Few filmmakers are as gifted as Terry Gilliam when it comes to setting a story inside a dystopian future. The Monty Python alum, who brought us Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, to name just a few, is back with his newest, The Zero Theorem. It’s the story of Qohen Leth – played by Christoph Walz (Django Unchained, Water for Elephants, Inglorious Basterds) – an eccentric computer programmer who has been tasked by his corporate employer to solve the Zero Theorem. This is a calculation, that if solved, might prove that the meaning of life is nothingness.
The story is set in a futuristic London, but carries many of Gilliam’s hallmarks, like a retro approach to the design of technology. Qohen works out of his home, which is much like a rundown church. Part of the story takes Qohen into worlds of virtual reality, where he frequently interacts with Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), a webcam stripper that he met at a party, but who may have been sent by his employer, Mancom, to distract him. The Zero Theorem is very reminiscent of Brazil, but in concept, also of The Prisoner, a 1960s-era television series. Gilliam explores themes of isolation versus loneliness, the pointlessness of mathematical modeling to derive meaning and privacy issues.
I recently had a Skype chat with Mick Audsley, who edited the film last year. Audsley is London-based, but is currently nearing completion of a director’s cut of the feature film Everest in Iceland. This was his third Gilliam film, having previously edited Twelve Monkeys and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Audsley explained, “I knew Terry before Twelve Monkeys and have always had a lot of admiration for him. This is my third film with Terry, as well as a short, and he’s an extraordinarily interesting director to work with. He still thinks in a graphic way, since he is both literally and figuratively an artist. He can do all of our jobs better than we can, but really values the input from other collaborators. It’s a bit like playing in a band, where everyone feeds off of the input of the other band members.”
The long path to production
The film’s screenplay writer Pat Rushin teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida. He originally submitted the script for The Zero Theorem to the television series Project Greenlight, where it made the top 250. The script ended up with the Zanuck Company. It was offered to Gilliam in 2008, but initially other projects got in the way. It was revived in June 2012 with Gilliam at the helm. The script was very ambitious for a limited budget of under $10 million, so production took place in Romania over a 37-day period. In spite of the cost challenges, it was shot on 35mm film and includes 250 visual effects.
Audsley continued, “Nicola [Pecorini, director of photography] shot a number of tests with film, RED and ARRI ALEXA cameras . The decision was made to use film. It allowed him the latitude to place lights outside of the chapel set – Qohen’s home – and have light coming in through the windows to light up the interior. Kodak’s lab in Bucharest handled the processing and transfer and then sent Avid MXF files to London, where I was editing. Terry and the crew were able to view dailies in Romania and then we discussed these over the phone. Viewing dailies is a rarity these days with digitally-shot films and something I really miss. Seeing the dailies with the full company provides clarity, but I’m afraid it’s dying out as part of the filmmaking process.”
While editing in parallel to the production, Audsley didn’t upload any in-progress cuts for Gilliam to review. He said, “It’s hard for the director to concentrate on the edit, while he’s still in production. As long as the coverage is there, it’s fine. Certainly Terry and Nicola have a supreme understanding of film grammar, so that’s not a problem. Terry knows to get those extra little shots that will make the edit better. So, I was editing largely on my own and had a first cut within about ten days of the time that the production wrapped. When Terry arrived in London, we first went over the film in twenty-minute reels. That took us about two to three weeks. Then we went through the whole film as one piece to get a sense for how it worked as a film.”
Making a cinematic story
As with most films, the “final draft” of the script occurs in the cutting room. Audsley continued, “The film as a written screenplay was very fluid, but when we viewed it as a completed film, it felt too linear and needed to be more cinematic – more out of order. We thought that it might be best to move the sentences around in a more interesting way. We did that quite easily and quickly. Thus, we took the strength of the writing and realized it in cinematic language. That’s one of the big benefits of the modern digital editing tools. The real film is about the relationship between Bainsley and Qohen and less about the world they inhabit. The challenge as filmmakers in the cutting room is to find that truth.”
Working with visual effects presents its own editorial challenge. “As an editor, you have to evaluate the weight and importance of the plate – the base element for a visual effect – before committing to the effect. From the point-of-view of cost, you can’t keep undoing shots that have teams of artists working on them. You have to ensure that the timing is exactly right before turning over the elements for visual effects development. The biggest, single visual challenge is making Terry’s world, which is visually very rich. In the first reel, we see a futuristic London, with moving billboards. These shots were very complex and required a lot of temp effects that I layered up in the timeline. It’s one of the more complex sequences I’ve built in the Avid, with both visual and audio elements interacting. You have to decide how much can you digest and that’s an open conversation with the director and effects artists.”
The post schedule lasted about twenty weeks ending with a mix in June 2013. Part of that time was tied up in waiting for the completion of visual effects. Since there was no budget for official audience screenings, the editorial team was not tasked with creating temp mixes and preview versions before finishing the film. Audsley said, “The first cut was not overly long. Terry is good in his planning. One big change that we made during the edit was to the film’s ending. As written, Qohen ends up in the real world for a nice, tidy ending. We opted to end the film earlier for a more ambiguous ending that would be better. In the final cut the film ends while he’s still in a virtual reality world. It provides a more cerebral versus practical ending for the viewer.”
Audsley characterizes his cutting style as “old school”. He explained, “I come from a Moviola background, so I like to leave my cut as bare as possible, with few temp sound effects or music cues. I’ll only add what’s needed to help you understand the story. Since we weren’t obliged on this film to do temp mixes for screenings, I was able to keep the cut sparse. This lets you really focus on the cut and know if the film is working or not. If it does, then sound effects and music will only make it better. Often a rough cut will have temp music and people have trouble figuring out why a film isn’t working. The music may mask an issue or, in fact, it might simply be that the wrong temp music was used. On The Zero Theorem, George Fenton, our composer, gave us representative pieces late in the process that he’d written for scenes.” Andre Jacquemin was the sound designer who worked in parallel to Audsley’s cut and the two developed an interactive process. Audsley explained, “Sometimes sound would need to breath more, so I’d open a scene up a bit. We had a nice back-and-forth in how we worked.”
Audsley edited the film using Avid Media Composer version 5 connected to an Avid Unity shared storage system. This linked him to another Avid workstation run by his first assistant editor, Pani Ahmadi-Moore. He’s since upgraded to version 7 software and Avid ISIS shared storage. Audsley said, “I work the Avid pretty much like I worked when I used the Moviola and cut on film. Footage is grouped into bins for each scene. As I edit, I cut the film into reels and then use version numbers as I duplicate sequences to make changes. I keep a daily handwritten log about what’s done each day. The trick is to be fastidious and organized. Pani handles the preparation and asset management so that I can concentrate on the edit.”
Audsley continued, “Terry’s films are very much a family type of business. It’s a family of people who know each other. Terry is supremely in control of his films, but he’s also secure in sharing with his filmmaking family. We are open to discuss all aspects of the film. The cutting room has to be a safe place for a director, but it’s the hub of all the post activity, so everyone has to feel free about voicing their opinions.”
Much of what the editor does, proceeds in isolation. The Zero Theorem provided a certain ironic resonance for Audsley, who commented, “At the start, we see a guy sitting naked in front of a computer. His life is harnessed in manipulating something on screen, and that is something I can relate to as a film editor! I think it’s very much a document of our time, about the notion that in this world of communication, there’s a strong aspect of isolation. All the communication in the world does not necessarily connect you spiritually.” The Zero Theorem is scheduled to open for limited US distribution in September.
©2014 Oliver Peters