Openly Gay, Secretly Alcoholic: The Directors Talk A Liar’s Autobiography

Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson and Ben Timlett talk about the genesis of the project and adapting their new style to a Motley Crue biopic.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Monty Python fans will get to see a new Graham Chapman film this week, even though he died in 1989. A Liar’s Autobiography – The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman is an animated film based on Chapman’s biography, using audio Chapman recorded before his death. The surviving Pythons all provide voices of supporting characters. The directors of the film, Bill Jones (Terry’s son), Jeff Simpson and Ben Timlett were supposed to come to the states for interviews, but flights to New York were cancelled due to Frankenstorm Sandy. We got to speak with them by phone from London about the film, in select theaters and premiering on Epix November 2.

CraveOnline: Did you want to open the film with the most Python-esque animation of all the different styles, in the Oscar Wilde scene?

Jeff Simpson: Did you find that most Python-esque?

Yes, with the photoreal faces and only the mouths move.

Jeff Simpson: Well, we wanted to draw people in through something that may be familiar from Python, the idea of Graham being there and performing with Python. It’s not actually how he opens the book. He opens the book with the drying out scene, but we thought we’d ease people into that world gently through something which might be familiar from Python. Also to be honest, the symbolism of Oscar Wilde right at the top of the film of a wit and a comedian but somebody who was gay and suffered for it, also had all the symbolism. That’s how we wanted to draw people into the film really.

Ben Timlett: We actually made a conscious effort from the beginning. We asked Terry Gilliam if he wanted to do a section and he said no. So we didn’t want anybody to emulate it so we kind of made it clear to animators not to try and do Terry Gilliam, but that particular section was really nice because the idea, a guy called Chris Ketchell’s idea was to mix computer sort of cutout animation with real sets that he built and shot. It was a really interesting treatment of the idea.

Bill Jones: I felt because the set was real and he actually build that and all the cutout stuff was in that feel, hopefully that was enough away from the Terry G style of animation, but obviously not because you’re saying we failed. Did it feel a lot like it or did you feel that was just the most like it?

Just the most like it because of the mouths and cutouts, not that it was a complete mimic of Gilliam. So that theater and stage was a real set?

Ben Timlett: Yeah, yeah, and then obviously he found heads and used their heads from the original Oscar Wilde sketch and built the kind of puppet characters.

Bill Jones: And he also actually went to the Angel Warehouse which is a big wardrobe company that had costumes. He found costumes that looked pretty much like the real costumes that they wore back in the day. Angel’s probably does have the old BBC costumes so it could’ve been the ones they actually used. So he took photos of them and stuck them all together.

Once the Pythons come together, did you want them to sometimes interrupt Graham’s memoir like Michael Palin does?

Ben Timlett: We wanted to play with the audience in the same way that Graham does at times, just to emphasize. The moment where we switch and they interrupt the film, that scene with the monkeys is really interesting because the first reaction would’ve been to obviously bring all the Pythons in to play themselves but Graham’s performance of all their voices was so good, we wanted him to them perform all the voices and of course just emphasize that by Mike jumping in and mistakenly interrupting him. It’s also a nice bit of Mike talking to Graham as well. It’s got some weird feeling that he’s talking to him 20-odd years after his death.

What audio of Graham’s did you have to leave out of the film?

Jeff Simpson: There’s actually two and a half hours on tape but obviously a lot of it is in straightforward narrative prose style, not dialogue or scene. So we had to focus in on the parts of the book which had dialogue in them, because then that would provide dialogue for our scene. There’s large sections of the book which are just written as prose which unfortunately we weren’t able to go to. There was one particular scene which I was very attracted to which is of the exploding anatomy lesson with the guy going, “Describe the vagina” and him being picked on. That is a very vivid scene in the book, but of course Graham doesn’t do any dialogue in that scene so we originally left it out. Then when we looked at it again, we of course realized that in that scene, the whole point of that scene is Graham hiding in the corner trying to shy away from what’s going on so he doesn’t speak. So that’s a scene where we see him but we don’t hear him, so we realized we could do that because Graham doesn’t speak in the scene.

Was this like an audio book he recorded for the public?

Jeff Simpson: Yes, it was. It was kind of an early version of an audiobook really, before such things existed. I think a few copies were released on cassette and I must say, the original tapes that we did the tape to tape for were from good old 1980s cassette complete with the Dolby hiss on them. At a later part in the process, we obtained the master tapes but yeah, it was kind of an early audiobook before such things existed.

Ben Timlett: Our understanding is that he recorded over about three nights in Harry Nilsson’s studio, who was a big drinking buddy of his in L.A., where you are.

Having done the IFC miniseries about Monty Python, Almost the Truth, did you intend to stay on Python as continued biographers of them?

Bill Jones: Well, me and Ben did the series for IFC. We were a bit sick of it a little bit. My dad’s Terry Jones as well from Monty Python so I’ve been sort of entrenched in Python for quite a long time.

Jeff Simpson: Entrenched.

Ben Timlett: Entrenched.

Bill Jones: So when Jeff walked in with his concept, he actually came in with this idea of doing a documentary about Graham and we were like oh, man, we’re not very interested in doing a documentary. But then when he described his pitch, having these sections where Graham would be narrating his own story with animation bits, we jumped on that. Those bits are great. Why don’t we just get rid of the talking head section and just have the whole film be an animated biopic. That’s what got us really excited.

Jeff Simpson: Obviously, these guys, Bill and Ben, are kind of steeped in Python. In Bill’s case, it’s literally in his blood, but my approach to this is I would’ve been interested in telling Graham’s story. What attracted me was the story of a man who was openly gay but secretly alcoholic. I would’ve been interested in telling that story whether Graham had been a painter or a playwright or a musician or whatever.

Bill Jones: What if he was a milkman?

Jeff Simpson: The fact that he was a Python brings an added bonus because you get all these wonderful comedy attributes but I thought that was a good story to tell regardless of whether he was Python or not.

What are each of your favorite Python sketches or segments?

Ben Timlett: I think my favorite bit, I probably had a different answer to this when me and Bill were making the miniseries, but I’m quite obsessed now with Graham doing his Throatwobbler Mangrove bit. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Not that one specifically, no.

Ben Timlett: Basically there’s a sketch where he’s being interviewed by Mike Palin, he’s got this enormous massive nose. Obviously fake nose. Michael Palin introduces him as Raymond Luxury Yacht. You have to look it up because it’s much funnier than me doing it. Then Graham goes, “That’s not my name.” And Mike goes, “Oh, I’m sorry. Your name’s Raymond Luxury Yacht.” He goes, “That’s not my name. It’s spelled Raymond Luxury Yacht but it’s actually Throatwobbler Mangrove.” And it’s just incredibly silly, so I always found that funny.

Bill Jones: And my favorite bit is from Life of Brian and it’s the bit of Graham’s speech where he goes, “You’re all individuals.” All the crowd is chanting back, “We’re all individuals” and then a voice from the crowd shouts, “I’m not.”

That I remember.

Bill Jones: That one you remember so you don’t need to look that one up.

Jeff Simpson: Am I allowed to pick the whole of Life of Brian? Because I think it’s such a fantastic achievement, but also knowing what Graham had gone through to get to that point, having dried himself out from alcohol, you can see that in Graham’s performance across the whole film. He’s the calm center of the film, but when you know what he’d been through in order to get to that point adds a whole new layer of meaning to the film for me. I had an interesting experience at the London premiere on the 16th of October. We held the premiere in a cinema called Empire Leicester Square which was the same cinema in which I went to see Life of Brian in in 1980 or ’81 as a student just arrived in London. There were protests outside the cinema, people with placards saying, “Blasphemy” and I remember controversy with the film at the time and I remember thinking that’s absolutely brilliant. And then however many years later, to be there introducing the film about Graham in the same cinema was quite a nice moment.

What’s next for you? Is there more Python related material?

Jeff Simpson: Now we’ve developed this style of telling stories through multiple animation styles. We’re probably going to move on from Python because the next thing we want to do is use the same idea to tell a much more rock n’ roll story, a story of a band called Motley Crue. Are you familiar with a band called Motley Crue?

Yes, I am.

Jeff Simpson: They wrote a fantastic book called The Dirt and it uses multiple viewpoints because each of the band narrates their own sections. So we think that would be a fantastic animated film in multiple styles going into dark areas as well as rock n’ roll stuff, and obviously also with a fantastic rock n’ roll soundtrack. So they don’t know it yet that that’s the next thing we’re going to do, but if you know them, please tell them. We’d very much like to tell the story of Motley Crue using the same style.

Would you use any of the same animators?

Jeff Simpson: Quite possibly, yes. I’ve got my eye on certain sections in the book that lend themselves to certain styles that we’ve developed with animators over here.

The theatrical version of the film is in 3D. How do you feel about the TV broadcast on Epix?

Jeff Simpson: I think they can do 3D simulcast. They apparently are able to punt it out in 3D but there’s probably only three people that’ll be able to watch that. But anyway, it would be great. Hopefully people will see it in 3D as well.

Bill Jones: I think it’s a mad, chaotic enough ride that you don’t need to see it in 3D to watch it. I think it’s mad enough that you can enjoy it without the 3D, even though the 3D does add a nice roundness to the animation. I don't think it’s essential.

Ben Timlett: There’s very little that comes out of the screen actually in the 3D. What we used the 3D for really was just to add a little extra depth and roundness to the characters and to make the world that the characters inhabit just feel a little more substantial really, rather than flat drawn. It does add an extra dimension to the storytelling.

Bill, did you end up directing your dad at any point?

Bill Jones: We all pitched in. I actually directed Dad on another project I worked on with Dad called Top 10 Tips for Health where it can be a bit strange directing your father, and then also the fact that he also has directed two of quite possibly the top 10 best British comedies ever as well. It’s a bit funny because he’s your Dad as well. I did find  there was a moment where he was trying to. I just had to tell him to stop talking. He was trying to direct the scene. I was like, “Look, Dad. Let me just do my job now.” But Dad’s such a nice guy, it’s a very easy experience to work with him.