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MARRAKECH – A visionary sometimes dismissed by studios (he was famously rejected as the director of the first Harry Potter film despite being author J.K. Rowling‘s first choice) Terry Gilliam has seen high points in his directing career such as Time Bandits, 12 Monkeys and the Oscar-nominated Brazil, which cemented his reputation as a virtuoso filmmaker early on, and the low of the doomed Don Quixote project, which only made it to the big screen as the cautionary documentary Lost in La Mancha.
For his latest film, The Zero Theorem, Christoph Waltz, Matt Damon and Tilda Swinton worked for scale on the tightly budgeted project, which shot in Bucharest last year and saw the actors costumed in plastic tablecloths and other cheaply made, highly flammable fabrics to achieve Gilliam’s signature brightly dystopian visual style. Waltz’s worker bee character, Qohen Leth, is waiting for a call that will never come while trying to solve an unsolvable equation for the mysterious Management, a concept Gilliam has been addressing since Brazil.
But for all the seeming pessimism about modern life depicted in The Zero Theorem, the former Monty Python member was full of laughs when speaking to The Hollywood Reporter about the challenges of getting funding, the Monty Python reunion and why he’s still determined to get Don Quixote made.
“I started life as a very optimistic young American, but life happened to me,” says the often frustrated director, whose battles with studios have been legendary. “I still don’t get to do what I want to do. I need more money to do what I want to do but I can’t get the money so I’m frustrated. It takes me years to get money to make a film. I spend my whole time waiting and not doing what I should be doing, which is making films.”
He acknowledges his many career successes, though marred by some notable commercial and critical failures. “We all know the bell curve. I was at the top before when I was very lucky. It goes up and down, and I’m in that long, slow curve to the grave,” jokes the 73-year-old. “I know for better or worse I’ve got a certain amount of talent and a certain amount of years, so I’d like to get a few things out there, which may or may not be good. Ideas are what are really important to me. I make films and hopefully I’m presenting a few ideas, maybe fresh, maybe useful, maybe enlightening. And when you can’t get them out there it’s frustrating.
“So I find most of my time is spent at home being depressed because I can’t do what I want to do, which is very infantile behavior! But that’s why I maintain my childish bounce.”
For all the time he says he stays home waiting and wallowing, he has a very busy schedule for 2014, directing Benvenuto Cellini for the English National Opera as well as the planned Monty Python reunion stage show announced last month.
“We got together again a month or so ago, because we were in a court case that we lost and we had to talk about how we were going to deal with that. It was very expensive and we thought we’d better do something to make some money.”
“And as it always happens when we get together we started laughing and getting excited about being together. We don’t change. In the past a few of us have talked about making another film, but another film takes too long, so we thought of a stage show. One stage show is where it began. One week of rehearsal and we’re going to do a show. And then it sold out in 43 seconds. OK then, we thought, we’ll do a few more. And we’ve ended up with 10,” he says of the highly anticipated Python reunion.
Eric Idle has penned the stage script, but Gilliam says it will change as the group rehearses. “Eric is claiming to be the director, but with Python, there’s not really a director. He’s been wanting to do a show like this for years, so he’s getting his wish,” he says.
“It will be interesting, because it will make me go back to thinking the way I thought when I was on Python, because I don’t think like that now. And that might be a nice way of freeing up myself. With Python we were just crazy, anything to get people to laugh — silly, ridiculous. Now as you can see I’m much more profound and wise,” he jokes. “And now I have to be silly again.”
He reflects on the world he created in The Zero Theorem, with Leth’s longing for solitude in an overly stimulated world as a commentary on today’s hyper-connected society.
“[In the film,] everybody’s happy, working and shopping. This is the world we’re living in and everybody’s buzzing, connected, always on. Is that oppressive?” he reflects. “He wants to escape from it and be alone. He’s mad, he’s waiting for a phone call that will tell him the meaning of life, but waiting for a phone call is what we do every day with advertising saying buy this to make you happy, buy this it will fulfill you, buy this it will make you better.”
Gilliam avoided politics in this film, with “The Management” instead reflecting the power of modern corporations, and addressed the place of religion in modern life by having Waltz’s Leth live in an abandoned church that has been outfitted with The Management’s surveillance equipment.
“In the film, religion is dead. It’s a burnt-out chapel and a broken crucifix with a camera on it,” he said as he pulled out a shiny new iPhone 5S. “But look at this, isn’t it the most wonderful thing? I love this, I worship this. It’s like 2001: I’m the ape and this is the black monolith. This is such a brilliant thing and this is the result of a corporation, and we love it all. And yet we have no control over it. As long as we are fed more and more good things, we shut up and get up and get on with our lives.”
He says he lives a debt-free life that belies his simple Minnesota roots and only pursues passion projects. “Hollywood functions by most people living too expensively and then they have to do films just to make money and the films, they are what they are. But I’m free of that.”
But he’s still battling the Hollywood windmills, and insists that Quixote will happen, if only through sheer strength of will. He’s determined to bring it to the screen and will be working on it next year, he says. “I am doing it. The script is there, I have a producer, end of story” he says of the project’s status.
“That’s how foolish I am. It’s been around too long and it’s like a tumor, I want to get it out of my body. I don’t even know if it will be a good film — I just want to get rid of it. Here’s the problem with Quixote: It becomes very obsessive. It’s like it’s in there and he won’t let go and he keeps floating in my head, and I want him out of my life.”
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