In Conversation: Terry Jones (Director – Absolutely Anything, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian, Wind in the Willows)

Hi Film Folk!

We have a very special addition to our interview series today, with a man who has made literally generations of people laugh and ponder life with his entertainment.

Actor, writer and director of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian, Erik the Viking, Wind in the Willows and the forthcoming Simon Pegg and Kate Beckinsale comedy, Absolutely Anything – we present to you the legendary and lovely Terry Jones!

 

Photos by Edward Moore. 

Terry Jones - Photo by Edward Moore
Terry Jones – Photo by Edward Moore

 

Before we begin, much of Terry’s story can be found in the excellent The Pythons’ Autobiography by The Pythons, so check it out for further info!

 

Growing up, was it a creatively encouraged household?

No, I don’t think so. It wasn’t particularly.

 




 

When did you start developing a taste specifically for comedy?

I remember at school doing the chicken chorus – everybody was lined up at the prefects party and started clucking like chickens [laughs].

 




 

Did you study comedy the way you have studied history?

No, it was just a natural thing. I just got on with it [laughs].

 
 

When you started working in TV was that an intimidating thing to do?

No. Frank Muir invited me for an interview and, I don’t know why he did it, he was saying I could give you a desk and four telephones and two typewriters and I just grabbed it! Previously I was going to be a copywriter for East Anglia TV so I cancelled that.

 




 

You’ve said in an interview (for Wales Online) “It was doing The Complete and Utter History of Britain that got me really convinced that you have to control everything. You not only act in the things – you’ve got to actually start directing the things as well.”

Can you elaborate on that for actors or writers who may not know what you mean?

For actors, you have to control the environment. Ian MacNaughton directed the Pythons, but he was interfering all the time and saying “can you do that shot there?” He was fiddling around.

Complete and Utter History was directed by somebody and I didn’t like the way he directed them, so it convinced me that I had to direct my own things. When Terry Gilliam and I directed “The Holy Grail”, we would take turns – one day he’d direct, next day I’d direct – but so that you can’t tell the difference.

 
 

You also said in that interview “The first few episodes of Flying Circus got absolutely no reaction whatsoever and every episode we’d be there biting our nails hoping someone might find it funny.”

Presumably you were sticking to your guns though at this time? You weren’t trying to second-guess what people wanted??

Yes, sticking to my guns really. We did the thing that we had to do and it was easy just to do that and just be ourselves.   

 
 

What have you seen change in the film industry over the years?

Well, they don’t use film anymore; you record on digital – though, that’s a good thing. And, the lighting for digital is quite different to lighting for film. But it’s great, in the sense of being able to continuously shoot.

But directing is the same thing. I do a storyboard – I have some for Absolutely Anything here:

'Absolutely Anything' storyboard by Terry Jones - Neil gets knocked of his bike
‘Absolutely Anything’ storyboard by Terry Jones – Neil (played by Simon Pegg) gets knocked of his bike
'Absolutely Anything' storyboard by Terry Jones - Neil gets magic powers
‘Absolutely Anything’ storyboard by Terry Jones – Neil (played by Simon Pegg) gets magic powers

 

'Absolutely Anything' storyboard by Terry Jones - The dog (voiced by Robin Williams) talks for the first time
‘Absolutely Anything’ storyboard by Terry Jones – The dog (voiced by Robin Williams) talks for the first time

 

What can you tell us about comedy shots/editing and how to create humour?

Well, you have to SEE the gag. I concentrate on the gags really.

 
 

How heavily do you get involved in the editing process? Are you a hands-on editor?

I was on “Wind in the Willows”. Now [on Absolutely Anything] I’ve left it to Julian Rodd, and Julian Doyle again – they’re the editors.

Julian Doyle said he couldn’t see the space craft leaving the solar system. So he put in big NASA footage before the titles. So it takes off and the voiceover says, “Say Goodbye to the voyager spacecraft and its lonely journey”.

 
 

Was that a case of it just being so polished at script stage that an editor just knows what to do with it?

Yes! Gavin Scott and I were writing this film for 20 years – nearly done [laughs]. 

 
 

What can you tell us about your documentary Boom Bust Boom?

We had a premiere at University of London. In Manchester it was hosted by this “post 2008 crash” society. They discussed it for so long. They formed the society because they don’t feel they’re getting taught about the crashes.

I don’t know why professors teach that capitalism is stable – you see crashes all the time – Tulip Mania crash, South Sea Bubble crash in the 16th century, the Railway Mania crash in the 1840s and the 1929 crash in the States, etc.

 
 

How is this film going to be released? 

I don’t know [laughs]. My son Bill [the co-director of Boom Bust Boom] and Ben [Timlett] have got that organised, but I don’t know how they’re going to release it.

Theo Kocken, who put up the money for it with his Dutch risk management company, has said it’s about trying to educate people that capitalism is innately unstable. It concentrates on Hyman Minsky who developed a hypothesis on the subject.

 
 

How long has that been in the making? What were the toughest parts of making it?

It took us 2 years. I wrote the script and Bill and Ben co-directed it, and did the edit.

We had puppets in it, representing historical characters; there’s animation, songs – all of that takes some time. Also, we ended up having 60 hours of interviews – “make 70 minutes of that” [laughs] We wanted it to be for general audience, really. No lingo.

 

Terry Jones at work - Photo by Edward Moore
Terry Jones at work – Photo by Edward Moore

 

Going back to fiction, directing the “Pythons” troupe aside, how do you direct your actors? Where you haven’t worked with them before…?

Well, for example with Julie Walters [in “Personal Services”] it was David Leland who approached her – so I left it all to him [laughs].

With Tim Robbins [in “Erik the Viking”] – he was the only candidate of towering height, really [laughs]. Actors bring the characters in them. For Absolutely Anything, Kate was very good and Simon Pegg was perfect, so it’s perfect casting really.

 
 

You’ve worked in theatre, film, TV, literature. Would you say there’s a place where you feel “most at home”?

Yeah, film. I did an opera in Portugal. We went over there, my wife and I, and took the dog and had a great time.

I directed that, as well as “The Doctor’s Tale” for the Royal Opera House and I just really enjoyed them.

 
 

And you’re really doing a heavy metal version of the “Nutcracker”?

Yes, I am [laughs]. Jim Steinman has written lyrics to the Tchaikovsky tunes, so it is heavy metal [laughs]. I’m going to direct in New York this year.

 
 

What pieces of advice could you give to troupe writer-performers?

Well, you have to go with the flow, really. You have to accept what other people write. Then it’s easy [laughs]

 

Terry Jones - Photo by Edward Moore
Terry Jones – Photo by Edward Moore

 

You said at the Sofia International Film Festival that you like Louis C.K. What other contemporary stuff do you like or can recommend to people?

Ah, yes, Louis C.K., yes.  I don’t know the names of the comedians to be honest…I looked at Dylan Moran – my wife watches him all the time.

 
 

“Absolutely Anything” is out soon. How did that come about?

Well, Mike Medavoy was involved in “Life of Brian” and “The Meaning of Life” and he phoned me up and said “Have you got anything in your bottom drawer?” and I said, well “Absolutely Anything”. So, he’s the Producer and the Executive Producer, and we’ve just signed a deal with Sony for distribution.

 
 

And how did you end up working with Kate Beckinsale and Simon Pegg – how did that come about? Had you watched a lot of their stuff before making the decision?

I looked at some, yes, and I thought they were fine for the parts. Nice and easy [laughs]

It was 6 weeks shoot and it was shot in London. We took over a disused school in Hornsey Lane, which is not far from my house. We built the studios in there and used it as a base. Then, we shot the interiors of the flats in Earl’s Court.

The aliens were all CGI. They talk well [laughs]. The leader of them, voiced by John Cleese, is a big, huge monster. Maureen is a little tiny alien. The science alien has lights shining in him. Mike Palin voices Janet, who’s a lobster!

 
 

What’s one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring actor, writer or director?

Just go for it.

 
 

THANK YOU, Terry! 

 

Absolutely Anything will be released in the UK in August this year. Here is a clip via Deadline Hollywood.

 

 

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