A Liar's Autobiography

A Liar's Autobiography

A Liar's Autobiography was one of the most unique movies to be screened at the BFI London Film Festival last week as is included seventeen different types of animation.

The movie is based on the book by Graham Chapman and looks at the life of one of the founding member of Monty Python.

Terry Jones and Michael Palin were joined by Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson, Ben Trimlett and Justin Weyers at the LFF to chat about the movie.

- Bill as the son of a Python you know that the story is one of lots of ups and downs so what made you want to focus specifically on Graham Chapman?

Bill Jones: My memories of Graham are actually quite vague and my strongest memory was actually going to his memorial. And the reason that that is one of the strongest memories is because afterwards we went and did 20th party and I got very drunk - I was quite young at the time.

With Graham not being around these past twenty odd years he has been forgotten about a bit and we just really wanted to celebrate his achievements and the things that he has done. We just wanted to show him off a bit really.

- The film paints Graham as a very complex individual so did you ever really understand him during your time in Python?

Terry Jones: No I don't think that I did actually. I think he didn't understand himself really.

I think he was looking for who he was and he found himself as a homosexual - but David Sherlock says 'he probably would have gone straight in the end'. He found himself as an alcoholic, but then he gave up alcohol just like that. So I think he was in search of whoever he was.

- Michael doing this film with Terry in the booth and doing all of the voices is this the closest we are going to get to a Monty Python reunion?

Michael Palin: Well it is. It is a bit of an homage to Graham because he was a remarkable man.

I remember before we even did Python Terry and I watched At Last The 1948 Show, which was John Cleese and Graham Chapman, and we were really impressed by Graham's stillness.

He didn't seem to act very hard and yet your eyes was drawn to him - he was just there. And that was really how Graham was.

Terry Jones: Yes, I think so. The first time I ever saw him was at Wyndham's Theatre when they were doing Cambridge Circus and I just couldn't take my eyes off Graham.

I could see what everyone else was doing and they were being funny but Graham looked like he had just walked in off the street and was surprised to be there. I think that made him our lead actor because he was just himself on screen.

Michael Palin: And he was bloody good.

- Was this always going to be an animated movie? And was it tough to condense a life into ninety minutes?

Jeff Simpson: We decided that we had to use animation because Graham was sadly unavailable to take part in his own life story - apart from the tapes that we found.

The book that is it is based on goes into fantastic flights of fancy and he takes you down dark allies and up into space and so it was something that you could probably only do in animation.

It was always the plan to use different styles of animation to reflect not just the different places that he goes but also the different tones of the humour as some of it is quite dark; the bit in Los Angeles at the end is quite cool but quite detached.

So we were able to match the styles of the animation to the styles of his writing.

- You found the audio tapes of Graham and I was wondering what part of the production those tapes were found?

Jeff Simpson: I went up to see David Sherlock, Graham's partner, with the idea of doing a documentary about Graham and hoping that David might have some home movies that could be good material - sadly he didn't.

But in the course of that conversation he mentioned that Graham had been into as studio in Los Angeles and recorded his autobiography - it was an early audio book. So David knew of the tape's existence but it took me a little while to track it down.

Then I pitched the movie as a documentary with Graham narrating his own life story from beyond the grave with some bit of animation in it. Thankfully the BBC turned it down.

It was that point that I walked into Bill & Ben's with some tapes of Graham's voice and some bits of animation.

Ben Trimlett: And we had just done the exhausting documentary series on Monty Python called Always The Truth and so we didn't want to do a documentary.

The eureka moment was when we realised that we could make it as an animation film and just bring in the other voices and we could then edit Graham's voice in.

We were lucky because if you listen to the book he does perform - but bizarrely he only performs his own lines. So that was the moment that we thought 'let’s try and get this made'.

- Justin we have discussed the many different forms of animation that are in the film so how difficult was it to keep track of things?

Justin Weyers: A movie like this only comes along once in a blue moon and it was an honour to work on because of all the animation companies that were involved.

We started with ninety companies and we interviewed them and it came down to who really wanted to do it.

So as far as keeping everyone in control everyone just really wanted to do it and really wanted to be a part of it and tell the story of this person.

It went from one little man in Oxford doing a sequence to a big company in New York doing a sequence so it really is a lovely branch across all the animation companies and it is a good legacy to animation.

- You once used the term 'unconstructed silliness' when referring to the humour of Monty Python so how much was Graham Chapman a part of this?

Michael Palin: I think that Graham was sillier than all of us - he appeared to be very straight and rather serious about things.

I feel that, very often, Graham would be silent for a long period while writing and then he would say 'oh, it could be a Norwegian Blue‘, or something like that and immediately you had something there that no one else would have thought of.

He did have a way of going to the silliest ideas and yet he seemed a very serious man. So yes he was very very important to the deconstruction of the silliness. And he appreciated silliness but other members of the group didn't like it quite as much.

He use to say 'Lemon Curry and 'Betty Marsden' all the time. When we were filming for Holy Grail I went to bed early and then later I would hear Graham coming up the corridor going 'Betty Marsden, Betty Marsden'.

Then on the second night it was 'Betty Marsden I am on my own tonight, Betty Marsden'. On the third morning I said 'Graham, do you mind? I was trying to get to sleep' and was like 'oh yes ok'.

The next night there was silence but when I woke up there was a little slip of paper pushed under my door and when I opened it is said 'Betty Marsden'. So he was silly.

- We have heard about the tapes already but I was wondering what it was like for Terry and Michael when they heard those tapes for the first time? Was it like a voice from beyond the grave? And did it inspire a lot of trips down memory lane?

Terry Jones: It felt just very natural to have Graham's presence in the studio when we were recording the voices. It didn't tug at the heartstrings at all but it was just natural.

Michael Palin: I think it is brilliant that these tapes where found because I think that his book is one of the best books about Monty Python. It was all lies and yet within the lies there were a lot of truths.

But it really is a very funny book. There is a bit where he comes off the plane in Los Angeles after the Canadian tour that we did. He got to the hotel and he was so pissed that the first thing he did was ring them up and ask them if he had checked in or not.

He then told them that he wanted to go to his favourite restaurant in LA and asked them to send a limousine. And they said 'are you sure?' And he was like 'yes, I do' and got quite testy about it. So he got in the limousine and the restaurant was just across the road.

So it was a very funny book and it was great to hear Graham read it because I think that it did bring him back. It is brilliantly interwoven into the film and I don't think it would have really worked without the voice of Graham running all of the way through.

- Michael you truly are a globe trotter so are you astonished at the popularity of Python around the world and just how far it reaches? Are you bemused by it or gratified by it? What is the effect that it has on you?

Michael Palin: Well I am bemused because we didn't expect Python to last longer than two or three years - that was the life of a television programme then.

Nothing was stored or kept, not like now where you have all of these different media outlets such as YouTube. So I think the very fact that Python still survives - and it did so by the skin of its teeth.

Terry Jones: Howard Dell our video editor announced that the BBC was going to wipe the tapes of the first series in a month’s time. So we smuggled the tapes out of the BBC and recorded it onto a Phillips VCR.

And I thought that that was going to be the only archive of the show but then it was sold to PBS in the States and we were rescued.

And actually we were very lucky because we went out the first week that BBC One went into colour - otherwise we would have been made in black and white and I don't think that the shows would have lasted as long as they have.

Michael Palin: I was in Croatia filming and I was talking to people who lived in Yugoslavia and I remembered that we sold Python to Yugoslavia pretty early on.

I met some people in Croatia and they said 'we loved Python' Marshell Tito allowed people to watch foreign television - so Python was quite current there.

And it was almost used as a badge of courage because if you watched Python and talked about Python you could relate your own discontent with your own government by saying you watched Python.

So it meant something and they rallied round and laughed at their own authority figures through Python.

- How constrained have you felt by Python? And is it something that you have wanted to escape at times?

Terry Jones: It has opened doors for me personally and I have always enjoyed doing Python.

Michael Palin: I have never felt constrained by it and I think that it is great that it has survived. It is rather nice to find that forty years later that other people find it funny and that is encouraging that humour doesn't date.

I found that working on Python was sometimes tricky but what it taught you was to preserve your independence and your control - that was something that Terry was always very strong about 'lets hold on to our work'.

Other people wanted to sell out and whatever but it taught me that it is very important that if you have made something that you do it in your own way and then try and keep control of it as much as possible. So in that way I learnt a lot from Python.

Jeff Simpson: Terry mentioned that Python opened doors and all of the five surviving Python's have had a second career as a result of that.

But one of the reasons that we wanted to make this film was because Graham never really had that because he died at the age of forty nine. Hopefully we are giving him some kind of recompense for that.

- Bill what was it like growing up around Python?

Bill Jones: Growing up within Python I think it was a bit of a golden age of being famous because you didn't have so much intrusion from the press.

When I was at school and started understanding about people being famous Monty Python wasn't on television and there weren't DVD's or the internet and so dad wasn't a famous parent at my school - the famous parent at my school was the sports teacher from Grange Hill.

- What would Graham have made of the film?

Terry Jones: I think he would love it actually. It is a very exciting film to watch and it is very dark in places.

Michael Palin: I think he would have liked the odd structure of it - seventeen different stories he would have loved that.

I think he would really appreciate it and I think it would have taken him back to the days when he drank a lot.

FemaleFirst Helen Earnshaw


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