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Terry Gilliam ponders the meaning of life with 'The Zero Theorem'

Terry Gilliam (left) and Christoph Waltz talk on the set of The Zero Theorem in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ HO-Mongrel Media

TORONTO – Over 30 years after starring in “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life,” filmmaker Terry Gilliam is exploring the significance of existence once again with his new sci-fi drama, “The Zero Theorem.”

It’s a theme that’s been on his mind since he was young, says the American-born British writer-director, who got an Oscar nomination for co-penning the 1985 film “Brazil.”

“When I was a kid I was a little zealot,” the Minnesota native said in a recent telephone interview. “I went to university on a Presbyterian scholarship, I was going to be a missionary.

“So I’ve got all of that stuff stuck down deep.”

“The Zero Theorem” — out on DVD, Blu-ray and Video on Demand on Tuesday — stars two-time Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz as Qohen, an eccentric computer genius working on a mathematical formula to determine if life has any meaning.

Co-stars in the surrealistic story — directed by Gilliam and written by Pat Rushin — include Matt Damon as an enigmatic figure overseeing Qohen’s actions, and Tilda Swinton as a psychiatrist.

Some reports have said the film is the conclusion of a trilogy that began with “Brazil” and continued with Gilliam’s 1995 film “12 Monkeys,” but the Monty Python alum says that’s not the case.

“I originally was thinking of the film as a compendium, because when I read the script it was clear Pat Rushin had watched every film of mine made, and there was reference to all of them in the script,” he said from London, where he was performing in the “Monty Python Live” reunion shows that wrapped over the weekend.

“I thought, this will be my ‘Fanny and Alexander’ or my ‘Amarcord,'” he continued. “Everybody keeps thinking it’s a trilogy and it’s not. The one thing I was aware of is that it would be compared to ‘Brazil,’ and so I was going out of my way to try to make it not to seem to be like ‘Brazil.'”

Virtual reality is a big part of Qohen’s life in the film it’s also been something Gilliam has been wanting to explore onscreen for a while.

“I don’t know if it’s accurate but (the film) is certainly my reaction to the world that we’re in at the moment, where tweeting has become dominant,” he said.

“You can’t just sit and watch the sun set, you’ve got to comment on it and tell your friends. In the lead up to doing ‘Zero Theorem,’ for years I’d been obsessed about solitude, about trying to learn to be alone to escape from the world we’re in.”

That doesn’t mean Gilliam doesn’t participate in social media.

He said while he doesn’t run his Twitter account, he does write the entries on his Facebook page, where this past weekend he lamented that “The Zero Theorem” wasn’t getting a theatrical release in Canada. He also called on fans to email representatives at Mongrel Media to voice their “displeasure.”

Hours after his post, the distribution company said given the tremendous interest in the film, it will release it in theatres in Canada in the next few weeks.

“Facebook works because I can promote what I’m doing and I can comment on things,” he said. “Like if I wake up in the morning and I’ve got a very silly idea, I can put it on Facebook and I get an immediate reaction, which is nice.”

“But I don’t want to sit there and talk to the people that are on my Facebook page,” he added with a laugh.

By contrast, Qohen in “The Zero Theorem” is unable to deal with relationships in the real world.

“He’s a man who has become impotent, really, and I think so many people in the world now feel impotent — they can’t control the world around them,” said Gilliam.

“So all of that stuff is in there in different forms, and I’m focusing on those in different ways without giving answers. I don’t want to ever give answers to people, but let’s … raise a few questions.”

— Follow @VictoriaAhearn on Twitter.