Terry Gilliam is in some kind of zone. On a pristine, 65 degree December morning in Marrakech, Morocco, I find him sitting alone on the back patio of the Mamounia Hotel, listening to birds. He seems happy to have company, yet might have been even happier had he been left to commune with the elements.
Solitude is something that the 73-year old filmmaker has been thinking a lot about lately. His new film, "The Zero Theorem," which screened the night prior at the majestic Palais des Congrés (after premiering at the Venice Film Festival in September), is about a reclusive computer programmer (Christoph Waltz) in a near-future alternate reality, whose solitary but perfectly satisfying work-at-home routine is disrupted by a dream-girl call-girl, a tween-aged hacker, and a mind-scrambling assignment from "Management" (Matt Damon) to prove that life is meaningless.
The film was written by Pat Rushin, but bears all the marks of a Gilliam production (wide angle lenses and canted camera angles, surrealistic gadgetry and high-ceilinged sets), and revisits some of Gilliam's most prevailing preoccupations (the thin line between reality and fantasy, past and present, independence and order). In form, content, and tone, the film recalls Gilliam's 1985 masterwork, "Brazil," a comparison that suggested a fitting start to a conversation that flowed from religion to social media, and from low budget resourcefulness to the revival of the long-delayed "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote."
During "The Zero Theorem," I thought of the opening title card in "Brazil"—"Somewhere in the 20th century." This film is more like "Somewhere in the 21st century."
It is. Funny enough, three years ago I was talking to Tom Stoppard, and we were wondering how do we make a contemporary "Brazil"? Neither of us knew what to do, because it's so amorphous now, the world that we live in. This script was floating around before that, and there were lots of interesting ideas in it—I liked it for the maze of it. I sort of adapted it to bring in other angles. In the script the world was a very grey world, a Kafkaesque, oppressive thing. But I thought no—the world is now all light and color and fun. And that's what's more disturbing. I've heard it said that it's like "Brazil" because it's political, but no—it's about corporations, not governments. Where's the power now? It's in corporations. Governments are secondary in the whole process. Except for maybe when you've got a monarchy. When you've got maybe a philosopher king. They really like the king here [in Morocco]. He cuts through all the problems of democracy. Democracy isn't functioning at the moment, I really don't think. Look at America.
The money is what changes things.
The money is buying all of the politicians. But the king is rich—he can't be bought. And he's making good decisions. And they're very proud of it here. As far as the Greeks understood, we have the republic, and then when it fails, the tyrant comes in, until the tyrant becomes too overbearing and the republic comes back. And it may be going on and it's not been defined very clearly. I don't know how you make films about this, so I don't. I talk about it with you.
Well it undergirds a lot of what you're doing.
That's it. The thoughts are down there. And if they find a little way of expressing themselves or not, it doesn't matter. But it's a viewpoint of what the world is like.
I liked in the film how we're deep enough in the modern computer age that there can be retro aspects that aren't even that old. That virtual reality is a retro concept.
Isn't that weird? My thing is that the future isn't waiting for us to get to it, it's coming at us. It's going that way [motions past us]. That's my theory. Take Liquid Memory, which is this thing in the film. Now I don't know what the fuck that means. Then I'm reading in the paper about DNA as an organic form of memory, which is getting close to, yes, liquid memory. I just like mixing it up. That's what I don't like about most sci fi films. I don't particularly like sci fi and I never think I'm doing sci fi. The past, the present and the future are altogether all the time. We live in an age when I've got one hand on an iPhone, and with the other I'm hand cranking my coffee grinder. That's the way it is. It's a mixture. And it's more fun, anyway, for making silly films.
But I like how irresolvable it all is as a result. It's more of a permanent state than "where we're all headed." It's more recognizable to us—the future elements—than you'd think it would be. And you've got all these blasphemous elements in the film, setting Christophe Waltz's apartment in an old church, and putting a CCTV camera where the head of the crucifix was, but it actually seems less blasphemous than a paean somehow to a belief system that's passed, with a new one rising in its place. It seems all wrapped together.
That was the sense. Religion is the old belief system. And what's the new belief system exactly? Except that's not quite true, with the fundamentalists and the evangelicals in America clinging desperately to it for meaning. But the new technology, the new connectivity, the new way of communicating, the virtual community, is the new belief. But it's like, come on. I think connectivity is maybe separating people more than you think.
But there's the belief that it might bring us together. Which is what's interesting about Christophe's character.
He's a man of faith.