Since Graham Chapman's passing in 1989, Monty Python fans and comedy fans in general have clamored for information and lost works from the lanky comedy legend. One of those fans was filmmaker Jeff Simpson, who set off to make a film about Chapman's life. But Chapman was an unconventionally interesting person and as such, the documentary about his life demands a different approach. Enter: A recording Chapman did of his own autobiography — A Liar's Autobiography — in which he stretches the bounds of truth and in the process delivers a very real picture of himself.
A Liar's Autobiography employs Chapman's recording, plus the voices of Terry Jones, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, Carol Cleveland, and a surprising addition: Cameron Diaz. The story is told through 3D animation from 15 different animation styles and teams, creating an intensely layered effect for an intensely layered story. Hollywood.com had the chance to speak with Chapman's "mate" from his Python days, Terry Jones, about lending his voice to the film as well as all three directors: Jones' son Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson, and Ben Timlett. What did it take to bring this film to the big screen? Jeff Simpson: It was quite a long road … I was a documentary maker at BBC and I wanted to make a documentary about Graham Chapman. I was interested in the fact that he was openly gay and secretly alcoholic. I found that interesting tension. So obviously my extensive research, revealed that Graham was in fact dead so therefore unavailable to take part in the documentary (Jones, Jones, and Timlett laugh). So I went up to see David Sherlock who was Graham’s ex partner hoping he’d have some materials I could use like home movies or something. Unfortunately, he didn’t have anything like that, but he did mention these tapes existed — these audio tapes which Graham recorded in Harry Nilsson’s studio in Los Angeles in the mid ‘80s. He brought him into the studio and then for two nights, recorded the whole book … like a kind of early audio book before such things existed. The next step was try and find the tapes, which took a little while, but once I did that, I had to imagine what you’re seeing while hearing Graham’s voice. So I commissioned some animation and there’s when I walked into the production offices of a production company called Bill and Ben. Bill Jones: We were working on this documentary at the time about Python for the 40th anniversary and Jeff walked in with the documentary idea and presented it to us. And we were like, “Ah well, we’re just doing six one-hour episodes of Python and we’re actually a bit sick of them.” … But we like this idea of using the audio cassettes … and in our meeting, we had vodka, and we though “Well what if we get rid of the talking heads and only have the animation? So we’ll just have a fully animated movie … So I think the real eureka moment – Jeff’s original idea was to have some creative thing with Graham narrating … and then the eureka moment, the way it kind of worked out because [Graham] had written so much of the book in scenes and he performed them when he recorded the book … we could cast the characters with other voices to play the roles, some of his really great friends. And then we embarked on the film. And that was three years ago. I think that made it a more interesting proposition for the Pythons themselves. Instead of asking them the question “Can we do another on-camera interview about Graham where you talk about all your Graham stories?” that’s kind of quite hell. But when you say like, “Will you come in and record some funny lines that were written by your mate 25 years ago and do a bit of performance?” they’re kind of like “Oh, yeah.” Terry Jones: Well, I had to because my son Bill was kind of directing it. (Laughter) Were you in charge of getting everyone together? Terry Jones: Yeah, but I think it was everybody and people would just join in. Bill Jones: [To Terry] I think in the end, I think you asked [Michael Palin] and then we, through [John Cleese’s manager] we went to John [Cleese], and I think you might asked Terry too. [Laughs] Ben Timlett: Terry Gilliam was a bit funny because he was sort of like “Well, I don’t do this sort of thing.” And when he came into do the voice and the work he went, “I’m actually slightly nervous.” And he’s brilliant and so good at doing these characters… As a Python fan, it was great to see Terry Jones come back and do his traditional woman’s voice. Terry Jones: I played Graham’s mum and Michael Palin played Graham’s dad. Ben Timlett: Have you met Graham’s mum? Terry Jones: No. Ben Timlett: No? Jeff Simpson: We had to cast Terry as Graham’s mum because he’d already done it in Life of Brian. (Laughter) Bill Jones: We also like [Michael Palin] and dad doing the two voices because they’re such good friends, they’ve got this sort of camaraderie, this sort of love between them already, so that when you’ve got the parents bickering in the car you still have love. And that was very important.
As a life-long fan of the Python films and the series, it was very easy to get into the film as new and different as it is. I already know Graham’s comedy and his history, but for someone who isn’t as ingrained in that history, how do you think the film appears to them? Jeff Simpson: We put a few Monty Python references in along the way to keep the fans happy. We’ve done our best to abuse the Monty Python legacy as much as we can. But I think because the spine of the story is a man’s life story and his struggle or self voyage and a struggle to understand his issues and to deal with them, I think that’s an interesting story for anybody, really. And personally, you know it’s a great bonus that Graham worked with Monty Python, but I would have been interested in telling his story if he’d been a painter or a playwright or whatever. He’s just an interesting person to have gone through that journey. So there’s the spine of it that I think will carry people through. And then the other aspect is that it really purely is a visual feast. It’s such a fantastic array of animation. And there’s a whole generation now who are used to watching that kind of stuff in Family Guy and Simpsons and stuff like that. I think people will take part on that level as well. What went behind the decision to do in the 3D, which is a format that’s been kind of controversial? People think it’s just for action movies, but it was used very interestingly in this film. Ben Timlett: I think originally, we just wanted to sell the poster and were lovingly jumping on last year’s band wagon. I think the 3D element … it was available … and it looked good on the poster … I also quite like the idea of putting it on the DVD “in 3D” and not actually available on this DVD [laughs] … I actually remember watching Avatar and the thing that came to me is when the subtitles happened and the titles come up and just sticking out in front of you, and the textures of that were really interesting to me … basically I think you really start to get a sense of the textures that kind of dance between the animation and sort of give it more depth. Bill Jones: I think actually the real reason we wanted to do it in 3D was because it would give us a chance to work with the wonderful people at EPIX 3D Films, because our film is in cinemas and on EPIX November 2. [laughs].
The basis of the film is that it’s a “Liar’s Autobiography,” but I’m curious whether or not truth lies in the way Graham actually fabricated these things the way he did. Terry Jones: I think so. Certainly, his struggle with his gayness and alcoholism. When he stops drinking [in the film], he then goes on TV on Michael Parkinson’s show and talks about his alcoholism, he was drinking three bottles of gin a day. That’s very real and very moving, I think. And the coming out sequences and the childhood sequences were real as well. So it’s very real actually. Bill Jones: There’s a lot of things you’d think might not be real, like the childhood thing, his father directing gathering body parts [during the war], that actually was a real event. I chatted to his brother and his brother talked about it. And basically an airplane crashed and he was there with Graham as they were clearing it off. I remember him saying something like they left the body parts in bag for a while as well … and a lot of the detail of the story, like meeting the Queen Mum, the whole thing during “Sit on My Face” [the song from the movie], and meeting new friends are the details in the book. But I think the implication of your question is that you’ve got in it the spirit of Graham which is very real. That spirit of Graham is very accurately portrayed.
It's very poignant and interesting that the film ends with John Cleese’s funny and touching eulogy for Graham. That was a sweet touch for the end of the film. Whose decision was it to include that? Jeff Simpson: Well, we had a bit of a problem, because obviously the film didn’t have an ending. It was based on Graham’s book, but he didn’t write in the book about his own death. (Laughter) So we had to find a way of sort of dealing with that. Originally we were just going to end on the song [“Sit on My Face”], but that end [with the eulogy] is so powerful. Bill Jones: Well, I remember having a sort of argument about it. I was actually quite keen on not putting it in. I was like, “That’s not actually in the book, let’s not put it in.” And Jeff and Ben, both rightly said, “No, no, no. We need the ending.” And I think the spirit, I remember we watched the eulogy through, and I remember the one thing John [Cleese] says at the end … “…he would never forgive me if I didn’t, If I threw away this glorious opportunity to shock you all on his behalf. Anything for him, but mindless good taste.” I think that sums it up there. A Liar's Autobiography premieres on EPIX and in U.S. theaters on Nov. 2. Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler More: TIFF 2012: 'Cloud Atlas' Is a Big Picture That Explores The Big Picture TIFF 2012: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence Deliver Their Career Bests in 'Silver Linings Playbook' TIFF 2012: 'Spring Breakers' Marks the End of Selena Gomez's Innocent Era
Known for her comedic chops and charming wit on U.S. hit shows like Hot in Cleveland, The Golden Girls and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, White boasts a successful career, which now spans seven decades.
And she doesn't appear to be slowing down with age - on Monday night (16Jan12) bosses at U.S. network NBC paid tribute to the legend's career by airing a star-studded TV special, which featured Hugh Jackman and Carol Burnett, among others, paying tribute to the birthday girl - and she is just about to premiere a new senior citizen hidden camera show, titled Off Their Rockers.
Because the funnywoman has already celebrated her birthday with her best celebrity pals, White tells WENN she plans on spending the day working on crossword puzzles and hanging out with her longtime companion - a Golden Retriever named Pontiac.
And in honour of the spunky star's landmark birthday, we've compiled 10 fascinating facts about the beloved actress to mark the occasion. Happy Birthday, Betty White!
- The actress was born in Illinois during America's Great Depression but her parents moved the family to Los Angeles when she was just two years old.
- She attended the Horace Mann School in Beverly Hills, California - the same middle school as Angelina Jolie, Nicolas Cage and Lenny Kravitz.
- Unlike a number of celebrities, the actress never changed her name before entering the entertainment industry. She was born Betty - not Elizabeth - because her parents didn't want her to be bogged down by nick names.
- White has been married three times - briefly to Army Air Corps pilot Dick Barker in 1945, Hollywood agent Lane Bryant from 1947 to 1949 and TV host Allen Ludden, from 1963 until his death in 1981.
- She has won a total of seven Emmy Awards throughout the course of her career - her first was a 1975 Best Actress honour for her work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and her most recent was in 2010, for Outstanding Guest Actress on A Comedy Series for her hosting turn on U.S. sketch show Saturday Night Live.
- White has been a life-long animal advocate. She received the American Veterinary Medical Association's Humane Award in 1987 for her charitable work, and the Los Angeles Zoo recognised the comedian with a bronze plaque near the Gorilla Exhibit in 2006, when she was officially named the tourist attraction's Ambassador to the Animals.
- She turned down the chance to play Helen Hunt's mum in the 1997 film As Good As It Gets because she objected to a scene in which Jack Nicholson's character pushes a dog down a trash chute.
- She has already cemented her place in television and movie history - White was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1995 and she was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame next to her late husband Ludden's in 1998.
- White is the last surviving member of the cast of hit TV show The Golden Girls, which premiered in America in 1985. Estelle Getty died in 2008, Bea Arthur passed away in 2009, and Rue McClanahan followed in 2010. Industry insiders feared White might succumb last year (11) after a mysterious annual pattern of co-star deaths was discovered.
- She is also a highly-successful author - White has written a total of six books. Her last one, If you Ask Me (And Of Course You Won't), is currently a New York Times Bestseller.
This month will mark Betty White's 90th birthday. In celebration of the actress' long and prosperous career, and her continued prominence in the media, NBC is hosting a special televised event, Betty White's 90th Birthday: A Tribute to America's Golden Girl, on Jan. 16 (the night before her actual birthday). The tribute, which was announced back in the Fall, continues to attract a large variety of celebrity appearances. New prominent names reported to be paying a visit, and possibly offering some of their talents as showpeople, include Ellen DeGeneres, Tina Fey, Morgan Freeman, Seth Meyers, Tracy Morgan, Ray Romano, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Carl Reiner, Vicki Lawrence and John O'Hurley. Other attendees you may have already heard about include White's Hot in Cleveland costars Jane Leeves, Valerie Bertinelli and Wendy Malick, her old The Mary Tyler Moore Show castmates Mary Tyler Moore, Ed Asner, Valerie Harper and Gavin McLeod, as well as other notable stars including Amy Poehler, Joel McHale, Jay Leno, Carol Burnett and William Shatner. Not too shabby, Betty. -NBC
The Voice returns to television for a second season early next month, and it is bringing with it a wide assortment of celebrity advisors to help its next string of contestants along with their stint on the musical competition series. Appearing on the show this year will be musicians such as Lionel Richie, Kelly Clarkson, Alanis Morisette, Ne-Yo, Jewel, Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, Robin Thicke and Miranda Lambert. This array of noteworthy musicians will be joining the judging panel of Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton to make for an exciting second season. The Voice's second season premiere will air Sunday, Feb. 5 on NBC, immediately following the Superbowl. -NBC
This has been a season of changes for Law & Order: SVU. Old detectives have left, new ones have arrived. And now, we'll be meeting another new character: Assistant District Attorney David Haden, played by none other than actor/musician Harry Connick, Jr. Best known for his music career, but also for acting gigs like his recurring stint on Will & Grace, Connick, Jr., will be enjoying a multi-episode arc as an attorney who strikes up a beyond-professional relationship with Mariska Hargitay's Det. Olivia Benson. As you can see in the video below, things are already starting to heat up between the pair. Hargitay also confirms that she has no intentions to leave SVU, much to many a fan's relief. Connick, Jr., will join the cast starting on Wednesday, Jan. 18 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC. -NBC