Three Directors Discuss Their Not A Monty Python Animated Film
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.