The godfather of dystopian cinema on the death of Hollywood, why he gave up U.S. citizenship and his new movie
If you want to illustrate the old adage about a prophet who is without honor in his own country, look to Terry Gilliam. Mind you, I guess America isn’t even Gilliam’s country anymore, and neither is Hollywood. The onetime Monty Python member and director of “Time Bandits,” “Brazil” and “12 Monkeys,” although he was born in Minneapolis and spent his teen years in Los Angeles, has lived as an expatriate for many years and renounced his United States citizenship in 2006. (That was partly in protest of George W. Bush and partly, Gilliam has said, to shield his wife and children from tax liability.)
Gilliam didn’t need to repudiate his relationship with the mainstream film industry, which had pretty much turned its back on him after the commercial failure of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” in 1998 – a movie that looks, in retrospect, like the ultimate distillation of his grotesque and visionary directorial style. Gilliam pioneered the blend of fantasy and dystopian science fiction in the days before CGI, when those things seemed like geeky and bizarre niche interests. Go back and look at the remarkable special effects in another underappreciated box-office flop, “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” made in 1988. He was just a few years too early, but his influence is everywhere in contemporary cinema and culture, even as his later career has been a remarkable parade of near-misses and not-quites. Not for nothing is the aging, threadbare rebel leader played by John Hurt in Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” named Gilliam!
Gilliam was supposedly J.K. Rowling’s first choice for “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” and Alan Moore’s first choice for “Watchmen,” and can you even imagine how weird and great those movies would have been? His list of never-launched projects includes an adaptation of “A Tale of Two Cities” with Mel Gibson and an adaptation of Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” He still hopes to make “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” with Johnny Depp, a production that legendarily imploded 15 years ago. His new movie, “The Zero Theorem,” starring Christoph Waltz as an isolated computer programmer searching for the meaning of life in an overloaded info-society not far removed from our own, has been in the works for at least six years. It was originally cast with Ewan McGregor in the lead, and then Billy Bob Thornton (alongside Jessica Biel and Al Pacino), in a version that was all set to go in 2009, before Gilliam turned his attention to finding a way to finish yet another haunted film, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” after the death of its star, Heath Ledger.
Gilliam has described “The Zero Theorem” as the completion of an “Orwellian triptych” that began with his dystopian masterpiece “Brazil” in 1985 and continued with “12 Monkeys” a decade later. I won’t argue that this film lives up to the earlier two, but taken on its own terms it’s a work of wicked wit and imagination, shot by cinematographer Nicola Pecorini in classic Gilliam style: wide lenses, deep focus, and the frame overloaded with grotesque detail. Waltz gives one of his best performances as a barely functional nerd-genius called Qohen, who refers to himself in the first-person plural and works on disturbing data-crunching tasks for an enormous company that seems to have devoured the state. There are all sorts of delicious supporting turns, including David Thewlis as the cheerful boss determined to draw Qohen out of his shell, Tilda Swinton as an online therapy-bot (who performs a disastrously awful rap song) and Matt Damon as the back-room kingpin known only as Management.
As veteran Gillian-watchers will already suspect, “The Zero Theorem” is more tragedy than farce, despite all its levels of technological and social satire. It’s the story of a man who is highly skilled in some ways but finds himself out of step with the world and with his time, desperate to connect with others but finally unable to do so. Gilliam didn’t write this script (which is by Pat Rushin, a creative writing instructor), but immediately agrees that he responded to it on a personal level. He wasn’t sure whether he’d be able to visit New York for the “Zero Theorem” – as an ex-citizen, he is limited to 29 days a year in the U.S., and needs to parcel them out carefully – so he called me from his home office in London.
This must be an exhausting ritual, being grilled by Americans on the phone – and about the past, in many cases.
It’s fine. After becoming depressed like Qohen for being alone as much as I am, I’m happy to talk to people.
It’s funny that you say that. Maybe this is dime store psychology, but I was irresistibly drawn to that interpretation. The curmudgeonly guy who hates everybody, who’s locked in his house trying to solve a problem that cannot be solved. How much is that you?
That’s 100 percent me [laughs]. No, I identify with him so much. I thought Christoph made him an interesting character despite his behavior. I think I’m getting more and more curmudgeonly as the years pass, because you get angry. You look at healthy young people and realize your body doesn’t do that any more, so you get even more angry.
Well, and then there’s your relationship with the film industry, which was maybe never so terribly warm and fuzzy. Is that that you have changed or that the nature of the mainstream film industry has changed? Or have the two of you just sort of drifted further apart?
I think we’ve both changed and probably drifted apart for that reason, even more. In Hollywood, at least when I was making films there, there were people in the studios that actually had personalities. You could distinguish one from the other. And now, I don’t see that at all. It’s just gray, frightened people holding on without any sense of “let’s try something here, let’s do something different.” But to be fair, I haven’t been talking to anybody from the studios in the last few years. But the films that Hollywood is making now, it’s clear what’s going on. The big tent-pole pictures are just like the last tent-pole pictures. Hopefully one of them will work and keep the studio going. It’s become … it’s a reflection of the real world, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the middle class get squeezed out completely. So the kind of films I make need more money than the very simple films. Hollywood doesn’t deal with those budgets anymore; they don’t exist.
You can’t make the film in your house for $50,000. But they’re also not going to give you $100 million. You’re in a mid-budget area they don’t like, right?
Yeah. It’s terrible. I’m not alone in the mid-budget area that’s being pushed out of work. It’s a great sadness because there are many small films that can be wonderful, or you get huge $100 million-plus budgets and they’re all the same film, basically, or very similar. It’s just not as interesting as it used to be. The choice out there is less interesting. The real problem now is that when you make a small film, to get the money to promote it is almost impossible. You can’t complete with a $70-80 million budget the studios have. So it becomes less and less interesting. That’s why, in a sense, the most interesting work at the moment, as any creative person, knows is coming out of television in America now, not coming out of the studios.
The studios have two niches, and the problem is that you don’t fit in either one of them. You’re not going to do a “Transformers” movie for $250 million. And they think you’re not the right person to do the movie that maybe costs $40 million and is aimed at the Oscars, or is a prestige literary adaptation or something. They don’t trust you with those, right?
I wouldn’t trust me with them either. [Laughs.] I just want to do what I do. And I don’t even get scripts from Hollywood. I don’t even ask for scripts anymore because I kind of know what they’re going to be. They don’t interest me, so I’ve chosen to wander in the wilderness for another 40 years. We’ll see how it goes.
Going back to the character that Christoph plays in this film, there’s so much going on on the surface, but what really got to me was the tremendous sadness. This person who has a creative drive, a creative urge, and is in a situation where there’s no way for him to fulfill that. That struck me as a situation of extreme pathos.
Well that’s how I see the film. It’s very funny but it’s basically tragedy. It’s very sad. It does move me. You can sort of do the parallels between me and that guy, but at heart that’s not really what it is. Not getting to do what you want to do is one thing, but his problem is that he lets life and relationships fall apart because he can’t grasp them. He’s so damaged — I think the scene when Bainsley [a femme fatale played by French actress Mélanie Thierry] leaves and offers for him to come along, he can’t do it. For me that’s the core scene of the film. What happened to this guy? So in the end, I had to leave him with some kind of sense of dignity and a kind of peace. It may only exist in a virtual world and at least he can let the sun set. He can control that much. I mean, when I make a film, there’s always a big autobiographical element in it, that’s the only way I know how to make films. I have to identify with the character in one way or another. And this one, in retrospect, ended up being quite interesting because when I started it I didn’t think it was going to be that film exactly, but that’s what it became.
Your portrayal of the world is so interesting, people will inevitably look back to your earlier films and other people’s. I felt like you were referencing “Blade Runner,” which came out just before “Brazil,” more directly than you ever have before. But the important thing to me was that this portrait of the informational clutter of the world is almost not a satire or an exaggeration. It’s maybe a tiny bit exaggerated, but it’s almost a portrait of the real world.
Yes. Thank you for that. People talk about it in some sort of future, dystopic view. No! It’s exactly what’s going on right now as far as I’m concerned. [Laughs.] When I walk out onto the streets of London, I’m bombarded exactly like Qohen is at the beginning of the film. It’s endless, it seems to me. And that’s why I sort of built that world around him. Everything in the world out there is colorful and people seem to be having a good time and shopping is bubbling away and things are being offered to you left, right and center. The workplace is a colorful place with people zipping around having a great time. There’s only one bit of darkness and grayness in the thing and that’s Qohen. And that’s what intrigued me about him. He’s very much like a monk. He’s in a burned-out church and it’s a church that has no meaning anymore. That particular construct of life has passed him by. And yet, that’s why I love when another character tells him, “Nonetheless, you’re a man of faith. And that is the very thing that has made you not live your life.”
I have to recommend to you a documentary called “Web Junkie” that you probably haven’t heard about, which is about young people in China being sent to re-education camps to cure them of their supposed Internet addiction. This is a movie that you could have invented, that happens to be a true story. It’s like a corollary to or the dark side of this film. You use technology in an interesting way in this film: You have tons of digital effects in here but the movie is also about the social effects of technology. What is your personal attitude about the way that it’s changed our lives?
TG: It terrifies me because I’m a junkie; I’m an addict. I’m sitting here right now in front of a high-definition computer screen. It’s consumed far, far too much of my life. It’s very seductive and that’s what makes me crazy. The days go by and I’m finding myself still sitting in front of that screen when I should be out doing something physical but it’s easier to sit there and poke around on the Web. That’s one side of it. As far as tweeting and all of that, I don’t. And I find it appalling that people cannot just get on and experience the moment. They seem to have to comment on the moment all the time. Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame is 15 megabytes of fame. Everybody, it’s all about them. The world becomes background to them as opposed to them relating to the world.
We did a thing in the Python reunion show at the end, a meet-and-greet where people paid extra money to meet and greet us. And there was a barrier that kept us from touching. And people at the beginning said “Everybody does a selfie now.” So we had them all turn their backs to us and hold the phone up and we were in the background smiling while they were in the foreground of the picture. It’s just — this is crazy. You go to a rock concert and before the first song is finished, the tweets are coming through. It makes me crazy because people are not relating to the real world anymore. That’s very worrisome. Hunter Thompson predicted America would soon be a nation of panicky sheep, and I think it’s adding to the problem.
You made “Time Bandits,” “Brazil” and “Baron Munchausen” in the ‘80s, long before the rise of CGI, and now we find ourselves in an era where every Hollywood movie is either a dystopian science fiction vision or a fantasy film. Do you feel like you explored the territory first and nobody remembers that?
Well, I don’t know. I think, yeah. I keep thinking I would like to have a chance at those kinds of things, because that’s what I’ve always wanted to make and that’s what I did back then. I just don’t know what they are anymore. They’re films — fantasy without substance and sci-fi dystopia without intelligence. I don’t know really what to comment except that they all seem to be clones of each other. And people are so happy to go back and see the same thing again and again and again. And that, to me, makes me sad about the state of the world. We want reassurance now rather than being challenged, and that’s sad.
This is what I always say when people ask me about the difference between watching 300 films a year and watching just a few, like ordinary moviegoers. Ordinary people seem largely OK, or at least historically OK, with seeing the same films over and over again, for whatever reason. Maybe with technical innovations or improvements in execution …
Technically they’re brilliantly done. They’re beautiful things but there’s nothing in them. There’s nothing new. Nothing to make you think or look at the world in a different way. It’s just the same thing going on and on and on. It really is bread and circuses these days. It may be a sign of people’s impotence, that they can’t really change anything so let’s keep going back and have that McDonald’s burger because we know exactly what we’re about to get and let’s watch another Marvel Comics film because we know exactly what we’re going to get.
You have, however, adjusted to the era of doing the effects digitally. Obviously, when you did “Munchausen” or “Time Bandits,” that was all either physical effects or camerawork.
It hasn’t changed anything really, for me. Because I’m sort of forced into the world of “You have to do it the cheapest way.” And fortunately or unfortunately, CGI is cheaper than doing old-fashioned effects. So I end up doing it that way. I’ve always used digital effects. In “12 Monkeys” there’s a lot of stuff in there. I just don’t want — I want it to be a minor part of the filmmaking process, to deal with the things I can’t quite do. What’s happening now is because you can do it with CGI, anything you want, well, that doesn’t mean you should do anything you want. I like the restrictions. Maybe it’s a way of controlling myself, having to work with a small budget. This film is about $8.5 million, but it looks a lot more expensive than that. What you do is go to Bucharest, where people get paid a fraction of what they get paid in London. You call some friends up and they work for scale rather than what they normally get paid when they work for Hollywood. So I’m happy when Hollywood pays some of my friends a lot of money so they can come work for me for next to nothing.
Actors still want to work with you, right? That’s the good part.
Yeah, that’s nice. I think because so many of them are looking for interesting parts and they’re born with the stuff — they’ll do it because it pays good money, it pays the mortgage and buys time to do more interesting things. I think that’s kind of it. I suppose what actors like about me is they know I’ll give them space to show off and have some fun and they can do things they wouldn’t normally do. I love Matt [Damon] in the film. I think he’s fantastic as that character. I’ve never seen him do that before, and that’s great. I actually said, “Matt, I’ve got a small part. A few days work.” he said “Don’t bother, I’m in.” It’s nice to have friends like that, who will do it for the joy of doing it. And we had a great time. Working with Christoph was an utter joy because he’s thinking all the time; he’s questioning. He’s utterly brilliant. Personally I think it’s the best thing he’s ever done. It might not be the most popular thing he’s ever done, but he’s never off-screen and he’s just stunning.
I don’t think anyone has ever asked Tilda Swinton to rap in a movie before. It’s possible that nobody will again.
Yes. I think she’s sealed her fate. Her MTV career is over. Here’s a wonderful thing though: I had designed this hairstyle for her and when we first met to talk about what she was wearing and the wig, she had decided that as a psychiatrist she should identify more with her patient, so she should be bald. That wasn’t in the script. That was her idea.
I need to ask whether you’ve seen “Snowpiercer,” because if there was ever a film that you’re your influence, that one is it.
I desperately want to see “Snowpiercer”! But it hasn’t arrived in this country yet. Especially since John Hurt plays a character called Gilliam. I have seen the trailer and it looks fantastic. It looks really good and really beautiful.
Well, and I think Bong Joon-ho really followed your example, in some ways. Instead of coming to Hollywood and making the film in a way that required surrendering control, he made it in Europe with European money. He got a pretty large budget, I think it was $40 million, but it was assembled from all over the place — a bunch from different European financiers and a little bit from Harvey Weinstein. And then he didn’t have to make a movie the studios were going to chop up.
And yet Harvey still tried to chop it up. At least it got made. That’s the important thing.
I’m hearing rumors that you may finally make the Don Quixote film! What’s the level of truth or fiction there?
Yep. Well, we’ve postponed it. I was planning to shoot it in October this year, but because of the Python reunion show, I postponed it. The two lead actors, their agents and the producer are in discussion as we speak. And yeah, the plan is to be shooting it next springtime. We have locations in the Canary Islands already. I’m assuming we’re going to make it. I’m just suspending all my disbelief. [Laughs.]
Your entire career has involved a certain amount of doing that, right? It’s been required.
I just don’t want to accept the world as it is out there. We’ll see how that goes this time. [Laughs.] That movie has taken 15 years. It’s reached the point where I withhold a lot of my enthusiasm at the moment. I’m waiting to make sure everything is nailed down and then I’ll let go and make this thing happen. I’ve been at it so long it’s almost like it’s fake. It’s like trying to remove a tumor so I can get on with my life.
One more question: I know you gave up your American citizenship about eight years ago. I’m sure you have followed the news about Edward Snowden and the NSA stuff. Did that sum up some of the reasons why you didn’t want to be an American anymore? And secondly, didn’t the whole Snowden episode feel like something that would happen in one of your films?
Edward Snowden is a great hero, I think. It’s quite extraordinary what he’s done and yeah, all I know is I’m luckier than him. I live in England, not Russia. I was in Moscow a month and a half ago and as interesting as it is, I’m happier here. And yes, it’s part of the reason — with George W. Bush and that whole gang that has completely restructured what America is — and a Supreme Court that is so unbelievably right wing. It’s a country that is basically ruled by corporations at the expense of the citizens. I believe.
“The Zero Theorem” opens this week in many cities, and is also available on-demand from cable, satellite and online providers.