As A Liar’s Autobiography gets its UK cinema release, Chris Patmore spoke to the three pipe-brandishing directors Bill Jones (son of Python Terry Jones), Ben Timlett and Jeff Simpson to find how the how the film came into being.
A Liar’s Autobiography gets its UK cinema release, Chris Patmore spoke to the
three pipe-brandishing directors Bill Jones (son of Python Terry Jones), Ben
Timlett and Jeff Simpson to find how the how the film came into being.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus is legendary for
its quintessentially British, groundbreaking approach to television comedy,
which set the stage for a whole new generation of comedians. Its initial
five-year run has been continuously broadcast throughout the world (not always
successfully surviving translation) and spawned several classic feature films,
with Life Of Brian regularly
appearing at the top of all-time comedy lists. All the members of the troupe
have gone on to become international successes in their chosen post-Python
careers, with the possible exception of the late Graham Chapman. Chapman was described as being “openly gay and
secretly alcoholic”, and his “troubled” life before, during and
after Python was revealed in his book A
Liar’s Autobiography: Volume VI, which has been brought to vivid life by
directors Bill Jones, Ben Timlett and Jeff Simpson, along with raft of
animators and guest voices.
Jeff, being the adult of the triumvirate,
started off by explaining how in 2007 he was a documentary maker and interested
in making a documentary about Graham Chapman, so he visited Graham Sherlock (Chapman’s partner) in
North Wales in the search for home movies or any other material on which to
base the film. All he discovered was the existence of some audio tapes.
“When I got hold of the tapes, I realised we could do a documentary with
Graham narrating it from beyond the grave. That was, sadly, turned down by the
BBC. In the meantime we listened to the tapes and commissioned some animation
to go with the audio. So I had this taster tape when I walked into Bill and
Ben, looking for a home for this material.”
Bill picks up the story. “In 2009 we were
doing a documentary on the 40th anniversary of Monty Python, in six one-hour
episodes called Almost The Truth.
Coming out of doing that we didn’t want to do another documentary involving
Graham Chapman, but we loved the idea of doing an animated Graham Chapman. That
sounded brilliant. So we said, why don’t we do a whole film in animation?”
After all they did have two-and-a-half hours of audio to work with.
Jeff was convinced that the rest of the Pythons
wouldn’t want to do more talking head interviews, but they would do some
voiceovers for the story. Ben pointed out that it was an adaptation of
Chapman’s book, which he’d written with other people, and it was that that got
them excited, especially as it would appeal to people who could not read.
“What the film adds to the book is that it
is more of an experience, because you go through the alcoholism in a very
visceral way”, said Jeff. “And the interview clips remind you that he
was a real person. Most of the time he writes about himself as if he was a
fictional character, and writes comedy scenes about himself.” All three
were keen to point out that the film is not a comedy, even though there are
funny bits because of the way the book was written, but it does deal with
serious issues such as Chapman’s alcoholism.
One of the striking aspects of the film is all
its different styles of animation. Selecting and managing them would seem like
a creative and logistic nightmare to match them up with different chapters of
the story. Jeff said it was mostly down to Justin
Weyers, who served as the film’s animation wrangler. “We sent him out
into the animation world and he looked at 50 to 60 companies, and put us
together with 20 to 30 companies. We’d seen their show reels and styles, and at
that point we knew what we were interested in. For certain companies or
animators it was really obvious that their style would match a particular
section. George Sander-Jackson and
the amazing drying-out sequence, that very visceral, oil on glass thing, was an
immediate style match. Animators pitched for one section, and ended up doing
another. It was kind of like an extraordinary 3D dating process.”
“It was organic”, added Ben. “At
times we really knew what we were looking for, and for other things we got
surprised by what people pitched. You could tell from some of the animators’
work that they got it. They got emotion, comedy timing.”
According to Jeff, the average age of the
animators was 28 and a lot of them were two or three years out of college.
“They’ve only made amazingly imaginative short films, but in each case
this was the first feature film they’d worked on, so it was just a matter of
giving them a free rein.” Bill pointed out that in the case of George
Sander-Jackson, it was the first time since college he had been able to do use
his oil on glass technique because no one could afford to pay him for the time
it took to do.
Given that there was such a variety of animation
styles did raise the question of why it was done in 3D. Bill, very pragmatic in
his producer’s hat said, “The creative thinking behind it was: Lot’s of
people want to commission 3D programmes, we could actually get funded if we do
it 3D.” Ben added that it was being impressed by the 3D credits at the end
of Avatar. Jeff was equally
pragmatic about it being marketing gimmick, however he did add that it did give
them an extra tool to play with when it came to the storytelling to give depth
and immersion into the world that was created.
Bill revealed that they also made a documentary
called Anatomy Of A Liar, which is
interviews with Chapman’s friends that they recorded during the making of the
film – “Available on the DVD, out at the end of February” – as well
as some old home movie footage they discovered afterwards that, by some strange
coincidence, corresponds to some of the scenes in the film, even though the
animators had not seen it. “It was as if we had a guiding hand in its
Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story Of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman opens
in UK cinemas on 8th February.