Camerimage Interview: Director Terry Gilliam on His Latest, The Zero Theorem


The second opening night selection at this year’s Camerimage Festival of the Art of Cinematography in Bydgoszcz, Poland, Terry Gilliam’s latest, The Zero Theorem, stars Christoph Waltz as Qohen Leth, a genius computer hacker who is determined to either uncover the meaning of existence or prove that such a meaning does not exist. had the opportunity to catch up with the iconic director shortly after the screening and, as you can read in the below interview, spoke with him at length about not only this latest work but his distinctive creative process and the importance of having final cut.

Please be aware that Mr. Gilliam does delve into spoilers regarding the ending of The Zero Theorem.

Q: You seem to have a lot of potential projects up in the air for years and years and then something like “The Zero Theorem” comes along and just moves right into production. What’s the process of that?
Terry Gilliam:
It’s desperation is what the process is! Last year I was working on “Don Quixote” for a year until everything fell apart. Suddenly I didn’t have any work and I hadn’t done a film in three years. I said, “I’ve got to go to work!” This script had been around four years earlier and I had been interested in it and didn’t do it. I said, “Are they still interested in that one? I’ll do it!” We just rushed into it. I was busy trying to rewrite the script. In a way, it’s very different than what I normally do because, normally, I’ve got time to shape it and make it the way I want to make it. We did the rewriting for this script in the editing room after we shot it. It’s very different from what’s on the page. The whole process was very fast. Very little preparation time, a short shoot and a very long editing process.

Q: There’s a documentary about the making of “12 Monkeys” called “The Hamster Factor” that details how precisely you work to get shots exactly as you want them. Now that you’re working on a different kind of production, is it fair to say that side of you has mellowed a bit?
Yes and no. I throw as many things in at the beginning just so we’ve got toys to play with and things to work with. Then you start shooting and you realize, “God, we spent so much time making that and now there’s no time to find out how that fits in the movie.” In a sense, by working fast, it didn’t allow me to be as precise or obsessive as I have been in the past. Everything was really about trying to get through each day and get as much as we could. We shot in a very different way. Normally, I’m very precise about where the camera is. On this, we had a little crane and Nicola [Pecorini] would just find the shots. That’s why the editing was the really creative moment, I think.

Q: You’re also working on a reduced budget. How did that change the production process?
It was a problem. A challenge. Everything. It was a nightmare. Because time and money are the things you need in film. I think, as we were doing it, we were making compromises all the time. Some of those compromises were very interesting. Carlo Poggioli, who did the costumes, had no money. He ended up finding a Chinese market outside of Bucharest and he would find material, cloth, that was so cheap that you didn’t buy it by the yard or the meter but by the kilo. Matt Damon’s costumes are terrible to wear because they’re all this polyester and fiber. He was sweating terribly in it. But there were all these incredible patterns to play with. A lot of the people on the street are wearing plastic tablecloths and shower curtains. We made costumes out of that. If we had more money, we wouldn’t have done that. We would have done something more traditional. That’s when it gets interesting. When you’re forced to. On the street scenes, Renault automobiles gave us these 50 little Twizys, but that wasn’t enough traffic. In the studio, they had golf carts for driving people around. I said, “I’ll have those!” We put some side panels on them and made them into taxis.

Q: As someone noted for their visual flair, was there ever the thought of shooting in 3D?
Never. Never 3D! The real world is 3D. Cinema is 2D. 3D costs more money and I don’t see that a film benefits that much. I haven’t seen “Gravity” yet, but everybody says that “Gravity” in 3D is really beautiful. I don’t like 3D because there’s no white up there. You put the glasses on and already you’ve knocked down all the white in the world. There’s only grey skies. When you do that, you reduce the contrast. You reduce the separation. In a mechanical way, you’re getting 3D but, as an image, it’s actually strangely flatter than 2D sometimes. Everything I do now involves trying to make films for less money so that I have more freedom. More money, less freedom and I want freedom.

Q: It’s been said that finding a good cinematographer to partner with is harder than finding a wife. Can you talk about building your relationship with Nicola Pecorini?
Ah, interesting. I’ve been married 40 years and I’ve only been with Nicola for about 15. With Nicola, our game is basically that I’m Don Quixote and he’s Sancho Panza. Nicola is incredible. He’s outspoken. He says what he thinks. He is dangerous and we get on. We just get on. We fight a lot. Oftentimes, he’s much more right than I am, but it doesn’t matter. I just know that he’s in there working fast. He makes everybody crazy and then I make everybody that he doesn’t make crazy crazy. Between the two of us we make everybody crazy. He fights. He fights for what he wants and that’s great. There’s some directors who can’t deal with people like Nicola because he says what he thinks. I like that.

Q: It seems like this project has a lot of old friends on board.
Oh yeah, you’ve got to do that. David Warren, who designed it, worked on “Parnassus.” I knew him years ago when he was just an art student. Carlo Poggioli goes all the way back to “Munchausen.” It’s nice to have a few friends. I want to meet new people, too. When we came to Romania, I brought five people from Italy and England. Everybody else was Romanian, which was fantastic. You discover new talent. I find that I’m becoming more and more enamored with this part of Europe, running down through Poland the Czech Republic and off through Romania. There’s something about this world that just seems to be a little bit more alive. I suppose that the world of capitalism in the modern world has just been going for 20 years here. There’s a different attitude.

Q: In your own words, what would you say that “The Zero Theorem” is about?
It’s about everything. Or nothing. One of the two. You have to decide. It’s very funny. There’s a young guy who was working in the sound department when he saw the film. I said, “Can you explain it?” He said, “I don’t know. I love it but, on the one hand, it seems to be about everything and, at the same time, it’s about nothing.” I thought that was perfect. My job is not to explain. I make it and you work it out. There are questions to ask, but I don’t give answers. I’m still trying to work out what the film is. I just know that it represents what I think is going on in the modern world and how people are so trapped in this instant communication. Some people want to escape from it. Some people want to be alone. You never can be. You’re always hooked in somewhere.

Q: Do you think the story has a happy ending?
I think it’s a happy ending. I wouldn’t say that it’s a brilliantly happy ending, but I do think we left it open. The original script had three more scenes after the ending we used.

Q: Did you shoot them?
Yep. And when I saw it, I said, “Get rid of them.” Because it had a happy ending. A real happy ending like they have in cinema. I thought that it’s much more interesting to leave him looking dignified and strong and in control of something. At least he can make the sun set in this virtual world. That’s better than nothing.

Q: Will those scenes make it to the DVD?
Never! Those scenes have been burnt. It was one of those endings that the financiers like and the producers like and the studios like and I said, “No!” And then we had a little fit. The writer, though, Pat Rushin, was happy that I cut the happy ending off. He never liked it, either. This is the process of how you make films. You have to convince people to give you the money and they gave us the money. Then we changed things. I will only do films if I’ve got complete control. I need final cut. When we get into these fights, I want to be able to say, “No, this is the film we’re making.” I may be wrong, but I just know that my mistakes are more interesting than their mistakes. (laughs)

Q: Speaking of DVD releases, you’ve been able to revisit a lot of titles on different home video formats and those films wind up finding all-new audiences. Can you talk a bit about your thoughts on special editions of your films through companies like Criterion?
Special editions are con jobs, basically. It’s just a way to draw attention to it, basically. You add things. When we do a Blu-ray of this one, I will include deleted scenes. Just not those scenes we were talking about. It’s interesting, I think, for people who are really interested in films, to see what the film was. Why did we throw certain things out? You may disagree with what we threw out, but I like that. I like having a kind of discussion about the film after the film has been made. It’s an extraordinary time. We live with DVDs and Blu-rays. Everything is available now. You can discover films that you didn’t see when they were made. Maybe, in a way, it’s where word-of-mouth works. You see something on Criterion and go, “Oh, I never saw that film!” You just go on Netflix and you’ve got it or you get a DVD. That’s extraordinary. I remember at one point, I was going to do a DVD — I don’t remember for what film — and have all the deleted scenes. Then I’d give it to film students and say, “Now remake the film.” You can do it. You just download the DVD and remake it. See if you use those scenes or not. I like that. It’s also a way of saying that films are not these perfect creations. Films are basically the choices you make along the way. I hate when they start turning the director into God. The auteur theory. That’s nonsense. It’s bulls–t. Filmmaking is a lot of people working together. The only difference is that, the way I do it, I’m the one making the final choice. But all those ideas are not necessarily mine. That’s what you do. You bring together a lot of people from different backgrounds with different ideas and your plan is to basically make the same film. But then ideas come up all the time. My joke is that I’m not an auteur, I’m a fil-teur. I’m the one who decides what gets in and what doesn’t.

Q: Do you ever return to your old films and say, “What was I thinking?” or, the reverse, really impress yourself at who you were at the time?
I actually look at some of those films and I don’t know who made it. Because I’m not that guy anymore. It’s a simple as that. I choices I made when I made something like “Brazil,” I sometimes can’t believe I made that choice. I was different person then. I think, “That’s surprising! That guy is good! Whatever happened to that guy?” (laughs)

Q: Can you talk about how the cast came together for “The Zero Theorem”?
It was really easy this time. Really easy. I met Christoph, we had lunch and he agreed to make the movie. Very civil. It’s a great part for him. It’s so different from what he’s normally done. He wanted to work with me and I wanted to work with him. It was very simple. People like Tilda Swinton, I’ve known for years. We’ve never had a project together, but I needed her for one day. That’s all we had and it was great. All they all worked for nothing. The doctors, Peter Stormare, Ben Wishsaw and Sanjeev Bhaskar, all did one day. Mélanie Thierry is a friend of mine. Albert Dupontel is a French actor-writer-director. He’s got a really good new film. He suggested her. Everything she has played before was much more serious. This was a chance for her to be funny, bouncy and different. I thought she was fantastic. Matt Damon, I just called and said, “I’ve got a part for you.” He says, “Fine. I’m in.” I said, “Do you want to read the script?” He says, “Don’t worry. I’m there.” So that helps, to have friends like that.

Q: What’s the central driving force behind filmmaking for you?
I just like making things. I like working. I mean, I hate working, also, but it’s a thing I can do. It’s kind of like, in the end, you just want to leave behind enough things to say, “I was actually here for awhile. I had some thoughts about the world. Here they are.” That’s really what it’s about. I dread each time getting into a film again because I know it’s going to be horrible. Then I have to go back to the real world, life. Then life is really boring and I have to make a film again.

Q: Do you know what’s next?
I’m going to try to do “Don Quixote” again. I think this is the seventh time. Lucky seven, maybe. We’ll see if it happens. This is kind of my default position, going back to that. I actually just want to make it and get rid of it. Get it out of my life. I don’t know if it will be good or bad. The dangerous thing is that a lot of people are waiting for it, so I can disappoint a lot of people maybe.

(Photo Credit: Sean Thorton /