Ben Timlett is one of half of ‘Bill and Ben Productions’ with partner and co-director Bill Jones. After producing a range of films, documentaries and music videos, the pair made their directing debut with the six episode documentary series, ‘Monty Python: Almost the Truth – Lawyers Cut.’
Bill and Ben have teamed up with fellow director Jeff Simpson to return to the Monty Python universe with A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, a not entirely accurate look at the chaotic life of Graham Chapman, who died in 1989. In another director interview, Christopher O’Keeffe (pictured on the left, above) met with Timlett (right) at the recent Tokyo International Film Festival to talk Japanese film, the rise and fall of Monty Python, Cameron Diaz and anime you wouldn’t want your Mum to find you watching.
Weekender: How was it?
Ben: Tough! It stays with you. He’s a really nice guy, Michael (Rix – Accession’s director), I’ve only been watching the films of people I’ve met!
Weekender: Is this your first time in Japan?
Ben: No, third time. The last time I came I had a Japanese girlfriend and I was here visiting her family for about three weeks 10 years ago, and the time before that was a friends wedding. I have to say this is the most enjoyable experience I’ve had, its just such a wonderfully strange country, so many contradictions.
Weekender: Do you like Japanese cinema?
Ben: I do. I like classic Japanese film. Rashomon’s probably quite high up there as maybe my favourite. I love Westerns though, so Seven Samurai, Yojimbo… Yojimbo’s brilliant, that’s probably my favourite. I went through a big phase of obsessing on him (Kurosawa). As for other Japanese movies, as a kid I got into things like Battle Royale and also I remember my first experience of manga was quite extraordinary, I went to see the first ever anime showing at the ICI.
It was on halloween and it was the first time any manga had ever been shown in the UK. I must have been about twelve and I watched the most pornographic manga! It blew my mind, it was called Legend of the Overfiend. I was just becoming a teenager, haha, what a film! That was the first time it had ever been shown, a friend of mine’s uncle was a distributor and he brought it over so we got to see this stuff before anyone else. Bonkers.
Weekender: Did you enjoy it!?
Ben Timlett: All I remember is that by the end me and my friend were the only ones left in the cinema everyone else had walked out. Ha! There was no way we were walking out! A bizarre sexual romp of monsters raping girls. Two thirteen year old boys…
Weekender: Your film is based around a set of audio recordings Graham Chapman made of himself reciting his autobiography, how did you come across recordings?
Ben Timlett: Jeff our co-director was working for the BBC and he wanted to do a documentary on Graham. He had done one on Marty Feldman earlier, he met up with David Sherlock, Graham’s long term partner who appeared in the movie, and he basically went to see David looking for home videos or interesting stuff and found nothing.
As he was leaving David said ‘Oh, there’s the tapes too’. This was the first inclination there was this recording out there of his book. After he found the tapes his initial idea was to have Graham narrate but still do a standard talking-heads documentary and then obviously he brought it to us because he had heard we were finishing this Python 60 years documentary series. And thought it was fantastic but didn’t want to do another talking heads documentary.
We wanted to do a film, but we realised we could keep Graham’s narration but bring the other ‘Pythons into it and we had been experimenting with animation as well. Also the other ‘Pythons were sick of talking, sitting and talking, regurgitating the same boring stuff which our documentary series kind of sends up, so it was just a great opportunity.
Weekender: So the project was brought to you, it didn’t develop from the previous documentary?
Ben Timlett: Jeff was scared because he heard we had done six one-hour episodes and he was worried that we had done one on each Python but we hadn’t, we went the ‘Beatles Anthology’ route and did it chronologically. The main thing to come out of the documentary series was what an enigma Graham is and that’s the heart of the series and it was definitely on our minds that there was something about Graham that needed to be told.
Weekender: Did he have a falling out with the other Python’s? I got the impression from the documentary that he maybe drifted away…
Ben Timlett: They all drifted apart yeah, they all went off to do their own things and he was the same, but he never really had a falling out. I think the alcoholism pushed him apart and he realised by Life of Bryan that he needed to clean himself up, I think John Cleese had had enough of writing with him.
Weekender: Did you know the ‘Pythons well from the previous documentary then? And was it easy to get them to do this?
Ben Timlett: It’s never easy! But my business partner Bill, we grew up together from the age of four in Camberwell and Bill happens to be Terry Jones’ son, haha, so we knew we would get Terry and then obviously we had grown up with them, so there was a bit of nepotism! A little, not a lot! But it still wasn’t straight-forward we didn’t get Eric…
Weekender: Did you approach him?
Ben Timlett: Oh, yes. He didn’t want to do it.
Weekender: I was going to ask if you were a big fan of the stars of Monty Python, but I guess you must have been, growing up with them!
Ben Timlett: Well, when we were growing up it wasn’t that prevalent; the TV shows weren’t on TV and there was stuff around the house but it was quite old. It was more the other things they were making, the films Terry was doing were interesting, like The Viking, and Terry Gilliam was doing loads of cool stuff. I remember watching Time Bandits, so it was less about ‘Python. It’s recently become bigger and more recent. This era of nostalgia thats going on, retrospectiveness is the current thing.
Also Terry wasn’t that famous, he wasn’t getting stopped in the street or anything, so for Bill it wasn’t so… he says he had all the benefits of being famous, going to cool things etc, but not the big fame issues because he never really got bothered. Also he wasn’t the famous dad at school, there was a kid whose dad was in Grange Hill (the long running British children’s TV show), so he was the famous one!
Weekender: How did you choose the animation companies?
Ben Timlett: Basically we have an amazing animation producer called Justin Weyers, and we cast a net quite wide and spent loads of time looking at people’s work to get a sense of things and find the style that we were looking for. And and sometimes just really interesting stuff turned up.
Weekender: And then you would approach the companies?
Ben Timlett: Yeah, Justin basically did this process of talking to all of them and seeing who was interested first and then we looked at their work and got a sense of what they might be good for and we would meet them.
At that point we had locked the script and the audio and so we would give them a couple of sections each to effectively put down four or five images and do a write-up of what they might do and thats basically how it happened, very organically; it was effectively a sort of casting process and a lot of it was meeting them, seeing who was nice and who had that little bit of comedy, that little comedy edge in past work and who was nice to deal with and who was fun to talk to.
Weekender: Do you have a favourite section?
Ben Timlett: I love them all in all kinds of different ways, I really do. The section I suppose I enjoy because of the audience reaction is Graham waking up in Los Angeles because there is a nice belly laugh in there, even though its not an out-and-out comedy film.
I love that particularly because when we first did it we had his narration over the top and then when we took it off it was so much more fun and you get the sense the audience is trying to work it out, just like he is, what is going on and where he is! Some of them are just outstanding pieces of artistic work, like the oil on glass where he’s trying to come off alcohol, it is just stunning, stunning work.
Weekender: There is an interesting ‘Birth of Venus’ scene too.
Ben Timlett: Yeah, Ibiza! We call that bit ‘Ibiza’, that was really nice especially because the editing was so great between Graham and John, it was so seamless. Twenty-odd years between the recordings and its just a seamless conversation they could have had together but it was 20 years apart.
Weekender: It felt very much like a retro British style of animation in that Ibiza scene and in all the segments. Did you specifically go for that look? Did you think about using any other animation styles, Japanese anime for example?
Ben Timlett: No, I mean we just looked for the styles that felt right. I mean obviously the film is set in the past so we chose animation styles which lend themselves to those eras. We did a lot of research.
Weekender: Did Terry Gilliam do anything? Did you ask him to?
Ben Timlett: No, he didn’t, we did ask him, but he wanted to do voices. One big thing for us was to try and not emulate him and try and draw in a ‘Terry Gilliam’ style, because that is pointless. Only Terry Gilliam can do Terry Gilliam, so we really just wanted the artists themselves to do their own styles. Some people think the Oscar Wilde scene at the beginning of the film is close (to Gilliam) but its not!
Weekender: Did he have a reason for not wanting to do it?
Ben Timlett: He’s a busy man and animation is hard work. He’s a movie director now. But it was great that he could do voices, he’d never done voices before, he had always just done characters that grunt so when he got into the studio he was a little bit nervous and said “I don’t normally do real characters.” But he threw himself into it. He was brilliant so I think we found a new voice-over artist in Terry!
Weekender: Cameron Diaz’s name really stands out in the credits, it comes up in big letters right at the start!
Ben Timlett: Yes, gratuitous guest star!
Weekender: That kind of unexpected and absurd humour really fits in with Chapman and the Pythons style, whose idea was that?
Ben Timlett: Whose idea? Thats a very dangerous question when you’re dealing with three directors! It was my idea to… can I say that?! Whatever, the others may dispute it but it was my idea to throw in a gratuitous guest star appearance so that Sigmund Freud wouldn’t sound anything like Sigmund Freud but was someone who was thrown in purely for the money or just to throw you off. Bill came up with Cameron Diaz because we knew she wanted to do the documentary series but we hadn’t managed to meet her in our schedules, we knew she was a Python fan so we wrote her an email!
Weekender: Was anyone else in the running for it?
Ben Timlett: Well, my original idea was Al Pacino, I thought that would be really funny if it was him doing it in his own voice, but Cameron Diaz for me just takes it much further, and she was brilliant. She did a kind of bizarre Austrian accent! I love the way it sets up ‘me, Sigmond Freud…’ and she threw herself into it.
Weekender: Did she come over to record?
Ben Timlett: No, she was in Miami so we had to direct her over Skype, which shows what budget we had!
Weekender: So who got to Skype with Cameron Diaz?!
Ben Timlett: We all crowded in, you could not have got anyone of use away from that screen!
Weekender: Ok, thanks for your time, enjoy the rest of the festival.
Ben Timlett: Thanks.
Interview by Tokyo-based Christopher O’Keeffe, who also runs and writes for the Seven Cinemas website.