Terry Gilliam Makes Movies the Hard Way

The eccentric auteur talks budgets, The Zero Theorem, and his quixotic quest to create a masterpiece.

Terry Gilliam goes back to the future this week with The Zero Theorem, a return to the genre of bizarre Orwellian science-fiction fantasy he invented with 1985’s Brazil and defined with 1995’s 12 Monkeys. The story of a hairless computer programmer named Qohen (a frazzled Christoph Waltz) who finds himself in existential despair while working on a project to prove that all of life is meaningless—even as he waits for a mysterious phone call he believes will reveal the purpose of his own existence—it’s a hyperactive trip to a world of constant advertising, creative frustrations, and soul-crushing despair. Sounds like filmmaking.

Featuring supporting turns from Matt Damon (as Qohen’s boss) and TildaSwinton (as his online therapist), The Zero Theorem finds Gilliam investigating a host of philosophical and contemporary issues through a truly out-there saga. Ahead of the film’s theatrical release, the always gregarious Gilliam spoke to us about budgetary pressures, virtual porn, political impotence, the commoditization of religion, and the “tumor” that is The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, the greatest movie he hasn’t made.

So it’s 2014, andin this era dominated by mega-budgeted superhero blockbustersyou’re still getting movies made.

Those who aren’t doing Marvel Comics, we all wander in this desert at the moment.

How difficult is it to work in such a climate?

Literally the only way I can make a movie is to get seriously bankable actors on board. That’s it. That’s the only power I have. So Zero Theorem, it needed Christoph Waltz, and just to keep everyone happy, Matt Damon. Then you make a movie for $8.5 million. That tells you the state of the world out there. And they worked for very little money. Matt, in fact, worked for scale, which is nothing.

The pressures are much greater than they were before. I may have been a fool to choose this route for my life!

When doing effects shots on a relatively small budget, what sort of tricks do you have to employ?

Well, what you don’t want to do is have any big hairy monsters running around in it. They’re really expensive in CG! So you keep the CG where it’s very simple, it becomes background—as with the island, where you have to extend the beach and the water and sky.

Did you shoot the entire film in Bucharest to keep costs down?

Yeah, and it cost a fraction of what it would have cost us if we’d been in London. That’s the only way we could do it. Those are the interesting moments, because you’re in a city that’s not London, that doesn’t look like London, but it’s supposed to be London. And how do you create a world that’s going to work? That’s the fun part. It becomes a game. I like working like that, where the making of the film is a kind of a game, a puzzle that you try to work out. That keeps you on your toes the whole time, rather than saying, “I want this,” and 100 minions make 10 versions just in case they weren’t certain which I’d really like. All of that costs money. We were just a small group working very tightly and cleverly.

Despite the film’s madcap energy, it’s a very bleak portrait of people’s inability to connect.

I agree with you totally. I think it’s a very sad film. Because here’s Qohen, a man who, by the time we introduce him in the film, already has real problems. A lot of damage has been done to this man. And the desperation of him wanting to know the meaning of his life, but foolishly waiting for a telephone call that will provide it, it’s kind of like a lot of people: if only I can get that new BMW with that big engine, I would feel like I’d accomplished something in my life! Well, that’s the same thing—that some outside object or religion or philosophy is going to give your life meaning. And it’s like, no, you’ve got to do it in your daily life, you’ve got to give it meaning, constantly.

Qohen’s a guy who works, and he’s incredibly good at his job. But is he thinking about what the job really means, or what it is, or the function of it—the larger picture? No! He’s a very modern man, as far as I’m concerned. And in the end, it’s so sad that he can’t go away with [Mélanie Thierry’s prostitute] Bainsley, because that’s a crucial scene in the film, maybe the most important one as far as I’m concerned. It’s all there, and he’s been so trapped in his narrow world that he can’t escape it.

Photo Courtesy of Everett Collection

Technology facilitates so much, and yet it also sometimes gets in the way of genuine experiences.

Right. It’s like the party scene, where I decided to have everybody with iPhones and iPads and headphones on, and dancing, but not dancing together as such. They’re all in their own little worlds. When we were shooting the scene, I thought I was being really clever and doing something in the near future. But then friends of mine were telling me they’d been to a party just like that a few weeks earlier. So it’s happening! I’m beginning to think I haven’t invented anything in that film—it’s all out there, if you look hard enough!

Like Brazil, it’s looking at what I see the world is at the moment, or at least an aspect of it. And then you find, oh, it’s actually true, it’s not about the future. There’s the one line from one of the street advertisements in the film, “The future has come and gone—where were you?” And I keep saying, the future is coming at us faster than we’re going to it. That’s kind of my feeling about the world we’re living in now. There are so many things to occupy us.

There are obvious parallels between this film Brazil and 12 Monkeys, but I felt like the real Big Brother here was corporate rather than governmental.

In Brazil, the authority and power is governmental, the Ministry. In this, and in the world we live in now, the real power is not political; it’s corporate. You know, politicians, nations, are small compared to multinationals. In England, all the parties—it doesn’t matter if you’re Left, Right, or whatever—they’re desperate to see if Honda will build a factory in Wales because it’s cheaper than building it in France. Everybody’s jockeying to get business. And in America—Jesus!

At the same time, there’s a sense that, unlike in Brazil, in which Sam was younger and had dreams and was fantasizing about things, Zero Theorem’s Qohen isn’t fantasizing about anything. He’s just doing his job, like a drone, and he’s good at it, and that’s fine. But he’s not thinking beyond that, he’s not a political animal in any way. That intrigues me, because I think for so many people now, there’s a sense of what Qohen is dealing with, which is his impotence to change anything.

I know your Don Quixote film, which has gone through many stops and starts, is back in pre-production. How do you feel about that?

It’s sort of in pre-pre-pre-pre-production. It’s beginning to move forward again, but there are many things along the path that could trip us up. So I don’t want to say anything too positively at the moment.

Does it feel like your own endless quest?

It’s my Sisyphean moment. Sisyphus has always been one of my great heroes, and I’m trying to emulate him, pushing the stone up the moment, and it rolls back down. Here we go again!

What is it about the project that keeps drawing you back?

I think it’s just simple pigheadedness, because it’s so stupid to do what I’m doing; so romantic, and not at all pragmatic. Recently, I’ve decided to call it a tumor that’s growing inside me. Until I excise the tumor, I won’t ever be able to live my life properly again.

Photos by Rune Hellestad / Corbis