Bob McCabe wrote the book The Pythons’ Autobiography By The Pythons about the behind-the-curtains side of Monty Python‘s artistic life. Here we told about the making of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Now it’s the turn of Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
For the rest of their film and TV career please go to the source and read the book. You won’t regret it.
Life of Brian
JOHN CLEESE: Life of Brian was going to be about the thirteenth disciple and how he always turned up late. Of course the funny thing is that if you turn up five minutes late for a miracle you might as well turn up two and a half thousand years late. So he’d missed the Last Supper because his wife had invited friends around and he was going to come on afterwards for a drink. I thought it was really funny, but that got dropped quite early on.
MICHAEL PALIN: Brian was our last really good group experience in writing terms. What would happen was individuals or writing groups would take a certain section and move it on a bit or write a stoning scene which obviously fitted in next to something. And then the various characters that one had written, like the Centurion who goes all the way through played by John, would be the result of group discussion. The way we worked when we were away in Barbados was unheard of since the very earliest Python shows, for us all to be in one place at the same time for two weeks. We’d never been like that because we’d always been geographically a few miles apart anyway and had to agree when to get together.
A production cancelled the very last minute
ERIC IDLE: Bernard Delfont (…) the producer of the film, hadn’t read the script. When he finally did, shortly before the shooting was to begin, he decided not to allow the film to go forward. He thought the l was “obscene and sacrilegious”. (..) Delfont got cold feet, they all got cold feet and pulled out of it when we’d already started to spend money on the production and so we sued them.
TERRY JONES: We got wind that EMI had suddenly pulled out and I think by this stage we’d spent about £50,000. Then again it was a court case. Fortunately somebody passed us some internal memos from EMI which had been sent round, EMI saying ‘We’re lucky enough to have the new Python movie’ and all this kind of stuff. So they didn’t really have a leg to stand on, because they were trying to say no, they’d never said they were going to do it.
So they settled, and paid us the £50,000. Then Eric rang up George Harrison and George had been thinking about setting up a film company, so he talked to Denis O’Brien, his manager, and they agreed to set up a film company together, which they wanted to call British Handmade Films, but Companies House wouldn’t allow them to call it ‘British’, so they just had to call it Handmade Films. Terry G designed a logo for them.
JOHN CLEESE: I heard that Delfont was worried because one of his brothers had financed Jesus of Nazareth, and had got a lot of prestige out of it, and he suddenly thought he would be compared very unfavourably with his brother for producing a parody of it. So he withdrew and paid us compensation and there was a secrecy clause, which we Pythons, naughty little things that we were, always pointed out with great delight, because there wasn’t a secrecy clause about the secrecy clause.
A Beatle comes to the rescue
TERRY GILLIAM: It was literally at the last moment: the crew was leaving on Saturday to go to Tunisia and on the Thursday Bernie Delfont read the script, thought it was blasphemous and pulled out, literally two days before we were due to leave. I’d met George when Eric and I were out in LA promoting Holy Grail. Eric stayed close friends with George. Eric’s social life is busier than mine.
MICHAEL PALIN: Then George proved to be true to his word, he paid for the whole thing; he mortgaged his house and raised the money, it was extraordinary. He paid for it because he wanted to see it. The most anybody’s ever paid for a cinema ticket in history. God bless him.
Terry Gilliam and the directing job
After his not very happy directing experience in Holy Grail, what Terry Gilliam
MICHAEL PALIN: (…) had done was say, ‘What the heck, I’m going to make a film I want to make,’ and he’d gone to Sandy Lieberson and John Goldstone and put together Jabberwocky. I think as soon as Terry Gilliam had done Jabberwocky he felt, ‘Right, my future is to make my own movies and not try and rumble on the Pythons again because it’s just not worth it.’
ERIC IDLE: (..) How do you deal with it? It’s a dreadful situation. Do we go to Jonesy, do we go to Gilliam? After Holy Grail I think Gilliam had a nervous breakdown. It was just dreadful, because here were two people, both of them very, very strong personalities, wanting control of everything.
It started well
TERRY GILLIAM: I felt with Holy Grail that Terry and I started well, and the two of us always seemed to see things in the same way, but when it actually came to working I didn’t think we did see it in the same way ultimately. We started splitting because the things I felt were important, he didn’t. Having shot Jabberwocky and worked with real actors and really enjoyed it because they obeyed me (as much as anybody obeys anybody), I felt with Python it was just a constant battle: ‘What do you mean I’ve got to wear this costume? Why do I have to wear this beard? I’m not going to do the scene if there’s smoke in it …’ You get all that crap.
A dogsbody job
I felt Python directing was the dogsbody job, you’re doing all the work and what you’ve got are people pissing and moaning. People just wanted to do sketches, to be honest. I don’t think John or Graham thought in filmic terms really, they just wanted to get out there, say the lines, be funny and be as comfortable as possible while they’re doing it. Now there is nothing wrong with that, it’s just not what I wanted to be doing. So I said, OK, I’ll design the thing and look after the way it looks. But then even that doesn’t work ultimately, because you can design all you want, you can plan, you can storyboard it and then the director either shoots it that way or not.
TERRY GILLIAM: I think Jabberwocky really spoiled me. I was probably pulling away more from the group. With the animation I was doing my stuff all the way through, so I was always separate in many ways, but in the TV shows it worked better.
The spaceship scene
TERRY GILLIAM: I said, ‘Well then, Brian gets rescued by a spaceship, that seems reasonable.’ It’s that kind of leap that we do.
TERRY GILLIAM: I was drifting away from animation more and more. After having done Jabberwocky I just didn’t want to do animation again, period, I had always wanted to do live action, so I had finally achieved it and I didn’t want to go back. But I like the title sequence, I think I did a really beautiful thing, I’m pleased with that. And the spaceship sequence was a chance to do a live action, special effects sequence.
GRAHAM CHAPMAN: I arrived in the morning from Los Angeles, and was driven straight to the studio. I was put into the box made up to resemble a spaceship, with lights and wires. I was dressed as Brian, shaken around a lot, then taxied back home for a few hours sleep before being put on another plane to LA. I wasn’t in England for more than twenty-four hours, and eight of those were spent in a box. Rather the reverse of one of those relaxation booths – sort of a ‘tenser booth’. And it worked, too! I didn’t know where I was in the world, or the time, space, anything, for a week after that.
About being crucified for 3 days
ERIC IDLE: Being crucified for three days was quite interesting spiritually. You get there in the morning and there’s a cross with your name on it – ‘Mr Idle’ – so we were three days on there, and you think, ‘This is what it would be like to be crucified, bit more pain.’ I’m not saying it was really painful but it was cold and unpleasant and we were up there a long time and there were only three ladders if you wanted a piss, typical! Cleesey was dying with the flu, there’s always something on Python that makes it unpleasant. I think the unpleasantness is part of the comedy. If you’re really hurting, it’s funny.
Ending with a song
ERIC IDLE: (…) we had no idea for an end and I said, ‘You’ve got to end with a song.’ The film was stuck, and then we just had the idea, wouldn’t it be hilarious to have a song number on the cross. I said, ‘It would have to be a very cheery song,’ and I always had in my head that it should be a whistle song, like a Disney song, with a bit of whistling. Then I went straight home and wrote it, and after that I picked my kid up from school and played it to him.
I took it in the next day and everyone went, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’ Even Jonesy eventually said that was it, although he held out – he always wants to write his own song, because he’s got a good musical brain, too, but he doesn’t do a lot of it. Then I recorded it and I did a very straight voice on it.
They played it on the set in Tunisia and everybody liked it and they all applauded, but I thought, ‘There’s something wrong with it, I don’t know what it is.’ I realised it was the vocal and I thought it should be ‘Mr Cheeky’ singing it. So we went into a hotel room, put mattresses up against the wall and re-did the vocal live in a hotel room in Tunisia. Now everybody sings it. I’ve had Art Garfunkel sing it, Jack Nicholson sing it. It’s a classic. It’s a standard.
MICHAEL PALIN: I have the feeling that filming Brian was the happiest time for the Python group since the first and second series. Everybody seemed to have contributed, it reflected very well on various Pythons, they all had their moments, and it was a success, so everybody was extremely happy.
JOHN CLEESE: It was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life and I was very proud of the movie, I thought it was the best we ever did.
Check Part One here: Monty Python on Monty Python, Part I: The Holy Grail.
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