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Trapped by the Rules of the Game: Terry Gilliam Takes Responsibility for "The Zero Theorem"


"I've got this eye that demands feeding," Terry Gilliam explained in a 1996 Sight and Sound interview. Now 73, Gilliam can't stop feasting, though his tastes are no less discerning than they were when he directed "Brazil," "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." The world he's observing has changed, but he's still concerned with the peril and consequences of escapsim. In "The Zero Theorem," Gilliam's first science-fiction film since "Twelve Monkeys," Christoph Waltz plays Qohen Leth, a deeply-alienated computer programmer tasked with mathematically proving that "zero equals one hundred percent, or "all is for nothing." RogerEbert.com talked to Gilliam about his new film as well as violence, opera, and "Watchmen."

You've described [special effects house] Peerless Camera Company as "British ILM, but much smaller." But, and correct me if I'm wrong, "Zero Theorem" appears to be the first film in decades that you've made without their help. Is that true?

Correct, yeah.

[In "Gilliam on Gilliam,"] you talk about Peerless in connection with your decision to make "break all my rules" and make "The Fisher King":  "in a sense, everything I'd done had been reacting against America or trying to show American that there was another way of doing things." You've also said that that you need walls to push against to make a better film. In terms of "Zero Theorem"'s production, what walls are you pushing against?

Namely financial ones, I'd say. Financing and time are the two things we were pushing against. As far as ideas were concerned, it's me responding to the world at the moment in terms of social media, and advertising, virtual worlds, pornography, the whole lot. It grew out of that script, but the world of the film wasn't all in the script. There was a level of detail that wasn't in the script...it proved to be a really good spring-board for me, to start imagining things. It also helped imagine the constraints of budget, which was less than half of what it had originally been. So the film becomes the product of all those things working together. Not that anyone was really in total control at any one point. [laughs] We did bring together a really good group of people to a beautiful city like Bucharest.

The theme that unites many of your films[...]is personal responsibility. You've also said that you relate with your protagonists, right down to the split personality of Jack and Parry in "The Fisher King," would you say that you relate to Qohen Leth's spiritual crisis? Or is there pressure put on you as an artists to "prove that all is for nothing?"

Not really. I can only say that we jumped into this project very quickly, so there wasn't a long incubation process. For me, I totally identified with the main character, but by the time it was over--now--I think I've become Qohen. But in a different way. There were characters I identified with at the start. But over the course of shooting, I grew more and more to identify with Qohen. Unlike him, I'm not looking for a meaning to life, but I find myself more and more trapped in the world of the computer. And even yesterday, I did the first thing I swore I'd never do: I did my first tweet. I actually went on Twitter first-hand and thought: "What am I doing?!" But having made fun of and criticized this trend, I realized I should just get into it deeper, and see how bad it gets. Or, test it, and find out whether I was right or wrong.

You once talked about the distinction between European and American architecture: American architecture is reliant on the erasure of history, while European architecture is like mollusks..."accretions" is the phrase you used. Similarly, it seems that your sympathy during the process of filmmaking is a matter of building on top of other things...

In the process of making it, you kind of discover the film. As to whether or not the film existed beforehand: I have no idea. But it seems to be happening, and the end result comes from various decisions, and all these things that are created with the people you're working with. This was true even moreso with ["Zero Theorem"]. It took months in the cutting room to create the film that exists now. That's different than our first cut...different even than what I originally shot. It's discovering the film is really about...normally I spend years thinking about the whole thing, and double-thinking, and triple-thinking. But this one I just went in, and shot the script. At the beginning of the film, there was very little prep time. It was basically August, September, and a little bit of July. A very short period of time to throw things together.

Switching gears completely: rewatching "Jabberwocky," I couldn't help but think about the relationship between your sense of humor, and the film's cartoonish violence. It seems like, by keeping things light and surreal, violence becomes a surreal texture that off-sets the Pasolini-like mud and shit that clings to everyone in that film. What kind of direction are you giving in scenes like the blood-soaked joust, or the bed-squashing scene, or when the Jabberwocky gores peasants?

Those scenes are truly cartoon ideas. Like the joust: we didn't have the time to do it in any more elaborate ways, so we'd set it up with a few bits and pieces. Then you've got to get this character relate this tale of the carnage fairly quickly. I thought it would be much funnier to go through the joust and have his armor flying through the air and the blood hitting the royal box more and more. That's just funny. We did it with sound effects, and buckets of blood. I found that, in many ways, more inventive than a lot of things I've done subsequently. Because in many ways, I'm still at that point of being a cartoonist. Then there's the squashing of the squire under the bed: that was dealing with violence without showing it. A lot of what I'm doing is a reaction to what I'm seeing in other films where violence has to be seen to the point where it has no meaning after a while. Have you seen "Snowpiercer" yet? Interesting film, but the big fight scene with the axes hacking away at everyone--it's just nonsense! It doesn't work like that in the real world. [laughs] Violence always bothers me because I see what's on film has very little to do with reality.

Is there a didactic or maybe reformative aspect to your films' violence? Correct me if and when I'm wrong, but some of your "Help!" magazine fumetti were your way of talking about civil rights, and the civil unrest you witnessed in during the police riot that resulted after Lyndon Johnson's visit to Century City. That event incensed you, and made you to want to throw bombs. But you joined the National Guard to avoid the draft, and eventually left for Europe and even became defensive about Europeans' attitudes towards the policies you objected to. Do you think the violence in your films is typically over-the-top because you don't want people to get hypnotized or seduced by it?

Yeah. When we did "Twelve Monkeys," we did a scene where Bruce [Willis] saves Madeleine [Stowe] from being raped. And he beats them senseless, brutally. I took it far beyond what you'd normally see in a film, and it kept going and on and on. And in the end, he's weeping, he's crying because it's so painful for him to lose control. It's that mixture that's so interesting: he has the ability to be violent when necessary, but he hates himself for having succumbed to it, and couldn't control himself. I don't know...I just don't see enough results of the violence when I watch it, especially when I watch hyper-violent films. It's funny, I'm thinking about Snowpiercer, but in Oldboy, there's the hallway fight. But something about that scene that's so graphic that it wasn't real anymore. It's a very fine thing.

I was down in Atlanta last weekend for this thing called DragonCon, which is great fun, and is just a big costume party. But there were all these people dressed as military, which always bothers me. It makes me crazy because it's become a fashion statement. If you're going to wear that stuff, then you have to kill, and be killed. It's a very different world. I don't know...violence is a thing that bothers me so much because it's so prevalent in movies. So much of it is cartoon violence, but it's not as funny or as entertaining to me as when Tom and Jerry were doing violence.

Right. Now, the scene from "Twelve Monkeys" you alluded to is actually one that [co-writer] Janet Peoples objected to. You had to make [Willis's victim] sigh to prove that he was still alive.

I know. It was too brutal. But yeah, that's my attitude. I don't want to glorify violence in any form. I want to make violence ugly and disturbing, and as far as I'm concerned, it should be.

There's also the extreme violence in "Brazil," especially during three scenes: Harry Buttle's Christmas Day kidnapping; Jack Flint's death; and the most traumatizingly violent scene, when Sam lifts the casket at film's end, and the liquefied remains of his mother's friends spill out...when you shoot these scenes, are you comparing rushes with the way you pre-visualized scenes?

No. I knew exactly what I was doing, and I knew it was going to be shocking. And that's part of what I'm doing in certain moments: to make it shocking and disturbing so you do have a real reaction to it as supposed to another interesting, or surprising moment in a film. I try to position these things in moment where they actually have impact, that's all.

Did you ever look at a scene of violence in rushes, or during filming, or even after the film was completed and said: "I could have gone farther," or "That could have been more excessive?"

I can't think of many, partly because there's so many...it's hard to compete in the film world when it comes to violence. I find it's sort of the opposite...when we did "Time Bandits," there's a shot during the battle between the Greek warriors and the minotaur. There's a moment where the minotaur sinks in club, and in reality, clips the helmet of the stuntman who was playing Sean Connery. And rather than making him fly through the air as they do in movies, he just froze. He just clammed up. It was a weird moment, and I left it in the film. I don't know, I can't tell the exact effect of it, because I know what happened in reality. But it seemed a more interesting response to me than him getting hit in the head than the official movie response, which is to fly across the room.

At one point, you briefly thought about casting Fellini as Baron Munchausen. Was that too literal a casting choice, or did it just not happen for other reasons...

It was me joking about it at the time because, Baron Munchausen being the great liar--that was Fellini. I think he was great...[production designer] Dante Ferretti was showing me sketches for the films he had worked on where Dante had designed the thing in reality. And then Fellini later filled his sketchbooks with drawings of costumes and different things to give the impression that they'd all come from him. I thought "This is a major liar--this is Munchausen." But it was never a serious idea, that he would become the Baron.

You also toyed with the idea of shooting a scene where the Baron visits "Munchahusen"'s art department, as a way of acknowledging that there wasn't enough budget for the...was it the moon sequence?

Yes. When the insurance company showed up, and closed the film down, they demanded that we cut the moon sequence, which in the original script was vast. In the script, it was 2000 people on the moon, all losing their heads, and Sean Connery was the king. I thought, rather than cutting it down to something mediocre, what if Munchausen walks into my office when we built these beautiful sets, and sees all the drawings of what we planned to do. Just to shock the completion company into realizing that they were dealing with a dangerously demented director. [laughs]

I'm almost contractually obligated to ask this next question, for which I apologize. But I have to ask about "Watchmen." I read that producer Joel Silver wasn't able to get the money for "Watchmen" after the box office failure of "Die Hard 2." But I also read that you had a conversation with Alan Moore about whether or not you should adapt "Watchmen" at all. I always wondered: "What cold water did Alan Moore throw on poor Terry Gilliam to make him stop making this film?"

[laughs] He didn't try to stop me from making it, he was quite keen. He didn't know how to get a two-hour script out of the book, and his attitude was that he'd rather have me fuck it up than him. He was quite happy that I was having a go at it. The money fell down because of a combination of Munchausen and...it wasn't "Die Hard 2," it was, oh, what was the name? Another film that Bruce did...I want to say "Hudson Hawk" [Editor's Note: "Hudson Hawk" also produced by Joel Silver, so this makes sense]. I think it was...whichever film it was, that and "Munchausen" made for some very infertile ground to raise $40-some million.

You also directed some operas in London, including an adaptation of [Hector] Berlioz's "La Damnation de Faust." Opera's become such a sadly rarefied art, so I'm curious: when you're brought in to draw new audiences to the opera, what expectations are put on you, and how do you approach "Faust?"

People have been trying to get me to do opera for, oh, 25-30 years, at least since "Munchausen." And I always turned them down, but I tried this time because they caught me at a moment where I didn't know what I was going to do next. And so I said, "Ok, I'm not an opera buff at all." I don't watch opera. In fact, in the year preceding the opening of our production, I just went to a lot of operas to try and understand what's going on in opera. I saw very few productions that were any good. Many were crap, which gave me a bit more confidence to have a go at "Faust." And because "Faust" had never been a proper opera--being stitched together from eight symphonic pieces--I thought "This is really interesting: there's a lot of scope here where the narrative is interrupted by five lovely minutes of music." And very quickly I made a quantum lump into determining to do the opera set in Germany in the first-half of the 20th century. And my idea held.

It seemed to be...it was a huge success. We were sold out every night. One of the most satisfying things was: there was a fist fight in the queue for standby during the last day. They were fighting over tickets! And the other satisfying thing was: 40% of the audience had never been to the opera before! They were selling it on my name. And we ended up with five-star reviews. The frustrating thing was, the same year, [Canadian playwright] Robert LePage did a production of "Faust" at the Met, which was then in rep across America. And everybody said it wasn't very good while everyone who had seen our "Faust" said it was fantastic. So, being the guy that knew nothing about opera, I wasn't trapped by the rules of the game. I just thought, "How could I take this thing, and make it a story that really works, and say something powerful about a guy whose eyes are on the heavens, and the great cosmic mysteries, not paying attention to what's going on in the real world?" That made sense to me.

And now we're thinking about staging it in Berlin. I think it would be great in Berlin...you retreat to the German romanticism at the end of the 19th through the first World War. It's very historical...you get impressionism, which gives us the Weimar republic, and angles, shrill colors into that neat tidy red, white, and black world of fascism of the Nazis. It really works, though it's really terrifying, having not done this before. But after years of trying to do things that didn't work out, this was really satisfying. I subsequently did this other Berlioz opera, "Benvenuto Cellini." And that did equal business, and got even better reviews! But I still have no clue how to do opera, is my real feeling.

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