Come awards season, the cinema-going public have become used to, and somewhat jaded with, the glut of big-budget biopics vying for Oscars glory: last year, we had the lacklustre J. Edgar and The Iron Lady. 2013 has seen the release of the slightly better, but no less earnest, Lincoln and Hitchcock. It’s fair to say, then, that Ben Timlett, Bill Jones (son of erstwhile Python Terry Jones), and Jeff Simpson’s new feature A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman comes as something of an antidote to the stifling seriousness of the current crop of biopics on offer; “We call it ‘an animated, fabricated bio-pic.’ It’s Graham Chapman (best remembered as The Dead One from Monty Python) narrating his semi-fictionalised life story, with animated visuals and four of the other Pythons providing the voices of other characters. Oh, and Cameron Diaz as Sigmund Freud.”
A Liar’s Autobiography, based on Chapman’s 1980’s memoirs of the same title, is made up of a series of charmingly surreal, animated vignettes following Chapman’s life. From growing up through wartime, through his difficult teenage years as a disillusioned, prodigious loner, onto his years spent in L.A at the height of his fame struggling with his alcoholism. Using seventeen different animation styles provided by fourteen separate studios and “dozens of interns,” the directors went about reinterpreting the events described in the book visually. They tell me about the famous Monty Python sketch from Hollywood Bowl where Graham is in a wrestling ring, in a one-man wrestling match, recommending to “look it up on YouTube, it’s an amazing piece of physical comedy.
“We’ve re-done that sketch with a rather extreme form of animation, because we saw it as a metaphor for Graham wrestling his demons.” For any Monty Python-related animated film you would suppose that the inimitable animation style of Terry Gilliam would loom large but the directors were determined to assure that this wasn’t the case. “We asked all the animators NOT to do a homage to Terry Gilliam. Gilliam had his own style, and we wanted ours to be different. The average age of our animators is 28, which was the same age he was when he started. We want to find the next generation of Gilliams.”
The film draws largely from the recordings Chapman made of his aforementioned memoirs, and this is the ingenious way in which he is able to star in the film from beyond the grave. With the obstreperous and somewhat disjointed nature of the source material in mind, it would be fair to assume that it wouldn’t be something that would easily lend itself to a narratively coherent on-screen reinterpretation. The directors seem well aware of this too, playing up the disorderly and bizzare elements. Indeed, this approach seems only fitting in documentary the man’s fascinatingly strange life.
For the directorial trio, whose working relationship was more straightforward than you’d expect “there was always a ‘two against one’ decision making process. If there’d been just two, there would have been fights,” the attraction to telling Chapman’s story were obvious. “Graham Chapman was a man who was openly gay, but secretly alcoholic – that would be an interesting story whatever his profession, if he’d been a painter or playwright or football player. The fact that he was a Python adds a whole other dimension of surrealism and humour to the story.”
With Chapman being notoriously the most inscrutable of all the Pythons, depicting the story of his life was always going to be challenging. The directors agree: “even those closest to Graham said they never really knew who he was. And our interpretation of the book and also the film, is that it’s Graham’s search for self-knowledge. That’s why he brings in Sigmund Freud to help him interpret a dream, for example – although, of course, Freud completely messes it up, and he ends up no wiser.” The film’s title gives some indication that the events depicted might not be completely reliable. The directors claim that “Although it’s ‘A Liar’s Autobiography’, and Graham delights in teasing us with what’s true and what isn’t – there’s actually a surprising amount of truth in it, in that many of the stories are based on real events, which Graham has then embellished.”
This isn’t a Monty Python project. It’s a Graham Chapman project.
For long-time Monty Python devotees, A Liar’s Autobiography’s brand of surreal humour will delight, but even more excitingly, this is the first time since Chapman’s untimely death in 1989, that all the Pythons have worked together on one project. But the directors are keen to stress that this isn’t a Monty Python project: “It’s a Graham Chapman project, but the others all respect and enjoy his writing. Terry (Jones) and Mike (Palin) said it was quite spooky to be performing lines with Graham again. The only challenge was getting dates for the recordings. Terry J and Mike P did theirs together, as the mum and dad. Terry (Gilliam) came in solo, and was very nervous, but brilliant. And John Cleese was in St Lucia writing his book, so we got him in to a local studio, and directed him over Skype.” Getting them all in the film wasn’t difficult, but deciding which characters they voiced proved to be slightly more problematic; “They all wanted to do David Frost, as they can all do a mean Frost but in the end we gave the role to John.”
The former Pythons aren’t the only vocal talents on display in the film though. They jokingly tell me that there was one person they had their heart set on to voice Sigmund Freud. “There was obviously only one choice to play the founding father of modern psychoanalysis, and that was Cameron Diaz, despite the fact that she’s done it hundreds of times before. So we wrote to her and said, ‘sorry about the typecasting, but if you can do the role one more time, it would be great.’ She was fantastic, and we told her she should do more voiceover work for animation.”