Meaning of life still spurs on Python
The Zero Theorem. Picture: Hugo Stenson

You've got to hand it to Terry Gilliam. The US-born British director's career has been besieged with bad luck - from a flood-damaged set resulting in a

$15 million insurance claim while attempting to film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in 1999, to the most unforeseeable of tragedies to befall one of his features, the death of his leading man Heath Ledger during the making of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

Yet while Gilliam is almost as famous for his bad luck as he is his movies, he has never lost faith in his ambitious and surrealist brand of filmmaking.

"Anyone in their right mind would have stopped years ago but I seem to not be in my right mind," says Gilliam, whose films also happen to have scored numerous Academy Award nominations. "Some of it is just to show (the critics) I can still do it. Just to spite them."

On the phone from the UK, where the sky is "slightly less grey than it was yesterday", it doesn't take long to deduce Gilliam is a glass half-full kind of guy.

Take his latest film - The Zero Theorem - set in futuristic London and starring dual Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz as eccentric computer genius Qohen Leth living alone in a burnt-out chapel waiting for a phone call to tell him the meaning of life.

Delegated a mysterious project by his boss Management (Matt Damon), Qohen sets about trying to discover the purpose of existence but his solitude is disturbed by visits from a bunch of zany characters, including the flirtatious Bainsley (French actress Melanie Thierry) and Management's wunderkind son Bob (Lucas Hedges) who teach him the reason for his being.

While it is perhaps the first film of his in years not to be jinxed in some way, Gilliam admits he hasn't worked for that little money for more than 30 years.

Not that that matters to the man with the wild imagination that first manifested itself in animations for British comedy troupe Monty Python and The Flying Circus in the 1970s.

"The challenge was there, the solution was to go to Bucharest. It's the cheapest place in Europe," says Gilliam, whose wonderfully weird dystopian film set belies the low budget.

"And I got a crew of very clever people like (Italian costume designer) Carlo Poggioli (who worked with the director on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Brothers Grimm) who made things out of plastic shower curtains. I had actors who worked for next to nothing. That's how we did it.

"The restrictions force us into solutions that are surprising. If I had more money we could design everything and have it built but if we don't we somehow have to use what's there. One of the most interesting scenes visually is where Qohen is being examined by doctors in a glowing, translucent area surrounded by these ridiculous-looking machines that appear to have come from a sci-fi mag in the 1950s. That's a real place. We found it.

"And that's what we do. We just play. If we don't have a real sword, we'll pick a branch off a tree and it will become a sword."

Gilliam first saw Pat Rushin's script for The Zero Theorem about six years ago and while it wasn't until 2012 that he was free to direct the project, he was immediately drawn to its underlying messages: What brings meaning to our lives? Where do we find happiness? Are we able, at a time when we are becoming increasingly connected, to find solitude?

"For me it's just people asking interesting questions and offering interesting solutions or not to what life is about," Gilliam says.

"Strangely enough, reading the script the first time it was very clear that Pat had seen all my films before and it was like a quick compendium of everything I had ever done or at least ideas from things I had done and it just intrigued me. The idea of someone choosing to be alone and escape from the frenzy of the modern world seemed interesting."

Gilliam, of course, is no stranger to tackling existential questions - and not just with Monty Python on their comedic search for the meaning of life.

His 1995 fantasy satire film Brazil was an interpretation of the world at the time, though Gilliam stops short of saying it is a sequel of sorts.

"A couple of years ago I was talking to Tom Stoppard (who co-wrote Brazil with Gilliam and Charles McKeown) about how we could write that film about today and neither of us knew what to do because it had become so spread out," he explains.

"We didn't really know what to grasp. When this script came along, it was a reasonable look at the modern world. What I've found is there are a lot of younger people, especially people who end up sitting at home on their computers who identify with it completely. They understand who (Qohen) is and how frightened he is of the world."

While Gilliam says he has grown tired of people connecting his films to his time as a Python he does admit that the upcoming live reunion show means he has money in his pocket to have another crack at Don Quixote, which is scheduled to begin filming at the beginning of October.

"It's basically a faith-based film," the eternal optimist says with a chuckle. "You have to believe it is happening and summon up enough energy to make it happen.

"At the moment I am full of belief. We will see if it's a true religion or not."

The West Australian

Popular videos

Our Picks

Follow Us

More from The West