The Meaning of Life: Terry Gilliam on the Zero Theorem

We get philosophical with director Terry Gilliam ahead of the Scottish premiere of his latest film at the Glasgow Film Festival

Feature by Nathanael Smith | 12 Mar 2014

The Zero Theorem, the new film from Terry Gilliam, the legendary director of Brazil, Time Bandits and 12 Monkeys, is driven by ideas, and ideas that demand to be talked about. It centres on Qohen Leth (played by Christoph Waltz), a computer programming drone whose job is to prove that everything equals nothing, that life is ultimately meaningless. When I meet Gilliam at a Glasgow hotel ahead of the Scottish premiere of the film at the Glasgow Film Festival, I suggest my line of question should have a metaphysical bent. "Go for it," chuckles Gilliam, "see if I can take it!"  He can, and it's with great relief that the genial director is eager to open up on some of the brain-scratching philosophies behind his film. 

The Skinny: The Zero Theorem is, at times, quite bleak. Bob [Lucas Hedges] tries to persuade Qohen Leth [Christoph Waltz] that everything is meaningless, that there is no such thing as a calling. Do you see yourself as a Bob figure, trying to disabuse the audience of a notion of meaning?
Terry Gilliam: No, not really. It's sort of testing the main character is what it's really doing. Matt Damon [playing a figure known only as Management] describes [Leth] towards the end as a man of faith. Qohen believes there is a meaning to life and that our lives make sense, and he certainly wants to believe that. Everybody else is kind of conspiring to say it's not true, except that in the course of this Bob, the teenager, Bainsley [Mélanie Thierry] the girl, these are people that come into his life that he actually begins to care about and love. It's about re-humanising the character, in a strange way.

I think, for me, people say 'what's the meaning of life?' To me, the point is – and strangely enough that's kind of what Matt Damon's character says –you've gotta give meaning to your life. I mean, there's no meaning to life: my cells are dividing, things are happening, structures are being formed, other things are eating other things. It's wonderful organised chaos. So whatever meaning there is to life is what you give to your life. You gotta do the work, you can't sit around waiting for a phone call to tell you.

What I always thought was funny with The Zero Theorem was that he is trying to prove a negative positively. That's the weird thing when you are trying to prove that 100% must equal zero, or zero must equal 100%, it's a very weird thing because how do you do that? We build these structures that keep falling apart, which fail to produce the result.

You mentioned his faith, and he, Qohen, stays in a derelict church which I interpreted as a visual symbol of how he is struggling to find meaning in religion, and of how religion is a thing of the past. Is this a view you endorse, or is it a product of the film?
It's clearly not true in all parts of the world: in the southern US, evangelical Christianity is better than anywhere; in the Middle East, fundamentalist Islam is bigger than ever. But so much of the West is more and more technologically driven, and that seems to be the new religion. The faith that technology will solve our problems, will make sense of the world, will make life utopian. So yes, in that sense, religion for much of the West is a burnt out idea. But Jesus still loves you, even though his head may be an NSA camera...

A religious person might argue that faith is the meaning in a meaningless world. Is there any scope for faith being the missing 3% that disproves the zero theorem?
That may be right. That's why I like the ambiguity in the film. I'm not actually giving answers, I'm raising questions and you can decide for yourself what you want to believe, what gives meaning to your life. I was gonna be a missionary once!

Oh yes, I went to uni on a Presbyterian scholarship. So I know quite a bit about faith. My attitude towards it now? Things have changed in my life: I've become a pagan now. I'm an animist, I believe in nature, what's out there... it's extraordinary. I do not believe there is somebody I can call on that will fix it for me.

Or [as happens in The Zero Theorem] someone who'll call you on a telephone...
Indeed. No, that I don't believe. But there is a rhythm to life, a rhythm to the way it all works. I think if you respond and react to it, it's pretty good. I think one should try and leave the world a better place than when you arrived – that's my theory.

“Jesus still loves you, even though his head may be an NSA camera” – Terry Gilliam

I didn't know you came from a Presbyterian background. What changed for you?
By the time I was going to college on my Presbyterian scholarship, at church I would make jokes about God, Jesus and the whole thing and the people in church couldn't find any humour in that. I said 'what kind of God do you believe in that can't take a joke!' Come on, it's very simple, folks. If it's an all powerful creature, give him a break.

It's like the bit in The Holy Grail: 'It's just like those miserable psalms, they're so depressing...'
Yeah, it was the followers, the believers that put me off the church. Because anything that is really important or holy, you should be able to test it by making jokes about it. Will it survive? If it survives then it should be able to take all the jokes you can throw at it. I think that sense of holiness, that one has to be solemn... that's something different. What goes on inside you – spirituality – is very important, whatever form that may or may not take.

I noticed a kind of similarity between The Zero Theorem and Spike Jonze's latest film, Her [for one, both feature a male protagonist falling in love with computer generated women].
It's weird, I did see Her and thought there is a weird connection. Spike Jonze's film is interesting, where he has a relationship with a computer. Mine, at least, you can see and touch her, rather than just talk to her. His is about telephone sex...

The Zero Theorem and Her suggest that there is a growing awareness in cinema of the need to find connection and humanity in an increasingly digital world. Do you think this is quite an urgent thing that needs to be communicated at the moment?
I just think, for me, it's the irony that we've got social networks and what appears to be this incredible connectivity out there, yet it seems to be separating people, not putting them together, because it's all distant relationships. Some of it is fine, but too much of it divides people. Humanity – touchy and feely humanity, not your distant or computerised humanity – is the thing that I think is beginning to get lost. It's so easy to get seduced by your computer screen and get caught in it and in communicating that way all the time.

What I don't like is tweeting everything that is going on. It's one thing to communicate, but it's another thing to be at a concert, an event, dinner with friends, and constantly having to show that you are there and commenting on it all the time. That's not experiencing the moment, that's not living the moment. You go to a concert and before the first song is halfway through, the tweets are coming through. My main thing is, 'Shut the fuck up and experience the moment. Stop being a commentator on life. Start living life.'

The Skinny speak to Terry Gilliam at Glasgow Film Festival 2014

The Zero Theorem trailer

The Zero Theorem is released 14 Mar by Sony pictures