Hanging on by the tips of his fingers


Terry Gilliam talks to Dreams after an exhausting day on the set of The Zero Theorem

NOVEMBER 2012 – It is the end of day 26 of The Zero Theorem’s principal photography. In the back of a black Audi is the picture’s director Terry Gilliam. The filmmaker is being driven from the MediaPro studios north of Bucharest to the production’s city-centre hotel.

Progress today was painfully slow. Two hours were lost, and with such a tight schedule the production team cannot afford to do that too often. Overall, however, this quick shoot is still on track – just. Ten days of the 36 day shoot remain, and there is a great deal to be done in those ten days. As the interview starts, Gilliam promises not to complain too much.

Phil Stubbs: When you started principal photography, did you feel as though you’d completed everything that you had needed to do?
Terry Gilliam: Oh no! We were heading for a cliff – we knew that. It’s always tricky when you come to another country, working with a minimal budget and with people not really understanding the complexity of what we do. It seems easy, but it’s not. There is a lot of detail. It’s a situation where there was a budget made before there was any serious sit-down discussing, and in the course of preproduction, the budget rose to be slightly more realistic. Yet it meant everybody was working much harder than possibly they would have needed, had there been an understanding that more money was needed from the beginning. It was always going to be a strange one. I was in some way lax in a couple of departments where I just accepted what was offered as opposed to bringing the whole team in, but most of that has been sorted out on course of the events.

Are you on schedule?
Yes, we are on schedule – hanging on by the tips of our fingers at the moment. We will see what happens in the next week and a half. It’s felt like that all the way through at each point – disaster was looming and somehow we avoided it. Basically because people have been working incredibly hard – and somehow solving the problems one way or the other.

Sounds like the Baron again – is his theme going through your head?
Oh yes. It’s the budget not quite matching the ambitions. Here we go again. We’ll see. But on this one, things seem to somehow get solved along the way, which is still surprising me. I’m sure it will go funny soon. We’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop for the last several weeks.

How is it a different film as a result of shooting in Romania?
Very much so – we started looking at locations here and findings things that you wouldn’t have done in another town. There’s a place called Calarasi outside of Bucharest by two hours. We went there, there was a huge abandoned steelworks, and there are many floating around Romania. At one point there were big dreams of a huge industrialised nation – but the revolution occurred, and a certain sense of fiscal responsibility came in. These places were closed down before they were even fully operational or finished. Yet now they are fantastic, and out of that came what we now have for our mainframe computer which wouldn’t, had we been coming somewhere else.

Also we have used the Athenaeum, a beautiful concert hall with an amazing foyer. We turned that into Qohen’s workplace, this Bloomberg-like place that gathers information. So it looks unlike any computerised operation you have ever seen. Little by little, we start developing a whole world that is colourful happy, jolly and fun. Because no-one is thinking about anything, they are just being happy. Qohen has this very different life, pondering existential questions.

We also have a health board meeting that would have taken place in a white room in a more conventional film. It’s now taking place in this laboratory which is absolutely extraordinary looking, where they test electrical equipment, with Van der Graaff generators and Tesla coils, things that have come out of a child’s science fiction world. They are all real machines, and they are huge. We placed this health board in the middle of that, because we could.

Do you feel you are getting more for your money out here? Are the communication difficulties outweighed by the cost benefits?
It’s very tricky because the sets were built for surprisingly low sums. But they also creak incredibly loudly which means we are going to have to solve the problem in post – for sound. Things like that… you save on one level but spend later. I don’t know until we finish it what the balance will be like.

But it’s the cheapest place in Europe where there are crews that were reasonably well trained. In fact some of the crew, like the camera, grips and electric are world class, they are fantastic.

We are so restricted, but Carlo has been amazing with the costumes. Had it not been Bucharest, we probably wouldn’t have found the Chinese market, where he has been buying all this fabric – not by the yard, but by the kilo. The costumes are quite extraordinary. Man-made fibres and fabrics that are extraordinary looking, but painfully miserably to wear!

The costumes are far more unusual than anything in any of your other films
Yes, we wanted to create this happy world, so that’s where you have the colours, the textures, the reflectivity, the transparency. It’s come from these incredible finds which Carlo has found at the Chinese market.

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Now, Qohen spends a great deal of time performing mathematical modelling. To what extent do you think that mathematical modelling can explain the world?
Well, there are an awful lot of people who believe it: you get the right algorithms and you get rich. Wall Street has been operating on algorithms. Science functions on mathematics. In the film we have jumped away from mathematics, and instead we are dealing with entities, so we created this cubic computation system which creates entities out of six things. We have invented this whole nonsense of the power of six. Whether it is useful as mathematics, I don’t know. The main thing is people believe it works. It means something like mathematics. Certainly the financial world people believe it until their faith is shattered. There are a lot of faith-based systems out there that people don’t recognise as faith-based.

There are scientists trying to find the meaning of life from quantum modelling
Building these things, to me it’s not much different from medieval intellectuals trying to discover how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The more you delve, the more poetic it all becomes. You finally find the Higgs boson but it’s not as exotic as they wanted it to be, so now they are looking for an exotic Higgs boson! This is endless… Billions and billions are going onto it. People are not going to Mars so there’s Curiosity poking around: I guess we are just looking for a new place to build Las Vegas if we could just find enough water up there.

We always just keep pushing the boundaries further and further away. To me it’s just beside the point. It’s actually a line we put in the film. The whole thing is beside the point. What is real meaning? The intellectual puzzles that are quite interesting certainly keep the smart people from getting bored. There are things to discover and untangle. To me it’s no different to how many angels are on the head of a pin.

Qohen’s disengagement with the world. Is there a message there?
Qohen is one person who is disconnected. I think there is too much connectivity in the world, and how do people find out who they are? Is aloneness encouraged any more, or is your identity based on who you are connected to, or who are your friends on facebook?

We have a scene in the party where everyone is dancing with iPads and iPhones looking at each other, but not really quite connecting even when they are all dancing. It was interesting with the extras, because they all have these things. The minute we stopped shooting, they were all on the web, very few of them were talking to each other. They were all connecting through the web and not the people next door to them.

How did you approach the look of the cubic algorithms?
It’s all been invented and done. We’ve been shooting all this stuff. There is a lot of stuff already finished – how the Zero Theorem actually functions. It’s not numbers. In The Beautiful Mind, they had a lot of numbers on screen, but we’ve gone in a different direction. Not so many numbers, but a lot of objects. It’s almost video game material to make actually to try to give action sequences to the whole film, which otherwise would be some guy at a computer screen looking at numbers. So we have invented some really quite beautiful stuff to enliven it.

I’ve actually done a great deal of research as a mathematical modeller; you often have to produce images to understand the data
We are actually doing something with these cubes: building blocks. How do you prove that all is chaos, all is for nothing? It seems we have to do that by building something which may or may not stick together. You do it enough times and you become quite cynical and it is all chaos. It’s also partly just a way of driving Qohen to distraction basically, so he really needs to be saved from that world by the appearance of human beings in his monkish world.

I do enjoy watching movies, consuming the arts, but I also enjoy the pleasure of finding relationships in data…
I understand, it’s the structure. Suddenly things begin to make sense. Things have a form, it’s the antithesis of chaos. It makes life feel a little more like it’s worth living. You are finding interesting things, discovering things. You are using your brain – whether that’s the end is beside the point. It’s all kind of interesting. There is nothing worse than sitting in front of a computer for a long time and just staring at a computer because a computer is really seductive. You get a hi-def screen, a big one, and I find them hypnotic.

You find yourself doing nothing for hours
Exactly… it’s like people living in California watching the waves crashing on the beach. The years have gone by, it’s not that they are totally wasted, but maybe there are other things they could be doing. I don’t actually know… there aren’t any real answers in this film. But there may be a couple of questions!

Let’s move onto the cast, and have there been any surprises on this one from Christoph?
He’s just a brilliant actor and what’s interesting is he is a very complex human being as well. As I said from the beginning, he is Qohen and he is in many ways the determining factor of how we deal with certain scenes and ideas. He in a sense has to lead. And that’s how it’s been. And we don’t always agree.

Lucas, who is playing Bob, was telling his mother that Christoph and I have a symbiotic relationship. He was just fascinated with the way it was working… We are all making a film; there are a lot of us doing things. Nicola is directing it, Christoph is directing it. Everyone is involved in the process. Ideas are coming from so many sources; it just becomes this group effort.

Today – here is a perfect example – we were shooting a fairly straightforward shot of him arriving at the mainframe. Christoph said, have you thought of doing a counter track zoom shot here. I said, “We’ve done those before.” We ended up spending an hour doing it, and I think it was worth it, the effect is actually quite appropriate to that particular moment. Usually, they are just done as a gimmick, but actually it’s the right sense here. That’s the way we work.

Tilda Swinton joined you for a day. Carlo said that as soon as the costume went on, she burst into character.
She inhabits it completely. What’s great about Tilda is she has no vanity, she just dives in. So we made her look pretty mousey, false teeth, and a terrible hair-do. Then she gets to rap. Her Scottish accent seemed spot-on. She’s one of those people who loves playing, and loves putting on costumes, disguising herself, being many things. She is a joy. Her timing is brilliant, funny. I’ve been wanting to work with her for a long time, and we’ve been bumping into each other at different festivals and things. We’ve managed to pull off a day.

David Thewlis – how long was he with you?
David was here for six shooting days. Somebody else I’ve known a long time and wanted to work with. David is truly brilliant, because he just loves doing take after take, and each one is different, which is almost gluttony because I’d like to do more and more takes to see what he’s going to do next time. It was quite wonderful, he and Christoph together, they just became a brilliant double act.

How is Melanie?
Melanie is quite extraordinary – a cross between Judy Holliday and Marilyn Monroe – well, a French version. She is one of those people that when the camera rolls, or when she is happy, she just brightens up, she glows. Then you say cut, and she vanishes. She’s wonderful, she’s really sexy, she’s funny. But it’s this glow that always amazes me, we were trying out costumes you could see when she was uncomfortable, didn’t like it, it was like the light was just switched off. Suddenly she’d put something on that appealed, and there was a golden glow coming off her. She becomes this character. She’s an extraordinary woman.

Have there been moments where you have felt you are really, really happy with what you have?
Oh yeah – if there hadn’t been, we would have quit long ago. Every day there are wonderful moments, that’s what it’s about. The surprises are what keep you going, a fresh idea. It’s the actors who make it really interesting – they are transforming the thing every day. And you either go with it, or not.

I just thought it was great with Christoph today with the shot we did in reverse. He was not really enjoying it at all, convinced it was just nonsense, nothing to do with proper acting, he thought it would never work. It was great to see his face when we showed him a take after it was all finished. He was just blown away by it. Wonderful, we have surprised him now. He surprises us every day. And now we’ve done it for him.

You’ve got another ten shooting days. What have you got to look forward to?
Many more disasters! We have outside of Qohen’s chapel to shoot – we’ll see how it goes. Every time we go outside I’m terrified of the weather! We lose Christoph right at the end of the schedule – he’s gone. So we don’t have any fat, we don’t have any latitude if things go wrong. We have to keep ploughing on through. We have underwater sequences to do. We have this tropical island and he gets tangled up underwater, drowning. And another set in space: we have this purified water to do floating in space with two naked people.

If a problem happens, have you got a Plan B. Is there a way to simplify things, or are you locked in now?
There’s no plan B, that’s it. It’s all or nothing, that’s it!

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