Spreading milk over the infinite table-top
David Warren, Production Designer for The Zero Theorem, talks to
Featuring four examples of artwork from The Zero Theorem
| On day 28 of the shooting schedule of The Zero Theorem, the
main crew was at the ICPE laboratory in city centre Bucharest, to
shoot the sequence where Qohen (Christoph Waltz) discusses his condition
with a panel of three doctors. Meanwhile, Production Designer David
Warren was working with his team preparing the exterior of Qohen's
chapel for the next day's shooting.
The interior chapel scenes were shot in the MediaPro studios,
but the chapel exterior was shot at 41 Strada Grigore Cobălcescu
in Bucharest. This is where David found a few moments to talk about
his work on the project.
David Warren in the alleyway in front
of Qohen's chapel
Phil Stubbs: What have you been working on today?
David Warren: Surviving... staying in a paid job! This morning I got
up very early. I'd got back from the laboratory set quite late. I
got back to the hotel before Terry. It was one of the few times on
the movie I got back to the hotel before Terry because they did four
hours overtime last night on the chapel set. I walked in to the hotel
room, opened my computer, and started emailing the missus. My eyelids
started to go, and it was suddenly 4am. I had been out like a light
for seven hours, and then oh my God; we've got to go to work. It was
as if the sleep was stolen. I was still in my clothes and everything.
I went to set early; we handed over the set to the director,
which was the very nice health board laboratory set, I'm sure he liked
it. And now I've come here to Cobălcescu, which is where Qohen's
chapel exterior is. As you can see behind me, we are still scuttling
around putting things into place and painting it and dressing it,
things like that. This is our world. Some of it you can see, some
of it we put in ourselves. Look, there's smoke there already. The
apartment block was here already, I have to admit. The little chapel,
we put that in. The graffiti is ours, which has changed the character
of the alleyway to our world, or as we like to phrase it
vision", which is very colourful in this film.
What experience did you have at the Athenaeum, where you filmed
It was a combination of stress, sleep deprivation - and euphoria
when we walked away from it. It was a hard one because the Athenaeum
is a very beautiful location and we shot in the lobby of the big
concert hall here, and we put a set in like a merry-go-round / carousel.
It's based on many different references, the main one is Wall Street
but it's in lots of candy colours, and it has the feeling of a pinball
machine, or something like that, which let's be honest is what investment
banking is all about!
We started at 4am and going until 4pm because we had to avoid the
concerts. And every now and then we had to pack our stuff away because
you'd see all these people in penguin suits with their programmes
on the way to watch a bit of Brahms and Liszt. Yes it got built; I
think Terry was very happy. Everybody seems to be very happy with
our stuff, or if they're not, they're not telling me!
Chapel interior - Click on the image
for further detail
Can you tell me about the challenges in building the chapel?
Apart from the financial ones! We've got chapels in my own town Gloucester,
and in Britain a chapel actually is a little tin shed with a cross
on it. And we built a cathedral with 10% taken out! They call it Qohen's
cathedral at the studio. It was a strange one because we came to Bucharest,
we had a look round at the Orthodox churches here, and they have a
very different architecture than Anglican or catholic churches or
other denominations, the way the interior is plotted out. We did like
the fact that they are heavily frescoed or painted with all these
saints. And Terry all the way through liked saying Qohen is agoraphobic
but is surrounded by faces all the time. There are faces at screen
at work, there are faces following him around in the advertising and
even when he gets in his little burnt-out chapel there are faces everywhere.
We did it as a painted interior which I think English churches were
a very long time ago until Oliver Cromwell painted them all white
(or was it Henry VIII, I can't remember
anyway somebody did).
So it has got an Orthodox Church interior feel. But the actual way
it is planned out and plotted out is more like an Anglican church:
it has got an organ loft, a high altar at one end, and an entrance
vestibule at another end.
Chapel interior - Click on the image
for further detail
How long did it take to build the chapel?
We were right to the wire on it. I think it was nine weeks. We had
painters in there on the ninth week. It was supposed to be seven,
but there are always details, and Terry makes notes, and things needed
to be changed. Just at the end there's lots of snagging and tidying
up. Seven weeks got the bulk of it up. Another week of snagging and
notes and then a final week of touches, and that was it dressed. When
I turned up here in Bucharest, I had some drawings to get going with,
but we started carpenters on the second week I was here for a ten-week
preproduction so it was a nine-week build.
How did you reach the design for of Mancom, the large computer?
I more or less arrived when Terry did, our first time in Bucharest.
We went to have a look at a few different places, and there was
something that MediaPro had sent to us which was a big blast furnace,
a wrecked one in an old pre-Ceausescu factory for making steel or
iron or something. It was a great looking building, but impossible
to shoot in, and two hours away from the city. It was a 45 foot
diameter concrete and iron tower with all these portholes in it,
masses of structure, very dilapidated. We thought: can we shoot
in here? Can this be the mainframe?
Obviously at the moment thanks to (God rest his soul) Mr Jobs, everybody
else out there is trying to make computers tiny: little phones with
fantastic cameras. We thought what if in the future it all goes
the other way, and size becomes really important, and computers
are maximal, they're fat, and chunky, with big screens. If Mancom
had the biggest one of the lot, it should be colossal, because it
is meant to hold all this entity information. The whole planet,
the whole population, all their wants, desires, needs, products
- everything is inside this thing, so we thought it's got to be
big. Let's say it's steam-powered, it's iron, concrete, it's made
out of old materials, this thing was probably built 50 years ago,
and it's still there pumping away, trying to get all this stuff
We referenced Mancom very strongly to this blast furnace, and we
ended up building it as a set with a green screen around it, just
to have something operational we could work with, something we could
adapt. It blows up at one point, and it's a very difficult thing
to do when it really is made of concrete so that's why we went in
that direction. And I think it was to buck the trend of miniaturisation.
Why do you want a little computer like that when you can have something
the size of the Titanic?
Mancom - click on the image for further
What has working with Terry been like on this project?
I get asked that every time, I haven't got a fucking clue any more,
I really don't. It's hard work, but working in film is hard work.
It shouldn't be: it's not brain surgery. It is hard because Terry
I was trying to explain to somebody this morning.
It's not that he is interested in the Art Department; he's interested
in all departments. He's interested in the engineering of filmmaking,
of how stuff is done. Whether you are special effects, wardrobe,
hair & make-up, or set design, he's really, really into it.
Has it been enjoyable?
It's been hard. At the beginning, Terry was so funny. Two things
he said: We shouldn't be doing this if it is not fun, because the
resources are slim, it's low budget. Why would we go if we are not
having fun? The other thing is because I'm going to pull all these
people whether it's Christoph, Nicola or me, and they are not getting
paid what they would normally get paid, at least they should have
the satisfaction of doing a good job. Can you imagine that! But
we have done, I think.
We are working within margins, and you always have to work within
margins. Even if you are doing films that are ten or fifteen times
the size of this one, you still have limits you've got to work to
and I think our limits are very tight, which means in producer-speak,
"you have to think creatively". You need to make the money
stretch like a thin cream of UHT milk over an infinite table-top,
which I suppose is what we've done.
They've been a terrific gang, they really have [the Art Department].
Everything we've wanted to do
it's interesting because when
you read the script, the Carol Park, the exterior park - this is what
working with Terry is like
You could say park, trees, kids...
give me some stuff.
We ended up shooting at a massive post-war communist war memorial,
and we filled it with huge inflatable blue arches and spikes and
we had pederasts walking around, and a guy dressed in a clown suit
with a huge hot dog stand and Christ knows what else, and that is
what working with Terry is like because he goes there. This is an
astonishingly strange location, nobody has seen it before, and then
we are going to make it more weird, so whatever is written on the
all you need to read is exterior park. Don't read the
stage direction, because we are going to do this now. And that's
what happened. We'll have a guy selling balloons.
Then a kid buys a lot of balloons and then he goes up in the air with
one. I remember that as well and thinking it's not written in the
script. But that is what it is like: you just say yes, how many balloons
do you want? Good, we'll do it. And that's the way you do it really,
and we keep going. We all go home hopefully. He's still got to do
postproduction - and my phone will be off!
POSTSCRIPT - unfortunately for David, he accidentally left his
phone on and was heavily involved in postproduction. This will be
the subject of a further conversation with David here at Dreams in
the next few weeks.
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