Interview: Terry Gilliam at JDIFF

Terry Gilliam, star of Monty Python, director of Brazil and 12 Monkeys, is a rather unique individual. We were lucky enough to be granted audience with the man when he visited Dublin for the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, where he was presented with a Volta Award for his contribution to cinema, and for the Irish première of his new film The Zero Theorem, with Christoph Waltz, Melanie Thierry, and David Thewlis.  The film, which is set in a futuristic London, tells the story of a lonely and lowly worker who is tasked with proving that all of existence adds up to nothing.

We catch Gilliam recovering from a cold, half sitting, half laying on a couch completely relaxed. Before we even know where we are he starts talking about about some of the other stars that are in town for the festival. He seems particularly enraptured by the presence of magician Ricky Jay. It seems that Gilliam has a particular love for the artistry of magic. “I know it’s all a trick” he states, “but yet they fool me completely. Even though I know how a lot of the tricks work he still fools me.”

Many people feel that the art of magic is difficult to convey on screen, with the audience rejecting the idea of being tricked by what they are seeing there as they are used to being fooled by the silver screen anyway. Gilliam acknowledges this, “The Christopher Nolan one, [The Prestige], made me crazy, because magic is magic. It’s a trick, and you can’t suddenly start doing what that film did, because then it’s not magic anymore, it’s sci-fi.” When we mention that perhaps people are less willing to be fooled by cinema because they know what computers can do now on-screen Gilliam agrees. “I think what’s interesting about that is like when we first saw the Tyrannosaurus in Jurassic Park it was extraordinary. I was completely fooled by it. But that’s what is weird about CG work, you’d think we’d be surprised by it. But no, we’ve gotten so used to it that now we go nah, that’s not real.”

Despite working predominantly in the fantasy genre which embraces the use of CG, Gilliam has always been keen to use practical effects where possible. “When I look at Jurassic Park now, I say ah I can see the trick. But then it completely fooled me.” Turning to more modern work he brings up Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, “It’s a great animated film. An amazing film, but it is animated. You go “umm interesting”. It is very good, it’s wonderfully done…but I guess now they should blend them all together. Whether it’s animated or live action it’s all going to be the same.” We propose then that perhaps Gravity should have been placed by the Academy in Best Animated Feature, to which Gillam laughs and says “Yes, so it can win in two categories.”

Moving on to some of the other features from last year, particularly those that use practical effects to good use we bring up The Lone Ranger. When we mention the train scene Gilliam latches on saying “That’s real. I wish the rest of the film was as good as that scene. The train stuff is quite extraordinary. After watching that it was one of those things that I just wanted to watch a second time, just to try and work out exactly what’s what.”

Christoph Waltz in Terry Gilliam's THE ZERO THEOREM
Christoph Waltz in Terry Gilliam’s THE ZERO THEOREM

Turning to the main reason that he is here his new feature The Zero Theorem we ask about the mix of real and unreal. “I can always fall back on the fact that it is a virtual reality that he [Christoph Waltz’ Qohen] is in. It’s not supposed to be real, but that trying to make it believable is the trick. And that was madness because we had to shoot them [Waltz and Melanie Thierry’s Baisley] floating in space first when the water is supposed to be clear. And then the art department was supposed to have 3 days to revamp it for the beach. And they had overnight to do it, so the whole bit was just madness.” When we comment that the beach scene convinced because it was partially artifical Gilliam describes the making of the scene “For me it was about having enough beach area with sand and water and everything in it that they could interact. So we did have a tank, a big long one, when this bit with the beach went across. And it was, maybe, about twice the width of this room [gestures to the spacious hotel suite that we are in]. And we did have water in there,a nd a wave machine, so that it did lap up there. And that’s the thing that really sells it. And then you extend the water. First it was with CG water, and it just didn’t look right. So Felix, who was the FX guy in Bucharest, went out to the Black Sea one morning and shot the real sea. So you get this mixture of CG, real sea, and real water in the tank. And somewehere it’s kind of believable.”

“The trick with any CG work is that you’ve still got to keep gravity. I mean , Pirates of the Caribbean, when Johnny and Bill Nighy are fighting on a yard-arm, it bothers me as it is just ridiculous. It’s just not going to happen. Gravity is not working, slipperiness is not working. And this is nonsense, and these are the moments where, if it were an animated film I would accept it. But don’t try and fool me that this is real, beacuse if it’s not real then there’s no danger at all. There’s just no tension.” We manage to elicit a laugh by comparing the similar moment in Pirates when Jack Sparrow is running on top of a runaway wheel against Wile E. Coyote. “I’ve always loved cartoons. That’s Gore Verbinski. If you’ve ever seen Mousehunt, the first thing he did, it was an animator’s eye, and he’s expanded it and expanded it. I mean he’s got a very good eye.”

Our conversation moves on to other animators who have found success in live action. Gilliam acknowledges not having seen Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Pixar’s Brad Bird’s live-action début, but seems genuinely interested in our comparison of the car-park scene from that film with scenes in Pixar films and how the movement of the camera would only make sense coming from somebody with an animator’s eye. “Sometimes that kind of movement can get very silly, like with Tintin. When they were going on about this five minute shot, as if it was live action. And it’s just not. It’s animated . You can do that stuff with animation, you just cannot with live action. It was very weird. It’s like Gravity. You couldn’t do any of that if it wasn’t the way that they did it. And it is pretty spectacular. You really feel it. You feel everything. It feels right.”

Gilliam’s comment “I’ve always liked Alfonso’s stuff. His feet are always on the ground. Even in space!” about Cuarón and his films leads to ask about our own Cuarón favourite Children of Men. “I have mixed feelings about that film strangely enough” he says much to our disppointment. “I really need to watch it again. I don’t know why.” We segway into a question we’ve being dying to ask, how does he feel about Harry Potter. “[The Prisoner of Azkaban] is the only one I thought was a good one. I mean, me being the guy who didn’t do Potter, when I saw the third one I thought “Alfonso, fuck that’s great”. He got it. It was around that time that we became friends too. I told him he cracked it. It was really good.”

Continuing the conversation around Cuarón, Gilliam says “He’s pretty determined. That’s what Alfonso is. I mean if you go back to Y Tu Mama Tambien, I love it. All the Mexican’s are really good. ‘The Trés Amigos’, Guillermo [Del Toro], [Alejandro González] Iñárritu, and Alfonso’s stuff are good.”

It is well documented that during the 1990’s Gilliam attempted to bring Alan Moore’s Watchmen to the screen. Sadly budget and the difficult subject matter made it impossible to fulfil his vision. We asked him about comics on-screen. “I though that [Robert Rodriguez’] Sin City was fantastic, first of all. I thought he cracked that. To do a comic-book and make it feel like a comic-book. It as terrific.” When we ask if that what he was trying with Watchmen, he shrugs and says “Old Zack Snyder got in there with that one. I thought it started brilliantly but then fell off, which was the problem that we were having with our own script. The more you condense it, the more they become cliched characters. Cartoon characters and not the Watchmen. He also had the problem that The Incredibles, the Pixar, stole everything. It was a funny Watchmen film. It was wonderful.”

The Zero Theorem, which is a suitably unusual and entertaining science fiction movie, is out in Irish cinemas on March 14th, with the Scannain review to be posted shortly.