When Terry Gilliam makes a movie, there is a large swath of the filmgoing community that eagerly awaits its release. We are fortunate this year to have The Zero Theorem hitting the big screen in September although it’s already out on VOD and iTunes as of this week. I was tremendously lucky to have a chance to speak with screenwriter Pat Rushin back in February about the script.
Qohen Leth, a man on a mission.
What’s the film about you might ask? Well, it goes something like this: Qohen Leth (played by Christoph Waltz) is a master computer programmer who happens to be stuck in an existentialist crisis waiting for a call that will explain to him the meaning of life/existence/consciousness. While he waits, he is tasked with a project at Mancom, his place of employ, that makes 100%=0, or everything adds up to nothing. Already a recluse, Qohen accepts the challenge and it slowly eats away at him, compromising what little he had and what little he believed. Mixed in is a woman who reaches Qohen on a level he’s not quite allowed anyone before (Mélanie Thierry) and a mysterious boss that may or may not be real (Matt Damon).
Here’s what he had to say about his process, working with Gilliam and funny quips about production:
I know that you are a creative writing professor at University of Central Florida in Orlando with a focus on short stories. How did you come to write a screenplay?
I wrote a novella titled The Call in between semesters one year and I based the script off of it. I wrote it about ten years ago. It shows you how long this process takes.
And what was your process in adapting the script?
I’d never seen a screenplay before so I checked a bunch of them out of the library and read them so I knew how to structure it, one of which was Brazil. When I started writing the script I just sat and did it. I worked 12 hour days for about 15 days and it was finished.Writing the feature screenplay seemed to come easy. Rewriting was different. I would work for a half day on the rewrites, of which I did six complete Page 1 rewrites.
Do you think that writing short stories prepared you in any way for writing the script?
I think the economical nature of short story dialogue lends itself well to screenplay dialogue. So in that way, yes.
What was the length of your first draft?
The very first draft was145 pages. I got it down to 120, then 110. The shooting script ended up being 98. When Terry read it, he had some problems with it and wanted to see the first draft. He reinstated some of the older material. There are changes that he made – settings he played around with. He threw a better party than I did.
Did you do any research on the scientific/mathematical/computer lingo when writing the script? It all seems very legit to me, although I’m neither a math nor computer person.
I did do some research, but not a great amount. Some of what’s in the script is mumbo jumbo. As a kid I was a voracious sci-fi reader and was up to college so that influenced what I wrote. A lot of it I just kind of made up.
How did the script get to Gilliam?
I had initially entered the script in a contest at the Houston International Film Festival where it took first place in the science-fiction category. That got me a management deal. The script was optioned by The Zanuck Company under the guidance of the late Richard Zanuck. He courted Terry and that’s how Gilliam came aboard. The film was supposed to shoot in 2010 but then he had the troubles with Heath Ledger dying during production of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassas and he dropped out of the project. Lucky for us, he came back to it.
Was there any literature that you read during the time you wrote the script or anything that influenced you in anyway in writing The Zero Theorem?
I don’t know that I actually sat down and read anything when I was working on this…maybe some David Foster Wallace. The dialogue in Don DeLillo’s White Noise was certainly an inspiration.
(Side note here – Don Delillo happens to be my favorite writer and White Noise is the book that changed my life forever when I read it. It’s no wonder that I connected so much to the script.)
After reading the script, it’s incredibly hard for me to fathom anyone else in the lead role of Qohen than Christoph Waltz. I know that roles are like revolving doors in Hollywood, so was there anyone else ever cast in that role?
Ewan McGregor was initially interested in the role and Billy Bob Thornton had accepted it afterwards. However, he dropped out when he found out we were going to shoot in London.
Any reason he dropped out?
Well…because he has a fear of antiques and there are so many old things in London.
You’ve got to be kidding me?
(laughs) Not kidding.
How did the rest of the casting get set?
That was all Terry. He called his up friends and that’s really how it was cast.
Were you on set for any of the shoot?
The shoot was 37 days and it was shot in Romania. I was there for a week when Matt Damon was there. He actually told me, “Great script, man!”. I was an extra, writing on a park bench.
How was working with Gilliam?
He is a man of immense talent who has created some really incredible films. I love that he considers this the third of his dystopian trilogy along with Brazil and 12 Monkeys. In fact, he referred to this film as Brazil II on set. That was a great source of pride.
Do you have any other projects going right now?
I have written two other scripts which were finalists in festival contests and I’m working on a book of short stories now. Also, my novella, The Call, that was the basis for the script is hopefully coming out soon and marketed as the inspiration for this film.
A big thanks to Pat Rushin for allowing me to talk to him about his process, the inception and evolution of the script and about the filming itself. At the time I conducted this interview, I had yet to see the movie, so it was hard to ask specifics about the film as I wasn’t sure what appeared in the actual film as opposed to the script that I was allowed to read. I’d love a chance to revisit with Pat now that I have seen the film.
My review of The Zero Theorem is forthcoming, so be on the lookout for it. Until then, check out the trailer and hit up iTunes to watch the film now or better yet, wait to see it on the big screen when it opens on September 19.