Producing The Zero Theorem: interview with Dean Zanuck and Nicolas Chartier


The fact that The Zero Theorem started production in Autumn 2012 was as a result of the tenacity and support of two film producers: Dean Zanuck and Nicolas Chartier. I interviewed them during the picture’s postproduction.

Producers Dean and Richard Zanuck pictured in 2009

Phil Stubbs: How – and when – did you first get hold of Pat Rushin’s script?
Dean Zanuck: In early 2002, my assistant Alicia Marotto at The Zanuck Company was submitted the screenplay, read it and recommended it to me. After reading it myself, I wanted to produce it.

Nicolas Chartier: Around four years ago, I got a call from CAA and met with Dean Zanuck. He and his father Richard Zanuck had developed Pat’s script and wanted to do it with Terry Gilliam and Billy Bob Thornton. Brazil is my favourite movie, so I was really excited about working on a film which I thought was close to Brazil.

What was it about the script that seized your attention?
Dean Zanuck: Its originality grabbed me at first. That’s one of the qualities I look for in a script. Of course, a story doesn’t succeed based on this alone. Fortunately, underneath the unique world presented in The Zero Theorem, there was a humanity presented in the characters’ (especially Qohen’s) experiences that touched on feelings/themes that we can all relate to. This is what I connected to the most, and made me commit to the long journey it takes to produce a film. Especially a film like The Zero Theorem because it is so outside-of-the-box and the conventional genres that studios/financiers are focused on.

Nicolas Chartier: I just loved the universe. I like movies which create worlds. Terry has an amazing relentless imagination and I thought he could make this a crazy movie about a guy waiting for a phone call to tell him the meaning of his life.

Please could you summarise the process from your getting hold of the script to the project’s green light
Dean Zanuck: This was the first script Pat Rushin had ever written and, while its bones were strong, it was also very raw in other parts and needed development. My brother Harrison Zanuck and I had Pat do a good many rewrites – perhaps a half dozen or more. The script was being refined each time to something closer to our ultimate liking. A handful of directors prior to Terry were attached over the course of the ten-year development period and they too would have ideas on the screenplay which Pat would then incorporate. At one point about four years in, Ewan McGregor became interested, but we couldn’t get any traction with financiers at the time.

It would take a very special combination of elements to pull off this film, and about five years ago we thought we had found it. The script was submitted to Terry directly by my Dad (Richard D. Zanuck) who had a very good relationship with Terry over their recent years spent in London. Terry responded favorably to the script and spoke to the writer about changes which were made. Billy Bob Thornton expressed interest as did other actors for other roles. At the same time, we connected with the perfect financier/producer Nicolas Chartier from Voltage Pictures – who happens to be a huge Terry fan and one of his favorite films is Brazil.

Budgets were drawn up for various locations, excitement was high and then poof… momentum vanished and Terry went off and made Dr Parnassus! Despite the let-down, I had faith that someday the pieces would fall together perfectly again, and they did this past summer. A wonderful confluence of events took place. Terry became available after Quixote hit a snag, Nicolas (randomly but at the same time) had a conversation about The Zero Theorem with Terry’s agent and I hadn’t attached any new director to the script. It all became about landing the perfect lead and once that took place we would have a movie. Within a month Christoph Waltz signed on and we were off to the races in Romania! After a long ten-year spell, the film could not have come together any quicker. First discussions were in June, by early August preproduction began in Bucharest, and we started production in October.

Nicolas Chartier: We took it to Berlin to sell the international rights, and we sold it in five days. Then I called Terry’s agent and learnt he wanted to rewrite Don Quixote and not direct The Zero Theorem. Two years went by, then one day my partner is on the phone with Terry’s agent and I told him “ask her what Terry’s up to”, she answered he wants to do The Zero Theorem. We were in April 2012. I said we’d do it that year and we did.

Second time around, I got the script in April 2012, talked to Terry who wanted to shoot in 2012, we had about a month/two months to cast it to be able to shoot it on time. We went to Christoph and thank God Christoph said yes. Then we tried to cast Management, and Terry emailed Matt Damon, who said yes three days later. That’s the great thing about Terry – actors want to work with him. He met with Christoph on a Friday, and on Monday we sent two people to Romania and started week one of preparation. Two weeks later Terry and all his crew went into Romania. It went incredibly fast in 2012.

Nicolas Chartier

What do you admire about the work of Terry Gilliam?
Nicolas Chartier: I love the visuals. I love seeing a world being created. The process on The Zero Theorem was like going back to film school. I had an idea of what the movie looked like from reading the script: it was going to be Brazil 2. And then as Terry worked with Dave Warren and Nicola his cinematographer, I discovered a different world being created, and one day when I talked to him, he told me “I already did Brazil, I wanted to do a different world”. And it is. Brazil is bleak, this movie is colourful. They’re both great comedies, great science-fiction movies.

The Zero Theorem has also evolved, as it got made, into a love story. When I first saw the film, that’s what I recall, “oh my God, it’s now a love story”, and a beautiful one. And casting is something I must congratulate Terry for. We had a lot of actresses who wanted the part of Bainsley, and Terry’s casting director found Melanie Thierry. I wanted a more well-known actress, but Terry was convinced Melanie was the one. And when I see the movie I can’t believe how right he was. She’s the revelation of the movie. She’ll have a big international career after this film.

What are your views on the vision that the cast and crew have delivered?

Dean Zanuck: Outstanding. You certainly expect a grand wonderful vision and an exceptional cast when working with Terry – but given our limited resources to make the film I had no idea what we would be able to achieve. It became clear once amazing actor after amazing actor came on board that we had a great ensemble. Once I stepped onto the various stages we had built our sets on, I was blown away at the size, scale and production value we had – simply extraordinary. It all starts with Terry, one of the few genius filmmakers, supported by tremendous contributions from his department heads – Nicola Pecorini, Dave Warren, and Carlo Poggioli.

Nicolas Chartier: I love it, I think Nicola is extremely gifted visually, and works on a short hand manner with Terry which is really interesting to watch. My favourites remain Dave Warren and Carlo Poggioli. Dave created a full world for The Zero Theorem, from the cars, the trashcans, the virtual islands. I would love to have Dave on every movie I do; he’s incredible. A really fun process was with Carlo, the costume designer. He kept saying with a lot of humour how having no budget allowed him to create costumes out of shower curtains.

It was my second film in Romania in 2012 and it was such a pleasure. The crews are great. MediaPro has been really helpful to us, and I really enjoyed working there. Everyone worked so much on a small budget to make a great visually stunning unique movie.

More on The Zero Theorem from Dreams

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