We are all born into an irrational world and spend our lives trying to create purpose. Without that purpose, which exists as a series of meticulously constructed illusions, our existence becomes meaningless and we are forced to grapple with intense isolation and the universe’s only certainty: we are born, and then we die. Such is the nature of life, and the prevailing theme of Terry Gilliam’s newest film, The Zero Theorem, which functions as the conclusion of the director’s satirical dystopian sci-fi trilogy that includes Brazil and 12 Monkeys. Unlike its predecessors, The Zero Theorem uses existential philosophy, corporate satire, and colorful visual backdrops to paint a picture of one individual’s reconciliation with life and death.
And although he’s in his early seventies, Gilliam is young at heart and speaks with a sense of wonder and playfulness. He is both a student and teacher of life, more than happy blowing spitballs at various bureaucratic institutions while pondering the interworkings of the universe. He also thinks Hunter S. Thompson was a pain in the ass to work with and describes Monty Python as being “overhyped.” We drank iced tea with the English director and talked about the corporate state, postmodernism, and the similarities between Christianity and Islam.
How did you first get into animations and how did they influence your directing style?
It began when I was part of this television show called We Have Ways of Making you Laugh. I was the resident cartoonist who would do caricatures of the guests. They had some material they collected, so I suggested we make an animated film out of it. I hadn’t made one before, but I knew everything about animation. They gave me two weeks and four hundred pounds to put something together and the only way this would work was with cutouts. The final project made it to television and this was a time in England where there were only three television channels, and this was a very popular show at the time. Overnight, I was a famous cartoonist. That eventually lead to Python, and Python eventually led to films because Terry Jones and I were itching to direct. And then Holy Grail came along and we had complete control over Python and so the two of us got the job. Once your name is on the screen, you’re a film director. It’s simple like that.
Did you have any idea Python would become the world success that it is today?
No, because we weren’t thinking like that. We were just doing a show for BBC where we had total freedom; six of us doing what we wanted to do and enjoying each other’s various talents. That was it. People keep asking me, “How did this happen?” You just have to be at the right place at the right time. It would never happen now. You couldn’t get a show like that off the ground because BBC gave us complete freedom, there weren’t executives we had to pitch.
How do you feel about its current legacy?
Well, it helps pay the mortgage. (Laughs) No, it’s great! However, like everything, it’s overhyped. I had to do a thing a few weeks ago with our great hero Spike Milligan. They finally made a bench with a figure of him sitting on it in North London as a memorial. And he was like, “Everything’s been forgotten! There were never any Marx Brothers. There was never Buster Keaton. Python was the only comedy that was ever out there.” It’s this short-term memory and the way hype goes that we’re legendary and were the birth of comedy. It’s such bullshit.
That’s sort of reminiscent of one of the main philosophies regarding postmodernism. Nowadays, people don’t learn the origins of art, or anything really, and as a result, are attached to this history they don’t actually know, let alone understand.
I think there’s a laziness out there. Everything has to be immediate so nobody has time to do any proper research. And we’re the beneficiaries of it. I don’t think it’s fair, I don’t think it’s accurate, but there’s not much I can do about it.
Something I’ve always wanted to ask you: what was it like working with Hunter S. Thompson?
I met Hunter right at the start. Hunter is Hunter. I’d been up to his house at Owl Creek and had an interesting time. You sort of walked warily around Hunter because he was so fast, so brilliant. Bing, bang, bang. In a sense, he always had to be the center of attention. So I said, “Okay, fine.” When we actually got around to making [Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas], Johnny [Depp] dealt with Hunter every night. I didn’t. I kept distance because I didn’t want to get caught in Hunter’s web. And the day where Hunter was on the set, I wanted to kill him (Laughs). Because he had to be the center! Harry Dean Stanton was there that day and Hunter was constantly distracting everybody. When we had to get him on set for the one scene he was in, he decides, “No, I’m not going to do it. It’s all wrong. It wasn’t like this.” With Johnny, the producer, and myself, it was like sheep dogs around one sheep trying to get it to go into the pen.
That sounds very accurate.
But that’s Hunter. He was what he was. He was extraordinary. Some people were happy to spend a lot of time with him. He was a hero. Actually, I don’t really like spending time with my heroes because they tend to disappoint ultimately. They become human.
I want to get into The Zero Theorem. Your dystopian trilogy begins with Brazil and satirizes this bureaucrat caught in the clogs of an Orwellian state. Your series concludes with The Zero Theorem depicting an individual’s existential crisis in the midst of corporatism. How do you think totalitarianism has shifted during the past 30 years?
I don’t necessarily think it’s totalitarianism. It’s more defused than that. One corporation is just one corporation. However, there’s also a corporate way of thinking, a corporate way of approaching and viewing the world. That’s really the difference. It’s not controlled, insofar as political control goes. But it also feels to me that things are out of control, for that very reason. Within any corporation there’s the exact same bureaucratic pyramid that you get in a government. However, with corporations now, more people are happy and keep working, but nobody thinks of the bigger picture. And that’s [the protagonist of The Zero Theorem]; he’s anti-social, he wants to work at home, but he’s not a guy with dreams. This is just a drone with this lazy, demented idea that a call will give his life meaning. But his dream life, if there is one, is also a nightmarish one; it’s this void, this black hole, this existence without purpose. So I think it’s a very different character. It’s not trying to make an overall great statement about the corporate state. It’s just the fact that the corporate state is making things more colorful, everybody’s happy at the workplace, like you see with Apple and Google, but again, people aren’t thinking, they’re happy just to be working.
Whereas he is not.
He’s the one who isn’t. He’s the cog in the machine who isn’t interested in that and wants something else; this call that will define his life to give it meaning. And that’s insanity. On the other hand, everybody does wait for something that will make their life fulfilled, and advertising thrives on that. Our needs, our insecurities, are what an advertiser works on. Religion doesn’t necessarily do that, but tries to aid and find a way of dealing with it.
I’m happy you brought up religion. In the film, the protagonist lives in this dilapidated church, making religion this backdrop that overshadows things to a degree. What were some of your intentions regarding the role religion plays in the modern state?
In this particular instance, I was just treating it as something that’s burnt out and doesn’t apply to most people anymore. In reality it does. Half of America seems to be very right wing Christian. Any form of fundamentalism makes me crazy, but American fundamentalism isn’t that much different from Islamic fundamentalism, it just uses bigger tools to kill, so it appears more civilized. But no, the church is about faith and the role of the Church did give meaning to people’s lives. It defined life for them and that’s what’s nice about religion; it’s very comforting. “Follow these rules and you’ll go to heaven,” is basically being fulfilled. And I think in the modern world especially, in a technological worshipping world like we live in, we keep thinking our iPhones are the answer, rather than religion.
What do you want audiences to take away from the film?
Whatever they want. I just make it. It’s for them to decide what they take away. I’ve always felt that. I’m happier if people like it, if they really come out of it thinking. Thinking to me is the most important thing, regardless of the end result. Think, look at things differently, and that’s always been what I try to do. I love how people come away with different types of interpretations at the end of the film.
The Zero Theorem is now playing in select theaters.