The more of them I saw, the more I became hooked on his dreamatic musings; a new Gilliam film is a big deal in my world. He was also my first film teacher with the BBC’s long forgotten series called The Last Machine taking in a whirlwind tour of the first century of cinema from sideshow contraption to documentarian to a gateway to other worlds. Gilliam knew cinema, and came across as a man possessed with a love of ideas and visual poetry. These are both important to The Zero Theorem, Gilliam’s new film which is out today, and when I sat down with him I asked him how he felt cinema had changed in the twenty years since The Last Machine aired.
There are a few spoilers here for The Zero Theorem, which I have clearly marked with a picture of frightened giraffe.
‘It’s the age of the Comic Book film which I find odd, because I always wanted to make films based on graphic novels because that’s where I come from. Now they’re here. And they are endless, and they are repetitive and I just want them to STOP. Now the world is split, so you make a film for over a hundred millions dollars, or less than ten and it makes me crazy. Technically films get better and better – these big films are extraordinary to look at but it repetitious, and repetitious and the characters are only so deep (he pinches an inch of the air out in front of him) – what is this desperate need to be a superhero? Have we lost the older audience because all these films are about kids’ fantasies?’
I point out here that when I was young I saw Superman and Batman, and I’ve got two boys of my own and in a few years I’ll take them to see Star Wars…
‘Yeah, there’s always been that, but it’s completely dominant now, and the problem is distribution. Have you seen any posters on the streets of London for The Zero Theorem? None. No, we’re doing it on the web and in print. The choice isn’t there any more – even the arthouse cinemas are playing it safe. If they can get Spider-Man in there for a week it’ll keep them in business. So you end up with a very limited choice. But of course TV and DVD is now where it all happens…’
Rumours have followed Gilliam around for years about a sojourn into the land of the small screen, now that TV has re-established itself as an attractive prospect for longform storytelling would he be drawn into, what is essentially, a long film? Is he interested in telling a story for that length?
‘It’s weird because I’m reading short stories now, I like the idea of reading something tighter. Way back to Watchmen – Charles McKeown and I wrote the script and tried to squeeze it into two hours and fifteen minutes. Watchmen would benefit from a longer run, same with Good Omens – we squeezed that into two hours plus.’ I ask him about finding the right story and if Good Omens is that story, he is playfully reticent in his update, ‘Discussions have taken place… The problem I have is that I want to make things on the big screen. I know in reality that most people are going to see what I do in their home, on their television. But it’s the scale which is part of the storytelling. I’m ultimately pragmatic, and I will go where I can go. Look at what happened with HBO. The writing from America in the cable networks is the best, and there are very few shows here which are comparable (Sherlock is one of them), but they have the public’s money in advance. People have done it Barry Levinson, Martin Scorsese with Boardwalk… it may be where I end up.’
We return for a moment, from the long, to the short. Gilliam’s previous cinematic outing was The Wholly Family, a short film paid for by Garofalo pasta. It’s a beautiful dish of unadulterated, unfiltered Gilliam and The Zero Theorem shares that uncensored access to the very best of why people love the director’s work. ‘When the [Zero Theorem] script first turned up five years ago and it was a compendium of everything I’d done. I was thinking – ah! here’s my version of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander or Fellini’s Amacord where you collect all the stuff you’re good at and put it together in your autumn years…’
Much in Pat Rushin’s script does seem tailor made for Gilliam and there are themes within it (escape from reality, that we are in denial within this world around us) which stretch back through 12 Monkeys and Brazil. Indeed it is being touted as the conclusion to a trilogy. ‘Well, I haven’t called it that – someone has… but you could be back even further and include The Meaning of Life as well. But ‘in denial’ – that’s a nice way of putting it. Nobody is thinking – everyone is reacting, and tweeting and keeping a buzz going. It’s like a swarm…’
There was a screening a few night previous at which were present prominent tweeters such as Stephen Fry as a way of publicising the film, ‘I realised that I don’t understand the world. It’s (mimicking a tweet escaping) ‘I’m here, here’s a thought…’ and Bing! everyone knows about it. It’s like we exist to pass things on and I find that crazy. At the heart of The Zero Theorem is my obsession with trying to be alone to find out who you are. Can you be alone? How do you know how you are if you’re tweeting the whole time?’
While this is certainly as close as we’ll get to Gilliam’s version of Walden there was, in a strange cycle of repetition with Brazil, a very different conclusion. One which Gilliam takes us through, but hey! Look who it is..
‘With The Zero Theorem the ending was not what was originally in the script. I did a serious chop because it originally had a ‘Hollywood Ending’… my life keeps repeating itself. But I didn’t buy it. What happened is that he comes back from the beach, sets the Chapel on fire, has a little chat with Matt (Damon, shockwhite-haired embodiment of the enigmatic Management), the kid (Lucas Hedges’ crack hacker Bob) steals Matt’s car and shouts to Qohen (a brilliant and bald Christoph Waltz) that he’s being chased and he jumps and they drive off to find Bainsley who is on one of 36,000 islands… and I said ‘What the fuck is this?!.
‘We shot it all and it was in the first cut of the film and it was utter crap. So I got rid of it and strangely I’m beginning to understand the ending more now. It’s a poetic ending. I want to give him dignity (he’s running around in that big red suit remember…), I wanted him to have a calmness and a majesty. The one thing he could control is the Sun and that is beautiful. That’s the moment he’s stuck…and I though maybe that’s where we’re all going. Life in that virtual world is easier because he can’t deal with the real world ultimately.’
But has he found peace? It seems that he’s just settling…
‘But that’s what I mean. It’s a terrible compromise of life! It’s avoiding the real thing. I can deal with it…it’s easier…oh FUCK OFF! It’s a sad, sad ending, but I think that’s where we’re heading if we’re not careful. We need a good war, or a plague to thin things out.
The Zero Theorem is a fine film, suffused with ideas which get to the heart of life. It has the director’s keen and wary eye on the state of the world and the most extraordinary thing is that he hasn’t given up on us all. The advances of technology and our collective subjugation are a concern though. From Selfies (‘ultimate glorification of the self. But for whom?’) to the state of concert going (‘You go to a concert, and everyone is taking snaps or video – FUCK OFF! Just be there and enjoy the music, enjoy the show…’) the director has the final word,
‘We’re the most photographed people ever – if the Native Americans were right we have no soul left…’
The Zero Theorem is out in cinemas today. It is a must-see.