The appearance of a new Terry Gilliam film is always a cause for joy, in part because it means he actually got to make it. Gilliam’s directorial career has often been cursed, with productions that are various forms of out-of-control — or, in the case of “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” actually coming undone after a mere week of shooting. “The Zero Theorem” was finished, perhaps because it was a smaller film, largely taking place in the cavernous office/home of Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a malcontent in the near-future looking for the meaning of life (a notion previously explored in one of his Monty Python films). And no matter what has befallen him, Gilliam sure likes to laugh.
It seems this production went a lot more smoothly than some of your others have.
It went faster, let’s put it that way. We were greenlit mid-July and shooting by October. Everything was fast and furious. If you made mistakes you had to fix them in post. By the end, people were working eight day weeks, it what it felt like. People were falling asleep on set. Other than that, it was pleasurable. [Giggles]
This had about half the budget of “Dr. Parnassus.” Were there ways you imagine it differently at first?
More expensive ways. [Budget cuts] changed a lot of things. [Chuckles] You’re forced to do things you wouldn’t do. We went to Bucharest, the cheapest place in Europe we could get a decent crew. I loved it. I love being put in that situation where I have to do something I really would rather not do, and then you find out, oh, this is great. And it was. [Laughs]
In a way do you like having limitations put on you?
The idea is to be creative. A perfect example is Carlo Poggioli’s costumes. He had no money, so he started making costumes out of plastic shower curtains and table cloths. [Laughs] We wound up with costumes that don’t look like anything we’ve ever seen on film, because we didn’t have the money. It’s that kind of limitation that’s both frustrating and angry-making, but also exciting. You have to rely on being talented and clever and not having what you’d really like to have. [Chuckles] My lack of money has always kept me safe from mediocrity. [Giggles] Because if I had my dreams — my dreams are mediocre, I fear. [Chuckles]
Qohen is a far more unpleasant protagonist than you’re used to.
Yeah, he’s a self-focused bastard. [Laughs] He’s obsessed with his own life and doesn’t think about anything else but himself. That’s what’ so intriguing about the character. Sam Lowry [lead character of “Brazil”] at least as dreams; they’re juvenile but they’re heroic. Qohen doesn’t even have dreams. [Chuckles] He’s either the modern man, which is what I think he is, or maybe he’s who I became, which is really disturbing. [Giggles]
Do you identify with him? [Laughs]
The problem is I have become him. When I spend a long time making a film, I want to identify with the character. That’s the only way I know how to direct, I suppose. This one I didn’t identify with, but I became him as a result of the film. [Chuckles] Which is terrible. [Chuckles]
You’ve been angry with people who called this a comedy. You say it’s a tragedy.
That was partly a reaction to some earlier reviews, which kept referring to the Python jokes that fell flat on their face. I was like, “What the f— are they talking about?” It’s not about Python jokes; it’s not really about jokes. There’s humor in it, but ultimately I think it is tragic san sad. It’s about a character in the modern world who is the only one who doesn’t fit in. The rest of the world is colorful and fun and rollerblading and surfing around, and there’s one gray cloud in the midst of that. That’s what intrigued me — a character like that.
This film concerns a character pursuing the meaning of life, which act you seem to be mocking.
I have no idea what’s the meaning of life. We don’t provide answers like that. [Laughs] We’re really talking about advertising, in one form or another. Most advertising is about making sure you’re not complete, you’re not satisfied. You need three-ply toilet paper to be a full human being. It’s all designed to undermine your confidence. It’s the way Scientology works. You take little tests, they say something’s wrong with you and give us all your money and we’ll fix you. That’s just bulls—. [Giggles] The company here are being honest: They say, “Let’s prove that life has no meaning, then we can get on with providing the meaning, meaning through our products. [Chuckles]
The idea is you’ve got make the meaning in your life. With Qohen, people start coming to him. That’s where the meaning is. And he can’t accept that. The man is trapped in his own past and he’s damaged and he can’t commit. That’s all part of the problem, which is how people really commit these days. I actually find that the more I read other people’s comments on the film, I begin little by little to understand the film myself. [Chuckles]
There’s an interview Salman Rushdie did with you where you talk about your politics when you were younger and how you had to leave America for England because things were so bad you thought you’d start throwing bombs. Do you still have that political anger?
I do, but I also feel impotent, which sort of tempers my anger — because I don’t know how you change things. I used to think that if I made movies and writing books and all these things that they’d have a long-term effect. I’m becoming cynical, I hate to say. Have you seen the documentary Vice did on ISIS? It’s good, but then you realize a lot of young guys are going off to fight for something. They have something to die for. They believe strongly enough to change the world. There were moments watching it that I thought, “Oh s—, I was one of those guys almost!” [Giggles] That’s why I had to leave America, because I had that much anger and determination to change things.
Shifting gears a bit, there’s been rumors that you’ve been meeting with the animation company LAIKA (“Coraline,” “ParaNorman,” “The Boxtrolls”) to perhaps make a film.
It’s been all over the web. I’ve met the guys, and they keep wanting to have a real serious talk, and I haven’t found the time to do so. Nothing’s been seriously discussed, let’s put it that way.
There’s also a rumor that you were one of the directors who turned down “Forrest Gump.”
I think I turned it down. I keep saying I did, so it’s probably true. [Laughs] I think the script floated in one day. What I can’t remember is if there was a specific offer or if it was coming from my agent or what. I can’t be more specific than that. But yeah, I said no. It ended up being a great film, Tom Hanks was brilliant in it.
Yours would have been a bit different.
It would have been dark and miserable. [Laughs] It wouldn’t have a permanently jolly chap floating through it. He would be scarred and tarnished by the end. [Laughs]
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge