Terry Gilliam cracks himself up. I know because I'm not trying to be funny, but there's a dry chuckle every few minutes I spend on the phone with the 73-year-old founding member of Monty Python, director of such mind-bending films as Brazil, 12 Monkeys, Time Bandits and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, among many others. Gilliam's latest movie, The Zero Theorem, which opens in select theaters the US this Friday, September 19th, has critics sharply divided. Some think it's a mess, while others applaud it as yet another one of Gilliam's kooky, absurdist gems.
Set in a candy-colored future with virtual reality webcam girls and overrun by obnoxious advertising, The Zero Theorem follows the struggles of a morose, hairless computer programmer named Qohen (Christoph Waltz of Django Unchained), who is tasked with solving the equation underpinning all of existence. If that sounds heady, that's because it is. But what would be a ponderous philosophical slog in many other directors' hands is instead a playful, spirited, occasionally incisive critique of humanity's eternal quest for meaning. Like it or not, it is unabashedly Gilliam through and through. Over the course of our conversation, the director described not only what moved him about this particular story, but also his views on consumer culture and what he's mulling next for himself, including a possible return to TV with a miniseries called Defective Detective. Despite a lengthy career filled with more highs than lows, Gilliam isn't slowing down anytime soon.
SPOILERS FOLLOW. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
One thing that struck me in particular about The Zero Theorem: obviously it's set in some sort of a futuristic-type universe, or a universe that's slightly ahead of ours. There are virtual reality suits where the characters plug-in and are able to enter each other's imaginations. Have you tried virtual reality yourself, or what informed how that experience would look to you?
I don't know. Is there some virtual reality out there now? Or is it all virtual reality, I'm not sure [laughs]…
Oh, so you just clap a helmet on, effectively, and it's in there, these little screens right in front of your pupils?
Yes, you should give it a try. But I was just curious, what informed your idea of how that [virtual reality] should all look?
I don't know. This is my problem, I think, every time I go into the cinema and see one of the later big films, it's just like virtual reality. Cinema was virtual reality for me, always. When I'm watching a film, I'm in it. I mean, I really do experience it. Unfortunately, I don't [go to the movies] anymore, hardly.
It's like, remember going to Disneyland, and you'd get in a spaceship and it would shake you around and all that? To me, it's all the same. Even video games, whenever I've played them, I can get myself immersed so deeply in them that they are as real as the real world. So to me, it's nothing new. It's been there. Reading a book does that as well.
Yeah, that's the original virtual reality.
Yeah. To the point that like to me, a book to me is like Qohen wanting to get back to the island [in The Zero Theorem]. At the end of the day I want to get back to this book because I'm in it, I'm living it, I'm experiencing it.
And when it ends, I suppose there's some sense of bittersweetness.
"Loss," is the word. It was very funny, just recently, I got into David Foster Wallace again. I read Infinite Jest long ago. But I started reading it again, and I got so immersed, I've got to just, come on, I've got to get back in there. Forget this other stuff. That's a life worth living. It's hitting all these neurons in my brain that are exciting me in a way the real world may not be exciting me in the least.
That's a great point. I think that all of your films exhibit those kinds of characteristics of transporting people away to a different world, one that's slightly more exaggerated or sometimes much more exaggerated than their own. So I'm curious, is that the attraction for you in creating these very detailed, exciting, visually stimulating worlds, whether that be in the past or the future?
That's what's intriguing. And that's why it's hard for me to create a contemporary film, because it already exists. So for me, it's my godlike moment when I can create a world and fill it with detail that gives it residence. Some people can experience all the detail, some don't. I really do like building worlds. In The Zero Theorem, there's a script written, but the world is not the world you see in the film. The exteriors were sort of this gray, Middle European, Kafkaesque kind of world. And the computer and workspace were just like what you've seen before: people in cubicles and banks of computers. And none of that interests me, because we've seen it all before. So it was just fun to try and create a world where the same story and same characters are taking place within. And it gives me a chance on one level to satirize part of the world we live in, elements that I turn inside out and do the obverse, just playing with it. The world itself is making comments on the world we live in. The whole film is always about the world we live in. It's just transformed in the way a cartoonist does it.
Yeah, I can see that, and it's quite awesome and refreshing, especially compared to a lot of the derivative stuff that can be found. So yeah, to this point of the script, I was curious, when you're reading through a script like this and you're a screenwriter yourself, is that [world-building] going on in your head when you're reading this script? Like, "I can imagine this very colorful, ADD, madcap-style advertising filling these spaces here in the script."
Not really. This one was a very different experience because normally, when I've had other people's scripts I've had more time to think and plan. Because we had to work very fast, I didn't really put my mind to this until like three months before we were shooting. It was just fun to create the world very quickly, without careful planning. But it's all thought through. But it was like instinctive. We went to shoot in Bucharest. Okay, so that changes things from London. That's already different. Now, we don't have any money for costumes. So what are we going to do? Ok, Carlo [Poggioli, costume designer] says plastic shower curtains and plastic tablecloths, that's a start. Good! Oh, here we go! And you start building it. That's where the fun really lies, in having some good people around you who are all very creative and willing to go for it, despite a lack of money and time. And then it's almost in a strange way, going back to when I was doing cartoons for [Monty] Python. Because I was working nonstop, seven days a week, very late nights, there's usually a couple of all-nighters each week. And there was no time to think. And so you're relying on everything you know already, and ideas that are there, waiting to blossom. And also, using serendipity to solve your problems, hopefully. And that's how we built it. So the world kind of grew in the few months we were working on the film, without having a clear plan in advance.
Going back to the Python stuff. I was thinking with the live reunion coming up, it's a good time to review. Back in the day, the tools you had to create some of this imagery were much different than we have now. In this movie, there's a fair amount of computer effects. Is that as natural to you as some of the Python-style cartooning you really got started with?
Yeah, I've always worked with special effects. In Brazil it was more about [motion] caps and real things. By the time we were into 12 Monkeys, or even [The Adventures of Baron] Munchausen, there was some CG work. So I've always done it, I've always used it, they're just tools. They allow certain things to be done more easily and more cheaply. Sometimes, but not always necessarily better, but definitely cheaper. It's like the island [in The Zero Theorem], for example: in the script, it was a real island. It was scripted as a virtual world, but totally realistic. And so we couldn't afford to go a real tropical island, we didn't have the money. So we do it, it's fake. But there's enough area in the set that the actors can still work in water. But I just decide, it's fake. It's never going to be completely photorealistic. You always have that sense this isn't real. And that's how you deal with the problem. And in a sense, it becomes, by the end of the movie, it's actually sadder that he's in this virtual world. It's not as tactile or real as a real island would have been. Things like that, you just develop in the course of it.
Yeah, and you got your start on TV. And I'm just curious, with a lot of the interesting stories now being told on television. And even you've said you really enjoyed Breaking Bad, for instance. Is there any chance you would return to television and use that as your medium in the future?
With cinema, it gets harder and harder to get money for really interesting projects, and then even harder to get good distribution for them and to reach people. And the point always is to reach a lot of people, that's why we do what we do. Richard LaGravenese and I wrote this story called Defective Detective after The Fisher King. And it's been languishing for a long time. And we're beginning to talk about "can we turn it into a miniseries?" Can we stretch it out? I don't know. But it's the first time I've begun to think heading back towards TV might be a good idea in the current climate. I mean I was just totally impressed with Breaking Bad, I couldn't, it was not just…because all the stuff that's coming out of cable is such good writing. And you've got a chance to work with really good actors that don't necessarily have to be big film stars. And so there's much more freedom there. And so many really talented people are gravitating toward it. So maybe it's time has come for people like me.
Yeah, that would be awesome. Everybody would be really excited to see what you guys do there. Defective Detective, is that an Inspector Gadget type of guy, or who is that character?
No, it's nothing like that. It's not as comic as that. It's very funny, but it's not comic. It's about a middle-aged New York cop having a nervous breakdown and ending up in a children's world and having to deal with the rules of children's fantasy worlds.
Wow, that sounds great. So this is like a grizzled, Scotch-drinking noir detective?
Yeah, well, it's about that thing of a guy starts in the police force and has great dreams of heroism and doing good work and saving lives and over the years you become something different. Embittered, drinking too much, disillusioned, hard-nosed. And the idea of that was always, can this character, through whatever little, well, we know what we've written, I'm not going to tell you. And I won't tell you how. But literally, in a world where, the rules of this world are children's rules. They're not the rules of the mean streets of New York. And so how [does] he, in a way he recovers his, well, I wouldn't say his dreams, but maybe his hopes?
That sounds really awesome. I hope that takes shape in some form or another. I don't want to pester you about the long-gestating Don Quixote movie (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote), but you have it on your website, so I'm just curious, is that coming together?
Well, it's started coming together, let's put it that way. The beginnings are always the best part. We'll see where it goes.
That reportedly features time travel.
No, not anymore. Not in the new script. It all takes place now. I've rewritten it several times just to keep it fresh, as far as I'm concerned. It's become a different film than the one I was making with Johnny [Depp], let's put it that way.
That's good to know. Getting back to The Zero Theorem and how it relates to some of the other films you've created. I think that our readers particularly are interested in technology, both how it's used and how it's portrayed. I'm curious as to your own relationship with technology. Do you see technology itself as fundamentally absurd? I'm thinking back to Time Bandits and some of the consumerist aspect to it. And we see it today with all these new phones and gadgets.
It's only like any drug, it's only bad become when you addicted to it. And technology seems to be what people are most addicted to at the moment. It's just, whatever it is, it's going to make our lives easier, it's going to make our lives better. I'm not sure. To me, so much of it is just distracting us from sometimes more important things. That's my only concern with it. I mean, I spend far too much of my life on my computer. It's addictive. I really find the web is infinitely interesting. There's so much on there. But so much of it, I realize, I'm distracting myself from what I should really be doing. Every day, I find I do it, it's easier to spend time on my computer. So that's one of the things that worries me about it.
Something I've always said I wouldn't do, I did yesterday. I tweeted. And I just was convinced by somebody, I think it was the devil himself, who said this is a way of really communicating with more people about what you're doing. We've got a fan base, but how you reach more people, that's what it's about. And already I'm beginning to think, "oh, that was a bad idea." Because you start fiddling, and you do that and you do this. And already, I've got a Facebook page, I've had it for a couple years, maybe three, which I use it to basically promote whatever I'm doing. But I also use it sometimes for, I've got a silly idea, so "boom," I can knock something off very quickly. But I'm not going to really talk to the people on my Facebook page. I love to read their funny comments. And it's nice to know you can really encourage people, if they do this thing, by doing something in response to it. But I just, I really want to escape it, because it's beginning to dominate me.
Yeah, I feel that same way sometimes. So thinking of in this particular film, the virtual reality — Qohen does use it to try and form a human connection, and where he ends up, is in this neural net.
Yeah, that's why I think it's a very sad ending. He's not gone off with the girl. The boy who he's trying to protect, he couldn't protect. So when you're feeling that kind of impotence, which I think so many people do, the web and the virtual world becomes a very safe refuge. It's easier to deal with than the real world. And it's kind of sad that's, in a sense, the only power he ultimately was able to have was helping a sun to set in a virtual world that's basically the result of someone's imagination, not even his own. And it strikes me there are a lot of people already at that place.
Yeah, it's true. You hear these crazy stories about people who play games so relentlessly they collapse or exhaust themselves, or some have unfortunately perished. For you yourself, what would you be doing ideally, if you didn't have all these technological distractions?
I've got a house in Italy, there's no phone, there's no television, there's no games, there's nothing. And I go there, and battle nature, is what I do. Nature is trying to claim the land back. It's my land, get back! So me and a chainsaw and a strimmer, I can do damage. It's very funny, I just do manual labor when I'm there. I build stone walls.
It's funny, lots of people have tried to get away from that type of thing. And then they end up in an office all day, like drones.
Yeah, that's it. And I don't want to spend my time in a gym pedaling machines and lifting machines that should be doing work for me. The irony of gyms now is that people are the power that keeps the machines going. It's all wrong [laughtechr].
Yeah, it's almost like a dystopian world, like The Matrix or something. We're the power source for these machines.
Yeah, we are. It's our job. And I think, this is crazy. I think some gyms have already started doing it. Whether it's a cycle machine or Treadmaster or Stairmaster, they should all be hooked up, all gyms should be self-powered. Otherwise, all that effort is going nowhere. I think some gyms have started doing this, I've read about it somewhere. It should be required.