And, perhaps because he often deals with fantastic and futuristic themes, he's not taken as seriously as he should be.
"There was a point where I was flying high and my name would be enough," says Gilliam, over the phone. "That's not the case anymore. My only power, as far as getting money, is that maybe a bankable actor will work with me."
For “Zero Theorem,” opening today at the 4-Star Theatre in The City, he secured the very hot Christoph Waltz, who won two Oscars in the last five years.
"He's brilliant," says Gilliam. "He was perfect for this because he had a deep well of frustration. There's nothing fake about him. It's all real."
Waltz plays Qohen Leth, a futuristic office worker who awaits an important phone call that will give his life meaning. In order to work from home, he accepts a job solving "the zero theorem," in which he must make everything equal nothing.
Gilliam – a screenwriter, animator, actor and member of the Monty Python comedy troupe as well as director – finds it surprising some have read the film as a comedy. "It's a very sad movie," he explains. He built an enormous space for Qohen to live in, where he might once have raised a family, but is now alone.
"That's what I like about it," he says. "You're just trapped in there. It's a lost dream."
Despite the movie's vast, cavernous set and cluttered, futuristic exteriors, Gilliam kept its budget at $8.5 million; the actors, including Matt Damon, David Thewliss and Tilda Swinton, worked for scale.
"Limiting the money becomes interesting because you're forced to be clever," he says. "For example, I didn't want our computers to look like other movie computers. There was this old blast furnace with a hole in the side. That's our computer! Found art!"
These days, Gilliam likes working quickly on a production: "I enjoy not double-thinking things. I'm trusting that I have some deep image in my head," he says. "I think I'm showing off to myself."
Whether “Zero Theorem” is well received ultimately does not matter to Gilliam. He knows he has made something unique from the reactions he gets.
"A lot of people will say it's the best movie ever made," he says. "Each film has a powerful effect on some people. You never hear, 'Oh, that was OK.'"
IF YOU GO
The Zero Theorem
Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, Matt Damon, Lucas Hedges
1 hour, 47 minutes
Terry Gilliam's films have a gigantic, yet personal, vision, but they're also unwieldy and difficult to categorize – none more so than his new one, "The Zero Theorem.”