As his latest deranged vision hits screens, ShortList sits down with genius – and Python – Terry Gilliam to hear about the trilogy it forms with his earlier masterworks
Orwell meets Python in this 1985 tragi-comedy set in a surreal dystopia where paperwork smothers spontaneity, and our hero’s only escape is into his vivid imagination.
“I got the idea in, of all places, Port Talbot. I was on the beach, which was completely covered in coal dust, with all these conveyor belts everywhere. I thought, ‘Wow’, and the music came to mind – this romantic music from South America. The hope you can have in ugliness. Those little epiphanies, moments like that. I have a very deep vein of romanticism coursing through me – you take something that’s so ugly, and for a minute there’s beauty. That’s what it’s about for me. It’s the romantic dream of ‘Here I am in this sh*thole, but maybe there’s something better over the horizon’.
“I hate bureaucracy. I can’t fill out forms, there’s a whole part of myself that won’t let me do it. My wife has to do it for me. People use bureaucracy to hide behind the rules, and avoid being held accountable. It’s like there’s no responsibility. That’s what Brazil is about.
“It’s also why I like Michael Palin as a torturer. He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and his character is a family man, but he has a career, and he has a choice between hurting his best friend Sam or getting fired. People don’t protest any more because they don’t want to lose their jobs – that’s the theme, that we can be so timid in resisting. There’s a scene where Sam comes in and sees Mike is the torturer – we tried shooting it without a little girl in it and it didn’t work. My daughter happened to be visiting the set that day, so we stuck her in the scene and it came alive – it just became so much darker. Good thing she was there.
“De Niro was a Python fan, so that was handy in getting him to do a cameo. Once we got him, it was the first bit part, non-lead role that he’d done in about 10 years. He was used to a lot of attention, so he was a full-time job. We had the prop department making his tool bag, and he insisted on going through with me the purpose and history of every tool in his bag. We’d go on and on, it was like there was no film being made apart from his one scene. In the end, after all that, he was having trouble operating one of the tools in close-up, so the hands doing it are actually mine.”
Need to know:
Acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard helped out with the script.
It was reportedly River Phoenix’s favourite film, and he was scheduled to meet Gilliam the day he died.
Subject to huge struggles with Universal, which wanted a happier ending. Gilliam took out a full-page ad in industry mag Variety asking when it would be released, and illegally screened a cut for LA critics.
Bruce Willis stars in this mad 1995 masterpiece, playing a convict sent back from a nightmare future to get to the bottom of a plague that has all but destroyed humanity.
“I’d had almighty battles with the studio over which cut of Brazil would be released, so I got a reputation for being difficult. The powers that be thought I could explode at any moment [on 12 Monkeys], so I never had to raise my voice and they gave me what I wanted, just to placate my so-called reputation.
“It wasn’t all smooth, though – I fell off a horse on one of my days off. He took off, and I was holding on for dear life because he was so f*cking strong. We took a tumble together, and it was like there were four guys with baseball bats waiting for me on the ground. I spent a day in hospital being sewn together and scanned, and of course the producers freaked out. They thought I’d die or something.
“Shooting with Brad Pitt was interesting – Legends Of The Fall was out, and that was what catapulted him. We had so much security, it was like The Beatles had arrived. We had to smuggle him in and out of everywhere. Right from his first day of shooting he was on fire – he flew around so much, he could barely walk the second day. How he managed it while dealing with what I know fame does to your head, I’ll never know.
“We filmed in Bucharest which is a great city – we went there because it’s the cheapest place to shoot where you have decent crews. We only brought about four or five people from outside. It’s a city that has more Art Deco buildings than anywhere in Europe. The Soviet-style architecture is very impressive. There was this amazing location for the doctor’s surgery. We walked in there and shot – it was a place where they do electrical experiments. It looked like the kind of sci-fi toys kids had in the Fifties, very Buck Rogers. We didn’t build any of that stuff. We used the foyer of a 19th-century concert hall for a futuristic software company.”
Need to know:
Inspired by Chris Marker’s classic 1962 short La Jetée.
Contains many nods to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Written by Blade Runner scribe David Webb Peoples.
Gilliam reportedly gave Willis a list of ‘Bruce Willis acting clichés’ to avoid in his performance, including the ‘steely blue eyes look’.
The Zero Theorem
Gilliam’s latest brain-bender sees a shaven-headed Christoph Waltz play a computer coder on a lonely quest to decode the meaning of life, but who finds his life disrupted by a call girl and his boss’s precocious son.
“The Zero Theorem is saturated with this new digital world we’ve found ourselves in. With tweeting, all of this technology is just being used for gossip. The only way you find out who you are is by spending time alone, and finding out if you want to continue living with yourself.
“I was so excited to work with Christoph Waltz. He’d been a jobbing actor for so long. Then along comes Inglourious Basterds and he’s a movie star. He’s developed so much recently, and those 30 years of not making it – we could channel that bitterness into the frustrations of his character. He really is great as the one man in our connected world who wants to be alone.
“We looked at the campuses of these SiIicon Valley companies. People skateboard to work, it’s so loose. I suppose it’s slightly better than being on a Roman galley. I think what bothers me about it is that there’s a permanent juvenile quality to it, but I shouldn’t complain – I play on set constantly.
“People think I seek out adversity in shooting my films. I find it’s good for me if things go wrong, I stop mechanically implementing a plan and I impress myself with a new and exciting idea. What I like about uncontrollable reality intruding on this fake world we’re creating, is most of the time the answers turn out to be more surprising and exciting than anything you plan. So much of filmmaking is just tricking people into thinking you know what you’re doing.”
The Zero Theorem is at cinemas nationwide from 14 March
Need to know:
Shot on location in Bucharest, doubling for a futuristic London.
Based on ‘Ecclesiastes’ – one of the Bible’s less cheery books.
The look of the film is inspired by surrealist painter Neo Rauch.
An earlier iteration, starring Billy Bob Thornton, stalled because the actor refused to shoot in London as he has a phobia of antiques.