'The Zero Theorem': Inside Terry Gilliam’s Imaginative, Involved Post Process

Editor Mick Audsley describes the process of bringing Gilliam's singular world to life in the cutting room.
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Few filmmakers are as gifted as Terry Gilliam when it comes to setting a story inside a dystopian world. The Monty Python alum who brought us Brazil and 12 Monkeys is back this month with The Zero Theorem. It’s the story of Qohen Leth, played by Christoph Waltz, 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 looks much like a rundown church. Part of the story takes Qohen into worlds of virtual reality, where he frequently interacts with Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a webcam stripper he met at a party but who may have been sent by his employer, Mancom, to distract him. 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. The Zero Theorem is the third Gilliam film he has edited, following 12 Monkeys and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. “I knew Terry before 12 Monkeys and have always had a lot of admiration for him,” Audsley explains. “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 he really values the input from other collaborators.”

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Christoph Waltz as Qohen Leth, on his way to work.

The Zero Theorem script was very ambitious for a limited budget of less than $10 million, so production took place in Bucharest, Romania, over a 37-day period beginning in October 2012. Despite the cost challenges, it was shot on 35mm film and includes 250 visual effects.

Audsley continues, “For Nicola [Pecorini, director of photography], film 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 [film] 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.”

While editing in parallel to the production, Audsley didn’t upload any in-progress cuts for Gilliam to review. He says, “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. 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 20-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.”

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Director Terry Gilliam on the set

Making A Cinematic Story

As with most films, the “final draft” of the script occurs in the cutting room. Audsley continues, “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. The biggest single visual challenge is making Terry’s world, which is visually very rich. 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 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.”

Cutting Style

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From left: Graham Sutton (music editor), Mick Audsley (film editor), Craig Irving (dubbing mixer, Twickenham Studios), Terry Gilliam (director), George Fenton (composer), Max Walsh (assistant dubbing mixer, Twickenham Studios), Andre Jaquemin (sound designer), Ray Cooper (music supervisor/producer).

Audsley says, “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.”

Sound designer Andre Jacquemin worked in parallel to Audsley’s cut and the two developed an interactive process. Audsley explains, “Sometimes sound would need to breathe more, so I’d open a scene up a bit. We had a nice back-and-forth in how we worked.”

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Editor Mick Audsley’s Avid Media Composer timeline for The Zero Theorem.

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 says, “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 continues, “Terry’s films are very much a family type of business. Terry is supremely in control of his films, but he’s also secure in sharing with his filmmaking family. 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 occurs in isolation. The Zero Theorem provided a certain ironic resonance for Audsley, who says, “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 U.S. distribution in September.