DIRECTOR Terry Gilliam is all fired up – about people relying so much on technology it is stopping them from engaging with the real world – and his new film
“TWEETING makes me crazy,” erupts Terry Gilliam. “There’s nothing wrong with communicating quickly, but people are going to events and they’re already commenting before the thing has happened. It’s like: everyone’s a critic, everyone thinks their opinion counts. NO! Your opinion doesn’t count. F*** OFF!”
Sitting in a severe-looking hotel conference room in Glasgow, on a rain-lashed February afternoon, the anarchic filmmaker, animator and soon-to-be-resurrected Python is on playfully irascible form, half barking, half giggling as he rants against all things social media. “I did this webcast, a live stream from Madison Square Garden with Arcade Fire a few years ago,” he continues, warming to his theme “and before the first song was even half-way through, the tweets were coming in: ‘Wonderful’, ‘Terrible,’ ‘Beautiful.’” He makes a neck-throttling motion with his hands. “Shut the f*** up! Listen to the song! Enjoy the moment!”
At 74, Gilliam – leather flying jacket flung over his chair; black kimono-style top giving him the air of ready-to-strike samurai – hasn’t come down with a case of Grumpy Old Man syndrome. He’s fired up because he cares about the way people’s over-reliance on technology is stopping them from properly engaging with the real world. It’s an issue he’s been puzzling over for a while now, so naturally it’s an issue at the heart of his latest film, The Zero Theorem, a low budget sci-fi about a data-cruncher driven mad by his desire to find meaning in his existence while working for a corporation determined to prove existence is meaningless. Thematically, it feels very much like a digital age companion piece to Brazil.
“The Brazilness of it was there [in first time writer Pat Rushin’s script], but also, there was a reference to almost every film I’ve done,” laughs Gilliam. “There were lines where I almost went, oh, that’s from one of my films, so for me it was like the lazy man’s compendium.”
Lazy or not, it’s his most vital film for a while, fizzing with ideas both serious and, as Gilliam puts it, “playful just for the f****** fun of it”. At its centre is Christoph Waltz, bald and baby-like, as Qohen, the film’s questing protagonist, a man whose inability to find answers to the big questions has made him certifiable in a world where everyone is desperate to be virtually connected to everyone else. Gilliam’s biggest fear is that, like Qohen, too many people are retreating into the virtual world because it’s the only way they can exert control over their lives. “That’s the future of a lot people now. I remember when my son was young, and doing all this Tony Hawk skateboarding stuff; he was going out into the world and falling flat on his face. That’s a good thing! You remind yourself that gravity works and the world isn’t easy.”
Gilliam, of course, knows better than most that the world isn’t easy: the calamitous nature of past productions (the studio battles over Brazil, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’s aborted shoot, the death of Heath Ledger in the midst of making The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) is now the stuff of film lore. But as a corporate exec (played by Matt Damon) says in The Zero Theorem: “Chaos pays”, and I wonder if Gilliam – having seemingly come through the other side of such catastrophes (the new film went off without a hitch) – now feels the same way. “It’s the ground between chaos and order that’s important. I can’t do what I do if it’s all chaos, so I have to order it very carefully, plan everything reasonably carefully, hope it all works – and of course it doesn’t – and be prepared for chaos to take over.”
Though his approach has frequently been vindicated, his back-catalogue still doesn’t given him much sway with financiers or studios, even when they profess to love his movies. It must be odd, then, to go from a situation where people who obsess over box-office receipts tell him “no”, to the imminent Monty Python reunion, the tickets for which sold out in 43.5 seconds. “Genuinely, I don’t think any of us thought that would happen,” says Gilliam, who makes no secret of the fact that the shows are going ahead to plug “a hole in their finances” after the surviving Pythons lost a court battle over royalties relating to the Spamalot musical. “It intrigues me that Python, whatever it is we did, still seems to work.”
As for the shows, he’s not really sure what they will be. He knows he doesn’t just want to please fans, though.“ You’re doomed if you do that. In fact, I fear that we’re maybe thinking a bit too much like that and it bothers me. I want to shake it up. I want to surprise people or shock them. That’s what we did originally. That may not happen though. It may just be a very reassuring show.” He giggles again.
Post Python, there’s an opera to direct and then, finally, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which is scheduled to go into production in September after falling apart so spectacularly 14 years ago (all of it chronicled in Lost in La Mancha). “It’s like I have this terrible growth on my body that I have to excise before I can carry on,” says Gilliam of his need to finish this particular film above all the projects of his that have fallen by the wayside. “But that’s the nature of Quixote himself. If you’re going to take him on you’d better be true to the man. And be as mad as Quixote.”
Time’s almost up, so I ask if he’s thought about doing a comic book movie again after coming so close with Watchmen a few years back. “I wanted to do those kinds of films 20 years ago,” he sighs. “Now everybody else is doing them, I’m perverse and I’m not going to do ‘em. Also I don’t really like most of them. They’re too limited by their budgets. I was really enjoying The Avengers when it came out, until they had to blow up another city. I was like: what are you doing? You had a really fantastic film going there, and then you’ve got to DO THAT? THAT’S JUST
STUPID. STOP IT!”
Terry Gilliam, irascible to the end.
• The Zero Theorem is released on 14 March
• It’s Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five to Go, is at the O2, London, 1-5 and 15-20 July