UCF English professor Pat Rushin calls himself an “overgrown student,” but to those in the film industry he’s better known as the writer behind the Venice Film Festival entry, “The Zero Theorem.”
Originally written more than a decade ago, the film about a curious computer hacker is debuting at the festival on Sept. 2. Directed by Terry Gilliam, it stars Hollywood heavyweights Christoph Waltz, Matt Damon and Tilda Swinton.
Rushin started teaching at UCF in 1983. “The Zero Theorem” is scheduled for wide release in 2014.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
I was always a voracious reader—I learned to read from comic books before I went to kindergarten—and even as a kid I was writing stories. My parents bought me a second-hand Underwood upright typewriter when I was in first or second grade, and I wore that thing right out.
My dad, a civil engineer, had a real literary bent and a fairly extensive library, and he told me I could read anything I wanted. What freedom. What a world opened up for me. I was “a skinny little kid from Cleveland, Ohio,” but with a library card I was a world traveler.
How did you get involved with teaching?
I was not a natural teacher. I was not born to be a teacher. In fact, from childhood to this day, I’ve suffered from a debilitating fear of public speaking. Every time I have to give a reading or a speech, I die a million little deaths right up until the time I open my mouth to speak. And the first thirty seconds are a horror show inside my beating heart. But if I push through that first thirty seconds, I’m OK if not golden.
But I wanted to study English Lit and Creative Writing, and the only way to pay tuition and rent was to get teaching assistantships, first at Ohio State, then at Johns Hopkins. So I got into teaching by… teaching. And then I discovered that, once the nerves wore off, I was pretty good at teaching, since teaching is all about questioning. And I’ve always been good at asking questions.
What inspired you to write “The Zero Theorem”?
The Book of Ecclesiastes. Seriously. That’s the book in the Old Testament that asks the major questions. What is the value of life? What is the meaning of existence? What’s the use?
So yeah, there was the original inspiration, but once I got working on it, I just had to make the script funny. There’s no use in living a life you can’t laugh at.
You sent your script to producer Dean Zanuck 10 years ago. What has the process been since then?
It’s been a real roller-coaster ride of high hopes followed by dashed dreams. First Dean’s father Richard Zanuck got Ewan McGregor onboard to play the lead, but then EwMac dropped out. Then it was Billy Bob Thornton with Terry Gilliam slated to direct, but the plan was to shoot in London, and BBT nixed that, as he has a phobia of antiques, and London is apparently full of old stuff. Really. Then it was the same players ready to shoot in Vancouver, but then Terry Gilliam pulled the plug, as he was still working on his “Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” after Heath Ledger’s untimely death put that show behind schedule.
And during all of this, it seemed like an endless cycle of rewriting. But through all the ups and downs, Dean Zanuck has been a champion of this project from day one till now. He never lost faith, even when I did. He truly deserves all the credit for this movie coming to fruition.
What is it like to see your idea turn into a film featuring Hollywood stars such as Christoph Waltz and Matt Damon?
It’s been a real trip. My wife Mary and I flew to Romania for a week of shooting, and the first thing Terry Gilliam did was send us to wardrobe so we could serve as extras in this one scene—one of my favorite scenes, in fact. We worked two days straight, me actually doing some rewrites on the set as I was being filmed sitting at a park bench in the background. It was the best way for me to feel truly involved.
And everyone there, cast and crew alike, treated us like royalty.
Meeting Christoph Waltz and Matt Damon was a dream come true. Christoph was a real gentleman and a tireless worker. He was in every scene, and he still made time to talk to everyone on the set. And Matt Damon… well, he shook my hand and said, “Great script, man!” So now I can die and go to heaven. My wife and I have a picture standing with Matt Damon and Terry Gilliam that will go on my Facebook page just as soon as the movie is released. I’m such a fanboy!
What was the most challenging part about getting your script made into a movie?
The very first challenge, of course, was writing the damn thing. I wrote the first draft in ten days. It was 145 pages long, and I had no idea what I was doing. I simply checked out some screenwriting books from the UCF library, along with several screenplays. Coincidentally enough, one of those screenplays was Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.”
And after that came draft after draft, rewrite after rewrite. With each new player who came on board, there was another rewrite.
But I think the main challenge for me was keeping up my interest in the project over the span of a decade. Let’s face it, I was ready to move on. After “Zip-T,” as we came to call it, I wrote three other features, two of which got some notice in festival competitions, and I was continuing to write short stories and some poetry… but it all kept coming back to “The Zero Theorem.” Every time I thought the project was dead in the water, a failed effort behind me, I’d get a call from Dean Zanuck revving me back up on the thing. Dean has been a heroic producer. Slow and steady and with endless faith that, as he told me repeatedly, “We’re going to make this movie, Pat.”
Turns out he was right after all.
What do you love most about your job at UCF?
What I love most about my job at UCF is that, although they call me “Professor,” the truth is I’m just an overgrown student who’s never graduated college. I’ve earned degrees, sure, but I’ve never graduated to the thing that comes after education, whatever that may be. I’ve been able to stay a student at heart through my whole career. My students are my colleagues. We’re all learning together. The day I don’t learn something new in the classroom is the day I need to retire and take up a know-it-all hobby like golf or political blogging.
What do you do for fun?
For one thing, I watch a lot of movies, and I mean a lot. And I read a lot. Books, scripts, student manuscripts, what have you.
But for true fun, I like to cook. Give me a Giada de Laurentiis recipe, and I’m in heaven. Love to cook, love to watch people enjoy what I’ve prepared. Actually, cooking is a lot like writing. You’re not cooking if nobody’s eating, and you’re not writing if nobody’s reading.
As a writer, what are your favorite things to read?
A list way too long to get into that ranges from highbrow lit to lowbrow potboilers. I’m a fairly voracious reader unencumbered by my snooty literary education. In the past year I’ve read books by literary luminaries such as Don DeLillo, Jennifer Egan, David Foster Wallace, Meg Wolitzer, etc., etc., but I’ve also read books by Stephen King, Stieg Larsson, and even the first book of E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Like I said, I’m a reader.
What is the one thing you want people to know about you or your work?
About me: I make the best fish taco in the state. Ask anybody who’s ever eaten them. About my work: Writing ain’t rocket science… and it’s probably not brain surgery either… but when you’re at the keyboard and on a roll, it’s like blasting off for unknown worlds inside your own skull. That’s the passion my students and I share.