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Pat Rushin: Making The Zero Theorem

Pat Rushin: Making The Zero Theorem

The UCF associate professor discusses his first feature film and the screenplays that inspired his work.

Spring 2014

Sitting in the dark in a Texas movie theater, Pat Rushin watched the last 10 years of his life flash before his eyes. With his wife and two daughters next to him, the creative writing teacher finally realized his long-labored movie project during the film’s U.S. premiere.

The Zero Theorem is a futuristic fantasy directed by Terry Gilliam (Brazil) that stars Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained) as an antisocial computer hacker on a quest to discover the meaning of life in an unsolvable math problem. The film blends themes of existential angst, corporate proliferation and the conundrum that everything actually adds up to nothing in Gilliam’s signature wild visual style.

After more than a decade of rewrites that Rushin described as “a real roller-coaster ride of high hopes followed by dashed dreams,” the film is set for wide release this spring. Pegasus asked Rushin about the premiere, the process and the lasting affects of delayed success:

Pegasus Magazine: What was it like to watch the finished movie for the first time?
Pat Rushin: It was pretty thrilling, especially because I’ve been at this for more than 10 years. So finally having it finished was a relief more than anything else.

PM: What was the reaction of the crowd?
PR: The crowd liked it — I mean they were laughing at the right spots, and you heard a little cheering now and then.

PM: What was the most challenging part about getting your script made into a movie?
PR: The first challenge, of course, was writing the damn thing. I wrote the first draft in 10 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. With each new player who came on board, there was another rewrite. Every time I thought the project was dead in the water, I’d get a call from Dean Zanuck revving me back up. With endless faith, he told me repeatedly, “We’re going to make this movie, Pat.”

PM: Where did the idea for The Zero Theorem originate?
PR: It was originally inspired by the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. “Emptiness, emptiness, emptiness, all is empty.” The speaker of that, Koheleth — which is where I got the name Cohen [The Zero Theorem’s main character] — is basically bemoaning the fact that if there is no afterlife, what does it profit a man to live a good life, or any kind of life? It’s the first Old Testament complaint, I believe — some kind of life after death.

PM: What was your reaction when you found out that Terry Gilliam was going to direct?
PR: I was thrilled, and this really is a Terry Gilliam-type movie. In some ways it was inspired by Brazil. Terry joked, “Remember, you’re just the writer.” But he treated me like royalty.

PM: What is it like to see your idea come to life with actors Christoph Waltz and Matt Damon?
PR: 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. It was the best way for me to feel truly involved.

Christoph Waltz 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 shook my hand and said, ‘Great script, man!’ So now I can die and go to heaven.

Pat Rushin

PM: What did you learn from the process of making this movie?
PR: It taught me more discipline and not to be in love with my words. It’s all changeable, right up to when they release it.

PM: Would you go through this whole 10-year ordeal again?
PR: I think I would just be sucked right in. There’s excitement to it, and I like to write screenplays. Screenplays are different than fiction, because it’s all about character and story. It’s stripped down, almost like a blueprint. You don’t want to be real specific about what characters look like, because you don’t want to close doors to any actor who might want the part.

PM: How has this experience influenced your teaching?
PR: Everything I’ve experienced I share with the class. One of the exercises I have students do is write a three- to five-page theme on any topic, and then the following week, I ask them to cut it by 25 percent. It’s part of the craft.

The Zero Theorem Scene 4
The Zero Theorem Scene
The Zero Theorem Scene 3
The Zero Theorem Scene 2

Christoph Waltz (left) stars in The Zero Theorem with Melanie Thierry (right), Tilda Swinton and Matt Damon. Photo: Hugo Stenson

Living in an abandoned church, reclusive hacker Qohen Leth (Chrisoph Waltz) searches for the meaning of life in an unsolvable math problem. Photo: Hugo Stenson

The Zero Theorem is the final film in the Brazil trilogy (with Twelve Monkeys) for director Terry Gilliam (far right), whose other credits include Time Bandits and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Photo: Hugo Stenson

Gilliam's science fiction films are characterized by wild and colorful dystopian worlds, such as this film set in Romania. Photo: Hugo Stenson