"Your movie is so sad!" I said to Terry Gilliam, as we sat to discuss his film The Xero Theorem, which just screened in The Marrakech International Film Festival. The Zero Theorem features an alienated solitary computer programmer who lives in a post-modern desacralized ruin of a church, staring at virtual computer images and waiting for one day the "answer" to come to give him meaning in his life. The only answers seem to come from the (im)possibility of romance with a young blonde or from the cheerful company of a geeky boy who comes to help.
The film finishes with the man alone before a ridiculously kitsch sunset.
Might Gilliam be sad himself?
"Of course I am a bit like my character," Gilliam laughed, jolly, and leaned before us, over his Moroccan tea. "I am sad! I was once an optimistic boy, and then...then life happened! Now I need more money. It takes years to find the money to make a film. I spend a lot of time depressed. I think sometimes I will never work again. All my life I have been very obsessed with talent, with those who have it and don't get a chance to realize it. All my life I have seen very brilliant people who don't get a chance to blossom. I myself have ideas I want to get out there; scripts in the bowels." He waved his hands passionately. "I fear a waste of really good ideas."
"But I daresay that you are a very lucky man, in that you did have a chance to realize your talent," I noted, referring to Gilliam's phenomenal success as a founding member of the Monty Python comedy group, and his twelve creative films, several of which have been blockbusters.
"Yes, I am one of the luckiest people on the planet!" Gilliam said boisterously. "But I am greedy. Success is the worse thing that can happen to you. You know, I am never a penny in debt. But once you get to be a star, you can become extravagant. Hollywood functions by most people living too expensively, and so then they have to do projects, films, they don't want to do. For me, I always have to have control. You know what budget we had for Zero Theorem? 8 ½ million! Do you realize how little it is? I had a of brilliant people working with me. The costume director made costumes out of curtains."
For someone who says he spends a lot of time depressed about not working or having enough money to do so, Gilliam seems to have a lot of projects on his hands. Not only this new film, but an opera by Berlioz, to be produced in London and Amsterdam, and a series of ten Monty Python stage shows.
"Last year I panicked. I had sat around too long. So I signed up to do the opera. Then the Python show came up. We were in a court case which we lost. We decided we better do something to make some money. John has expensive alimony; Cleese is worried about his mortgage. When we get together, we start laughing. We had the idea of one stage show... Eric Idle put together a script, and we got silly, all laughing. My job: once the group assembles, I sort out animation, do graphics."
We returned to the alienating vision of his film. The world of The Zero Theorem is a world of consumption: constant advertizing, virtual reality, where religion is dead. Is this his vision of today's society?
"Oh yes," Gilliam said. "Everyone is supposedly happy in this modern universe. Connecting, buzzing all the time, having relationships with avatars, with fantasy worlds on a computer. The reality is that this world is oppressive. My character Qohen is alone, mad, waiting for a phone call, which is what we all do now, led by advertizing that says buy this: this will fulfill you. Look at my IPhone! This is such a brilliant thing; as long as you have this, you have everything. Thanks to a corporation."
He leaned forward: "Corporations are the real power these days. Two trade packs are now being negotiated secretly, which allow corporations amazing freedom because they can now sue governments if they don't like the patent laws. The case is not heard in local judicial systems, but by three judges, who are corporate lawyers. Governments are ready to sign."
He laughed. "Religion is a burnt out chapel; a crucifix with a camera on it."
Could Gilliam speak about where it all started---his creativity as a boy?
"As a boy, I was always making things, drawing. I built a tree house with my father, a carpenter. I made magic shows and because I could not do the tricks properly, I acted like a clown. I grew up on a dirt road in Minnesota, no television, no radio. It was idyllic, a joyous time..."
His face sank. "Then I became successful."
And his next movie?
"Still Don Quixote?" The last time we met, eight years ago, we had spoken about this Don Quixote project, which had been scrapped, due to lack of finances
"Don Quixote is like a tumor. I want to get rid of it, get it out of my body. The images are in there," he gestured at his chest. "I want to get them out!"
Might there be any philosophical or religious hope for Gilliam?
"I am a pagan. I think there is a spirit in that tree..." he pointed to a palm in the garden. "There is nobody to pray to! All we can do is respect what is out there."
He laughed: "But then the tree falls over and kills you."