A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman is unlike any other movie that we will see this year as fourteen different animation styles have been brought together to bring this book to life.
We caught up with one of the director’s Jeff Simpson to chat about the film, what it was about Graham Chapman that was so intriguing and what lies ahead.
- A Liar's Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman is released in February so can you tell me a little bit about the movie?
It’s a film about the life of Graham Chapman, as the title suggests, and it is an animation movie that uses fourteen different animation studios and animating in seventeen different styles. In the spirit of Monty Python this is something that is completely different.
It has got three directors myself, Bill Jones; Terry Jones’ son, and Ben Timlett but the most unique thing about the film is that it is written by and stars a man who has been dead for twenty three years in the form of Graham Chapman.
He plays himself in the film and that is thanks to some tapes that I discovered of Graham recording his autobiography.
- The film is narrated by Graham himself so how did you get your hands on those audio tapes - I read he had narrated the book just before he died?
Yes, he recorded it about three of four years before he passed away. He went into Harry Nilsson’s studio in Los Angeles and recorded the book over two nights - it was meant to be an early audio book.
I am not going to tell you exactly how I found them but let’s say through collectors and so on and the provided the voice of the film.
- The movie is based on Chapman's memoir A Liar's Autobiography so where did this project start for you? And what was it about this book that you thought we be great to be turned into a film?
Originally I wanted to make a documentary about Graham as I had always been interested in the fact that he was… of course the fact that he was a member of Monty Python was interesting and fun but I was really most interested in the idea that he was a man who was openly gay and yet secretly alcoholic.
My initial research revealed that he was in fact dead and therefore not available to take part in the documentary but I came up to see Graham’s partner David Sherlock - he was with for about twenty five years - to see what was around. And it was David mentioned the existence of the tapes, although he didn’t have copies.
When I eventually found the tapes I originally pitched it to the BBC as a documentary but in their foresight and wisdom they decided to turn that down.
At this time I did have the tapes but I also had some teaser material - there were bits of animation that we had put together over the tapes. At that point I brought the idea to a company called Bill & Ben - who are Bill Jones and Ben Timlett and they had the brilliant idea of making a full length feature around the animation.
One of the reasons that I found Graham interesting in the first place was when I was growing up in the seventies there were no ‘out’ gay celebrities - not like today.
This was a time when Elton John was married and Boy George was announcing that he preferred a cup of tea to sex and George Michael had girlfriends.
Graham Chapman was really the first openly gay British celebrity of the seventies and that was quite a brave thing to do - it made him a hero in some ways.
- What do you think made him so open about his sexuality?
That was certainly in his nature - he was a doctor by trade and so he was very matter of fact about things like that. But I think he also had the protection of the Python organisation. There is a scene in our film where he comes out to the other Pythons and they supported him and reacted well.
Also because he was part of Monty Python it meant that he couldn’t be picked off or separated our in the press, for example, and was just accepted - possibly he was expected because of the eccentricities that you might expect from one of the members of Monty Python. I still think it was a brave thing to do.
- How much do you think he was, for want of a better word, a trendsetter?
I don’t think he would ever have seen himself as a trend setter I think he would just see it as being honest. But I think that there were a generation of gay men that will have seen that he was ‘out’ and he wasn’t camp or effeminate - in fact he described himself as a butch homosexual with a pipe.
Particularly in the seventies if you were looking for a gay role model - there were a lot of effeminate and camp comedians who you thought may have been gay - but the fact that Graham was a heterosexual looking homosexual was very important I think.
- It was a very complex project with a range of different animation forms used so why did you decide to go down this rather complex path rather than just sticking with just one animation?
It wouldn’t have been a bit boring with just one animation style. When you go through the book you realise that Graham is writing in different styles with different tones of humour and it covers five different decades.
I think we originally thought about splitting the animation into different decades - you have got the grey and boring fifties right through to the psychedelic seventies and mad eighties - so we wanted a different visual style anyway.
But when we looked into the book and started putting the script together we realised that there were different types of humour as well; some of it is quite dark, some of it is quite grotesque and some of it is quite Pythonesque. So that is how the idea of using different styles evolved.
- When the BBC turned the documentary down was animation the path that you were always going to go down or did you consider bringing this autobiography to life in some other way?
Other people have considered it - in fact that was part of my initial conversation with David Sherlock - and tried to get a live action version of Graham’s life off the ground.
To me that would never have worked because he is such an iconic figure and to see someone else playing Graham Chapman would have been a bit difficult I think. So animation did seem the way to go.
But it also meant that we could use Graham’s own voice, Graham plays himself in the film, so when you see him chatting to his parents when he is a teenager that is Graham is playing himself.
- So you have got all of these different genres of animation in one film and 14 animation companies working on the project how difficult was it juggling all of these different aspect and people?
The first stage was to pull the script together and so we were all singing from the same hymn sheet. The difficult process was selecting the animation studios - I think we saw pictures from about thirty different studios.
Then we went through the process of matching different studios to different styles and sections. It was good that there three directors in that stage of the process as we could all run ideas past each other.
Once we had appointed the animation studios we really just let them get on with it. None of us had directed… Bill and Ben had done certain bit of animation in documentaries but none of us had directed long form animation before so we really trusted the animators to get on with it really. And we really enjoyed seeing the stuff as it started to come back.
- Bill Jones and Ben Timlett are also in the director's chair so how did you end up getting together? And how did you find working with them?
I had heard that Bill and Ben were making a six part history of Monty Python so I knew that they had the in with Python - I knew that we couldn’t do the project without the support of the other Python members - so it did seem like a good place to come.
As for how it worked between us we had a very simple system of two against one. If two of us disagreed with each other or had different ideas rather than fight it out we would just turn to the other and try and convince him to come on board with one or the other.
- Surviving Python members John Cleese, Terry Jones and Michael Palin all lend their voices to the film so how keen were they to get involved in the project?
I think that they saw it as a bit of a tribute to their fallen colleague and a chance to read some of Graham’s scripts again - he writes a lot of the book as scenes and a lot of the sections of the book that we picked read like sketches. I think that they were pleased to get involved in that way.
- How did you find working with them?
Terry Jones and Michael Palin came in together - they are old friends and were performing together before Monty Python - so I think they were just enjoying working together again; they are playing the mum and the dad so they had a lot f scenes together.
They didn’t need much direction as they really were up and running. Michael Palin also plays the Queen Mother and so he had to have a few goes with that.
John Cleese was a completely different circumstance as he was in St Lucia and we had to direct him over Skype - he was recording at the other end and we were watching over Skype.
He didn’t much direction because for a lot of the film he is playing John Cleese and you can’t really turn around and say ’can you make it a little more like John Cleese’. He also does a fiendish David Frost impression and he played that with some relish.
- The movie played at the London Film Festival at the back end of last year so how have you found the response to the film so far?
The best moment at the London Film Festival… there is an original Monty Python song in the middle of the film called Sit On My Face And Tell Me That You Love Me and we turn that into a full three and a half minute musical number.
We wanted it to be all singing and all dancing so we got the London Gay Men’s Chorus to come in and sing it when we were recording the soundtrack and the deal was that they would also turn up at the premiere of the film in London.
So we secreted the London Gay Men’s Chorus, fifty members of them, in the front two rows of the Empire Leicester Square and when the song came on they leapt to their feet and joined in. So that was a nice moment.
The film seems to be reaching out beyond Python fans. It is not a Monty Python film but it is more of what is going on behind the scenes in Graham’s life while Monty Python is going on.
So Python fans are getting a bit of background to Graham but the film is reaching beyond Python fans because you can take the whole film at the level of a man who is openly gay and yet secretly alcoholic and how he deals with those issues. So that does mean that the film can reach out beyond the Monty Python base.
- You have worked on a series of TV documentaries during your career but this is your first foray into animation so how did you find stepping into this genre as a director?
Well it is slightly different because it is the longevity of the production process. I started in radio and it is instant and I use to like the live nature.
Then I moved to TV and documentaries and that tended to be a ten to twelve week production process - that is a third of the year. But in the case of the film we started making it in November 2010 so it has been a two and half process to get it to the cinema.
All the different stages of the process are interesting; the stage where you are getting the script together is exciting as you are sitting in a room with other people reading it out and seeing what works.
Then you have the period where it is being animated and you are letting the animators get on with it and they send in their stuff and you are like ‘that is interesting’ and ‘look what they have done with that’. Then you get to finish it off and the post production is quite time consuming. Then you get the fun bit which is promoting it.
- Finally what's next for you are we going to be seeing you back in the director’s chair?
Well we have announced that we are hoping that the next animation film that we do will be based on another book based on the Motley Crue.
It is a very good book and it covers not only high but the lows as there is a dark side to rock and roll story; one of them is a heroine addict.
So we want to turn that into an animation story - again we thought it was a project that you can’t do with live action because they are so iconic. So we want to turn that into a mad, fantasy rock and roll feature film.
In cinemas nationwide 8 February 2013 on VoD 11 February 2013 & DVD 18 February 2013 (Available to pre-order from Amazon)