The three directors of A Liar’s Autobiography sit down for a chat about the legacy of original Python, Graham Chapman.
A Liar’s Autobiography is the unreliable account of Graham Chapman, one of the founder’s of the surrealist comedy troupe Monty Python and the lead actor in their iconic films Life Of Brian and The Holy Grail. An animated film using 17 different animation houses, the film brought together the original Pythons, who voiced the film alongside an audiotape Chapman narrated of his own autobiography. LWLies sat down with directors Jeff Simpson, Bill Jones and Ben Timlett to talk about Chapman’s legacy.
LWLies: How did you first establish your working relationship?
Jeff Simpson: It was two things coming together. Bill Jones and Ben Timlett made a six-part history of Monty Python called Monty Python: Almost The Truth for Python’s 40th anniversary. At the same time I was trying to get my own documentary off the ground about Graham Chapman. I’ve been at the BBC for 20 years and I’ve made a few documentaries on dead people, but they turned down this idea – thank God. I heard Bill and Ben were working on a similar project before cold calling them and turning up at their office with an idea and nowhere to go.
How did you get the Pythons on board to voice the other characters?
JS: In the course of this research I found audiotapes Graham had narrated of his own autobiography. I had some animation made alongside, to try and visualise what we were hearing. I showed Bill and Ben three short clips of animation with Graham’s voice and we talked about making a documentary about Chapman, narrated by him beyond the grave. I was confident the idea was good; all the moments of tension and drama in the Python story tend to come from Graham, due to his alcoholism. And we knew the material was there. But we knew the Pythons wouldn’t want to sit down and do another round of interviews. They were more interested in playing other character’s from Graham’s life and themselves in his autobiography.
How did you adapt the autobiography to make it filmic, and how did you develop the visual style of the film?
Bill Jones: It’s based on his book, so we used that as a backbone. It’s all his writing, and when you read it you get a feeling for how the scene should look. When he’s coming off booze and getting delirium tremens, that obviously needs a certain aesthetic to match it. For scenes like that, there was an obvious visual style we were trying to push; something anxious and uncomfortable.
Ben Timlett: In the end we had to interpret his writing, and certain scenes tonally sent us to places that were quite similar. He provided a basic lead-in with his writing, so it allowed us to get a firm sense of what kind of animation we were looking for. You’re trying to get into his head, which is a strange thing to do.
What rules did you establish in that process?
JS: We had a rule in terms of Python references, both from our own involvement and in the involvement of the animators, all of whom wanted to have their own Python moment. There is a certain expectation that one would see Python material in our film, and the rule we played by was, 'We can’t have it in their unless we’re fucking with it.' We wanted to pervert expectations, which I’m sure is what Graham would have wanted.
BJ: Often Graham digresses in the book. You expect him to recount a famous part of Python folklore and he goes off in a different direction. We did the same thing in the film; cutting away right before the entrance in the Spanish Inquisition scene for example. We give a bit of Python for the fans to enjoy, but then don’t deliver what they really want.
Given that want to distort audience expectation, how did you make sure you also paid tribute to Chapman and introduce him to people that might not know about him before this film?
JS: It’s all in the writing - he messes with your expectations. We spend a lot of time investing in his relationship with David; meeting him, falling in love. He comes out to his friends.
BT: As a filmmaker, you could make a documentary about him in which you say, 'This is what I think the man went through. This is what I believe his demons were.' But he’s an enigma; He created that, and that’s his blueprint.
BJ: Exactly. It’s worth remembering it’s an adaptation of an autobiography, not a documentary. The book isn’t much about Python, but about what was going on behind the scenes for him.
How do you judge Graham Chapman’s legacy?
BJ: You can see Python’s legacy in a lot of modern comedies; Mighty Boosh and things like that. But after Python Chapman’s legacy is wanting really. He did Yellowbeard, which wasn’t a very good movie, and he never really fulfilled anything after Python. He should have been an actor, but he didn’t get a chance to find his second life I don’t think.
BT: It’s worth remembering that Chapman was one of the first openly gay public figures in Britain, and it just didn’t seem to touch him. Somehow he was immortal. My favourite story is when he was drunk in a bar, and Sid Vicious came in for a quiet pint. Graham was out of his face and started to trash the bar, spraying everyone with the soda stream. Vicious wasn’t doing everything, just minding his own business. The police turn up and nick Sid Vicious, because Chapman suddenly became Mr Very Important British Gentleman. I love that.
A Liar’s Autobiography is in cinemas and on DVD now.