The Future is Now

Patience pays off for UCF professor Pat Rushin, as director Terry Gilliam transforms his futuristic novella into The Zero Theorem.

When Terry Gilliam first read The Zero Theorem, a futuristic screenplay by UCF professor Pat Rushin, his first reaction was to be flattered.

“I thought, ‘Here’s a guy who’s seen every film I’ve ever made!’ Bits and pieces from this one, that one—a compendium of all my work.”

The director of Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen could sense “Brazil was lurking there in the background,” and that Rushin’s tale of a solitary computer programmer assigned to solve a theorem that may contain the meaning of life “shares the melancholy of 12 Monkeys,” to say nothing of the Big Idea behind Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. Gilliam is a member of the legendary British comedy troupe.

Rushin laughs at Gilliam’s observation. Yes, he is “a guy who’s seen every film Terry Gilliam has ever made—including every episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” But it’s not as if Rushin wrote The Call, the novella that became the script to The Zero Theorem, with Gilliam in mind. “I probably wrote it more with Franz Kafka in mind,” says Rushin, who, like Gilliam, is a fan of the German author whose antipathy toward authority and institutions is well documented.

Over a decade ago, Rushin sold the film rights for the 1999 story to The Zanuck Company, run by Hollywood veterans Richard and Lili Fini Zanuck (Driving Miss Daisy). But The Zero Theorem ended up being kicked around Hollywood for years. At one point, Tim Burton thought of directing it. Then Rushin got the call that Gilliam was interested in making the movie.

“I was thrilled. I expected if Gilliam was interested, it was going to get made. Gilliam with the Zanucks behind him? That’s a movie.”

Rushin, 61, has taught literature, fiction writing and screen writing at the University of Central Florida for 31 years. Though he has published short stories, this would be his first screenplay and the first time a work of his had been turned into a movie. 

Oscar-winning screenwriter/actor Billy Bob Thornton was set to star in The Zero Theorem. But Gilliam wanted to film in London. And there’s that famous Billy Bob phobia about certain kinds of furniture.

“He has a fear of antiques,” Rushin says, incredulously. “He refused to film in London, which has, you know, a lot of antiques!”

Director Terry Gilliam (top) was attracted to Rushin’s story from the start, but it took years to bring it to fruition. Christoph Waltz and Melanie Thierry are two of the big-name stars.

In 2008, they were about to take another shot at filming, this time in Vancouver. But then Heath Ledger, star of Gilliam’s The Iamaginarium of Doctor Parnassus died suddenly. That forced production of Parnassus  to run over schedule as Gilliam scrambled to find a creative way to finish the film. “I thought, ‘That’s it. It’s gone,’ ” Rushin says. 

But Gilliam is nothing if not dogged. And the next time he had a project fall through, his agent pitched Theorem again. Rushin knocked off his sixth draft of the screenplay. They found a bankable star in two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained), and some “name” co-stars—Matt Damon, Melanie Thierry, Tilda Swinton and David Thewlis. And two summers ago, The Zero Theorem went before the cameras in Bucharest, Romania. It came out in limited release in September to mixed reviews, another Gilliam trademark. (“A spectacle to be cherished,” Time magazine enthused.)

Rushin and his wife, Mary, visited the set for a week.

“What Gilliam brings to a story is that amazing visual sense of his,” Rushin says. “I wrote that Matt Damon’s Management character is ‘wearing a taupe suit. Chameleon-like, he blends into whatever background he’s in.’ They read that and [created] suits made out of the same fabric as the curtains and furniture behind him. He becomes a chameleon.”

The Rushins got to be extras in the film, wearing colorful costumes, turning up in the background of a couple of scenes. But that’s not the “teachable moment” that Rushin is sharing with his students at UCF. They hear about patience, the frustration of waiting years for other people to decide your movie will be made. 

And it’s not about the screenwriting; it’s the rewriting that counts. 

“That’s what you do. You write, reduce; you combine. I had to whack a 145-page script to under 100 pages. I got it to 96 pages.”

The payoff? You get to schedule your visit to the set on the days Matt Damon will
be working.

“Matt Damon shook my hand and said, ‘Great script, man!’ The guy won the Academy Award for (co-writing) Good Will Hunting. How cool is that?” 

Categories: Cinema