Sometimes it’s a wonder he gets any movies made at all. Over the course of his legendary career, Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Time Bandits, 12 Monkeys) has built a reputation as a director who likes to try for the impossible — be they shots, scenes, or entire movies. This is, after all, a man who made a romantic comedy about homeless people, madness, and death (The Fisher King). A man who made a microbudget, absurdist, effects-laden coming-of-age fantasy (Tideland). A man who made a film of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that’s just as nutty, if not more so, as the original book.
Sometimes his job is difficult because he sets impossible challenges for himself. Sometimes it’s difficult because fate doesn’t cooperate: His attempted filming of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was famously scuttled due to horrid weather and an ill lead, as depicted in the brilliant documentary Lost in La Mancha. On The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, his star Heath Ledger died halfway through the shoot, leading to Ledger’s scenes being completed by the triumvirate of Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell.
Gilliam’s latest, The Zero Theorem, which hits theaters this weekend, is another of the director’s wild, impossible projects: an elaborate, dystopian sci-fi film starring Christoph Waltz as a brilliant neurotic working for an all-controlling, all-seeing corporation as he tries to unlock the meaning of life. It’s a surreal carnival of visual wonders made all the more impressive by the fact that it was shot on practically no budget. So, when we got a chance to talk to Gilliam recently, we wanted to ask him about some of the most difficult scenes and shots of his career. Some were ones he suggested. Others were ones we were curious about. Here are those scenes, with Gilliam’s thoughts on them.
We built a little encampment under the Manhattan Bridge where the homeless were. Robin rescues Jeff, and he drags him in there, and all these guys are drinking. We had real homeless guys, mainly Vietnam vets, who had set up camp there. They had electric power through streetlights; they tapped into them. They were really well-organized. There was Larry, this one guy who seemed to be their leader. This was a guy who could have been running a corporation — really good guy, sharp. We got to know them. We gave them stuff, ‘cause we needed certain things arranged. About two days before this night shoot, we came there and the place was burned down, gone. It turned out the other guys got so pissed at Larry, he was organizing too much, and he came back and torched the place. So we had to dredge up lots of shitty cardboard boxes, plywood, and rebuild their encampment.
Photo: ©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Ever/Copyright © ©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Colle / Everett Collection
Just before we started shooting, it snowed. Philadelphia was completely under snow when we started to shoot. But then it started melting. So we had to make the decision to keep the scene winterized or not. I made the decision, “Okay, we’ll just say it’s winter and we’ll top off where we need to.” And then the sun came up and melted everything! Every day, we had to get there and round up some ice and sprinkle it around the place so it would look like it was winter. The whole thing became more complicated than needed, constantly.
The most frightening and worrisome shot in 12 Monkeys was actually a very simple shot with Bruce, where suddenly, there’s this great bear behind him. We did have a real tiger coming down the steps of the art museum. We did have real elephants going across the bridge. But the bear was set up, we were in this location right by City Hall. All of us sit down at one end, waiting for this bear. There was this colonnade going away from us. The bear handler was down there, opening the truck that had the cage.
All that was between us and this great nine-foot-tall grizzly bear was one tiny, thin little wire, electrified. That was it! Nothing more. And you had to trust that this bear was trained and that he knew that wire was there. So we’re all set up, ready to go, the camera’s ready to go. Bruce is standing by. “Okay, go!” The bear was down at the arcade, making its way toward us. And suddenly, it stops. It smells something interesting, and it’s there, about 100 feet away from us, sniffing and scuffling around.
We’re waiting, waiting for this bear to sniff out whatever he smells. Bruce has to turn his back to the bear. He’s between us and the bear, and the wire is between Bruce and the bear. Bruce has to do this thing where he’s bending over, trusting us to get the bear to rear up at the right moment, right when he turned around. It was really quite terrifying, more so for Bruce than anyone, ‘cause he couldn’t see where the bear was.