by Meyer Schwartzstein
I had a thrilling experience that I’d like to share with anyone who’s ever hoped to work with their idol. It can happen – and it can be fun!
When I was 17 years old, I would look forward to Sunday evenings when Monty Python’s Flying Circus aired on WTTW, the Chicago PBS station. It was the funniest thing on TV! Ever since then, I’ve been a big Monty Python fan. (My wife and I even communicate in Python-ese.)
So in 2010, when a friend of mine asked me if I’d like to be involved in a Graham Chapman biopic – I jumped at the opportunity. (He told me that I may even be able to make some money on the film, but I would’ve done it for dinner with a Python…)
The story of the film is incredible. Jeff Simpson, a UK filmmaker (who also was one of the producers of Top of the Pops for the BBC) was fascinated by the fact that Graham was overtly gay but secretly alcoholic. Thinking that Graham would be a great subject for a documentary, Jeff approached Bill Jones and Ben Timlett to see if they’d work with him on it. They had just produced a multi-part Python documentary and knew all things Python. But Bill and Ben didn’t want to do another talking heads doc. But there was this recording…
Graham co-wrote his autobiography with four other writers (yes, you read that right). Published in 1980, it was called A Liar’s Autobiography, Volume VI. Graham and David Sherlock (Graham’s partner and one of the co-writers the book) then tried to have the book made into a film, but they weren’t happy with the options presented to them. Then, in 1989, Graham selfishly died. Fortunately, before he did, Graham recorded the book on tape at Harry Nilsson’s studio.
So, the three filmmakers approached David Sherlock up in some rainy part of the UK with this crazy idea about animating the book and, for some reason, David said “yes.”
The first task was to boil down the 3 hours of recordings to about 80 minutes of material. For this task, they turned to Andre Jacquemin. Andre did the sound for every Monty Python episode, every Monty Python movie, and every Terry Gilliam movie, so he was the perfect guy to build the sound for this movie. Once that was done, the trio worked with animation chief Justin Weyers to job out sections to 14 animation studios. They then delivered sections in 17 different animated styles - and in 3D! (Bill, Ben and Jeff’s first pitch said, “The final animated feature will not only bring Chapman back from the grave, but will do so in amazing stereoscopic 3D” – I think they liked saying that 3D bit…)
When the film was in production, I had the good fortune of having dinner with 3 Pythons – Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and Michael Palin AND I was able to witness and join in the recording sessions the next day. It was amazing.
The making of the film was a family affair – quite literally. Bill Jones is Terry Jones’s son. Margarita Doyle, the line producer, is the daughter of the production manager of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (She was the one who operated the killer rabbit!). And Andre Jacquemin’s daughter Jamie chipped in with her dad in the studio. And anyone who wasn’t family was greeted like family.
Completed early this year, the film was very kindly invited by the Toronto International Film Festival as a Special Presentation. On Friday, November 2nd, the film opens theatrically and will premiere on EPIX.
Please check out A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman. I can assure you that you’ve never seen anything like it. In fact, go see it twice – after all, it’s a lot to take in. Yeah, it’s a bit rude, it’s funny, it gets serious in parts, and it’ll get a little unclear as to what’s true and what’s a lie. There’s a gratuitous guest appearance by Cameron Diaz, as well as some other cameos (credited and uncredited), so that will be worth it alone!
When David Sherlock screened it, he gave the film and its directors a big compliment. He thinks it captured Graham’s spirit. That’s pretty cool… Bill, Ben and Jeff are all very creative – and there will be many more wonderful projects that will come from their fingers – just you watch!
So, I met my idols, and they turned out to be really nice and just as funny as ever. The written lines came to life when they recorded them. Before me they appeared as those young men who thrilled me when I watched them in my family’s den back in Chicago.
Meyer Shwarzstein started in the entertainment business in 1977 as general manager of a Chicago-based rock'n'roll magazine. He moved to Los Angeles in 1980, landed a job at MGM and, in 1983, he joined indie distributor Atlantic Releasing. He has been an indie ever since. In 1995, he formed Brainstorm Media, which handled sales for various companies including Lionsgate, Magnolia, Image and many more. Meyer’s company has evolved into a full-fledged US distributor and has been involved in producing dozens of films.