Libros del Kultrum reissues Monty Python’s ‘Autobiography’, published more than 15 years ago in an expensive and impractical luxury volume, in a manageable format.
This is how the members of the group remembered in the book the genesis and the making of ‘The Life of Brian’, their most memorable and controversial film.
Any reason is good to celebrate the existence of Monty Python, the irreverent sextet of comedians that, with 45 half-hour television programs and three original films, dynamited the foundations of traditional comedy and built the foundations of modern audiovisual humor. The publication of ‘Monty Python: Autobiography’ by Libros del Kultrum (in fact, a reissue in a much more manageable format of the work that the now-defunct publisher Global Rhythm Press launched more than 15 years ago in a monumental luxury volume) is a magnificent pretext to return to the Python and its unrivaled mix of cultural scholarship, verbal comedy, visual delusions, animated surrealism, satirical songs and absurd goosebumps.
“Those who change the world do not necessarily do it with great fanfare; sometimes they do it just when people are looking the other way & rdquor ;, the writer and film critic points out in the book Bob McCabe, which between 1998 and 2003 was in charge of shaping ‘Monty Python: Autobiography’ based on extensive interviews with the members of the group: John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones y Michael Palin (the sixth ‘python’, Graham Chapman, had died in 1989, although his statements taken from previous interviews are included, as well as the testimonies of people from his family environment).
Well, the Monty Pythons did just that: change the world when people were looking the other way. And they did so on October 5, 1969, with the broadcast of the first episode of a program that the BBC had commissioned this gang of insane badly-battered people out of Oxford and Cambridge to fill the night time slot. Your title: ‘Monty Pyhton’s Flying Circus’. That explosion of iconoclastic wit that shook the British television scene and lasted for four seasons was continued in the cinema with three memorable films: ‘The knights of the square table and their crazy followers’ (1975), ‘Brian’s life’ (1979) and ‘The meaning of life’ (1983). The second, a parody of the messianic fever that led to the birth of Christianity, is rightly regarded as one of the funniest comedies in the history of cinema. This is how its creators remember it from the pages of ‘Autobiography’.
With the success of ‘The Gentlemen of the Square Table’ in the United States, the members of Monty Python began to earn “real money & rdquor ;, so they agreed to consider the idea of parking their individual projects for a while and taking advantage of the wave with a new film. The germ of ‘The life of Brian’ was a great idea by Eric Idle, who, bored with questions from journalists about whether the group had any new projects underway, suggested answering that his next film was going to be titled ‘Jesus Christ: craving for glory. ‘
Gilliam: “We were in Amsterdam, in a crowded pub, and I remember Eric sitting at the table and blurting it out point-blank: ‘Jesus Christ: craving for glory.’ The rest of us were dying of laughter, it seemed like a very funny title. That was the beginning. We knew instantly that it was a good idea and we considered doing something about Jesus and Christianity. However, it didn’t take long for us to realize that Jesus was a legal guy, nice people, and we couldn’t make fun of him just like that. That was why in the end we decided to create Brian, a kind of second-rate lookalike from Christ & rdquor ;.
Cleese: “At first, ‘Life Brian’ was going to be a movie about Judas Iscariot, a guy who was always late. […] Judas did not attend the Last Supper because his wife had invited some friends to his house and he had to stay, although he planned to come later to have a drink with Jesus and the other disciples. The idea seemed hilarious to me, but it was one of the first to be discarded & rdquor ;.
Palin: “I remember that it was quite difficult for us to find the right tone. At first we agreed to do some research on the Bible and the historical period in question and see what we could get out of it. Possible ideas soon emerged, and one that we particularly liked was that Judea was experiencing a time of authentic messianic fervor. That idea was the key and led to the creation of a character who was not Jesus but who lived a parallel life; the neighbor next door, like who says & rdquor ;.
Gilliam: “It was a curious way to avoid falling into blasphemy: choosing another guy who was the object of all our blasphemies. My mother, who is a practicing and fervent Christian, saw it and found no fault with it, because she does not talk about Jesus.
The most expensive ticket
The Pythons wrote the script for ‘The Life of Brian’ following the same procedure they had used in ‘Flying Circus’: each one went their own way to write scenes and sketches and every so often they met to put the material in common and approve or reject the ideas presented. At the suggestion of Idle, in January 1978 they went to Barbados to put the final touches on the script (“if what one wants is to write about religion, the best thing is to surround oneself with comfort & rdquor ;, points out Terry Gilliam). Shortly after, and with the project already underway, EMI, which was supposed to finance the film, backed down at the decision of its CEO and main shareholder, Bernard Delfont. It was then that George Harrison, a personal friend of Eric Idle and an admirer of the group, agreed to remortgage his neo-Gothic Friar Park mansion to get the four million pounds that saved the film.
Palin: “We were told that the EMI president took a look at the script, which he had not been taught until then, and found it offensive. “We’re not going to fund it, no way,” he said. It was a very hard blow, because there were already people in Tunisia, a large part of the money had already been consigned and they told us that they were going to cancel it, without more. What was going to happen to the people who had already moved? And to the set in Tunisia? It was then that Eric decided to call George Harrison, whom he had met in Los Angeles. George was a Python stalwart and got the money in the blink of an eye & rdquor ;.
Idle: “George mortgaged his house and got the money. It was extraordinary. He financed it by himself, because he wanted to see it. It must have been the most expensive movie ticket ever. God bless you & rdquor ;.
Palin: “EMI’s reaction just convinced us of the need to shoot the film. It seemed that certain matters could not even be discussed, and that was precisely the ignorant and thoughtless attitude that we tried to denounce & rdquor ;.
cut before eating
The filming of ‘The Life of Brian’ was much more placid than that of ‘The Knights of the Square Table’. By deciding to let Terry Jones direct the film alone and Gilliam take care of the artistic part, the group avoided the tension scenes that had occurred between them during the filming of the previous film. The mild Tunisian climate and the effort that Brian’s Graham Chapman put into staying sober also contributed to the overall good atmosphere.
Cleese: “Another problem was choosing the director. Terry Gilliam was already directing multi-million dollar blockbusters, and yet it seemed to me that Terry Jones’s directing style was much more conformed than Gilliam’s to our type of cinema, or at least to what we had in mind, since Gilliam is basically a feature film director and Terry Jones is better at directing comedic sketches & rdquor ;.
Gilliam: “I don’t think John or Graham ever thought in cinematic terms; they were content to show up every now and then, make their jokes, and hang out in the most comfortable way possible. And not that it seemed bad to me, but it was not what I wanted to do & rdquor ;.
Cleese: “It was the most enjoyable shoot of my life and I had a great time. The first day I couldn’t quite believe that we had finished the stoning scene before we ate & rdquor ;.
The bright side of life
Giving the film an ingenious ending without attracting the wrath of all Christendom proved a challenge of great complexity, because the delicate issue of crucifixion needed to be addressed. Michael Palin and Terry Jones wrote the last 20 minutes of the script and solved the mess brilliantly and hilariously. The last minute addition of Eric Idle’s song ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ turned the closing into something directly anthological.
Cleese: “When we shot the scene of the crucifixion many of us were very sick, which is not without its grace. “As if this shitty flu wasn’t enough, now they’re going to crucify us & rdquor ;, I thought & rdquor ;.
Idle: “Spending three days crucified was a very enriching experience, spiritually. For three days the routine consisted of arriving on set, finding a cross with your name: ‘Señor Idle’ and climbing on it. Up there, one felt sorry: “It must have been that way, just a little more painful.” Not that it was really painful, but it was cold and certainly not very comfortable. Also, if you wanted to take a piss there were none of the three free stairs. Typical! & Rdquor ;.
Idle: “I remember we were at Terry’s house and we had no idea how to end the movie. “It has to end with a song & rdquor ;, I told them, and we all agreed that it would be hilarious to end with a musical number sung from the cross. “A very happy one,” I added. It occurred to me that it could be a whistled song, something innocent and happy, like Disney. I went straight home and wrote it there. Then I went to pick up my son when he left school and I sang it to him. The next day the others heard her and jumped: “That’s it! & Rdquor; & rdquor ;.
Cleese: “As soon as we heard the song we knew it was perfect. I would say that ‘The Life of Brian’ is one of the most successful endings in the history of comic cinema & rdquor ;.
Idle: “’Always look on the bright side of life’ was a smash hit, but on TV they couldn’t put the scene from ‘Brian’s life’ in which we sang it, because crosses were forbidden. If we had sung it from the gallows they would have had no objection, but not the cross, no way & rdquor ;.
The premiere of the film sparked a wave of protests (not only from Christian groups; there were also Jews who were offended) and prohibitions. As often happens, the controversy served to prime the box office and ‘The Life of Brian’ became one of the most successful productions in the history of British cinema. Much to the relief of George Harrison, he was able to keep his mansion.
Cleese: “The truth is that we were a bit surprised, but we weren’t scared either, as it was evident that the people who protested were a bit simple. They said things like: “The Monty Python are minions of the devil & rdquor ;. Personally, it sounds like a great catchphrase & rdquor ;.
Jones: “The first demonstration was that of the New York Association of Rabbis, who complained about the use of the Jewish ritual prayer mantle at the scene of the stoning. Obviously, we didn’t even know what a prayer shawl was & rdquor ;.
Idle: “We didn’t even have to publicize it because it became news and began to appear on the & rdquor; newscast.
Jones: “In Norway its exhibition was banned and in Sweden they took the opportunity to advertise it as“ such a funny film that it has been banned in Norway & rdquor; & rdquor ;.