Terry Gilliam | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Terry Gilliam

Solving The Zero Theorem

Sep 19, 2014 Issue #51 - September/October 2014 - alt-J Bookmark and Share

For nearly 40 years, Terry Gilliam has been the archetypal cult filmmaker. Starting out as an animator and member of British comedy troupe Monty Python, he moved into filmmaking on their classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which he co-directed with Terry Jones. From there he went on to direct a stream of imaginatively off-kilter cinema, including films such as Time Bandits, Brazil, The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

Despite being made for the smallest budget Gilliam has worked with in more than three decades, his latest film, The Zero Theorem, presents a colorful and captivating science fiction world. In the movie, Christoph Waltz plays a dying computer genius who is tasked with working out a theorem that will provide irrefutable evidence that life has no meaning. The film also stars Melanie Thierry, Lucas Hedges, David Thewlis, Matt Damon, and Tilda Swinton.

In the following Q&A, the filmmaker describes his approach to crafting the look of The Zero Theorem. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview with Terry Gilliam, quotes that didn’t make it into our main print article on him.]

Austin Trunick (Under the Radar): Your production designthe colors, sets, costumes-really helps convey the constant visual bombardment your characters are going through. What reference points were you giving to your visual team? I’ve seen the name Neo Rauch…

Terry Gilliam: Neo Rauch is a painter that intrigued me because he uses different techniques and puts things together in surprising ways, both in his painting technique and his imagery that he uses. There’s a bit of that. I find when I go out into town, I’m overwhelmed by the barrage of signs, billboards, everything attacking me, wanting my attention, offering me hope, blah blah blah. When I see films say things about Google or any of the worlds where computer people operate, more and more the workplace is becoming like a playground, a campus, people can wear whatever they want. I really just went for color. Nothing more than busy-ness and color for the sake of color and busy-ness. A lot of things that happened were determined by the fact that we were shooting in Bucharest, which is a very intriguing-looking city, and the fact that we had very little money. The film was made for $8.5 million, and that’s nothing with the kind of effects we have. In the costume department, [designer] Carlo Poggioli had so little money he was using plastic tablecloths and shower curtains as part of the costumes. In a strange way the lack of money brought us to the solutions we came up with. I just wanted color, color, color. And the only lack of color in any place is [Christoph Waltz’s character] Qohen. That seemed sensible.

It sounds like the time and budget constrictions might have been freeing, in a way.

It was very hard. What it did mean was that we did more work than normal in the editing room. In many ways we were re-writing a lot of parts of the film, because with as fast a shoot as we did, so many things went wrong on the production level. We found that in the post we did a lot of interesting work.

Having done a film like this, are you perhaps interested in pursuing future projects on a smaller scale, like this one?

I’m getting older and it’s getting harder. [Laughs] I like working with budgets that aren’t huge because then you don’t have the pressure of making a “big commercial film.” You make it for less money and you don’t need to make as much for it to become profitable, so it frees you in that sense. But at a certain point, it just becomes a bit too much. I don’t think I can ask the same favors of a lot of my friends that I did on Zero Theorem.

The film is shot on an interesting format, with a rounded, black frame surrounding the image. I understand it serves a purpose of protecting the aspect ratio, but I’m curious whether there were other aesthetic values you found with this unusual framing?

Have you heard my idea that it’s the first one-size-fits-all, full gate, semi-vinyl motion picture? That’s what it is. It’s one-size-fits-all. We shot it in 16:9 ratio, so it’s the ratio you get on your iPhone, iPad, modern computer screens, and modern television screens. So everyone is seeing the same image, whether they’re seeing it at the cinema or on a digital, home media. Then, full-gate is exactly what you see. That’s why you get the rounded corners, because the gate in a film camera has rounded corners on the edge. Normally there’s a safety area within that, which excludes all those bits around the edge. Well, we’ve left them all in. You see exactly what went on the film with no safety net, no safety margins, nothing. And then semi-vinyl, because we shot on film. And yet, there’s probably 270 digital effects shots, so I couldn’t call it totally analog or vinyl…. And motion picture is motion picture. I was just doing it for the fun of it. [Laughs] Some people notice, and most people don’t even notice.

It reminded me of old Victorian stereoview cards.

It’s essentially that. They showed you the entire image that the camera saw. It’s just funny, because the camera gate is so small and it was always very hard for people to get a very precise corner, because those things were always hand-cut. I got into a fight with the producers because they said the distributors won’t accept this format, blah blah blah. I said, “Oh, stop it. It’s a creative decision. It’s going to stay.” People are so frightened to do anything out of the ordinary at the moment. That’s part of why I worry about the modern world.

There’s a Radiohead song that almost acts as Baizley’s theme music through the film, an old-timey-sounding cover of the song “Creep.” Did you select that song yourself?

We were shooting the scenes with Melanie Thierry as Bainsley, on her website, when she’s stripping. The sound man brought in a bunch of different music and that was the one [song] that I really liked. I said that we’d use it for her, and in the end we just kept it there. We couldn’t find anything better. I didn’t know it was Radiohead, I didn’t even know the title was “Creep.” I never really listened to the lyrics until it was on at the very end of the film, to close it. I started listening to it and I said, “It’s like this was written for this film!” [Laughs] That was one of the serendipitous moments in filmmaking that excites me. They keep happening; they’ve always happened, in every film I’ve done. It seems like there’s still magic in the world somewhere.

While we’re on the subject of music: is the Gorillaz movie something that’s still on your backburner?

I don’t think so. I haven’t heard anything from Damon [Albarn]. I’ve bumped into him in the intervening time but he’s never said anything, so I don’t know if it’s going to happen. I really don’t.

Special effects and computer animation have probably changed your process quite a bit since your paper-cutting animation days. Has the improvement of filmmaking technology made it easier for you to realize your visions for films?

It probably has. We’ve got more tools now, and computer graphics have come down in price. Everything has come down, so now with low budgets like we had on this one, we were able to achieve pretty amazing things. I try to always mix between models and computers, and I’ll use every trick in the book, hopefully, so that people can’t see what the trick is. I find there’s some overuse of digital animationthe big films are turning into animated films as opposed to live action films.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail was your first film, co-directing with Terry Jones. Are there rules you learned on Holy Grail that you still live by when making films today?

Not really, other than the fact you should treat the crew like equals. That’s my feeling. The thing about films is you gather all these people with different talents, skills, and abilities. I just like keeping it feeling that it’s a group effort, that it’s collaborative. It’s not the hierarchy that so many productions seem to thrive on. I think that’s the most important thing I learned.

[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s September/October digital issue (Issue 51). Pick up the print issue now for a separate in-depth article on Terry Gilliam.]


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Trim Hedges
May 1st 2019

Terry Gilliam is a very talented man - Trim Hedges

aa safety
July 13th 2019

I haven’t heard anything from Damon [Albarn]. I’ve bumped into him in the intervening time but he’s never said anything, so I don’t know if it’s going to happen. I really don’t.