Here’s a quick way to underline how fictional Graham Chapman‘s book A Liar’s Autobiography actually is: Douglas Adams has a co-writer credit because, in the book, Chapman passes off a sketch he wrote with Adams as though it’s something that actually happened to him.
The original Liar’s Autobiography was less a case of ‘print the legend,’ perhaps, than ‘make up as many new legends as you can and jam them in.’ Chapman was a Python, after all.
Now Liar’s Autobiography has been adapted into a film. Structured around audio of Chapman reading from the book, as well as newly recorded work from most of the other Pythons*, the film was produced by portioning it up into different sections and giving them to animators.
As a result, the film contains a strong vein of original Chapman, poured through a kaleidoscope of new filmmakers and their animation styles.
We sent Patrick Dane to speak to the film’s driving forces, directors Jeff Simpson, Ben Timlett and Bill Jones, son of Terry. Here’s some of what they had to say.
Jeff Simpson: It started back when I was a child in 2007. I was a documentary maker and I was interested in making a movie about Graham Chapman. I was interested in the fact he was openly gay but secretly alcoholic – an interesting tension. I went up to see David Sherlock, who was Graham’s ex-partner. I drove all the way up to North Wales hoping he might have some materials, home movies or something to base the documentary on. He didn’t have any assets but he did mention the existence of audio tapes of Chapman, and that set me on a journey to track them down.
When I got hold of the tapes I realised that we could actually do a documentary with Graham narrating it from the beyond the grave. Sadly, though, that was turned down by the BBC.
Ben Timlett: Not sadly…
Jeff: No, in the end it was happy. But in the meantime, I had listened to the audio tapes and thought about what I was ‘seeing’ when listening to the tapes. I then commissioned some animators to go over the audio, and that’s when I walked into Bill and Ben, looking for a home for this material.
Bill Jones: In 2009 we were just doing a documentary on the 40th anniversary of Monty Python, six one-hour episodes called Almost The Truth.
Jeff: An Emmy nominated documentary series.
Bill: A double Emmy nominated documentary series. Double Emmy loser too. But yeah, we were a bit unsure about coming out of that and doing another documentary about Graham Chapman. But then we had this idea about doing animated Graham Chapman, and that sounded brilliant, so we thought, why don’t we do a whole film this way?
Ben: Originally it was going to be interviews with bits of animation.
Jeff: But then they said “How much of this audio tape stuff have you got?” and we said “Two and a half hours of it”. The other thing was, the other Pythons wouldn’t have wanted to sit down and do more talking head interviews, but they could be up for this idea of them coming in and doing voice-overs.
Ben: For people who can’t read, a film of the book is great.
Bill: People don’t want to read, they want to see a film.
Ben: The book itself is brilliant… but I loved the idea of trying to get animators to interpret 80 minutes inside Chapman’s head.
Bill: Hopefully people will see the film and then go back and read the book. If you can get people to read that’s great.
Ben: Lately, Graham has not had much of a life, being that’s he’s dead. The rest of the Pythons have all gone on to do other things in their own right. Their work together opened doors for them to do things that they were genuinely interested in, and Graham didn’t have that opportunity for too long. It’s nice to think that people are talking about him again.
Jeff: I quite like that, occasionally, little interview clips are dropped in. They are, in some way, the remnants of the original documentary idea. They also remind you that Graham was a real person.
Ben: I wouldn’t say the film is a comedy, to be honest. But was it difficult for us to go into dark areas?
Bill: Not really. The switching in tone was Graham’s style, his thing of jumping around from one thing to another, having serious bits intermixed.
Ben: Structurally, we moved things around. The alcoholism is at the start of the book but we realised that we liked the idea of that creeping up on the audience, so to begin with he’s getting pissed, shagging around, having a good time, and then bang, no, hang on a minute, there is something quite severely wrong with him. I get a sense that’s what really happened to Chapman. The alcoholism just crept up on him.
Jeff: In those days, getting drunk was a badge of honour and considered ‘a laugh,’ and that’s how we played it in the film – right up until you realise it’s a serious problem.
Bill: The thinking was “Lots of people want to commission 3D programmes, so we may actually get funded if we do it 3D.”.
Ben: I saw Avatar at the IMAX, and I thought, the best bits are the credits. They’re really great, the way the 2D credits just ‘sit off’ of the thing, I loved their textures. That’s basically what I was thinking – if you take beautiful 2D animation and creature those textured layers, you can do something really interesting that I’ve not seen before.
Jeff: Of course the credits to Avatar cost more than our whole film. The 3D was certainly, in the first instance, envisaged as a marketing aspect, a marketing gimmick, but when it came to the storytelling we discovered we had another tool to play with, and even in flat-drawn animation, 3D adds a little more depth to the world and it feels a little more immersive.
Ben: We did try to use 3D creatively within the scenes. I think it works beautifully in the scene where he’s wrestling himself and then we go into the puppet world, that weird theatre, and the audience starts to really feel that 2D puppet thing. And when he goes to see the doctor and the doctor prescribes him pills, we flipped the eyes.
Bill: So, basically, the things that are positioned in-front of something else are actually set behind it in the 3D. It’s very quick, though.
Jeff: It’s the only place where we mess with the 3D.
Ben: I just wanted a gratuitous guest star performance, as though the money had said “This is far too fucking niche, too art-house, you’ve got to have someone big in it.” That’s also why we gave her the gratuitous credit at the front. I forgot but the original idea was to put a big ‘ka-ching’ sound effect on her credit.
Jeff: Cameron “got it.” We did put in our first e-mail to her, “We realise that playing the founding father of modern psychoanalysis might be a bit of typecasting for you, you may be fed up of playing that type of character, but if you would just make an exception in this case…”
Jeff: We’ve all got slightly different backgrounds which is helpful. Bill is an editor by training, and Ben, I see him more as a producer figure, the man with the big overview. I’m a documentary maker by trade, but I was more interested in Graham as a person than as a Python. We were all coming in at this from slightly different angles.
Bill: This project had to be done in animation because Graham’s dead. It had to be animation because we wanted to use the voice from the grave.
Jeff: People have tried to live-action it. There is a script going around for a live-action version of Graham’s life, but it just wouldn’t be the same.
Ben: Python’s films are, primarily, live-action. Obviously Gilliam’s moments in the TV series are iconic, people love them so much but quite an important part of this for us was to try and not emulate Gilliam. Obviously we got pitches that were trying to copy Gilliam, but why would you try to?
Bill: We did ask Gilliam if he wanted to do it, but apparently he’s doing a thing… directing films or something?
Yeah, or something.
A Liar’s Autobigraphy is in UK cinemas today and will be released on DVD and 3D and 2D Blu-ray on Monday 18th February.
*I think you can guess who isn’t involved.