Terry Gilliam on his cyber-sexistentialist new film

The Zero Theorem explores the future of sex with a gimp suit and a latex-laden nurse

Arts+Culture Q+A
Melanie Thierry
Mélanie Thierry as a bodacious Bainsley Courtesy of Sony Pictures UK

After a string of such big-budget bombs as 2005's Tideland, master director Terry Gilliam is back with The Zero Theorem, the supposed wind-up to the three-part existential futurama trilogy that also includes Brazil and 12 Monkeys. Gilliam is a genius, and like any good talent, can be forgiven his rare missteps. This film follows a socially isolated Qohen – played by Christoph Waltz – who begins work on a mysterious project given to him by Management. It keeps him busy while he waits for his phone call to tell him the meaning of life. It's all getting real "deep" when along comes latex-loving call girl Bainsley, who gifts Qohen a gimp suit to engage in exploratory digi-sex by plugging in to a mainframe and logging on to get off. Mélanie Thierry as Bainsley and her girls steal the show as Gilliam ponders what sex means in a digital world.

Dazed Digital: Do you think the future of sex is hooking up virtually like Qohen and Bainsley?

Terry Gilliam: I don’t think it’s the future. It’s so much here. Porn is the major amount of what the web transmits. I’ve seen figures once and it’s one of the biggest things. The other thing is dating, where people assume an avatar. You sit there and chat – you don’t actually say it’s an avatar – but you just claim to be 6'5", blue eyed, six packs, beautiful and you turn out to be a short little fat guy. And you’re talking to a girl who is also describing herself very elaborately. I’ve always wondered about those people. Do they ever finally meet? Or does one of them arrive first and the other one sees them and runs away?

DD: Do you think that people are seduced by technology?

Terry Gilliam: Absolutely. I am. I think others are. It does more and more take up so much of one’s life. I’m on my computer probably ten hours a day. It’s very good on many levels, it’s very seductive and addictive.

“I went on Netflix a couple of months ago just to see what was on – actually it was to see Breaking Bad – and my wife was away for a week so I spent three days watching Breaking Bad. A virtual life – and I loved it! I lived it! I miss it. My life is empty now”

DD: I wondered when they go to their private island in their virtual world – what is it about virtual realities or experiences that people are so intrigued by?

Terry Gilliam: How much time do people spend playing Warcraft? My son, when he was learning to skateboard, he had Tony Hawk’s skateboarding. He just lived on that. He spent more time on that than really skateboarding because it was more satisfying. It was easier, he wouldn’t get cut and bloodied. That’s what’s happening with so many people and you can understand why. You can say, "Oh, they’re using their imagination but they’re only using a little bit of it." It’s a safer way of going through life for some people. They think they’re in a connected world but they’re really more disconnected. They don’t spend as much time together. I went on Netflix a couple of months ago just to see what was on – actually it was to see Breaking Bad – and my wife was away for a week so I spent three days watching Breaking Bad. A virtual life – and I loved it! I lived it! I miss it. My life is empty now. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what happens. I can’t imagine what it’s like being young now with porn being so prevalent and easy. We were embarrassed to go in and ask for anything off the top shelf, a magazine, and now it’s all on your computer. I know people that spend an inordinate amount of time on it. What does that do to their real love/sex life? I don’t know. That’s if they have any. I don’t know if that’s just safer.

DD: It’s like if everyone’s acting out these fantasies on their computer, why bother doing it in real life, right?

Terry Gilliam: Yeah. Real life is messier, it’s more complicated, it’s painful. There are a lot of people spending their time living in these virtual worlds. I wonder if people are less political now. Why get political when you can sit and play Warcraft? I don’t know. I’ve avoided video games because I just want to spend too much time on them, I have to go cold turkey.

DD: Did Melanie Thierry find it difficult finding her footing in such a sexual role?

Terry Gilliam: No, no. She’s French. No, she’s great. I mean that part you just get into it, you play the right music, and get the right mood. I mean actresses and actors just do it. She’s not doing much of anything – she’s just stripping off her top. But I hired her because I think she’s an extraordinary actress. The key scene in the movie for me was when she comes and says, 'Qohen, come away with me…', and he can’t.

DD: That was so sad.

Terry Gilliam: It’s the heart of the movie for me. I needed someone like Melanie who could be as quirky as she was in her early… in fact, more than any of the films I’d seen her in previously. She’d never had a character like Bainsley. She was always beautiful, serious, sexy – almost intellectual at times. So this gave her the chance to really have fun. But all of that is leading up to the scene where Qohen can’t go away with her. And that’s what I find people say about it, 'Oh, it’s dystopian.' But it’s not. The film is about that moment, really. Why can’t the character do that? What’s wrong with him? Why has he got to that point? We don’t spend much time on his back story but that’s where Christoph is fantastic. In fact, they all are. That’s what the film is for me: that scene.

DD: Why won’t Bainsley have proper sex with Qohen?

Terry Gilliam: I don’t know. She may be another loner in the world. It’s how you protect yourself. Or maybe she’s been fucked around too much, or fucked too much. Maybe she’s had an abortion. It could be a number of things. Anyone working in the porn industry is going to have a lot of shit. I read about the porn industry and it isn’t as clean as it pretends to be. So maybe she’s smart enough to say, 'Enough of that.

The Zero Theorem is out on March 14

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