Only 36 days and a ‘shoestring’ budget brought Gilliam back to his days as a first-time director
There's not much left for you after spurning Hollywood in favour of creative independence. Terry Gilliam knows this, yet ever since The Brothers Grimm, he's turned his back on the flashy cash and Colgate-white smiles of Tinseltown. Many films have a long and winding Fear and Loathing journey to the screen, but Gilliam is so familiar with these kinds of complications it's as if he's married to trouble. His Don Quixote adaptation has been put on the backburner more times than Nic Cage has attempted a career rebirth. It's almost become a farce to talk about (apparently, it's in pre-production). But once Gilliam found funding for The Zero Theorem – the third instalment in his dystopian dynasty – he had to make some outrageous creative leaps.
Problems started in the casting stage. Ewan McGregor was originally asked to play Qohen, but he dropped out. Later on, Gilliam revived the project with Billy Bob Thornton in the lead alongside Jessica Biel and Al Pacino. Then, Thornton turned down the role. What's bizarre is the reason why. Thinking Gilliam would film in London, Thornton said no because of his phobia of antiques. "Apparently he has a phobia of old things and London – being an old town – fell into the old things category," Gilliam sighs. "It was very strange. I never talked to him about it directly but that’s the information we got from the producer." Being the comedian that he is, Gilliam hastens to add, "Maybe he thought I was a bit old as well."
Then came the budget complications. In many interviews, Gilliam mentions the budget is "low, low, low." The lowest he's worked with since Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I tiptoe around the question until he makes me guess. 20 million? "Eight and a half," he retorts. So how did he make it work? With only 36 days to film, many of the actors were on set for one single day.
"Tilda Swinton: one day; Ben Whishaw: one day; Peter Stormare… all three of them, one day. Matt (Damon) we had for four. I think David (Thewlis) was a week. Lucas, Christoph and Melanie were running through the whole thing. And that’s really how we made it."
TEN AMAZING FACTS ABOUT THE ZERO THEOREM
1 The film was made for £8.5 million over 36 days in Bucharest, Romania
2 This was Gilliam's shortest shoot since Monty Python and the Holy Grail
3 In the online sex chat room, Terry Gilliam's name briefly appears on screen
4 Billy Bob Thornton turned down the role of Qohen because of his phobia of antiques
5 The budget didn't allocate much to costumes, so a lot of the fabric is actually shower curtains and tablecloth
6 Mélanie Thierry (who played Bainsley) was an aquaphobe, and had never before put her head under water until the shoot
7 Christoph was fine with shooting underwater, but when Gilliam first mentioned it to him, he commented, "Terry – why do you expect me to be good underwater? I come from a landlocked country!"
8 The Athenaeum, Bucharest's major concert hall, was used as Qohen's workplace. The set had to be dressed between 4am and 4pm, in order to avoid the concerts
9 Boris Johnson appears on the front of the bus at the very beginning of the film for a brief moment
10 There were 260 special effects shots in the film
"By killing ourselves," Gilliam answers to my question about how he managed with such a low budget. "It was a very short prep. We were shooting in Bucharest, Romania, which is clearly cheaper than London. Carlo (Poggioli) who was doing the costume, he had no money. He had found a Chinese market just outside of Bucharest where they sold fabric by weight, not by length. It was just unbelievably awful shit, but it had great patterns and colours and then he went and got transparent shower curtains and plastic tablecloths. It’s absolutely extraordinary what he achieved with zero money."
“He had found a Chinese market where they sold fabric by weight, not by length. It was just unbelievably awful shit, but it had great patterns and colours and he went and got transparent shower curtains and plastic table cloths. It’s absolutely extraordinary what he achieved with zero money”
Gilliam also found a friend in car manufacturer Renault, who lent 50 of the Twizy model. However, even that wasn't enough. "I noticed at the studio they had these golf carts, so we commandeered those, put some patterns on them and little lights on top and they became taxis," explains Gilliam. "That’s what I’m most proud of – well, not most proud of. But I want the world to know: how cheaply we made something that looks so great. We all got involved and it did involve a lot of hard work and dedication. People like Tilda (Swinton) came down as a friend and that’s how we did it." Were there any major compromises made? "I sort of suppress those otherwise I’ll just get depressed," he says with a smile. "The last week we worked 8 (filming) days in the week. It was non stop. There was one point we were doing the beach scene and Nicola (Pecorini), the director of photography, was just leaning on the wall because he kept falling asleep. It was ridiculous."
That beach scene, a virtual world to which Qohen and Bainsley escape, proved the most difficult to film. Mélanie Thierry (Bainsley) was an aquaphobe, and had never before stuck her head beneath water. After filming, she said, "Never again! I'm completely water-phobic. I know how to swim, but I had never before put my head underwater in a pool, or even in a bath, and don't even think about the sea!" It didn't end there, either. "We shot the island and the space stuff in this water tank," Gilliam says, "so we had to shoot the space stuff, which was the clear water first, and then the art department had three or four days to transform it into the beach with sand and all that stuff. In fact, they only had nighttime to do it. So we get there in the morning and rocks that are supposed to be solid are floating. The sand is moving around. No one had a proper system to get rid of (Thierry's) footprints so we lost a couple of hours while someone went shopping to find leaf blowers. It was a weird struggle because the crew only brought four or five people from outside of Bucharest. The crew were fantastic. The production was pretty chaotic so we were always not having what we needed when we needed it. I also chopped out a few scenes because in the final cut they seemed to be something that Hollywood might have made," laughs Gilliam. "And I wasn’t going to do that!"
The Zero Theorem is out in cinemas today