The directors of A Liar’s Autobiography discuss their new animated feature about “the dead one,” Monty Python’s Graham Chapman.
While the irreverent press notes for the new animated feature, A Liar’s Autobiography – The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman certainly seem very “Python-esque,” the three directors, Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson and Ben Timlett are very clear in their assertions that this is not a Monty Python film. It’s a Graham Chapman film. The man whom at his memorial service, John Cleese called “a freeloading bastard.”
The film stars Graham Chapman, now dead 23 years, along with the remaining members of Monty Python (sans Eric Idle) and a few special guests. The directors, working from hours of audio recordings Graham made acting out his autobiography, put together a quasi-serious-absurd sort of narrative biopic about Graham’s life (possibly part true). It’s not a comedy, though parts are extremely funny. It’s an ensemble of 17 animated segments done by 14 different companies. In 3-D.
I recently spoke with Bill, Jeff and Ben as well as Bill’s father, Monty Python’s Terry Jones, right before the world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Dan Sarto: What brought the three of you together to make this film?
Bill Jones: Jeff wanted to make a documentary about Graham Chapman using these audio cassettes he’s found of Graham reading his autobiography. He approached Ben and me as we were doing a six-part documentary on the 40th anniversary of Monty Python. He thought, “These are the guys I want to talk to.” We thought, wow, we’re really bored and sick of doing documentaries about Month Python.
Ben Timlett: We weren’t sick.
BJ: Not physically. No. We basically said we do love this idea where we do animated sections with Graham narrating his own life. But we didn’t want to do another documentary.
BT: It was Jeff’s idea, having discovered the tapes, to make a talking heads part of it, with Graham narrating part of it with animation. Bill and I got really excited and the three of us started talking about this concept. We all realized right away that we could make a fully animated feature.
BJ: When Graham read out his lines in the book, he performed them. When he delivered the other people’s lines, he just kind of read them straight. It’s like he knew we were going to turn it into a film. So thanks Graham.
DS: What was your previous experience working with animation?
BT: Bill and I had begun experimenting with animation while making our documentary. Straight away, we knew it would be interesting to mix-up styles. We decided to have a series of artistic vignettes of all different styles done across the whole series that would popup as chapter headings. So we always had a love and appreciation for animation, especially animators who could effectively do everything themselves. They would conceive and create it, because they’re just incredible people to work with.
BJ: We didn’t sit down and do any animation ourselves. We brought on board these 14 different animation studios and basically, got 14 different directors on board. Our job essentially was to focus on story, the structure and capturing the performances of the members of Monty Python that are in our film. Once we’d done that, we gave that material to these fantastic young animators and really let them get on with it. The fact that none of us had ever directed an animated feature before gave them a lot of freedom because we weren’t coming in with any preconceived way of visualizing it.
BT: We created a bible that we gave to all the animators so they knew what Graham should look like, what his parents should look like. We had certain themes. For example we made sure that Graham always had his pipe. His mum would always have a certain type of hair. That was something we were always quite concerned about because we were working with so many different styles.
Jeff Simpson: A big point was how we would go from one animation style to the next. Writing and working out transitional points. A lot of that was in the bible as well. Working through all the fantasy sequences, the dreams, finding ways for the animators to do that.
DS: [Question directed at Terry Jones] Terry, in light of your working history with Graham, how do you view this film?
Terry Jones: I think it captures Graham remarkably. It captures his looney-ness, his oddness and his enigmatic-ness. As far as what I thought the film would be, I didn’t have any expectations. I knew they were doing a good job, but the final film, frankly, it blows me away.
DS: Does this film capture the essence of Monty Python with how it depicts Graham’s life during the time of your collaboration?
TJ: It doesn’t capture Monty Python particularly, but it captures Graham. It’s Graham’s film. It’s Graham’s sensibility that it captures. In a way I suppose, it’s as close to a Python film as we’d ever get. You’ve got Graham’s voice, though he died 23 years ago. You’ve got the voices of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and myself. So it’s as close as you’ll ever get to a Python reunion but it’s not a Python film.
DS: This film jumps from absurd, to serious and back to absurd in the blink of an eye. How did you put together a linear story from such an odd piece of source material?
JS: As far as a process, we had a process which we all agreed to. We were three directors, so it was a two-to-one voting process. There was never any fighting or run-ins because if Bill had an idea and Ben didn’t like it, instead of them fighting with each other, they’d turn to me for arbitration. I’d have the deciding vote. Or, it was the other way around in different situations. I think it actually added to the creativity. Instead of fighting, you end up discussing and persuading.
BJ: As far as tone and approach, the ultimate arbitrator was Graham himself. We always had the book to go back to. Quite often when we were wrestling with difficult decisions we would step back for a moment and realize that Graham had been there before us. We’d look at how he dealt with things when he laid out the story in the book. Sometimes it was different than what we were doing but quite often it was Graham that we turned to.
BT: It being an animated film rather than a book, there were some structural issues that we had to work on. Mainly, we really wanted to have the alcoholism, which he struggled with and kept secret, to creep up on the audience. It’s the first thing in the book, laid out straight away. We wanted that to come in and almost shock the audience. Up to that point, it’s been fun, it’s been funny, it’s been a roller coaster. The suddenly, boom, he’s in trouble. He’s not well. He’s suffering.
DS: Why make this film now? This material has been around for more than two decades.
JS: I’ll answer that in two ways. First of all, all the other Pythons had this afterlife. They’d all been able to enjoy the success of Python in ways that have led on to other things. In Graham’s case that never really happened. He died too young. For me, it was a good time to do this project because there was a danger of Graham being forgotten really. On the production side, ten years ago, using all these varied styles, it would have been too expensive and far too time consuming to make a feature length animated film on the kind of budget we were working with.
BJ: Something as experimental as this, I don’t think until now you would have been able to have such a span of animation studios, from one like Superfad doing massive CG stuff to one guy, Steven Lall, doing stuff in his mum’s kitchen.
BT: As to why make this now, I think it was very important to celebrate the 23rd anniversary of his death (they all laugh).
DS: Was there any part of this film where you wondered, “What have we gotten ourselves into” and conversely, when you thought, “OK, we can pull this off?”
JS: I think we took a big risk when we sat down and decided we were going to make this film. But, I don’t think there was ever a sense of unease among us. We were all super confident and incredibly naïve (more laughter).
BJ: I also think that the guys we got to do the animation, we had so much confidence in them, seeing the work they had done, it just felt we were in the hands of the right animators. We had such a good team we figured we were all going to make this work.
JS: What we really had to get used to was that each of these companies had their own approach and their own style. Some of them would be very collaborative with us, sending us drawings which I guess they expected us to comment on. We’d just say “Oh my, that’s fantastic. Just get on with it.” Others would keep things much more to themselves. One very quiet animator named Matthew Walker over at Arthur Cox, we sent a behind the scenes guy to interview him and when he asked, “How’s the relationship going with the directors?” Matt said, “Oh, it’s easy. I just don’t show them anything.” (everyone laughs) Of course while this was going on that summer we were asking ourselves, “Oh, I wonder what Matthew is up to?” Of course he had just won an award for his film John and Karen and so we knew his work was going to come back fantastic.
BJ: Other people wanted more collaboration. The interesting thing for us was understanding the different processes used by the different companies.
BT: The person you should speak to is Justin Weyers. He dealt with all the technical problems. (more laughter) He had to teach them all 3-D.
JS: We didn’t have to deal with any of that (everyone laughs).
BJ: Creatively and because of Graham’s writing we knew that the different styles were going to work.
BT: Giving the animators such free reign to work with the concepts and tone we wanted to create worked really well. In the end, Justin brought it all into one space in his studio [Made Visual Studio] where we managed to work with the Adobe software system and the 3-D.
JS: We were spared having to deal with a lot of the technical stuff and that allowed us to focus on story.
DS: Why do this in 3-D? How does it improve the film?
JS: We conceived it as a marketing gimmick (laughter). We were lovingly going to be jumping on last year’s 3-D bandwagon. In terms of getting the project moving it was a good marketing idea. The wonderful EPIX HD people with their 3-D channel came on board. Don’t forget, the film is in theatres and EPIX HD on November 2nd by the way. It did help get the project moving. We were a bit skeptical about the effects of 3-D on the storytelling in the beginning. When you’re dealing with animation, many of our animators draw flat animation. It was a question of giving the little bit of extra depth to the world the characters were inhabiting. We didn’t want a film where things would jump out at you from the screen.
The other thing, there are a couple moments where we allow it to enhance the storytelling. One is when Graham goes to Ibiza and he realizes he’s not in London any more, this closed, cramped environment, and that there’s a whole big wide world out there. At that point, when he gets to the top of the hill and looks out over the horizon, we really tried to stretch the animation as deep as it would go because Graham’s horizons were literally broadening at that point.
BJ: As we started seeing stuff coming in, we began to realize how the textures start to zing out at you in 3-D. Especially looking at the cut-out type world we were creating. Then, getting into all these bizarre flights of fancy, I think the 3-D helps to abuse the audience a bit more. I think Graham would have loved that (laughter).
JS: If you’re watching in the first 3 rows, you feel a bit violated (more laughter). There’s a psychedelic moment which we call Space Pods, where Graham’s flying around in space. It’s fantastic. The animators from Treat Studios, those young guys who did that section, they’re really quite mad. We had seen it originally in 2D. There’s a moment when Graham goes into Oscar Wilde’s mausoleum, but it’s really his own mausoleum, and he’s facing his own death, and they put dust, floating in 3-D, inside the mausoleum. We were saying, “Oh my god, there’s dust floating around the mausoleum!” It was just so beautiful. So you really can get those extra special moments with 3-D. What did you think of it?
DS: Well, often the best use of 3-D is for subtle things. There are times when the 3-D enhances the perception of space and distance with the landscape of action, where you really feel the effects. Other times, all you realize is that the visuals are extremely rich, vivid textures, colors and surfaces. Especially when applied to 2D animation, things look more interesting, though not for any obvious reason.
BT: Will you put that in the article? That’s good.
BJ: The thing that struck me was after the wrestling scene when we were getting to the weird scene with the babies in the theatre, with these amazing cutout paper puppets, the 3-D gave it this weird, extra strange look.
DS: In the final analysis, looking back at your first ideas for what this film might be, is this the film you hoped to make? Is this the film you wanted to make?
All: Yes. (laughter)
JS: It has gone through so many evolutions, from a documentary idea then to a fully animated feature film. When we were working on the script and the dialogue, we had no idea what this film would look like. It’s been an exciting journey for us, seeing all that animation coming together. For me, what’s interesting is that the original idea that drove me to want to do a documentary about Graham, was that simple idea that here is a story about a man who was openly gay but secretly alcoholic. When you look at the book, the ideas are in the movie. They’re still the same ideas. They’re what Graham wrote, what he experienced in his life. They’re all in there.
DS: Bill, I have to ask, having such a famous father, a members of arguably one of the most famous and iconic comedy groups of all time, how did that affect you growing up?
BJ: Well, when I was quite young, in my school, Dad wasn’t actually the most famous dad in the school. He was the second most famous and he wasn’t famous to any of my friends. It’s not like you could get a VHS of his work.
BT: Bill and I went to private school together. The most famous dad was in this show called Grange Hill, which was a kid’s soap. Everybody watched Grange Hill.
BJ: Everyone would yell, “There’s the teacher from Grange Hill” and run over to him. He was the famous dad. I think I really had the ideal growing up as I had all the benefits of growing up with a famous father without having a lot of the drawbacks. A lot of people don’t get into Python until they go to college. I didn’t go to college, I started working. So I wasn’t really surrounded by people who knew who my dad was. The only times I remember people approaching and asking for an autograph would be when we were on holiday, when we’d be the only English family in a restaurant. We didn’t seem to get bothered on the street.
DS: How old were you when you first realized how big a deal Monty Python was in the world of entertainment?
BJ: It was a gradual thing really. I was gradually becoming a Python fan myself.
TJ: The memory of Month Python seems to have grown in retrospect. When we did the first series, the BBC wasn’t of the mind to let us do a second series. It wasn’t a huge success. When we did The Holy Grail, the first audience we showed it to didn’t laugh. It seems to have grown bigger in retrospect over the years. I have no idea why.
BJ: I think the original fans who were into Python had kids, so now you have the original fans and their kids who are fans. So the fan base has naturally grown.
BT: Growing up with Bill, all I know is that he got better presents than me. (laughter) I remember this amazing thing called Laser Tag, this amazing thing that nobody got over here. And he had already got it but wouldn’t let anyone play with it until he got bored with it, which took about an hour (laughter).
Editor’s Note: EPIX and Brainstorm Media present, in association with Trinity, A Liar’s Autobiography – The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman, permieres on EPIX and in select U.S. theaters in 3-D on November 2, 2012 and premieres theatrically in the U.K. in late October.
Dan Sarto is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Animation World Network.