Terry Gilliam calculates "The Zero Theorem"

US director Terry Gilliam poses during the photocall of "The Zero Theorem" presented in competition at the 70th Venice Film Festival on September 2nd, 2013 at Venice Lido. AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
GABRIEL BOUYS

Last Updated Sep 18, 2014 10:40 PM EDT

(CBS News) "It's been a fairly intense year," was the understatement made by director Terry Gilliam, who is debuting his latest fantasy, "The Zero Theorem," at this year's Venice Film Festival.

The Monty Python alumnus and director of "Brazil," "Time Bandits" and "Twelve Monkeys" knows intense. He also knows the pain of films falling apart (his scuttled production of "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote," starring Johnny Depp, famously suffered just about every plague known to the gods of filmmaking), so any Gilliam film that is actually completed is worth celebrating.

Set in a futuristic environment that takes consumerism to the nth degree (floating ads chase potential customers down the street), "The Zero Theorem" stars two-time Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz ("Inglourious Basterds," Django Unchained") as Qohen Leth, a computer programmer searching for the meaning of life. The film also stars Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedges, Ben Whishaw and Melanie Thierry.

In a director's statement for the festival, Gilliam wrote, "When I made 'Brazil' in 1984, I was trying to paint a picture of the world I thought we were living in then. 'The Zero Theorem' is a glimpse of the world I think we are living in now."

A scene from the Terry Gilliam film, "The Zero Theorem," starring Christoph Waltz.
Voltage PIctures

The script by Pat Rushin had originally surfaced several years ago, with Billy Bob Thornton set to star. Despite being "partly interested," Gilliam went off with "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" instead, followed by another year when he tried to re-launch "Don Quixote."

When the financing for "Quixote" collapsed in May 2012, the director was looking for something to do. His agent reminded him about "Zero Theorem," and once Waltz became interested, the film was green-lit.

Cameras were rolling in October for a quick six-week shoot in Bucharest.

"That's the really interesting thing about it, the speed with which it came together," Gilliam said. "Admittedly the budget was now less than half of what had been talked about five years earlier. But I just wanted to work. It had been almost three years since we'd finished shooting 'Parnassus." I just had to do something -- it was really much in that attitude. It wasn't like something I'd agonized over for years; It's just, OK, it's got a lot of good stuff in it, let's go."

Director Terry Gilliam (right) on the set of "The Zero Theorem."
Voltage Pictures

Gilliam praised Waltz's performance as "phenomenal," for which even the character's hairlessness is an attribute. "That's what the script said: 'The man is hairless.' So it wasn't just shaving hair, I shaved his eyebrows as well! Now he looks great! He looks fantastic that way. He's a completely different person from the characters you've seen him play. That's what I really enjoyed. It's nice when somebody gets transformed like this."

"Certainly it strips him of the ability to fall back on actorly tricks -- you can't arch your eyebrows if you have no eyebrows," the reporter suggested.

"You got it!" Gilliam laughed. "A great part of your tool kit is removed! But he has so much going on in his face that he's just extraordinary to watch. He doesn't cheat -- I mean that's why I don't use the word 'tricks.' He doesn't cheat -- he just goes for it."

Gilliam was alerted to actress Melanie Thierry, whom he'd seen in a film directed by Bertrand Tavernier. "I was under a lot pressure use some better known, particularly American actresses, but I just wanted somebody nobody had seen before. They may have seen her but they wouldn't recognize the way we've done her. I mean, she tended to play sort of reserved, beautiful characters.

"I called Tavernier and asked him what he thought, and he said she's like a Stradivarius -- you could play anything on her and it would sound beautiful."

Melanie Thierry in "The Zero Theorem."
Voltage Pictures

For her role as the femme fatale Bainsley, Thierry was advised by Gilliam to "think about Marilyn Monroe and Judy Holliday combined.

"She's just amazing. And the difference is, in particular the American actresses, they all look similar, they're all the same shape, they're all trimmed down. I want somebody's who's real and beautiful at the same time. She had a kid a couple of years ago, so she has a real body as opposed to these manufactured bodies."

The film bows Monday at the world's oldest film festival. Gilliam has been at the Venice fest twice in the past, with "The Fisher King" (which won the Silver Lion award), and "The Brothers Grimm" (which didn't). "I just like going to Venice. Any excuse, if it means having to make a film, I'll got to Venice!"

Although "Zero Theorem" has been picked up in a few European territories, including Italy, the film's backers are counting on Venice buzz and Toronto heat to land a North American buyer.

Gilliam is hoping the film can gain a U.S. release this year, to qualify Waltz for the Academy Awards. "He's never off-screen in this one. There's no place to hide for him. He is the movie. He's not the sidekick, he's not the strange, evil and wonderful Nazi. So why not go for the Best Actor this year?

"I think it's actually a movie for younger people," he continued." I'm not sure if the buyers understand this, because it's intelligent. They always still really very deep down in their nasty little hearts do believe that people are just stupid and want more of the same, even after this summer of tentpoles that haven't worked.

"I think the tide has got to be turning; the little furry mammals that are intelligent films will start crawling from the rocks [as] the big dinosaurs are crashing."

While he awaits theatrical distribution for his latest, Gilliam also spoke of changes in the market, expressing wonderment that studios could continue to produce $250 million films that require a billion dollars' gross to break even. The result? Directors who want to make films with interesting ideas may find their screens shrinking.

"Netflix and Amazon are breaking out of cinemas, direct to computers," he said. "OK, it's still a smaller part of the market, but it's going up while the other's going down.

"I'll just make films for iPhones, I think!"

The former animator of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" also spoke wistfully of working with bits pushed around frame by frame. "I should actually go back to animation someday. It seems to be a lot simpler in some ways than dealing with all the complexities of a live action film."

And for a director who has always seemed invigorated by the challenges of filmmaking -- the more difficult, the better -- and who shot his latest on good ol' 35mm film, Gilliam was strangely upbeat about advances in digital effects (the FX artists for "Zero Theorem" did their work on laptops). "It's so easy now," he sighed, "that if anybody does have some talent, there's no excuse for not making things."

UPDATE:

"The Zero Theorem" is being released in U.S. theaters on Sept. 19, 2014 by Amplify, and is currently also available via Video On Demand. For details visit Amplify's official website.

To watch a trailer for "The Zero Theorem" click on the video player below.

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.