Terry Gilliam’s track record as a director is very much a mixed bag, in terms of box office or critical success. But the director of “Brazil” and 12 Monkeys” and “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is often compared to the great innovators and visual stylists of the medium — Kubrick and Welles, Burton and Ridley Scott.
The screenwriter of his latest, “The Zero Theorem,” got to see why first hand. “Theorem” is an odd, futuristic dystopia about a computer programmer with the Biblical name Qohen (Christoph Waltz), tormented by his boss, Joby (David Thewlis) and assigned to computer-model a theorem that might explain the meaning of life. And writer Pat Rushin had a single line in his script — “Joby’s house, party.” What Gilliam did with that stunned college professor turned screenwriter Pat Rushin.
“Gilliam rents this huge $8 million house that was for sale, and empty,” Rushin says. “Budget-wise, he’d have to spend a lot of money to furnish that as a set.”
Gilliam never has “A lot of money.” Not any more.
“His idea was to make it a ‘moving out’ party. Joby’s moving, so all Gilliam had to show was moving boxes. That’s the background. Boxes and boxes.”
“You do things like that because you’re forced to,” Gilliam says. “You don’t have the money, but it always turns out more interesting or surprising than what you would have had if we’d just had normal furniture that a set dresser had rounded up.”
Rushin’s simple “party” became “a themed costume party,” Rushin continues. The theme? “A-FREAK-a. And Qohen is the only one not in costume.”
Everybody else at the party seems a bit too self-involved to notice the tormented non-costumed “hero.”
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great it everybody stood around looking at their iPhones and iPads, not paying attention to anybody else actually in the room with them?'” Gilliam explains.
Rushin shakes his head in amazement. He was on the Bucharest, Romania, set for that scene, Bucharest being home to many a mini-budget epic.
“I thought, ‘That’s cool. I write ‘a party,’ but Terry Gilliam? He THROWS a party!'”
Gilliam shrugs off such flights of low-budget fancy. It’s how he worked as house animator on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” and how he’s made his films since the days of “The Fisher King,” Twelve Monkeys” and “The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen” — when he had lots more money to play around with.
“In some ways, that’s how I enjoy working these days. Instead of having unlimited funding to do whatever I want, I have to think around that.”
“Zero Theorem” has been called the final third of his “Brazil Trilogy,” but not by Gilliam. It’s easily labeled a “dystopia,” with its nightmarish vision of the visually over-loaded workplace and world of the future.
“For me, it’s a utopia! It’s the world we’re all living in now, right? And we’re all in LOVE with that world.”
Critics love to use the phrase “eye candy” when talking about it, like so many of his other films. Gilliam settles on an artist whose visual style helps him see the movie he wants to make, in this case, anachronic collage creator Neo Rauch, whose collision of colors, textures and media spoke to him. His impersonation of Rauch sets the visual tone.
“I hope it’s more than candy. Always. Maybe some vegetables, a little protein, as well. But I understand what they’re talking about.”
As he closes in on 74, Gilliam embraces the “maverick” label he’s worn for decades. One way you earn that is by being stubborn, battling studios, producers and very bad luck to get a movie made. The unluckiest director in the movies had “Brazil” taken from him by his studio, had “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” wrecked, in mid-production, by an unhealthy star and bad Spanish weather and lost his “Doctor Parnassus” star in mid-production, when Heath Ledger overdosed.
The maverick, closing in on his 74th birthday, remains undaunted. Take his ill-fated riff on “Don Quixote.” When Tim Burton was told his planned “Believe It Or Not” creator Robert Ripley bio-pic with Jim Carrey would be too expensive to make, he just moved on.
“After putting all that time into it, I’d already made it in my mind,” Burton said at the time. Not good enough for Gilliam.
“No, unlike Tim Burton, I’m stupid,” Gilliam jokes. “Plainly, he’s a shrewder man than I am.”
So whatever happens with “Zero Theorem,” “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is back on, Spanish weather be damned.
“At the moment, I’ve got my two leads. And it’s just a question of the producer and their agents coming to an agreement.”
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