point, what happens when you're dealing with Quixote, you become Quixote. It just takes you over. And that kind of relentless determination to see the world the way you want to see it, it's just there. It's probably because everybody around me, all the reasonable, smart people are saying, just move on. And I like the idea of not letting them win.

The problem with it is, there are such expectations because this has been going on so long. My biggest worry is that I can only disappoint. Because whatever it's gonna be, it won't be as good as whatever people imagine we would have made already. It's kind of a no win situation, but you just keep doing it.

Joshua Chaplinsky is the Managing Editor for LitReactor.com. He has also written for ChuckPalahniuk.net.
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Terry GilliamThe Zero Theorem
dustinchangSeptember 22, 2014 11:27 AM

What an insightful interview Josh! Amazing stuff!

KurtSeptember 22, 2014 2:43 PM

VERY EXCELLENT interview! I learned stuff!

Joshua ChaplinskySeptember 23, 2014 10:04 AM

Thanks, guys! It was an honor to meet the man. Glad you enjoyed.