The tale of Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is movie lore by now. Not-quite-making-of doc Lost In La Mancha charted the foiling of his first attempt to make it due to a combination of injury, NATO fly-bys and rotten luck. Undeterred, and with a refusal to surrender that would impress even the Spanish hidalgo, Gilliam is having another crack and has concept art to show for it and a new start date lined up.
When Empire caught up with Gilliam to talk The Zero Theorem, he revealed that production onDon Quixote will kick off on September 29 in the Canary Islands. Gilliam now has Spanish producer Adrián Guerra, veteran of Buried, Red Lights and Elijah Wood’s Grand Piano (movies made under similarly restrained circumstances) to run interference for him, help raise capital and shoot down any errant fighter jets.
“He’s really smart, loves movies,” explains the director. “He’s young enough to still love movies. But we’ve still got to cast it and get the money but other than that, that’s the deal.”
So how many Quixote casts has this film had now? “I’m hoping it’s the lucky 11,” he laughs. “We keep rewriting the script each time, too, so it’s a slightly different film each time. It’s the same film but the details change. Maybe it’s better, it’s certainly slightly smaller to fit into the new clothing we wear,” he said, adding wryly: “Which are cheap clothes these days.”
For Gilliam, it’s become more than just an itch that needs scratching. “It’s obsessive… desperate… pathetic… foolish,” laughs the director of his yen to make the film. “It’s this growth, this tumour that’s become part of my system that has to get out if I’m to survive.”
“I’ve got the opera (the ENO’s Benvenuto Cellini) to get out the way first and we start rehearsals in April. That’s for June, and there’s a week between the opera opening and Python rehearsals. And then we are at the moment starting shooting Quixote in the last week of September. If it’s happening. Or not.”
With a little long-overdue luck, some handy financing and a fair wind, he’ll start shooting later this year. The Zero Theorem, meanwhile, is set for UK release on March 14
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.
Christoph Waltz has been set to star in The Zero Theorem, the next film to be directed by Terry Gilliam. Waltz will play Qohen Leth, an eccentric and reclusive computer genius plagued with existential angst who works on a mysterious project aimed at discovering the purpose of existence—or the lack thereof—once and for all.
It will be the next film for Waltz, who, after winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Inglourious Basterds, has been shooting Tarantino’s follow up, Django Unchained.
Scripted by Pat Rushin, The Zero Theorem is set in a world that seems right in Gilliam’s wheelhouse. Living in an Orwellian corporate world where “mancams” serve as the eyes of a shadowy figure known only as Management, Leth (Waltz) works on a solution to the strange theorem while living as a virtual cloistered monk in his home—the shattered interior of a fire-damaged chapel. His isolation and work are interrupted now and then by surprise visits from Bainsley, a flamboyantly lusty love interest who tempts him with “tantric biotelemetric interfacing” (virtual sex) and Bob. Latter is the rebellious whiz-kid teenage son of Management who, with a combination of insult-comedy and an evolving true friendship, spurs on Qohen’s efforts at solving the theorem. But these visits turn out to be intentional diversions orchestrated by Management to keep control of Qohen’s progress. Bob creates a virtual reality “inner-space” suit that will carry Qohen on an inward voyage, a close encounter with the hidden dimensions and truth of his own soul, wherein lie the answers both he and Management are seeking. The suit and supporting computer technology will perform an inventory of Qohen’s soul, either proving or disproving the Zero Theorem.
The has already started pre-production in Romania, and the European production will start shooting at Mediapro Studios on October 22nd. Dean Zanuck (Road to Perdition, Get Low) is producing and Waltz will also co-produce. Dean Zanuck will see to fruition a project that was started by his late father, the iconic Richard Zanuck. Voltage Pictures will handle worldwide sales in Toronto. Waltz is repped by ICM Partners and Gilliam by London-based Jenne Casarotto.
Mr. Gilliam, you’ve been given the nickname “Captain Chaos” because of all the things that have gone wrong on your film sets. Do you need chaos on set to be creative?
(Laughs) It isn’t really that. I don’t want chaos, I actually want order. I really want it ordered very well and I want to surround myself with really well organized people so that when we’re on the set and an idea comes in we can play with it because we’ve got a really good structure. So it’s not chaos. Between me and the actors, or between me and the director of photography, it’s more like, “Oh, what if we did that? Okay, we can do that.” So the organized people think it’s chaos, but it’s not. I just build a structure that’s really solid so even if the lead actor dies, we can finish the film. (Laughs)
Heath Ledger died in the middle of the shooting of your film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Where were you when you got the sad news of his death and did you think you would be able to finish the film?
We had just finished in London. I went to Vancouver and Heath went to New York and two days later he was dead. I am sitting, working in Vancouver and Amy my daughter, who was producing the film, said, “You’ve got to come into this room.” And I said, “What’s up?” And there it was it on her laptop, on the BBC website: “Heath Ledger found dead.” It’s impossible to believe, there’s no way he could be dead. It seemed it took all day before it began to really sink in that he was dead. Then I just didn’t know what to do, so I said that he had shot about 40% of what was supposed to be done – we can’t finish the film, it’s over.
What changed your mind?
Amy and the others wouldn’t let me quit. It took us a week and a half before I began to think that maybe there was a way of fixing it. But I was never sure. Even when we started shooting again there were certain scenes I’d thought we were going to do one way and we couldn’t do it, so it was constantly adjusting to reality.
After his death the media tried to make Heath into a myth, a new version of James Dean. What was he really like?
All the stories were bullshit. They were trying to turn him into this… that playing the Joker had made him crazy. Absolute nonsense! Heath was so solid. His feet were on the ground and he was the least neurotic person I’ve ever met. Heath was just great and that’s why it became so impossible to understand. But for the outside world they had to sort of invent a reason. But it wasn’t drugs. It was prescription drugs – but even that doesn’t make sense completely. Nothing makes sense about it except that Heath was not what the public thought he was. He was incredibly intelligent, generous, sweet, wise, solid as a rock, and unbelievably playful. So when he acted it was like playing, but wherever that playing went he followed it fearlessly. But then I would say “cut” and we’d be talking about football. So there was none of this twisted neurosis that a lot of actors suffer from.
There are some other examples where the chaos on your set has gotten out of hand. When you did Brazil, for instance,you were paralyzed afterwards. What happened?
After nine months of shooting I just went catatonic because I was worn out. I just thought, “This is never going to end.” I couldn’t move anymore and I thought maybe that’d stop the film.
The list goes on: you started shooting The Man Who Killed Don Quixote and there were storms and your lead actor got very sick before you ultimately had to shut down the set. With The Brothers Grimm you got into a fight with the producers and the movie got delayed. Do you just attract disaster or do you court it willfully?
(Laughs) I don’t know. I used to blame Herzog for the kind of movies he made because he brought danger and disaster to his own set. I used to laugh about what he did and then I find I’m being dragged into that world. I don’t know, none of it is planned, none of it is hoped for – things happen.
At least you’ve experienced it all now – illness, the wrath of mother nature, fights, death – what disaster is there left for you?
That’s the problem. I can’t top the last one, Heath’s death. It’s weird, but that was one of the most tragic things ever in my life but also one of the most magical things in my life because I had Johnny, Colin, and Jude come in and rescue the whole thing, working for nothing, with all the money going to Heath’s daughter. That was pretty extraordinary.
Did people ever tell you that they love your work but they can’t work with you because they fear the chaos too much?
No. Eric Idle is the only one who said that he doesn’t want to work with me and he seems more convinced now because of Heath’s death. “It’s clear that something is wrong.” No, Eric has always been very funny. He says, “He’s just making these films, they’re too uncomfortable and I’m too old for this.” You really should ask the actors, I shouldn’t be defending myself. You should ask them and see what they say.
Some of your movies troubled not only your producers but also the audience to an extent that they couldn’t even think clearly afterwards. There is this story about your film The Fisher King were a woman in New York…
Yes, she left the cinema, she loved it, she walked home twenty blocks, then she got there and she’d realized that she’d walked twenty blocks in the wrong direction. She was lost. There was a guy, a lawyer I know about who saw Brazil he was so disturbed by it, he went back to his office locked himself in for three days. There was this woman who was doing publicity for Universal on Brazil and she told me when she saw the film she thought it was amazing, she went home prepared dinner, cooked dinner, ate dinner, was ready getting to bed, decided to take a shower, she went into the shower and just started weeping, crying, and she couldn’t stop.
Do you think “Brilliant!” when you hear those stories?
Yeah, I affected somebody. I made a difference in their life, they had a reaction – that’s what I thought movies were about. Movies did that to me. They completely altered my view on the world. Movies were constantly changing me, every time I saw them I was blown away – not by the normal movies, not the Doris Day, Rock Hudson movies but by real movies. They really changed me and I’ve just wanted to carry on that tradition.