I‘ve given up trying to understand my own life,” Terry Gilliam says. “I’m just trying to make sense of the world this life is taking place in.” The movie director emits a high-pitched giggle.
At the moment, Gilliam’s “world” is located in the trendy restaurant in Manhattan’s Tribeca Grand Hotel, but, just as he’s done for decades, the director is continuing to parse the meaning of life on film. His latest movie, The Zero Theorem, focuses on a discontented misanthrope, played by Django Unchained‘s Christoph Waltz, who attempts to find meaning within meaninglessness in a surrealistic world that looks a lot like our own, only amplified by technology. “The world’s happy, there are colorful workplaces, people are having fun, zipping around,” Gilliam says of the film, written by university English teacher Pat Rushin. “There’s only one guy who’s got a problem. It’s a dystopia for one.”
It’s a new perspective on familiar territory for the filmmaker, considering his directorial credits include eye-popping, fantastical tales of man-versus-mediocrity battles like Brazil (1985), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), Twelve Monkeys (1995) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), among others. Moreover, he’s the same moviemaker who has spent the last 15 years attempting to make the ultimate me-against-the-world flick, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote – you can see the project’s litany of fateful setbacks chronicled in the fascinating documentary Lost in La Mancha (2002) – which just happens to be the next potential film on his schedule, knock on wood.
Lately, with projects like The Zero Theorem, the Monty Python reunion this year and the memoir he recently finished, the 73-year-old has been reflecting at great lengths about what it all means. What he found out about it wasn’t wholly surprising.
You’ve corrected people who call The Zero Theorem a “dystopian” film like Brazil. How much of your experience making dystopian films influence this one?
“Dystopia” just seems like an easy word to use, because nobody makes “utopian” films [laughs]. I was aware that it has a relationship with Brazil, but it’s only in the sense that it’s about the “now.” The Zero Theorem is me talking about the world we’re living in, which Brazil was all about. It wasn’t a futuristic thing. It’s just easier for me to put something outside of a contemporary time, because then I can amend things. Once you do a contemporary film, it’s got to be realistic. And I don’t want that [laughs].
Do you see a connection with Brazil in the political commentary?
There’s no totalitarian system in The Zero Theorem. There’s a corporate system, and it’s about corporations, not about governments. And that’s kind of interesting, because Brazil really was about government and governmental control. We live in a world that corporations rule. Why do people think that politicians run the show? They don’t. They’re the puppet show [laughs].
In Lost in La Mancha, you said your films are often about “reality, fantasy, madness, sanity.” What draws you to those themes so frequently?
I’m trying to understand the world. I assemble what I think is the world. I try to make sense of it in the films, even though they’re cartoons or they’re grotesque. Then every time I finish a film and look back, I say, “I didn’t get it right.” So I try again. It’s a succession of failures basically in trying to do what I want [laughs].
You’ve been thinking a lot about these things, because you’ve been working on an autobiography. Is it done?
It’s basically done. It’s a “semi-autobiography.” I decided to call it a “me-me-me-memoir.” It’s a bunch of recollections, because it’s not very complete, my memory is buggered up. I was looking at it the other day and all these other things keep popping up of things I didn’t put in there, and I couldn’t be bothered. It’s not important [laughs].
What did you learn about yourself from writing your autobiography?
That I’ve been doing a lot of things in a lot of different places. The guy who’s helping me put it together, Ben Thompson, became quite obsessed by the fact that, in my earlier days, I was like a “Zelig” character. I was at all the big events in history [laughs]. I’ve always seemed to end up in places at pivotal moments: Martin Luther King’s big march in Washington, I was there. The Monterey Pop Festival, I was there. The civil rights movement, I was there. It’s kind of weird. It was more interesting, his take on my life after I blurted it out.
You also took a moment to reflect recently by reuniting with Monty Python, though, before you started rehearsals, you called it “depressing.”
Well, yeah, because it was in the way of my plans for the year [laughs]. I had a very clear plan for the year. Then this came along. I was doing press for an opera at the time, and the interviewer caught me at a time when I was overworked and really tired, so they loved the fact that I was really badmouthing the whole project.
When did you come around?
Once I got into it, it was great. It was actually quite wonderful, because every night [gasps] it was like a rock & roll concert: 16,000 people at the O2, and we’re onstage and the audience just loved it. It was actually very intimate, surprisingly for being 16,000 people. It was like a little gathering of friends. Then it was over, and within a couple of weeks, it was like it never happened [laughs].
How did it feel to do the “Spanish Inquisition” routine again?
Something like “Spanish Inquisition” it’s just such a silly, fun thing. You can’t not enjoy it. It just got sillier all the time. To me, the only important thing was to be able to jump higher than Mike Palin [laughs] in our entrances. You have no idea how silly it got out there. That was the fun part. We were all 30 years younger, doing the stuff we’d done back then and getting away with it.
For me, the show was just a chance to play the buffoon, be very silly. It’s not important what I do there. The animation was, to me, my real contribution. And we kept saying, if we were doing this kind of stuff in, say, a high school stage production, that’d be the end of our career. People would say, “This is crap.” But we just happened to be legends able to do that. It was very fun.
Did you talk much about Graham Chapman?
No, we’ve said enough. Come on. He’s got his picture up there. Graham’s been dead for a long time. We’re a very unsentimental group of people. But it was nice to see the audience responding every time Graham was up on the screen. “Whoa!” Like, he’s getting bigger reactions then we are. And he’s dead, the lazy bastard [laughs]. The only way to top it would be for one of us to die onstage.
You don’t want that.
I’m just gulping for life [laughs].
With ‘Brazil,’ what people don’t remember is that half of the audience would walk out. It’s Now held as a classic, blah, blah blah — bullshit!
It must feel good to have closed the Python chapter.
Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s it. I don’t think we’re going to do anymore. It was great. And everybody’s got enough money now to get through the next couple of years.
Now you can get back to The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
That is my plan, but plans have nothing to do with reality [laughs]. We shall see what happens. I really can’t say anything at the moment, because there’s been a little hiccup — once again. The Sisyphean rock that keeps rolling back. Just as we almost get to the top of the mountain…. We’ll see what happens. I’m not a happy camper at the moment [laughs].
Well, why do you keep going back to Quixote after so many failed attempts?
Oh, I don’t know, pigheadedness, stupid – I really don’t know anymore. I’m beginning to actually think, “If it his doesn’t work this time, I’m gonna dump it.” I’ve wasted far too much of my life doing it. If you’re going to do Quixote, you have to become as mad as Quixote.
Is that happening?
Well, I’ve wasted how many years? Fifteen? Yeah, there’s a certain point. It’s kind of the determination to be crazy and unreasonable. Every intelligent person around me says, “Walk away from it.” But those are reasonable people [laughs].
Going back to The Zero Theorem, the MPAA had a problem with Christoph Waltz’s…
Bare bum. There was a teaser poster that was really quite beautiful of him and Mélanie Thierry floating in space, and the back view is of him. It was a small part of the picture; they weren’t like, “butt in your face.” And now they banned it because you see the crack of his ass.
Is that your strangest interaction with the MPAA?
Yeah, in a long time. Anytime you get involved with those people or any censor, it’s always the same. It’s probably good that they have a job, because they’re dangerous people. They’re all perverts, I’m convinced [laughs].
What have they challenged you on in the past?
Jabberwocky was the same thing. Terry Jones was ripped apart by a monster, you don’t see it. On the ground, you see his head and his arms, and as the camera pulls back you realize that his whole body is just a skeleton now. It’s been filleted like a fish. It’s just the head and the hands are still left on there. He was a poacher, so his bag was at his feet full of all of these live animals, rabbits and foxes fighting and scrambling, and then a butterfly lands on his dead nose. And they didn’t want this image of all the bones. They wanted to cut it shorter and shorter. I said, “The shorter you cut it, then it becomes awful.” You leave the length, and then it’s funny. It’s a sweet moment, and they couldn’t see that. I just don’t understand these people, why they’re doing this job. They don’t seem to understand life or an audience.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was full of nudity and it was rated PG.
Well, if you look at it, you can get a nipple from Uma [Thurman]. They didn’t look closely enough. All of the guys in the audience were looking closely enough [laughs].
Looking back, what’s been the most satisfying movie to have made?
I don’t really think of them that way. Each one has got a different story. There are ones that are more fun to make and others and others made a lot of money, which allowed me to make more films. So I try not to even judge them anymore.
Munchausen made no money, because they just threw it out there. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, nope. And yet they have infinite lives it seems now. And the audience goes on and on and on. So that’s the satisfying thing. Time Bandits, Fisher King and 12 Monkeys were immediate successes, and they were the only ones that were immediate successes. The others all took time.
What about Brazil?
Brazil’s going to be on my gravestone. I know that. But with Brazil, what people don’t remember is half the audience would walk out. Now it’s held as a classic, blah, blah, blah – bullshit! They were walking out. So I’m used to some of my films not being appreciated at the time.