Gilliam talks about preproduction for The Zero Theorem


AUGUST 2012 – Filmmaker Terry Gilliam is in an optimistic mood. He has a new feature film project that has just been given the green light. Called “The Zero Theorem”, its principal actor is Christoph Waltz, and it is due to start shooting late October, in Bucharest. In August, he spoke with Dreams editor Phil Stubbs about the project, its appeal and the difficulties of shooting sex scenes with harnesses.

Phil Stubbs: The Zero Theorem is a project that has been linked to you for a few years now. How did the script originally find its way to you?
Terry Gilliam: It actually came through from Dick Zanuck, who produced the last few Tim Burton films. He unfortunately died about a month and a half ago. He brought it to me because he was keen to get me working on something. The prime producer though has been his son Dean Zanuck.

Dick and I had lots of lunches. I spent a bit of time on the script, which Pat Rushin wrote. But I got distracted because I was committed to Parnassus.

And then a few months ago Quixote stumbled once again. I was looking at the year and I said to myself, “This is crazy, I’ve got to shoot a film,” because since Parnassus I haven’t done a feature film. The Wholly Family was great, and Talladega was fun, but I needed a feature film. I was talking to my agent and she said how about The Zero Theorem. Nicolas Chartier, the French producer, had been a big fan of the project, and my agent called him and he said “Let’s do it”. So we have gone very quickly from zero to full speed ahead. Preproduction began on Monday this week [13 August 2012]. People are out in Bucharest – they are at work already.

Is the cash solid… is it greenlit?
It is greenlit. That was the whole deal when I got Christoph Waltz on board. That was the moment that the amber light was turned off, and the green light went on.

What it the appeal of the script to you?
Well, it’s actually very containable; and it could be done this year. I’ve always liked the script, and it’s always been an interesting project, because in many ways it’s much simpler than anything I’ve done. Two-thirds of it – if not more – take place in a ruined chapel. So that made it possible. And we’re also doing it for half the budget that we were talking about four years ago – so it fitted into the new climate perfectly. And that was also why we are in Bucharest – apparently it’s the best, cheapest place in Europe right now to work.

I’ve only read a short summary which may or may not be reliable, but it seemed like there were influences from Philip K Dick and George Orwell
Actually the influences are many of my films all put together (giggles). There was a lot of familiarity when I first read it. I thought this is comfortable territory – that reminds me of a bit in 12 Monkeys, that reminds me of something else. It appealed immediately. It’s very well written, there is good dialogue, good characters.

There are only four main characters in this thing. So again another reason why it’s an easy one to do. The main thing is to get four wonderful actors. We now have XXXXXX XXXXXX on board as well. Maybe don’t mention him quite yet until they announce it. Hold that one back. Contracts are taking a little bit longer than everyone thinks.

No mention of XXXXXX XXXXXX then…
And there are a couple of other people already which I can’t yet tell you about either…

Is there humour in the script?
Oh yeah, it’s very funny. That synopsis sounds much darker and broodier than it is. The main character is literally living in this burnt-out chapel which one could take as a metaphor for old beliefs and old systems. He’s a computer genius but he’s just sitting there waiting for a phone call, which he’s hoping will give meaning to his life.

It’s a simple premise, but how it develops is much more interesting. It really is about relationships, and discovering what’s really important in life.

You have your first sex scene to direct?
There is a bit of nudity in the script, whether it will be that nude in the film I don’t know. When you’ve got people flying around through space, sucked into black holes naked… that can be very difficult to do. You’ve got to hide the harness. The harness is always the tricky thing – that’s why we normally like bulky costumes!

Is there any location shooting, or is it all inside the studio?
There are a few scenes outside, but not many. What I’m trying to do within those scenes, is to try to barrage the audience with what the world is really about. A year ago I was talking to Tom Stoppard about what we would do with Brazil now, and neither of us could work out how we’d deal with the way the world works now. But this one is giving me a bit of room to come up with part of what I’m critical about in the world, so I’ll make the most of that.

The schedule itself…
This one’s quick – it’s a 36-day shoot. The shortest shoot I’ve done since Holy Grail. We are starting on October 22. It’s going to be very interesting to see someone old and long in the tooth whether he can pretend to be a first-time director.

Will they be long, long days like Parnassus or more manageable?
It’ll be whatever it takes. The interesting thing about it is because it takes place in this one place, this chapel – that’s going to be the challenge, because I have never shot like that before, in that limited space. So to keep it interesting is what I’m going to have to master. The acting is crucial to it – there is no car chase nor a shootout – none of those things you can fall back upon to keep the film going. It’s about the acting and that is why Christoph is so incredible.

I saw him most recently in Roman Polanski’s Carnage.
He was amazing, he was just hypnotic, just watching him, the things he was doing. He was always doing something or absorbing other people’s energy. Whatever it was, he’s a wonderfully watchable actor.

In terms of the crew, any appointments made?
Nicola Pecorini – as usual. Dave Warren who was on Parnassus, he’s designing it. Costumes will be by Carlo Poggioli, who used to work with Gabriella Pescucci. He and I first worked together on Munchausen. For many years he was her number two, but he’s been out on his own for several years.

In terms of thinking through the visualisation, how much of that work has been done?
We’ve got the big stuff basically designed already. Even though we haven’t been in preproduction officially, Dave and I have been working very hard. It’s been very much influenced by Bucharest itself. My approach was: just go there, try to work instinctively rather than double-thinking things and brooding about it. I got most of the locations sorted out by using Google Earth before I went there. It’s my new secret – that’s how I do location scouting these days.

The look of it and the feel of it are very different than had it been done here in London. As a result of our very limited budget, I’ve got to use what is around. It’s allowing me, or rather encouraging me, to make some rather outrageous leaps.

How have you found Bucharest so far?
The studio we are using is one of the oldest in Europe. It’s been there for a long time. Ever since Cold Mountain was done there, they’ve really been developing modern equipped crews. I’m feeling really good. I really like the people there; I think the attitude towards work is great. They are so pleased to be doing these international films. The atmosphere is wonderful. I am really looking forward to that.

Are there challenges on this one that spring to mind?
It will really be working to this short schedule, and avoiding the cold. It gets very cold over there! So far, everything has gone great. On the production side, and financing it, and greenlighting it, it has just gone very smoothly. It feels very rare and new for me.

You are heading off to Belgium tonight
Yes – I am leaving today to go to Antwerp, because we are doing The Damnation of Faust in Ghent and Antwerp in September & October. It opens in Ghent on September 16, and then opens in Antwerp on the October 16.

So the challenge will be to squeeze in enough time as you can
Luckily Leah Hausman, the co-director, is on top of it. She is doing the bulk of the work. I will just turn up at the end and take a bow! I’m leaving this evening and I’ll be there until Sunday, and then go straight onto Bucharest. And I’m down for the next opera: Benvenuto Cellini – another Berlioz. It’s a nice alternative to making movies.

Is the date set for that?
I think it’s in the Springtime 2014. Opera plans very far in advance, we have been working on it again in the last couple of weeks.

Have you anything else in the pipeline?
Well, our old friend the Don… “And Quiet Flows the Don“, as a famous Russian writer once wrote! That’ll keep ticking over. For me it was just important that I got back to work because I’ve just got to do a proper film.

The other thing that happens is that the longer you are out of work, the more you vanish from the reality of the film business. What’s been so funny at the minute is that now this has been announced, it’s like I’m alive again out there. I’ve actually been living quite happily, but to the outside world or Hollywood, I’ve been a dead man. That’s another great thing – it’s amazing how once you say yes to a project, and it’s greenlit, all the agents, everything keeps pouring in. They all want to be there. But it’s very rough at the moment, there’s not much work, especially out in Hollywood. People are desperate.

So you feel rejuvenated with the opportunity?
You go into suspended animation like a bear in the winter, curled up. You lower your metabolic rate, and go to sleep. It’s been very weird, not getting on with Quixote, it was getting very depressing a few months ago. I was just going crazy. I was determined to stick it out until the final nail was in the coffin this time around.

It’s actually quite interesting right now. I’ve had to pack all this stuff. I’m heading out. But I’ve become so comfortable at home for these years, I’m actually nervous about leaving… (giggles)

Nervous about leaving the house?
Yeah, it’s become my cubby hole! My whole life has been this house, sitting up here working away. And now I’ve got to leave my big computer screen behind, and take my laptop – I don’t know where I’ll be…

More to explore

Films in depth

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
The Zero Theorem
The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus
The Brothers Grimm
Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas
12 Monkeys
The Fisher King
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Time Bandits