Terry Gilliam Describes How The Zero Theorem Almost Ended (Spoiler Warning)

A “Hollywood Ending” Was Filmed But Never Used

Sep 19, 2014
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[WARNING: The below feature contains spoilers for the ending of The Zero Theorem, and is intended for readers who have already seen the film. Proceed with caution.]

When he made Brazil in 1985, filmmaker Terry Gilliam famously battled with Universal over the movie’s final cut. Against his wishes the film was re-edited into a shorter version with a happier ending, before a compromise was finally met for a trimmed theatrical version to be released. (The Criterion Collection’s DVD release of Brazil chronicles this entire saga, and includes three different cuts of the film.)

It was much easier for Gilliam to bring his preferred version of his latest film, The Zero Theorem, to audiences, but that doesn’t mean the ending we see in the film is the one that was always intended to be there. The screenplay originally concluded with a more positive “Hollywood ending” (as Gilliam called it) that was shot, but eventually excised from the final cut of the film.

During an earlier interview with Under the Radar and at the film’s New York press conference, Terry Gilliam went into the steps he took in making The Zero Theorem and finding an ending that he felt was respectful to its main character, Qohen.

“After Parnassus, I worked for a year and a half on Quixote and it fell apart,” said Gilliam. “I just wanted to work. I said, ‘What’s out there? Anybody got a job for me?’ And my agent said, ‘What about Zero Theorem?’ ‘You mean, they’re still interested? Okay, yes! Let’s go.’”

“So, that was the situation. It wasn’t about developing something. I shot what was there. We elaborated, is what we did—I mean, that world is not there in the script. A lot of things changed in the course of that, but we shot what was there. And the ending – which was probably one of the reasons it got financed, because it was a good, happy ending – I said, okay, we’ll do it. We went and shot it, and did it as well as we could. We had this fantastic Jaguar Roadster, a lot of good-looking stuff, and a couple big scenes on the streets.”

“Somehow, Bob, the kid, stole his father’s car and arrived [at Qohen’s home],” Gilliam said, describing the original ending. “Qohen got in. Qohen burned down his chapel, and they rode off with fire engine sirens blazing everywhere. They were going to search for Bainsley on one of the islands.”

“When I got back to London, I was still struggling on it. Christoph [Waltz] and I were uneasy about various things. I re-shot one thing, because it just wasn’t right. When I got back to London and put the whole thing together, I said, ‘That’s just crap. It doesn’t work.’ What was important was after the hammering we put Qohen through – there’s a girl who wants to go away with him but he can’t, because he’s too damaged; there’s a boy he can be father-like to, he can help, and that gets taken away from him; everything is taken away from this man – I felt we had to end on a note [where] he has dignity, and you felt that he has some acceptance of the world, rather than fighting, complaining, or running from it. It’s there, and he’s got control of something: the sun, and its setting. It’s a virtual sun, but it’s something.”

“So, I decided to leave it at a moment where I think it was ambiguous, ambivalent, and Qohen looked tall, looked strong. In the other ending, he looked more like a fool.”

“I had a lot of arguments with the producer … I felt it was very important that we leave him with dignity; something we’ve never seen in the course of the film, or some aspect of it. And that’s what we did. To me it’s a very sad ending, but I also think it’s an honest ending when you think of how many people find the virtual world more comfortable than the real world.”

“The nice thing is when [screenwriter] Pat Rushin saw the film, he thanked me for it. He said it was a crap ending we had on there before. But writers do these things… under pressure, in the beginnings of films when you’re trying to find money and interest, they try to make the thing safer for the investors. And there is no safety in film investment, but people like to believe there is; it you can put a nice, happy ending on there that Hollywood will be comfortable with, that’s safer. That just isn’t true at all.”

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Click here to read our interview with Terry Gilliam about The Zero Theorem



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delamination
February 13th 2016
8:54am

Though the end is disturbing, I think it fits - Qohen struggles through the movie to find meaning, to escape from the darkness of meaninglessness. In the end he reaches acceptance, standing tall as the sun sets and his world fades into darkness.

wlfric
April 4th 2017
2:27pm

I would really like to see that “Crap” ending, thanks.  I go to cinema to escape the crap world and see people make breakthroughs.  Qohen was making breakthroughs and coming back to humanity, coming out of his insanity.  And then it’s like “yep, too late, too bad.. so sad.  Have a virtual sun to play with as you lay dying”.. I could watch CNN if I wanted reality like that.  It really did give me a sense that they proved with that ending that “all is for nothing” though somewhat preaching that it isn’t.