Early in Brazil, the madcap dystopian nightmare by which all of Terry Gilliam’s other films are measured, a bureaucratic drone named Mr. Helpmann scoffs at a recent wave of terrorist bombings: “If these people would just play the game, they’d get a lot more out of life.” The Zero Theorem—Gilliam’s new film, and his most undisguised existential corporate satire in a career full of them—is explicitly about someone who just plays the game.
A citizen of a near-future London, Qohen Leth (a hairless Christoph Waltz) is an entity-cruncher for a company called Mancom. His job amounts to sitting at a screen, using a console controller to play a massive round of algorithmic Tetris. Qohen hates his job because it requires him to leave the dilapidated church he calls home, a ruin where he waits for the mysterious phone call that will explain to him the meaning of life. Gilliam didn’t write the film (the script is by first-time writer Pat Rushin), but make no mistake, The Zero Theorem is as Gilliam as it gets.
Unlike other Gilliam productions, The Zero Theorem wasn’t cataclysmically derailed by an act of God, perhaps because the film is so skeptical that a higher power exists. An inimitably heartbreaking “What does it all mean?” story that explores faith and modern loneliness via a teenage boy named Bob (Moonrise Kingdom’s Lucas Hedges), a latex-loving French girl named Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), and a rapping A.I. psychiatrist (Tilda Swinton), The Zero Theorem finds Gilliam exploring familiar interests with new urgency. On the eve of the film’s theatrical release, The Dissolve sat down with the iconoclastic filmmaker for a breathless, laugh-happy conversation about Jewish jokes, Batman, and other things that skew dark.
The Dissolve: How are you doing?
Terry Gilliam: [Laughs.] I dunno. Doing!
The Dissolve: This press tour has been epic.
Gilliam: Well, they have no money for posters, advertisements, or anything. I’m it, I’m the campaign.
The Dissolve: Qohen’s predicament reminded me of that old joke about the drowning man who prays to God to come save him. As boats offer him help, he says no, because God will take care of him. When he dies, he complains that God never showed, and God says “I sent all those boats!”
Gilliam: Yeah, God goes, “What do you want? Fuck off!” I hadn’t thought of that, quite honestly, but it’s a spot-on joke. And it has to be a Jewish joke. They’re the best jokes. Jewish jokes have always been cosmic; they’re more profound. They have that particular relationship with God. [Laughs.] These stiff-necked people and God. It’s much more personal. That’s why I’ve always loved Jewish humor, because the Christian God has to be treated with terrible respect, and with the Jewish God, it’s a battle.
The Dissolve: And the High Holidays are coming up, our ultimate battleground.
Gilliam: [Laughs.] You don’t have to be a fundamentalist, just tainted enough to keep the humor alive. That’s the important thing.
The Dissolve: So for Qohen are Bainsley, Bob, and the rest of the people who come to his home his boats?
Gilliam: Yeah, that’s exactly right. The interesting thing, the slight difference, is that he doesn’t ignore Bob. He tries to look after the kid, and Qohen actually has opened up his heart a bit. With Bainsley and their painful parting, it was just too much, but with Bob, he tries. So he opened up a little bit, and it’s still taken away from him! [Cackles.]
The Dissolve: The film can be seen as the story of a man succumbing to his own heartbreak. The decrepit church where he lives is like the ruins of a relationship. Can the film serve as a cautionary tale about how not to cope with being dumped?
Gilliam: I’m not sure! [Laughs.] At the end, he’s acquired a kind of zen acceptance of things, which might help people through those tough moments. But yeah, I think of that pink chaise lounge, and all the building materials in the place… I have to build a story around these guys, so to me, it was like he had just gotten married, and he bought this place, and he and his partner were going to restore it together as a great act of love. And they buy the love couch and all that, and then she’s gone and he’s stuck.
The Dissolve: The film feels very handmade. But the black holes that haunt Qohen’s dreams are these broad digital creations. There’s a sense that the digital world is an ominous threat that suffuses Qohen’s life, and tries to swallow him whole.
Gilliam: It swallows him whole! It’s just not as black. None of that was really in the script, it came out of the making of the movie. Part of the process. I kind of discovered that as we were doing it. The technology is the lure, and the virtual world is easier and very seductive. It isn’t messy and complicated, like real relationships. It began years ago with my son, when Tony Hawk—my son was playing the videogame, and he was doing all these really cool moves! And then he got a real skateboard, and reality wasn’t the same. There’s gravity, there’s gravel, it hurts, you bleed. He kept doing both, but he seemed to need the virtual world to keep going and fool himself into thinking he was learning. And I’m as much a victim of the Internet as anyone else. You just get caught in it. It’s easier and kind of fun, and ultimately, that’s how it grew.
The original ending for The Zero Theorem was a happy ending, a Hollywood ending, and I didn’t buy it. It had hope. Fuck you. And so I basically stopped the movie at a moment where there’s some acceptance, the first time in the movie that he’s calm. He looks strong for a bit. He’s got enough power to sink the virtual sun. [Laughs.] It’s a very sad ending.
“The original ending was a happy ending, a Hollywood ending, and I didn’t buy it. It had hope.”
The Dissolve: Well, it’s also a very sad beginning. You can tell it’s going to be a melancholy affair from the first frame, as the film kicks off with this haunted, mourning cello solo.
Gilliam: That music is very important.
The Dissolve: How closely involved are you in the scoring of your films?
Gilliam: I am. That music came from an Arvo Pärt thing. It wasn’t my idea—it was Ray Cooper, who has always been a part of my films. We were finding around for music, and he brought that in, and it was so simple. Ting, tong. And then George Fenton did his own version of it. The whole thing was melancholic—the movie had to start melancholic. It ends sweetly, with that “Creep” cover… Again, when you’re making a film, things happen. Maybe God created the world this way—because I’m supposed to be God—and things happened around Him and he said, “I’ll just use that instead,” as opposed to omnipotence. We had to do this pre-shoot of Mélanie doing her strip, and I told the sound guy to bring in some music to make her feel comfortable. And the song that she liked and I liked was that “Creep” song. [Karen Souza’s cover of the Radiohead classic.] I never listened to the lyrics of it the whole time. We used it on the website and the whole thing, but I never listened to the lyrics until after we stuck it on the end of the movie. And then I did, and it was like they were written for the film! That’s the truly magical, mystical part of filmmaking, and it happens on all of my films.
The Dissolve: You’ve said you found yourself identifying with Qohen more than you might like as the production went on. Could the story work as a metaphor for the editing process, with a man shutting himself away from a bright, happy world, and he’s alone and losing his mind inside?
Gilliam: [Laughs.] I wasn’t thinking that, because editing isn’t lonely, at least in my experience. That’s the difference. I like it. You’ve created these things, and now you’ve got to put them together. Entities, which you’ve got to organize into something that’s hopefully closer to 100 percent than he gets to! [Cackles.] But no, I don’t find it lonely, because it’s like a puzzle, and that’s the fun part. When you’re shooting, you think you know the film you’re making, but it’s only in retrospect that you realize, “Oh, if only I had done that… but we can still salvage it.”
The Dissolve: Perhaps it’s the perfect middle ground between the algorithmic obsession that dominates the film, and the poetry that life factors into the equation. Because editing does have a rhythm, there is some math, but there’s the magic as well.
Gilliam: That’s the kind of analysis that I don’t spend time thinking about, but you’re not wrong!
The Dissolve: Fair enough! The movie has a passing mention to The Church Of Batman The Redeemer. That’s a memorable phrase in part because it so perfectly describes the multiplexes these days.
Gilliam: That’s it. When we got to New York… First of all, you arrive in Times Square, and that’s the beginning of our film. I haven’t been here in a while, and it’s like “Oh Jesus!” And there’s the guy in the street selling photograms and comic books and title pages—it’s all there. You go to comic conventions, like DragonCon where I was recently, and superheroes are the new apostles. So I just thought “Batman the Redeemer” was the way to do it. It seems to be more important to most of those people than any real religion. It gives a structure, it’s almost sacred, and there’s aspiration… All the things religion does. The other one I really like is “The Church Of Intelligent Design.” [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: So when you arrive in Times Square and you see all these things, it sounds like that’s not the kind of moment that makes you regret renouncing your American citizenship.
Gilliam: It reassures me I was right.
The Dissolve: One of the things The Zero Theorem brings into focus is the classic existential idea that the closer people get to understanding everything, the more they’re forced to reckon with their own purposelessness. Especially considering how this film echoes some of your previous work, are these questions about existence becoming more urgent as you grow older, or are you finding it easier to make peace with them?
Gilliam: I don’t know. Life is chaotic, and you have to invent a meaning for you. A pre-approved structure like religion? That’s easy. It’s been worked out, it’s been around for a long time, it’s not like some executives just got together in a room and worked out the whole storyline. So that works for a lot of people. One of my hero characters is in The Brothers Karamazov, the doubting priest who says “If only I could be that 300-pound peasant woman, lighting candles and doing my rosary, and that would be it. The answers would be there.”
The Dissolve: So do you sometimes wish you were more complacent, that things might be easier?
Gilliam: Well, I wouldn’t be doing this job! [Laughs.] Films are my way, for a short period, of putting a structure in place and making sense of the world. And then… “Wrong! Let’s do another one!”
The Dissolve: The idea of making sense of the world is fascinating in regards to Qohen. The disconnected phone call he believes was going to tell him the meaning of life may have been a delusion, but viewers might think he dropped the phone on purpose, because he needs that narrative to keep going. Or is that the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard?
Gilliam: No, that’s good. No, that’s not bad. Oh shit, an idea just floated in and floated out… you know why he’s called Qohen Leth?
The Dissolve: No, but it sounds familiar…
Gilliam: It should, it should. I only found this out a couple weeks ago. Qohen, if you take out the “n,” you have “Qoheleth,” which is Hebrew for “Ecclesiastes.” And that’s the book it’s really about. Ecclesiastes is one of the great books of the Bible, it’s cynical and it’s vanity—“All is vanity.” [Screenwriter] Pat Rushin never told me that’s how that name came, and I had been asking the whole time! It’s very funny, because I’d been working on this so-called “autobiography,” and I had just written its preface which started “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” which is the opening of Ecclesiastes! [Laughs.] All these things we do have no ultimate meaning. The meaning is something simpler, it’s there in front of you. For Qohen, the meaning is those people in his life. One, he can’t deal with, because of the damage in his life, and the other, he’s ultimately impotent to deal with, because the forces of Management come and take him away! [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: The Zero Theorem continues a motif in your films of using display screens in unique ways. You seem like the kind of guy who might not own a television, or might have a strange relationship with it if you did.
Gilliam: I’ve got one. I don’t watch it. I just have it there to say “I don’t watch it.” I tend to watch the news, but my problem is that, with all of these things, I’m basically a junkie. If I turn the television on, then I’m there all night. My whole life is basically about defending myself from my weaknesses. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: It also speaks to the delicate relationship Qohen has with loneliness, and the way he processes that shines a light on how our social media has allowed loneliness to develop in bizarre new dimensions.
“Solitude is something I’ve been trying to promote for a long time.
Gilliam: One of the key things for me was that line where he says “I was alone, but never lonely.” It’s about solitude. Solitude is something I’ve been trying to promote for a long time. As a way of just balancing the connectivity of everything at the moment, the noise and the information. To cut off from that. It started with my son, when we got a house in Italy. There’s no TV, there’s no games, there’s no telephone, there’s nothing. There’s a well where we get the water from. It’s a very simple place. And he’d be bored for the first couple days, and my wife would say, “We have to do something.” And I said, “Let him get bored and watch what happens.” By day three, he was inventing things. He’s alive.
The Dissolve: It’s like rehabbing from an addiction.
Gilliam: Just like that. And of course we go back to London, and the first thing he does is television on, PlayStation on, [makes videogame sounds]. But at least for a couple of weeks, he was free from all that, and finding the world exciting and fascinating. Not structured, not pre-constructed for him. He was creating the world.