To hear the story of Graham Chapman narrated entirely in his own voice seems like something the late Monty Python would have penned in a surreal skit. It’s like a voice from the heavens taunting those who remember the comedic genius he shared while part of the famed British comedy troupe before he, as John Cleese famously eulogized, kicked the bucket in 1989. You can almost hear a hint of “I’m not dead yet.”
But in truth, his story, as told in the new film A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman is hardly full of the belly laughs and awkward guffaws he produced in films such as The Life of Brian, The Search for the Holy Grail , and The Meaning of Life. Instead, it’s a revealing and sometimes painful first-person account of an out gay man and closet alcoholic who happened to be one of the funniest men of his generation.
The animated 3-D film, which opens in theaters today and airs tonight on EPIX, is based on audio recordings Chapman made of his 1986 memoir of the same name. It’s a melange of vibrant, gonzo, gruesome and affecting animation. The film is structured around significant moments in Chapman’s life, from his modest childhood, to his posh days at Cambridge, his stint as a doctor before embracing sketch comedy, his coming out, his complicated relationships with his fellow Pythons, his relationship with life partner David Sherlock, his struggles as a high-functioning alcoholic, and ultimately, the effect that drinking upwards of four pints of gin a day had on him. Each scene bears a distinct animation style that ends up reflecting Chapman’s many different personas.
For such a public figure, a chameleon by trade, Chapman was a mystery. Hiding his alcoholism and masterfully playing the dumbfounded straight man, he remained detached, even to his closest conspirators. “I don’t think I knew him really. He was an enigma because he kept his private life to himself,” says Python co-star Terry Jones while at the Toronto International Film Festival for the film’s premiere. “I didn’t even know he was an alcoholic.” Ever? “It was also a different time. A lot of people drank, a lot! It was a time when you’d carry it into a business meeting and you’d begin with a shot of whiskey. It was a lot easier to hide alcoholism. I think the film is him really–it’s as wild and free-flowing and enigmatic as him.”
For such a revealing film, the filmmakers say it was only through serendipity that it was made possible. Co-director Jeff Simpson, an experienced documentarian, has a self-professed obsession with dead comedians and was interested in making a film about Chapman. Looking for source material, he visited Sherlock, Graham’s partner of 23 years, hoping he would have some kind of material he could use for a documentary. “I was looking for home movies or something like that,” says Simpson. “David was very nice, supportive but he didn’t really have anything visual to offer, but as I was leaving he went, ‘Oh well, there are the tapes…if you can find them.’ It turns out that Graham had gone into Harry Nilsson’s studio in Los Angeles, over two nights, and he recorded his autobiography–a kind of early version of an audio book, although there was no such thing at the time. The tapes had kind of been lost to history and it took me another year to 18 months to find them.”
That’s when Simpson met Bill Jones (son of Terry) and Ben Timlett. The pair had just finished a 40th anniversary documentary of Monty Python, perfect collaborators for a Chapman biopic. The original idea was to use the Chapman recordings with talking-head interviews throughout. But as Bill Jones says, “We were like, ‘um, we’re a bit bored of talking head documentary. We’ve just done six, one-hour films of Python already.”
Instead they opted for the self-narrated animated collage. Deferring to Chapman’s voice for the majority of the film, Python collaborators John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Terry Gilliam were recruited to voice prominent characters in his life. Seventeen animated scenes were given to 14 animation companies, including Not to Scale, Treat Studios, Peepshow, Steven Lall, Superfad, Made Visual Studio, Sherbet, Mr & Mrs, Cake, Trunk, ArthurCox, Beakus, A for Animation, and Tundra. They all pitched versions of those scenes in what the filmmakers call “kind of a dating process.” Once scenes were allocated, the animators were allowed to just get on with it.
“We stepped back and let them throw their ideas at us and a lot of them added and tuned, enhanced their ideas–they brought so much to the table,” says Bill Jones. The animators’ individual styles heavily impacted which scenes they were handed, as the visual language is as much a part of the storytelling as the narration. Timlett says animators were instrumental in teasing out the nuanced relationship Chapman had with his co-star Cleese, both of whom thought they were the driving force behind Monty Python. In an early scene, where the pair is sent to Ibiza to write (yeah, that’s a productive idea) and where Chapman meets Sherlock, the animators at Trunk studio took some creative liberties to convey the co-writers’ relationship. In it, the pair kibitz while riding a tandem bicycle up a steep hill to their rented villa, all while Cleese pedals and Chapman kicks back.
“That scene was originally written as a piece of dialogue across the table in the villa they were staying in, but they mentioned bicycles, so we went ‘Oh, well let’s put them on bikes to get them out. It’s more visual.’ So we said bicycles in the script,’ says Simpson. “The animators came back and said ‘If they’re on a tandem, visually that works because you know on flat plain they can share it the two of them,’ but also it’s got the fantastic metaphor of Graham just kind of sitting back having his drink and John’s slogging up the hill.” Adds Timlett, “Of course that also developed into ‘John’s fixing the bike’ and it’s ‘John doing the writing at the typewriter’ so…he loved that, John.” The result is a visual story structure that plays animation styles off each other to reveal the deeper meaning in Chapman’s life and orchestrate emotional shifts in the film.
One of the reasons that fascination with Chapman persists, 23 years after his death, is there’s a lingering sense that he was a creative talent taken too soon. Only 48 when he died of throat cancer (he was also a prolific pipe smoker), Chapman, by all accounts magnetic, was fleeced of his prospect at a second act in life. The filmmakers hope this film can, in some small way, give him that chance.
“All of the Pythons had a kind of second life beyond Monty Python,” says Simpson. “Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam are directors, John Cleese has success with acting, but Graham never really had that second life because he died young. So hopefully this film will restore some of that balance. It’s really about putting Graham back in front of audiences after all these years.”