Interview with Movie Director Terry Gilliam at Dragon Con

Every year on Labor Day weekend over 60,000 people flock to downtown Atlanta to attend one of the most popular fantasy, sci-fi and gaming conventions in the United States, Dragon Con.  Among the hundreds of authors, musicians, and celebrities attending this year’s convention was film director Terry Gilliam, who was on hand to promote his latest film “The Zero Theorem.”

Known for his artwork and comedy contributions in the television show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” Gilliam has spent most of his life writing and directing films.  Looking over his filmography, several directorial projects jump to the top, including “The Fisher King,” “The Brothers Grimm” and “12 Monkeys.”  Gilliam also wrote or co-wrote a significant portion of his films, like “Brazil,” “Time Bandits” and Heath Ledger’s final movie “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.”

Terry Gilliam at Dragon Con 2014
Terry Gilliam at Dragon Con 2014

“The Zero Theorem” was written by Pat Rushin and directed by Gilliam.  In the film, the audience is introduced to an eccentric loner named Qohen (Christoph Waltz, “Django Unchained”) who is tasked to prove once and for all that life is meaningless.  The film debuted in 2013 at the Venice Film Festival and as with most of Gilliam’s films, it has split the critics and audiences.  The divisive nature of his films does not surprise Gilliam and he believes that there is an audience out there for every one of his projects.

When people start talking about an audience, well, there are a million audiences out there.  The trick is some people are going to like this, some people are going to like that, and yet the [Hollywood] system doesn’t seem to think that way.

I like the fact that when I checked on any statistics on “The Zero Theorem,” if it was being rated zero through five, the fives are great and the zeros are great.  I like that because I know the fives are experiencing something and that’s me getting into people.  That’s all I have ever tried to do is to leave bits of shrapnel in them like I had bits of shrapnel left in me from other films.

The world of “The Zero Theorem” takes place in a colorful, bright and loud futuristic setting, a stark contrast to the darkness at the core of the character Qohen.  As both a writer and a director, Gilliam has molded science fiction stories that are directly relevant to the world we live in.  Gilliam explains that he is not trying to tell the story of humanity’s future, but of our present.

“Brazil” was a movie about the world as it was then.  It just happens that now is even more like “Brazil” than it was then. “Zero Theorem” is about now.  It’s really what it is, my view of now … just the overload of information and stuff that’s out there all demanding our attention.  It gave me my chance to nail advertising.  We turned Occupy Wall Street into Occupy Mall Street and then we also had Shoppers of the World Unite.

Qohen is struggling to bring meaning to his own life, hoping to find it in the voice on the other end of a mysterious phone call that never comes.  He is alone in his home, an old abandon church, staring in a hypnotic trance at a black hole on his computer monitor.  Eventually the ring of his phone snaps him out of it and he begins heading to work.  In the first few minutes of the film, we learn a great detail about Qohen’s life.  It is in the quiet, dark solitude of his home that he feels peace.  Themes of depression and isolation are an important part of the story, but so is the realization that as individuals we are oftentimes helpless to affect the world in any kind of meaningful way.  Gilliam feels that this is the biggest takeaway from the story.

It seems to me in the modern world, we’re all depressed.  The sense of it was here was a guy who felt that if only he had a meaning to his life it would be okay.  The black hole [he envisions throughout the film] is the meaningless of everything.  He’s so busy waiting for someone to tell him rather than finding it himself, or living it.  I find the character interesting because he’s been so damaged by life in advance of the time we get to know him.  To me, the real heart was trying to reclaim his humanity, his ability to care, to love and actually get outside of himself.

The movie is about impotence.  Impotence is the heart of it.  Those of us who pay attention to the world, read the news and feel we can do something about it, the older you get the more you realize how impotent you are to change things.  That’s the sad thing.  I talk about all these other things, but that’s the heart of it.  I decorated the film … I created the world around him but that’s not really the movie. That’s just the world around him.

In order to tell the story that he wanted, Gilliam changed Rushin’s original ending from a typical “Hollywood ending” to something more true to the point of the film.  “It just violated the world that we had created, but it was there because obviously the producers thought it would help the movie get funded more easily.” Asked to expand on the practice of writing for producers and studios as opposed to writing for the story, Gilliam continues.

The practice of self-censorship on the part of the screenwriter is where many films begin to fail.  You want to succeed, you want to achieve and get your work done, so you make all these little compromises all along the way and by the end you’ve violated what you set out to do.  So, it’s a very hard balance how to play this game and get films made, because they’re expensive.  I don’t know how you get around it frankly, except to do what we did.  We filmed the happy ending and I cut it off!

More than anything else, Gilliam is an artist and film is his canvas.  With “The Zero Theorem” he wanted to make sure that no matter how it was watched, the film would physically appear the same way to every person.  When someone watches the film, one of the things to look for is the rounded corner on each edge of the film.  Before he begins describing the process that went into the actual filming of the movie, Gilliam has a good laugh and then dives to the subject.

This is the question I’ve been waiting for! This may be the one time it get’s written about! That’s why we call it a one-size-fits-all/full gate/semi-vinyl motion picture!

It’s one-size-fits-all because in my perverseness, we shot it in 16:9, not 1.85:1 or 2.35:1.  It’s what you see on your television screen now and so it’s one size fits all.  I felt since people are going to watch it on their phones and their tablets and all, I want them to see exactly the same thing as they’d see in the cinema so that’s it.  There’s no cropping when you get to the TV or other devices.

Full gate is because what we shot is the full gate in the camera.  It has the little rounded edges.  Within all films there is a safety area inside, which is how normally you see films.  We went for the whole thing, so you see the full gate.  If there had been little hairs in the frame, you’d see them. But, we had a good crew, so there aren’t hairs in the gate.  There is a little funny scratch down one side.  The last time that people have seen that was with silent movies because subsequently we don’t show that.  So, I felt the full gate would be more fun.

It’s semi-vinyl because we shot on film, however there were 260 digital effects shots so I couldn’t lie and say it was full vinyl, so it’s semi-vinyl.

While his artistic choice of using the one-sized-fits-all/full gate/semi-vinyl format creates a beautiful and open film that is almost a throwback to the days of silent pictures, it did create a headache after the filming.  Selling the idea to everyone involved in the process required patience, determination and eventually a letter to all parties involved in the post production of the film.

Producers and even the quality control guys for the distributers told me that they wouldn’t accept it because it was wrong.  What happens at 16:9 is that there are little strips of black down the side because we don’t go the full size.  But, how many times do you go to the cinema and you see the side curtains pulled and half the film is on the side curtains?

It doesn’t matter, but there were all these people who were frightened by this new, stupid idea and were resisting it.  So, I had to write a letter claiming that it was my creative choice and that it was a creative decision.  So it’s out there like that.  No audience has ever complained, but you have to go through this gauntlet of people that are hired to make sure that nobody complains.

“The Zero Theorem” debuted at the Venice Film Festival in September 2013 and is currently available to watch online through Vimeo and Itunes.  It will also receive a limited theatrical run on Sept. 19, 2014.  Please visit The Plaza’s website for information about show times in Atlanta.

To read Target Audience Magazine’s review of “The Zero Theorem,” click here.

To learn more about Dragon Con, please visit Dragon Con’s website.

For more information on the film, visit

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