Terry Gilliam’s new film The Zero Theorem is a futuristic dive into a near-future crammed with advertising — a world not too far off from our own. The film, starring Christoph Waltz, Matt Damon, and Tilda Swinton, debuts at the Venice Film Festival Sept. 2 and echoes the tone of earlier films by the absurdist director, like 12 Monkeys and Brazil.
The story follows Waltz’s character, a computer programmer who is assigned to work on a special formula that his boss, known only as “Management” (Damon), believes holds the meaning to our existence. On the street, advertising and technology bombard the senses in every available nook and cranny.
“I think it paints a stark picture of where we are right now,” Gilliam tells EW. “The future has come and met us, we actually don’t live in the present anymore, we live in the future because it’s happening so quickly. It’s really about the world we’re living in and being connected. When, as an individual, can we be alone in a connected world like this? Those are the things that intrigue me.”
Below, Gilliam details the making of a scene at the beginning of the film that introduces us to Waltz’s character, Qohen Leth (pronounced Cohen), and the world around him. The film was shot on location in Bucharest, Romania, and Gilliam discusses how he used elements of the city to dictate the futuristic landscape. He also delves into the unique costumes created by designer Carlo Puggioli for the film, featured in the exclusive photos above.
The scene is a man going to work and a man leaving the safety of his burnt out chapel and being attacked by the modern world with all of its noises and all of its advertising and all these things that confuse and confound and make us all crazy.
We just wanted it to be so aggressive and carnivorous almost — these great, glowing lips shouting about “Occupy Mall Street!” “Shoppers of the world unite!”
I thought religion was very important, that’s why we have Batman The Redeemer. Since the world — especially Hollywood movies — seem to be dominated by cartoon characters, then why not have religions dominated by similar ones?
It’s shot in Bucharest and when we were looking for locations I found what I thought was a really interesting housing development from the ’30s, a very tall building with an alleyway in front of it, that just seemed like something I’d never seen. The chapel of course wasn’t there, we had to do some work. So we built onto the existing building. We added things to the doorway like the gates and the rest of it was then done with CG.
Carlo [costume designer Carlo Poggioli] had to find ways of dressing a couple hundred people in what should look like futuristic garb for no money and very quickly decided what we needed were some plastic tablecloths and plastic shower curtains to start with. We wanted a world that was full of color. The plastic shower curtains and tablecloths became overgarments over the clothes that sort of reflected the light — that you could also see through. They are hot, they don’t breathe, and you sweat a lot, but boy, do they look good on film.
It’s a different kind of performance from Christoph that we’ve never seen before. When we first met and talked about it I said, “You know I’ll build the world around you, but you have to take the lead when it comes to Qohen. You are it and I will follow you.” And that’s how we worked. Once I had Christoph on board I knew we were going to be fine.
When you’re working with very little money you’ve got to be inventive. That’s the primary reason we shot in Bucharest. It was much cheaper than anywhere else in Europe and the crews were good. That’s why we were able to build the chapel for about a quarter of what it would have cost in London.
I think it’s very difficult getting money for very interesting films these days and it’s even more difficult to get decent distribution and marketing. That’s the problem now. Everybody who’s making a smaller film who doesn’t have a studio who got behind it, it’s hard work. It’s dangerous. I get frightened about it. For me the film is finished, it’s made, it exists. It will not disappear, it’s out there.