Terry Gilliam talks filmmaking at Dragon Con 2014

The director aims to leave viewers with emotional “shrapnel”
Photograph by Matt Walljasper
Photograph by Matt Walljasper

During last year’s holiday season, director Terry Gilliam binge-watched four seasons of Breaking Bad on Netflix in three days. He finished the fifth season over Christmas while his family sat downstairs.

“I thought, ‘Now I’m seeing something different; I’m seeing something really good.” Gilliam said. “That intrigued me, the idea of this longform . . . the totality was what was powerful. And it affected me in the way films used to affect me.”

During a Saturday morning Dragon Con press junket, Gilliam spoke on his approach to filmmaking, and within it, his main goal: to leave a bit of emotional “shrapnel” in the viewer. As a child, a scene from The Thief of Bagdad that featured a young thief fighting off a giant spider resonated with Gilliam so strongly that he would “wake up in the middle of the night trapped in that spider web, all my bedclothes wrapped around me.” He also told stories about how his own films have impacted others, including one tale of a lawyer who after watching Brazil locked himself in his office for three days straight.

“That’s what so many films have done for me, and I suppose that’s what I’m trying to do. And when that works, you feel, ‘Ahhh, we’ve pulled something off there that’s worth it.’ “ Gilliam said.

Today, however, Gilliam said he finds fewer and fewer films impact him, despite the fact that many modern films are “brilliantly made.” But he continues to push his shrapnel concept through his new film, The Zero Theorem, which is about a computer programmer (Christoph Waltz) who works on a formula that could determine the meaning of life. The movie deals with the idea of feeling powerless against the world’s problems, and Gilliam called it “a satirical version of the world we’re living in,” one that is incredibly dependent on technology.

In the actual world, society’s dependence on technology means films are now watched not only in cinemas, but also on airplanes and on tablets. Even Gilliam admits he’s enamored with his iPhone. With The Zero Theorem, Gilliam sought to craft a film that would look exactly the same on any device. He calls it a “one size fits all full-gate semi-vinyl motion picture.” To spell that out: One size means that no matter which device you view the movie on, the picture won’t be cropped. Full gate refers to a rarely used portion of a 35mm film frame that is normally covered up. This produces the rounded edges often seen in old silent films. And although Zero Theorem was shot on film (aka vinyl), Gilliam said the movie contained “260 digital effects shots, so I couldn’t lie and say it was full vinyl.”

Want to see if Gilliam’s shrapnel will affect you? The Zero Theorem will play at the Plaza Theatre on September 19.