Monty Python’s Terry Jones arrived during a break in the clouds Friday for an ADR session at West LA’s The Village, the storied recording studio where the late Robin Williams lent his voice to Jones’ upcoming sci-fi comedy Absolutely Anything shortly before his death this summer.
“One thing we’re grateful to Robin for is he was the first to come on and he stuck with the whole thing,” recalled Jones’ close collaborator Gavin Scott (The Mists of Avalon, Small Soldiers). “The kind of attitude that led him to stick with the project through all its ups and downs, he totally exhibited here. He wanted to make everybody feel good from the engineer to the lady making the coffee. It was very late in the day for him and we didn’t know that, but he was a real mensch.”
Co-scripted over two decades by Jones and Scott, Absolutely Anything follows a school teacher (Simon Pegg) granted the power to conjure “absolutely anything” by a band of scheming aliens (voiced by Jones and his fellow Pythons John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, and Michael Palin). Williams plays Pegg’s chatty dog, who unleashes a manic stream of biscuits-and-sex obsessed thoughts when given the ability to speak. Kate Beckinsale’s also aboard the comedy, which is exec produced by Mike Medavoy and Chris Chesser.
Jones and Scott shopped the script around for years and came close to getting it made, “but then Bruce Almighty came out,” said Bill Jones, Jones’ documentary filmmaker son who finally got financing together with partner Ben Timlett. The two are producing through their Bill and Ben Productions banner. “I think enough time has passed, and it is its own movie… it is great being able to give your dad a job.”
The elder Jones, 72, earned fan adulation with the “Beatles of comedy” for his turns in drag and characters like Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson, Cardinal Biggles of the Spanish Inquisition, the Dirty Vicar, Scottish poet Ewan McTeagle, filmmaker L.F. Dibley, Proust competition host Arthur Mee, the mother of Brian, and the insatiable Mr. Creosote. He went public with his battle with bowel cancer seven years ago (“I caught it in time – it’s all clear!” he says now) and jokes of the money crunch that led him to reunite with the remaining members of Monty Python last year (“I’ve got to pay off my mortgage!”). Their O2 reunion show sold out in seconds and prompted nine additional bookings, in which the Pythons bid farewell to fans. As Jones celebrates a retrospective of four Python films he helmed this weekend at LA’s American Cinematheque, he says that the first narrative film he’s written and directed in nearly two decades might be his last.
DEADLINE: You’re premiering footage from your new film, Absolutely Anything, between screenings of four of your best-known films. Were there any films you wish had gotten more attention over the years?
JONES: It’s sad that Wind in the Willows is not one of them. When I did Wind in the Willows, in England it was only on in the afternoons and Disney took it and didn’t understand it. They went straight to video. John Goldstone, our producer on it, phoned me up in New York where I was doing a documentary and said, it’s on at a theater in Times Square! I went down to the theater but hadn’t got a camera, so I went and got an instant camera and by the time I was back it was off. I was just so distraught! I just gave up on the film industry. So this is the first film I’ve done since.
DEADLINE: Outside of the troupe you’ve done more than just make funny films – you’ve written books, made documentaries, studied Chaucer. Do you feel like your hero, a guy who’s been granted the power to do just about anything?
JONES: I’ve been really lucky. In 1966 I applied for a job in television as a copy writer, and Frank Muir’s office rang me up and asked if I would go in to see him. He was the head of comedy at BBC at the time. I don’t know why Frank Muir gave me the chance to do it. I suppose he’d seen the Cambridge Circus, they did a slapstick lecture in New York and the New York Times drama critic Clive Barnes said, ‘Where is this Jones – we need him!” That’s how it all started. I got into the BBC and became a script editor. I worked with Michael Palin who was doing a pop show in Cardiff. In 1967 I began writing with Mike and we were writing for The Frost Report and doing little inserts, visual things. Like “Where do the judges go at recess? They go out to the park and play on children’s swings!” We were fans of The Goon Show, and they were totally wild. They had that absurdist humor, and I think that’s where it came from. We were rebelling against everything.
DEADLINE: You spent years trying to make this movie; you first got Robin Williams attached, then you got it off the ground with the help of your son. How fast did it all finally come together?
JONES: I came to LA to receive an award. Robin Williams was sitting in the front row and I asked him, would you play Dennis the Dog? I’d met him before a couple of times at Terry Gilliam’s dinners. I sent him the script and he said, ‘Let’s get this baby made!’ Four years later, Mike Medavoy phoned me up and asked if I had anything ready to go. I said, Absolutely Anything – which was at that time called The Dog Who Saved The World. Mike Medavoy set it up and Bill and Ben got it going.
DEADLINE: What are your strongest memories of recording here with Robin Williams, very shortly before his death this summer?
JONES: We first filmed him with me directing via Skype, but there was a ten-second delay. He wasn’t satisfied with the recording, so Bill and I went to San Francisco to re-record him, live. Then he rang me up on my mobile and said, ‘I just got an idea – Dennis is a sixteen-year-old boy!’ We went back to London that afternoon and recorded him via Skype again. I hope that didn’t depress him too much.
DEADLINE: Absolutely Anything is a Python reunion of sorts; you all play the aliens who create this mayhem by giving Simon Pegg his power. Did you write the aliens to reflect everyone’s personalities?
JONES: John is the ringleader and Terry Gilliam is the nasty alien. Michael plays the nice alien who’s slightly reluctant to exterminate the human race. Eric’s playing the salubrious, mischievous one. And I’m playing the scientist alien. I didn’t have them in mind when writing them, but Michael Palin is a very nice man… and Terry Gilliam’s not a nice man. [Laughs] John Cleese is the ringleader. And Eric is wild.
DEADLINE: Comedy is famously tough to pull off, but having longevity in a comedy career must be even harder.
JONES: I do other things as well – I’ve done history documentaries like The Barbarians, and I’ve done academic work. I think the secret is being a little bit lucky. The Goons made the style, and we just copied it.
DEADLINE: You have the benefit of having been a comedy writer and performer – how does that help you when you’re directing Simon Pegg in a scene, for example?
JONES: Well, I just let him do it. I trusted him. Kate Beckinsale was also brilliant. I’ve been doing a Charlie Chaplin documentary. Charlie Chaplin imitated all of the expressions – he wanted to act every part! As if people were puppets. That’s not my way of doing it.
DEADLINE: What were the toughest challenges of making Absolutely Anything in today’s financial climate? Do you have more films you’d like to do after this?
JONES: Getting the finances together and getting it made. I enjoyed it as I enjoyed Erik the Viking, and Wind in the Willows, and Life of Brian, but we hated directing The Holy Grail because you could feel where the tide was, where it cracked up your legs because we only had wool and knitted chain mail to wear. This, we shot right near where I lived in London. After this I don’t think I’ve got anything more to say. Not as a director. I can direct things but I can’t write. My memory is going, so I struggle for words. It’s good to have collaborators like Gavin. We’ve known each other for 25 years.
DEADLINE: You reunited with the other Monty Python members for a farewell reunion show – was it really the last reunion we’ll see, ever?
JONES: I’ve got to pay off my mortgage!We did the reunion to pay off our debt to the lawyers (for a lawsuit over the Tony-winningSpamalot) and I wanted to go on to perform other things, but Mike Palin didn’t want to do it. And I think it was a fine idea to move on. I think it’s done the trick.