A Liar’s Autobiography is being framed by what it’s not. It is decidedly not a Monty Python film, even though it reunites almost all the Pythons (including Terry Gilliam, but excepting Eric Idle: ‘I think he was worried that it was going to be seen as a Python reunion,’ the filmmakers say, ‘so he was, “no, this is a Graham Chapman project”; he didn’t want it to be hijacked as a Python film.’) It is also not a documentary, because it tells too many lies. It is, instead, a dizzying ‘visual journey’ (to quote from the press material) of Graham Chapman, ex of Monty Python, ex of this mortal coil—his medical training, his comedy, his drinking, his pipe, his travels (sometimes in a large penis-shaped car), his inspirations, his fibs, his unflinching honesty. It is also narrated by Chapman, though he’s been dead for 23 years (the filmmakers discovered tapes he made in the late 1980s, reading from his own book—co-written by four other authors—from which the film takes its name). It is animated, by 14 different studios and incorporating 17 different styles. It is also in 3-D. It is also set to ‘earn Chapman a new title—the most prolific corpse since Elvis’ (to quote again from the press material).
Another thing it is, it is directed by Bill Jones (son of Python Terry Jones), Ben Timlett (his childhood friend with whom he made, under the Bill and Ben Productions Ltd banner, documentaries on the Sex Pistols and the Clash, and the six-part Monty Python: Almost the Truth—The Lawyers Cut for the 40th anniversary of Monty Python’s Flying Circus), and Jeff Simpson (author and veteran producer at the BBC). It is also most likely unlike any other non-documentary documentary you’ve seen before.
So, 3-D? I thought that was a Pythonist joke, a touch of post-modern surrealism that messes with medium, like the three-sided Python record, Matching Tie and Handkerchief, or Monty Python’s Big Red Book, which is blue, or, indeed, like Chapman’s own character, ‘The Colonel,’ who interrupts sketches when they become too silly.
Jeff Simpson: We conceived it as a bit of a marketing gimmick, [elsewhere they’ve said, ‘We are fully aware that we were jumping on last year’s band-wagon, but really because we liked the idea of having a sticker on the DVD saying ‘Graham Chapman—Dead in 3-D’”], but it is an aid to storytelling.
Bill Jones: A lot of the animation styles are 2-D animation, styles that have never been done in 3-D.
I was curious because some of the animation seemed made for 2-D. Like the ink on glass segment that illustrated Graham’s detox from alcohol and delirium tremens.
Jeff: The ink on glass technique is obviously painted on a flat surface so he [George Sander Jackson, the animator] had to separate out the assets, so he’d paint the arm, he’d paint the head, he’d paint the bed, he’d paint the P.O.V. shots…
So they’re almost like traditional animation cels, only laid out on top of each other.
Jeff: Yes, all the assets were separated out and then placed in a 3-D space on the computer, so it’s still hand painted. That’s never been done in the cinema before.
Ben Timlett: We did try and use it creatively and we thought about the scenes we wanted to use it in, for example in Ibiza where they reach the top of the hill and suddenly the horizon opens and we stretch the 3-D as the horizon opens as well. You know, stuff like that, which no one will ever notice [laughs], but now that I’ve told you…
Jeff: We really didn’t want too much gimmicky stuff jumping out of the screen.
Bill: You know, that 3-D movie thing where you’re watching it and suddenly there’s a moment where you’re ‘aaaghhhhh!’
Jeff: When it came to the animators doing 3-D, no one had ever done it before, so part of the brief was to kind of explore the skills base of the young animators in the UK. We’re interested in the educational aspect.
Bill: Our average age for animators was…27?
Ben: 27, 28.
Jeff: About 4 years out of college.
The variety of animation styles is staggering, from hand-drawn tableaux of Chapman luridly dismembering himself to monochromatic stop-motion featuring ‘Seigmund’ Freud (‘we believe in misspelling’), voiced by Cameron Diaz in a ‘gratuitous special guest star’ appearance.
Working with so many—and so different—animation houses, how much direction did you give to the different segments? Did you just say, ‘here’s the segment we want you to do,’ and be surprised at what you got back?
Bill: We created a Bible for the film. For example, we created what the mother and father should look like, and gave [our animators] photos, and gave them style tips…
Jeff: And a script, of course.
Bill: And we also had a tone day so we got all the animators to come down and be in one room to meet each other so that when they transition from one to another it seems seamless. Some of those transitions we came up with, some of the transitions the animators came up with. In the tone day we had David [Sherlock], Graham’s partner, come down and do a talk and again we were given lots of feeling on how we wanted…
Bill: Tone day!
For the pool party scenes in LA, the animation was almost like cut-outs, with tissue paper, and very transparent, which was brilliant as it represented the transparency of life in LA.
Jeff: Oh, you’ve been to Hollywood!
Bill: See-through people!
Ben: That animator, Beakus, actually pitched on another section—the Ibiza section—and we were looking at it and thinking it’s great but we were sort of pushing towards Trunk’s [the animation studio responsible for the segment] work and then we realized, ‘God, this sums up LA people. Everyone’s opaque.’
Ben: Shallow. It’s actually one of my favorite scenes. It’s very beautiful to look at.
Jeff: It’s all in the writing. What Graham wrote was that they were all cardboard cutouts. Like the David Frost party scene where everybody’s too famous to come so they send cardboard cutouts of themselves—that’s all as written in the book.
Like the ink on glass of the detox scene—the monochromaticness, the sick umber hues of it, created a sense of the queasiness and darkness of withdrawal.
Bill: In the book Graham calls it ‘a-boil,’ where nothing is still, nothing is stationary, and the background is slightly moving, and it just sort of gives you that achey feel.
Jeff: That was about matching the style to the subject, you couldn’t have a whole film like that, it’d be too much. Just for that scene, it was effective
There is, pointedly, no Terry Gilliam animation, no Python animation.
Jeff: The idea was to find the next generation of Terry Gilliams, really.
Bill: It was very important that when we were picking people we were picking them for their style and matching that to what was going on in the scene.
Jeff: But he [Gilliam] was thrilled by the animation. Even the 3-D!
Ben: When we went into the theatre, he turns and says to us, ‘Is it in 3-D?’ We’re like, ‘yeah.’ He says, ‘Ah, I hate 3-D!’
Jeff: But he came out glowing about it because as an animator he suddenly saw the possibilities
I see how having Gilliam do some animation would’ve hijacked the film, made it too Python, and all the other animators paling in comparison by being not-Gilliam.
Jeff: All the animators wanted to have their little Python moment, a little nudge nudge, wink wink, and some of them we let through but we couldn’t have too many—Monty Python, Monty Python, Monty Python…
I noticed a number of Python references, but they were very subtly done.
Jeff: It bears a second viewing as well. It’s even more subtle than you might think, actually. But in terms of the way the relationship worked with the animators, we did have dialogue all the way through. For example, the scene on the bike in Ibiza. When Graham wrote it it’s set in the villa and we thought we want to get it up and about, get it moving, get a sense of the feel of Ibiza, and the difference to London. The book mentions, ‘We must get bikes,’ so we decided to set that scene with him and John [Cleese] on bikes, plural, and off they go exploring Ibiza. And then the animators came back, and said—in fact they’d just drawn it—‘How about the two of them are on a tandem?’ And suddenly you see that Graham is not pedaling and John is, and it becomes this huge metaphor. That’s not how Graham wrote it, that’s not really how we wrote it, but it’s something that just came together.
It’s an amazing scene because the dialogue Graham recorded over two decades ago mixed seamlessly with the dialogue John Cleese just recorded. I wasn’t sure what was recorded live.
Jeff: Recorded live as opposed to recorded dead? [laughs] That scene sounded like it was all recorded fresh yesterday, but they just know each other’s rhythms, John knows Graham’s writing and vice versa, so it just comes off the page.
What I found interesting about the film was the importance of Graham’s gay identity. His coming out was a really, really…sort of a big part of this.
Jeff: He came out really, really gay, didn’t he?
Jeff: By his own calculation it was 70/30, really.
But how much gay is too gay?
Jeff: The thing that surprised me when we watched the film back was… obviously I’d always seen Graham Chapman as a gay icon, really, because he was out in the 70s. He was an out gay comedian at the time when there was no such thing. I see him as a pioneer and I was very interested in that aspect, the fact that he was a man who was openly gay but secretly alcoholic. But when we watched the film back we discovered that there were actually more breasts than there were penises, which…surprised me.
Although there are some really big penises.
Bill: And there are two breasts for every one penis, so…
But as you say, he was really a gay pioneer. I mean, it was in the 1960s that he has his coming out party, and when you think that times like nowadays…
Jeff: You can’t keep them in the closet, can you? They’re all leaping out!
In the film, his father is accepting of his homosexuality, but his mother is much more worried.
Ben: We took a little bit of artistic license because in the book it’s actually quite a long-winded story about him telling his mom.
Jeff: On the phone.
Ben: On the phone, and his mom basically saying, ‘Oh, don’t tell your father! It’ll kill him, it’ll be a disaster!’
Jeff: In real life, the events in the film took place over a few weeks, but broadly the spirit of it is his mom kind of freaked out, and the line about don’t tell your father, she says that, and Graham said…
Bill: ‘It won’t kill him! Don’t be silly. It won’t kill him!
Jeff: We condensed it.
Bill: We did a documentary about Graham where we interviewed his brother, and his brother said their father, who was a policeman, actually prosecuted people for being gay.
Jeff: In the 50s.
Bill: Yeah. So the fact that he then was perfectly fine with it is kind of great.
Was the film a difficult sell?
Jeff: We did first try to pitch it to another network who were interested first, but we made the mistake of sending them the script
Ben: They were very funny because they basically said, ‘Oh yeah, it’s great, we want it, we want it,’ and there was a guy there who was really keen, interested in bringing in interesting stuff, unusual stuff, and me and Bill were like, ‘It’s definitely edgy.’
Jeff (pitching): ‘He’s in a war plane, and he jerks himself off! He jerks off the pilot!’
Ben: We had a bizarre conversation where all the execs of this US company, a big US company, were all online and me and Bill were literally taking them through, frame by frame, what Algy is going to get done, what Algy is going to do to Biggles in the plane.
Bill: ‘You’re not going to see him ejaculate, but you know he’s doing it!’
Ben: And they’re going, ‘That’s great, that’s great,’ and then when they got the script we suddenly got notes back saying you can’t do this, you can’t do that.
How did you whittle down what material you’d use?
Bill: We were slightly limited because we wanted scenes with dialogue. But there were some scenes which we knew we’d have to have but that didn’t have any. So when he talks about going around and shagging lots of people around the country, were we like, ‘Well, we need this scene cause it shows that he was in a serious relationship, but he had this open relationship.’
Jeff: And we wanted lots of sex in there as well. Sex is hilariously funny.
Bill: In the book he just lists it, he just sort of says, ‘Oh, in Coventry I had sex with this person, and that…’ and it’s quite a boring list. But we thought, we need to convert it into something that will be fun.
Jeff: Musical number!
Jeff: I’ve always liked that scene where he’s at Cambridge and one of the students chops up the professor because the professor goes, ‘Balls! Describe the vagina!’ and all that kind of stuff. At first we passed on that because it didn’t have Graham dialogue in it and then we realized the whole point of that scene is Graham’s not talking cause he’s kind of hiding and shying away.
Ben: We could recreate it obviously just by using Terry as the don, and just have Graham sexually awkward in the background.
Bill: What was really nice was we had Andre Jacquemin, who recorded all the Monty Python records, doing the sound design on this. He’s got everything that they’ve recorded, all the outtakes that Graham had done, all those little bits of him going ‘um’ and just sort of mouth noises. So everything in there is Graham.
Jeff: Graham sucking his pipe.
Ben: Or puffing. And giggling.
Bill: The only thing that isn’t Graham is the singing on ‘Sit On My Face.’
So it’s pretty authentic, for ‘An Untrue Story’…
Jeff: Graham pitches it as a liar’s autobiography and he’s constantly teasing you about what’s true and what’s not, and obviously he embellishes aspects of his life—he wasn’t genuinely kidnapped by space aliens and taken on a tour of space and stuff like that—but it’s surprising how much of it is actually true, or at least based on reality. When we sat and interviewed people—you know, loved ones—his brother described that whole scene with the air crash in World War II, with the body parts and the babies…that really happened.
Bill: They actually said that they had the sacks for the body parts in their front room just waiting for someone to come and pick them up.
Ben: We don’t actually tell you in the film but it was a Polish aircrew that crashed and they discovered that there were six of them.
Bill: There were supposed to be seven.
Ben: So they basically sorted seven bags of just bits of bodies and then they got radioed back and were told that one of the guys missed the flight, luckily, so you now may want to sort six, so they had take one of the bags and put bits back.
Bill: So with all these blown-up bodies they had to sort through, ‘Oh that must be the seventh body, oh no actually…’
Jeff: The short answer to your question is that a surprising amount of is actually true…
Bill: As much as any autobiography.
Jeff: …or based on things that happened. And then we fucked with them.