Mindhole Blowers: 20 Facts About Life of Brian That Might Make You Feel Like Whistling a Cheery Tune
I’m fairly certain this is the first Python film I ever saw and I was immediately taken in by the silly humor and irreverence. Publicly poking fun at religion is allowed? Who knew? From that moment on I was hooked on the Python gang, and to this day they remain favorites who can consistently keep me giggling. Between this scene:
and any scene involving Michael Palin’s widicuwous Pontius Pilate-speak, Life of Brian should leave you in touch with your inner 12 year old.
1. According to Eric Idle, the first ideas for Life of Brian came about while the Pythons were in Amsterdam premiering Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Idle and Director/Writer/Animator/Actor Terry Gilliam went to a small bar where they got “legless” and started making jokes about Jesus Christ correcting carpenters who kept “fucking up trying to build his crucifixion cross; it spun from that.” The two thought it was “…an interesting idea for comedy because no one had touched it—no one had joked about the bible or Christ. “They read books, bibles and the Dead Sea Scrolls to research, then began writing. Idle: “You couldn’t laugh at Christ because what he’s saying is good. He’s not directly laughable because it’s a very strong philosophy. So the people talking about him are the target.”
If not for George Harrison (Mr. Papadopolous), Life of Brian wouldn’t have been made. Harisson was a great fan of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (financed by Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and others). The Pythons needed four million dollars and Harrison kept telling Idle he’d get the money for them—he did. He set up a film company (Handmade Films) and paid for it “…just because he wanted to see the movie.”
2. Terry Gilliam decided not to co-direct with Terry Jones because when they did Holy Grail together, they “were sometimes in disagreement. I had done Jabberwockey and worked with real actors—non-Pythons who respected a director, rather than people who fought back. Directing Python is different, such a group effort. Terry (Jones) and he talked about it, he (Gilliam) designed the film and let Terry (Jones) deal with the difficulty of the others.” Idle added that the two Terrys directing Holy Grail was a source of great conflict, like having two heads. “One was editing by night, the other by day, each deconstructing the other’s work. Terry Gilliam hadn’t enjoyed co-directing, it suited him to do production design on this one. He looked at images and left Jones free to look at shots and performances. (It was a) Great combination.”
3. The film was shot with Cinematographer Peter Biziou (In the Name of the Father, The Truman Show, Mississippi Burning, 9 1/2 Weeks, Pink Floyd The Wall) in Tunisia. Granaries were turned into the Bethlehem setting. They followed the footsteps of Franco Zeffirelli, who had directed “Jesus of Nazareth” in Monastir, using that film’s sets, costumes and even the same extras.
4. Terry Jones explained playing Brian’s (Graham Chapman) mother, saying it was “just assumed he’d play the Virgin Mandy. That was not Christ’s manger, (it was) the manger next door.” The baby in the scene was “lent to them” and only a couple days old.
5. Terry Gilliam felt he was given the chance to make an epic film in the opening animation, “It has a narrative to it. I sometimes think I shot it too quickly.” He used photos of Rome turned upside down and artifacts from Italian architecture he fiddled with, as well as “lots of laundry.” Gilliam said he kept getting frustrated with doing the animation but that was his “main function within the group” and so he put all his energies into it. Idle: “Terry gets a lot of angst into his animations.”
6. Terry Jones remarked that the opening shots were accidental; “We were shooting a main scene—with Christ doing the sermon on the mount—and a crowd, and suddenly the crowd all disappeared.” When the director asked what was going on, he was told the crowd of extras were mainly women, and they all had to go make tea for their husbands. “When they came back, Eric said ‘That looks great!’ and we put the camera on them.”
7. Kenneth Colley (Jesus) (Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, “EastEnders”)—who appeared in Jabberwockey with Terry Gilliam—in real life has a terrible stutter, “…but the minute the camera runs, he’s brilliant.” (Gilliam)
8. Gilliam said they spent as much time on details as any serious religious film would have done, even though it was a comedy. “The more real the surroundings, the more believable the world it was taking place in—the more funny it became.” Jones: “The Python approach is that it is always important to create a world that is integral and discreet in its own way. Python is very free form and stupid, so we want the world to be very structured and organized to work with, so people can easily see, oh this is a Biblical epic. They recognize the world to which to react.”
9. The condemned man (John Young) scene was written by John Cleese and Graham Chapman, who spoke to one of the Queen’s vicars to get expert advice on the usage of Jehova’s name (and how it isn’t supposed to be spoken). According to Idle, John and Graham always wrote together, as did Michael Palin and Terry Jones. The pairs wrote together that way when they worked on “The Frost Report.” “It was their chosen method to work together. That’s how Python remained, in a sense. A tremendous amount happens in group—we can never remember who said what. Things start to float. Then we go into groups to write in bits and pieces.”
10. The Pythons went to Barbados to be together and write; with no wives, girlfriends or other commitments, they could let the ideas flow without interruption. The Who drummer, Keith Moon followed them and as the group kept regular “office hours,” waited on the beach for them to “come out and play.” Moon, who was “on Heminevrin and trying to dry out,” was supposed to play one of the mad preachers. Terry Jones told the story of the last time he saw Moon, at a Paul McCartney production, The Buddy Holly Story. “Keith came running up and hugged me, said ‘I can’t wait to do Brian!;’ he’d learned all his speeches. The next morning he was dead. Tragic. The only good thing was that I’d given Keith a great hug.”
11. Parts of the film were also shot in Sousse, “…an extraordinary town” where “Jesus of Nazareth” filmed the crucifixion. Mostly locals were used as extras. Jones explained that one might think it was quiet, but it’s actually the middle of a city and there was lots of traffic around. For one scene, Camera Operator John Stanier (Midnight Express, Oxford Blues, If These Walls Could Talk) started out with a Steadicam, but because it was so big, switched to handheld and walked backwards, “…in high temps, it was very difficult for him.” About fifty percent of the film is shot handheld.
12. Terry Gilliam’s favorite moment is “…when Graham (Chapman) spews every anti-Semitic word he can think of, and is proud of it. It’s a great moment to take everything negative and turn it into a positive.” (1:28 mark)
13. For this graffiti scene, fake walls were built in front of the real ones because they couldn’t write on the sacred walls. The production left a trail of black smudge that the director was assured would come off, but it didn’t. “In the end, we had to come back under cover of night to repaint the stones back to their natural color. I still don’t know if anyone knows about that.”
14. When John Cleese finished school, he became a Latin teacher for a couple of years. Gilliam spoke of how while most people go backpacking—traveling after they complete school, Cleese went right back to his and taught. “It affected him greatly. This allows John to write scenes from his emotional life, and which have some significance (as with his teacherly demeanor in the video above).”
15. For this graffiti shot, Gilliam drew the lettering on a piece of acetate and filmed it, then superimposed and layered it to make it look believable.
16. Jones wanted the film have a rich feel, using lots of dark colors—he didn’t shoot it as a comedy, “…which are often over-lit (sic). We wanted it to look like an art film, beautiful…to look like an epic. Peter Biziou did a beautiful job.”
17. Gilliam couldn’t figure out where to fit animation in, then the spaceship sequence came to him. “Brian is trying to escape an impossible situation—I gave him an impossible solution. It was a great Pythonic thing to do; pretend to be George Lucas for a moment and not do real animation. Normally spaceships don’t have gear changes, I thought that was a nice twist. The sound guys thought I was crazy. We used a motorcycle soundtrack. The explosions were special effects done at the end of film; we used Roman columns and hubcaps for the spaceship. We had run out of money.”
18. Eric Idle (Harry the Haggler) on haggling, “They’re not happy if you don’t haggle. I learned to haggle. My most famous was over a long carpet I really wanted. I spent two hours, went to lunch, came back and he said another price. I said ‘No, exactly the price I said before lunch, plus a cup of coffee.’ I got it. I enjoy haggling now. I went to Harvey Nichols once and started to haggle over luggage—they took it! It’s not so English to haggle so I was surprised.” Idle also wrote the film’s unforgettable finale song, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. Noting he is “good at endings,” Idle said the English are at their best during war times or when things are miserable and horrible. “Most of us were born during the second World War—we know what it is to be scared— the British reaction is cheer. I just went off and wrote it, whistling jolly. I once learned some Jazz chords, so I did a riff on the chords…it was so outrageous to have a crucifiction and a song. It is so uplifting it really works—lightens the whole load at the end of the film.”
19. Actor/Writer/Comedian/Playwright/Musician/Soldier Spike Milligan (Spike) was in town doing a World War II movie and his manager told Spike the Python crew were filming—so he just showed up. Eric Idle related a story about driving home at the end of the day and seeing Spike—in full costume—pulled over by Tunisian police. “We stopped the coach and went to help, saying ‘It’s all right, he’s with us!’” Of course, they were still in costume too. “I have no idea what the police thought.”
20. There was, as expected, much controversy after the film opened—misinterpretations abounded. Many outlets (including the BBC) refused to show Life of Brian; Ireland, Norway and several UK towns banned it. Michael Palin and John Cleese took part in a riveting televised debate with Bishop Mervyn Stockwood and Journalist Malcolm Muggeridge on “Friday Night, Saturday Morning.”
Cindy Davis loves to whistle.