Terry Gilliam's artistic visions tend towards the pessimistic on a grand scale. The former Monty Python illustrator's film Brazil shows a totalitarian bureaucracy dependent on unreliable machines. In 12 Monkeys, a lethal virus forces humans to live underground. His new film, The Zero Theorem, starring Christoph Waltz and Tilda Swinton, is about a data-cruncher losing his mind. Gilliam talked to wired about Facebook, video games and living in the future.
Wired: The Zero Theorem seems to be explicitly concerned with technology.
Terry Gilliam: Strangely enough, it isn't -- it's about escape from technology. But there are virtual worlds in this, and there are computers. And there is a telephone or two. So it's [Waltz's character] just wanting to work at home. He's waiting. He wants to get away from everything. Life has become too much and he just wants to be isolated, do his work and wait for this telephone call that will give meaning to his life, a little.
The opening scene seems like something worth escaping from -- extremely consumerist and technological -- a population wired for distraction…
Yes, I'm concerned with the fact that we're all just hammered all the time. Hammered. And you know, once I started shopping on Amazon, now, you know, they keep suggesting what I should have next. How better to chain people, to enslave people? That's what's intriguing about it. So it's like, "Just shut up, I want quiet."
Somewhere you're not constantly checking your Twitter timeline?
This is really what the film, in many ways, to me is a reaction against -- this need to be constantly communicating. It doesn't matter what you're communicating so long as you're communicating. It's about detaching yourself from the neural network. Are we just neurons or are we just the synaptic gap? I'm just not sure.
It's a bit like, if there isn't information flowing through us, we don't seem to exist and that I find just wearying, tiresome. Because what is the information? If the information is important or useful that's one thing. But no, it's how are you, who am I? I am how many friends I have on Facebook. I am all this. It's all about people telling the world "I am". I worked on a webcast with Arcade Fire in Madison Square Garden.
In the middle of the first song, people are commenting, people are saying, "I am here and I think this…" Just shut the fuck up is all I want to say. Just let them do what they do. Enjoy it. Absorb it. Experience it. So I begin to think people aren't really experiencing anything. The well is not very deep.
Tell us about the main company in The Zero Theorem.
It's this company called Mancom: "Making sense of the good things of life". And so Mancom is basically like Facebook -- my heroes. It's gathering all the information. And as Matt Damon says towards the end, "You know, this is… this is ultimately mine, this vast amount of information is mine to mine."
And that's it: you gather it not knowing what you're going to do with it but you know it's useful stuff. I'm sure when Google started, people didn't realise they're getting all this information. And some of these guys said, "Well, what can we do with it?" It just goes on and on and on. It's very organic, or Darwinian, the way things happen, until you've got a monster roaming the Earth.
Did you have Facebook and Google specifically in mind?
It's kind of all of that. I don't think all of them have evil intentions but what they do have is this: the understanding of the importance of gathering information, because information is wealth, information is power. What's interesting is that the guys who are on top of those organisations have all been well educated, they're very liberal in their thinking, so they're not the worst people in the world. But the NSA is another matter.
That said, you've got a Twitter profile.
That's not me. I think it's someone else, I think it's an extension. Maybe it's Amy, my daughter, or someone who is just harvesting things from the Facebook page. The idea of Twitter actually appals me. Facebook appals me. I mean, someone like Stephen Fry -- I don't understand how he does it because he answers people, he talks to them. I don't talk to these people. I'm the storyteller. I'm not there to have a conversation.
Guillermo del Toro directed a video game. Are you interested in doing that?
Actually, long ago, back when there were CD-ROMs roaming the planet, I was involved in a game but the company then went bust. I've always thought I should be doing one because I think my mind works in the way that those games work. I went to Paris and Sony showed me Heavy Rain. I went, "OK, now that's getting interesting, we're in a movie but there's so many choices, it's interesting." I thought it was very clever. That's the fun part, to go in, create a labyrinth for people to go into and they'll all come out in different ways.
What was your idea for a game?
It was actually a semi-educational game. Usually, with avatars, it's all pretty stupid stuff: I'll be big and blonde and I'll wear this kind of armour and dress in red. I did it like picture consequences instead -- the head would be one thing, the body would be another, the legs would be a third thing. You make choices. But they didn't always work together, just like a human being doesn't. I just wanted to set it up so you would never know how they would work together. So it's not guaranteed. You make choices, I think now everything is, kind of, guaranteed, isn't it? You buy that sword because it does that. I would love to do a game with maybe the same algorithms that were used before the great financial crash. They go running off in their own direction and you don't know where they're going. So with that idea, I thought it would be interesting: you're in the middle of a situation and suddenly the legs that you thought would be able to speed you away, suddenly, they go limp.
It doesn't sound like our technologies afford us hope.
I think that the virtual world is probably the good side. Well, it feels pretty good. Technology is always the same. It's always a double-edged sword. You know, atom bomb, boom! Yes, but on the other hand, nuclear power. We do what we do. We are a species that just has to keep inventing new things. We can't stop ourselves, until we blow ourselves up, and then we just start again and we try another version of it.
Despite the constant invention, the film has an old-school, Geocities aesthetic to it.
When we started this whole film thing we started off by designing things. By this time -- now -- even before the film is out, the future has caught up with us. We are already behind. So we're already -- even though we thought that we were doing a future film -- we have made a retro film. We're now actually in the past. So I'm convinced that there's really no present any more. The fact is that we're actually living permanently in the future and that's what really worries me. The Zero Theorem will be released in 2014.