If you’ve ever written something about Terry Gilliam, there’s a good possibility he’s read it. Unlike his contemporaries, he makes a habit of checking out everything from reviews of his films to the comments on his Facebook wall. Of course, Gilliam has always been hard to pin down, particularly when it comes to the products he puts on screen. From “Brazil” to “12 Monkeys” to “The Fisher King,” the 73-year-old director is someone who looks to challenge our preconceived notions about personal relationships and the world around us. (Be sure to check out our retrospective and ranking of his films here).
For his latest project, Gilliam once again heads back to the land of sci-fi with “The Zero Theorem” (our review). The film, which takes place in a utopian society in the distant future, stars Christoph Waltz as Qohen Leth, an anti-social computer programmer who tries to figure out the meaning of life. Like the director’s previous works, the world he creates here is a colorful backdrop of neon signs and costumes, sprawling buildings and odd characters.
Gilliam rang up The Playlist ahead of the film’s release this week to discuss the current state of sci-fi films, working with Tilda Swinton and Christoph Waltz, his upcoming autobiography and his long-awaited “Don Quixote” movie. He also took some time to reflect on the recent Monty Python reunion in England.
You have a reputation for shoots that go on long, but it seems like this one went relatively smoothly.
Yeah, we have no disasters to report, no deaths, no crashes, nothing [laughs]. There was no time to have disasters befall us, we just had to work fast. Everything, from the beginning of the process to the end, was very quick. Which to me was very interesting, because we had to work very instinctively. Our prep time was very short. I didn’t spend a couple years thinking about it in advance. We just went for.
Do you think that short prep time helped out in the long run?
Yeah it was interesting, it was just a different way of working. I was trying to fool myself into thinking I was a young filmmaker again with a little budget and no time in the schedule. So I got to pretend for a bit that I was youthful.
Some critics view this film as sort of the third part of a trilogy formed by “Brazil” and “12 Monkeys.” How do you feel “The Zero Theorem” compliments those previous two projects?
Well, it’s funny, this trilogy was never something I ever said, but it’s been repeated so often it’s clearly true [laughs]. I don’t know who started it but once it started it never stopped… I was aware it had a possibility of being compared to “Brazil” in a lot of ways. In fact, the original script was much more “Brazil”-ian in its dystopian world. But I said “No, this is a utopia we’re living in now!” Like “Brazil,” it’s a comment on the world we’re in at the moment. Now we’re living in such a happy world where everybody’s is connected all the time and everybody’s selfie-ing each other and showing pictures of what they’re eating. It’s just so much fun now. So I thought, let’s make it a utopia out there where it’s colorful and bright. There’s only one guy who doesn’t seem to be playing ball with the rest of the world.
Do you find yourself to be the guy who doesn’t play ball, Cristoph Waltz’s character, Qohen Leth?
[Laughs] I am not quite as miserable as he is. But I share his desire to disconnect and just work on his own. I’ve also become a victim of my computer screen as much as he was. It’s the thing that bothers me most about the wonderful world we’re living in now, how seductive and hypnotic and overpowering my computer screen connected to the web is.
Do you limit yourself on how much you use it?
No, I am a junkie. That’s the problem. The days kind of disappear with having achieved very little.
You seem pretty active on your Facebook page.
I try to throw something up there occasionally. But it’s been quite interesting. I put this dead baby in Gaza up and boy, the responses. It’s like the frontline, because the reactions are like at each other’s throats. I don’t think I learned anything new, just that people’s prejudices are deeply engrained.
I am surprised you read the comments.
People are quite surprised I read them. They say, “Why are you wasting time?” I am just curious to see how people respond. What’s interesting is when I do something mildly funny it triggers a lot of very, very funny responses. I think That’s great! But this particular one has been quite vehement on both sides. People don’t seem to be ready to think or change their opinions. They take sides very strongly and that’s it. Some of the comments are branding me anti-Semitic for showing this––that I was clearly on the side of the Palestinians and if you’re on the side of the Palestinians you’re against Israel which makes you anti-Semitic. Unbelievable nonsense. That’s the stuff that starts getting me angry.
If you read Facebook comments then do you read any of the responses to your films?
Yeah I do, because I have never been able to not read reviews or responses. I wish I didn’t. But I am always curious to see how people respond to what I’ve done, whether good or ill. It intrigues me. It also depresses me a lot, but I actually learn things from them. I learned, thanks to some blog reviews in Canada, something about ‘Zero Theorem’ I didn’t know. The question has been bothering me, which is “Why is [Cristoph Waltz’s character] called Qohen Leth?” And then I discovered [on a blog it‘s from] Ecclesiastes, a book in the bible, the teacher or preacher is Qohen Leth. That’s exactly where Pat [Rushin, who wrote the screenplay] got it from! It becomes even more odd because I am doing an autobiography, and I was going to have the opening introduction “Vanity is vanities! All is vanity,” which is from Ecclesiastes! [laughs] So in fact, it’s quite nice.
I find reading, not particularly reviews from newspapers because they are too rushed, but blog reviews. When you’ve hooked somebody, pro or con, they really spend time writing something in depth, and I really enjoy them because I learn a lot from a film. I learn about the effect of the film on people.
Most of the directors I have interviewed would say the opposite––they will read some newspaper reviews but avoid the blogs.
Well that’s because they direct movies I don’t [laughs]. I try to say things and try to get responses from people, so it’s part of a dialogue.
I just wanted to say, I think it’s great you have Tilda Swinton rapping in this movie. She seems to be game for most anything you throw at her.
Oh I’ve wanted to work with her for a long time. We kept bumping into each other at festivals and things like that. We finally had the opportunity, and what was wonderful, I designed this wig for her of what I wanted her hairstyle to be and at our first meeting, where I brought my drawings, she said “I have been thinking, I’ve been doing a lot of research. It feels like a psychoanalyst should try to identify as closely as possible with his or her patient and I think I should be bald.” [laughs] And that was her idea, so we did it.
It’s funny too, because Tilda was in “Snowpiercer,” which had a lot of comparisons to “Brazil.”
I am dying to see it. It hasn’t come out here in any form, after Harvey [Weinstein] spent his best efforts to bowdlerize it. What was interesting is she showed me a picture of her character in “Snowpiercer,” and I thought it was perfect for what we were doing for the psychiatrist. She was determined that she would be different. I think what’s interesting about “Snowpiercer” is John Hurt’s character is called Gilliam. I thought, What’s going on there? I don’t know what it signifies!
How do you feel about the state of sci-fi films today? Do you get a chance to see any new ones?
Well, what’s a sci-fi movie? Is Marvel considered sci-fi? I don’t know what sci-fi is anymore! Because everything has been turned into comic books. There’s nothing wrong with comic books. There’s just so much of it. I find I go less and less to the movies now than I have ever gone in my life. I am just tired of seeing the same movie. So I can’t really comment on sci-fi films. What’s a good recent sci-fi?
The problem is, [new films] are not really doing what sci-fi is supposed to do. They don’t expand our view of things in the way sci-fi should. They seem to repeat the same tropes all the time. It doesn’t do what interested me about sci-fi. Sci-fi gets under your skin. What I do I suppose, I comment on the world we’re living in by pulling it out of our contemporary time. I push it to either the future or past.
You said earlier that you are writing an autobiography…
Apparently [laughs]. It’s done, it’s just being heavily designed now. To make it irritating, we now decided to put it out next year. This was going to be the year where everything was happening, but it’s becoming less so.
What was the autobiography process like for you?
Well it’s one thing to talk in interviews. My daughter was clever. It was kind of like a Rorscharch test. She assembled a lot of artwork and pictures from my past and then I would talk about them and then that would be transcribed and tidied up. When I first read it I didn’t like me because I kept talking about me the whole time. I thought, that’s a bit selfish. But I don’t know what else you’re supposed to do with an autobiography.
You still have your long-gestating “Don Quixote” movie in the works. Are you still surprised you’re pursuing the project after all these years?
I am surprised that I am stupid and big-headed to do it. I thought by now that I would have learned something, but I haven’t Now we’re working on it again. I had to push it. We were supposed to be shooting in October, but I had to shift everything. So it’s planned for next springtime. I have a Spanish producer, he’s doing some deals with some actors at the moment. Names will not be mentioned. We’re told we have the money, so we’ll find out. I don’t believe anything anymore, I just do the work. I am a bit like Qohen. I smash up things occasionally.
Are you excited to finally get production under way?
Excited is the wrong word. I am a little bit antsy. I am just trying to get it out of my fucking system! It’s driven my crazy for so long that I just want to get it done. I keep rewriting so it feels vaguely fresh each time I go for it. But it’s a very weird sensation. I do know once I get into it, the fun will start. I did a screen test a couple weeks ago and that was fun. Fortunately, the characters were coming alive and I thought, OK we’ve got something interesting going on here.
Before I let you go, I wanted to ask about the Monty Python reunion from this past summer…
What is weird now, it’s like it never happened.
I don’t know. There’s something about it. On one hand the whole experience had on one level a déjà vu quality. Suddenly I was back 30 years ago. It took me about half the show to realize, OK, we’re here now. By the end it was a great fun. It was an extraordinary experience. But two weeks later, I have hardly any memory of it. It’s a weird trick of the mind. Was it real? Was it déjà vu? Did I do it a long time ago? I don’t know anymore.
“The Zero Theorem” opens this Friday, September 19th.