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As a writer and performer, John Cleese was a driving force behind two of television's most beloved shows: the seminal sketch-comedy classic Monty Python's Flying Circus, and Fawlty Towers, a perennial contender for the greatest sitcom of all time. Since then, Cleese has produced and starred in a series of business training films, co-written books on families and relationships, done extensive voiceover work, served on the faculty at Cornell, co-wrote a graphic novel about a British incarnation of Superman [Superman: True Brit], played Q's replacement R in a pair of James Bond movies, and recently signed on to produce a series of video podcasts.
Cleese also somehow found the time to write and act in cult classics like Monty Python And The Holy Grail, Life Of Brian, The Meaning Of Life, and 1988's A Fish Called Wanda, for which he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. In connection with the "Immaculate Edition" DVD of Life Of Brian, The A.V. Club recently had a loose, freewheeling conversation with the comedy icon about the flaws in Monty Python films, roles accepted and rejected, James Bond, the shortcomings of organized religion and studio executives, and why he doesn't much care for film acting or film-going these days.
The A.V. Club: We've wanted to talk to you for a long time.
John Cleese: Good! Well, I hope it's not a disappointment. I've had one or two disappointments in my life. Like lunch with Peter Ustinov. You wouldn't believe how disappointing that was. I mean, I was such an admirer of him. I thought he was not just a talented man, which he obviously was, but that he was such a decent man, and such an interesting man. I was so excited to have lunch with him. But I made the mistake early on of asking him a slightly personal question. He'd once said in an interview that his career had really taken off at the moment when he started only to do things that really interested him. And that's very interesting, because it's the opposite of what you might think.
And as he talked, I began to feel tremendously uncomfortable. And this sense of discomfort absolutely took me over. My musculature became very tight. And it was this sort of feeling of "There's something not right here. Have I done something wrong? Have I said something I shouldn't have said, have I committed some social faux pas?" And this feeling went on for about 25 minutes, and I felt terrible. And then he launched into an anecdote. And I laughed, and the feeling just disappeared.
And for the rest of the lunch, he told anecdotes, and I had a wonderful time. Well, I spoke to Eric Idle afterward, he'd just done a television thing with him, Around The World In 80 Days. He said "Peter's lovely, but he's a hider, he doesn't want to reveal anything of himself." But it was a disappointment, because when you meet somebody like that, you actually want to talk to them, rather than hear anecdotes, you know?
AVC: Do people of that stature intimidate you?
JC: Not now. I think I was a little bit intimidated. I remember filming with David Niven once in Rome, in the '70s. And I felt a little bit awestruck, but then he was so nice, you see, he was so kind.
NR: One of your first major film experiences was working on the screenplay for The Magic Christian for Peter Sellers, another seminal figure.
JC: That's right. You see, I was never intimidated by Sellers, because [Graham] Chapman and I got to know him quite well. We were asked to fix a script for him, or fix up a few scenes, I can't remember which it was. But he liked what we wrote and started recommending us. And we then wrote a version of a novel called Special Bookings, about a travel agency. And then he brought us in on the Terry Southern [adaptation]. We came in on about the 12th draft, when it was absolutely nowhere. It was a terrible mess, and Graham and I, I think, made quite good sense of it. And then they brought Terry Southern over to put the final touches on it, and gave him two or three cases of bourbon, and I thought he totally fucked it up. [Laughs.]
We were such young and inexperienced writers that we were not allowed to say anything, of course! So we went away, and were slightly disappointed, because a lot of crap went back into that script. We'd come up with some really good scenes. I still remember some of them in my mind's eye as though they'd been shot. Anyway, I liked Sellers, but again, he was terribly nice to me. He invited me to stay at his villa once, when he was filming on Cyprus. So when big figures are as kind as that, the awesomeness begins to fade away fairly fast.
AVC: Do you think he had a sense of you and Monty Python as being the next generation of comedy?
JC: Well, believe it or not, this was before Python. What connected us was that he was really funny, and he also loved to laugh. I think once you start to really shake with laughter with people, an awful lot of that ego—"he's so much bigger and more important than I am"—begins to fade away. A wonderful thing about true laughter is that it just destroys any kind of system of dividing people. There've been two or three examples where, just really laughing, it all goes away. I remember David Niven taking me out to dinner with Connie [Booth], my first wife. And we were sitting in the open air, drinking pinot grigio in the middle of Rome. There was an editor there, a really nice editor, but being British, he had terrible teeth—Americans have never seen teeth that bad, unless they read National Geographic. And David told us, "He'll smile a lot, but he'll never laugh." Every time David made us howl with laughter, we glanced at the editor, who was roaring with laughter, trying to keep his lips together. Um, so what I'm saying is that when you've laughed like that with someone, it connects you at a humanity level.
AVC: Did you get to know Terry Southern at all working on The Magic Christian?
JC: No, never set eyes on him.
AVC: Do you think The Life Of Brian is the best of the Monty Python films?
JC: Yes, I do. And it's very interesting, because there's a big difference of opinion between the English and the Americans. The Americans all love The Holy Grail, and the English all love Life Of Brian, and I'm afraid on this one, I side with the English. I think that the first 45 or 50 minutes of Holy Grail is terrific. Really, really good. I'm very proud of it. But then I think in the middle, there's a scene with a three-headed giant that I think is always weaker than anything else. And I think that some of the sequences in the middle are not as strong. And then the ending—we sort of get away with the ending, but I don't think the ending is great. Whereas I do think that Life Of Brian—there's about two points when the story just sort of jumps the rails. The way Brian falls out of a house that's being searched by the centurions, and lands, and has to start pretending that he's delivering sermons, or prophecies—that's not done well. And I think there's one other one, but otherwise, as a story, it works much better than anything else the Pythons ever did. The jokes are terrific, and it's about something really important.
AVC: It has a through-line, which is important when you're doing something that's episodic by nature.
JC: We were used to writing sketches. That came back again in Meaning Of Life, where we could never figure out what that movie was really about. We just found a framework on which to hang various funny bits of material. But I actually think we did very, very well. Very well indeed on Life Of Brian. So far as the story goes, I think it's the only time we did.
AVC: You've said that you never really enjoyed the Meaning Of Life, that you thought the entire film was "a bit of a cock-up." What did you mean by that?
JC: I just never felt it was quite right. It didn't have a storyline, and the framework was kind of artificial. It was very ingenious of Terry Jones to come up with it. Without it, the film would never have been made, but it never, never felt artistically satisfying to me. And I remember that for some reason, I did not particularly enjoy the shooting process. I don't know why that was, perhaps because it went on for so long. And it was also excessively uncomfortable. I'm an old man who liked his comforts, even in my 40s, you know? Filming takes a lot out of you. It really does. It's immensely demanding, and you have to put the rest of your life in the icebox until you do your final shot. And I don't mind doing that if there's that feeling of believing in something. It's awfully hard to do it when you don't quite believe in it, you know?
AVC: You've gravitated toward smaller roles over the past decade.
JC: Well there aren't any bigger parts, by and large. For 48 hours, I was offered something that was very interesting. There was a marvelous movie that was done a long time ago, and Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks did a remake of it. The In-Laws. God, that's a funny movie. For two days, I thought I might be doing that. Which was quite exciting, 'cause that was a very good part. But apart from that and one or two terrible bits of writing, I haven't seen a good big part for years. And that doesn't surprise me. I'm too old! And in any case, if they want somebody who's older, then they can get somebody really good, like Gene Hackman or Donald Sutherland, you know.
AVC: Gene Hackman isn't acting much these days. He's semi-retired.
JC: Lucky old man. I mean, I don't like filming, essentially, because it does take your life over too much.
AVC: You turned down the role that eventually went to Bruce Willis in The Bonfire Of The Vanities.
JC: Oh my God, yes, you're absolutely right. I did.
NR: Beyond common sense and good judgment, what was the thinking behind that?
JC: I liked Brian De Palma's thrillers. I thought they were fantastic. But I'd never seen any sign of comedy in them. You might love those Bourne movies, but you wouldn't necessarily want to run off and do a comedy with their director. So I thought that was a bit risky. So I did turn that down. How'd you know that?
AVC: There's a website called notstarring.com where they list roles actors have passed on.
JC: How interesting. What I would like to have done was co-star with Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I was offered the Michael Caine role, but it came immediately after six weeks' publicity for Life Of Brian. [Since this was a 1988 movie, we think he means another movie, but we're not sure which one. —ed.] I was absolutely flattened. It was something extraordinary—I did 27 different cities to publicize Life Of Brian, and I thought, "I can't go straight into another major movie." Though it was directed by Frank Oz, who's one of my favorite people. I do regret that. That was a question of timing. I'm also sorry in a way that we didn't make the Don Quixote film that was on the cards, with Fred Schepisi, and Robin Williams doing Sancho Panza. But I think the script wasn't right.
AVC: Terry Gilliam also ran into a whole lot of trouble trying to make a Don Quixote movie. Was that entirely coincidental?
JC: Totally coincidental. Also, he wasn't really doing Quixote, he was doing some sort of take on it. He was coming at it from some angle that I never quite understood, and I don't think it's fully explained in the Lost In La Mancha documentary.
AVC: In the special features for Man About Town, you say your role in the film is the best you've been offered since Rat Race. What stands out about those roles?
JC: Was Man About Town the one with Ben Affleck?
JC: I never heard what happened to it. It was one of those movies that you did in two days. I thought it was very well-written, I like the director very, very much indeed, and I forgot his name…
AVC: Mike Binder.
JC: That's right. Binder. Liked him enormously. Had a very good two days in Vancouver, one of my favorite cities, and never really heard a word. I mean, literally, because that's what happens on movies. You never hear from them unless they want something from you. And I don't think it was ever quite properly released in America, and the only phone call I ever got was something about doing publicity for the film in Germany. Was very bizarre. I just thought it was very well-written and I loved doing it, and I had the same reaction to Rat Race, and also to the one I did with Steve [Martin] and Goldie [Hawn], The Out-Of-Towners. I just happened to luck into a very, very well-written part. And I was lucky enough to work on it with a director that I really liked. But there's only been about one of those parts every three or four years. That's fine by me.
AVC: Speaking of supporting roles, as someone who played Q in several films what did you think of Casino Royale?
JC: Well, I haven't seen it yet, because I see about four movies a year. I just saw The Kite Runner. I don't get to many American movies. The last one I remember seeing was Downfall. You know, Hitler in the bunker, with Bruno Ganz. Which I thought was fantastic. And that's probably three years ago. I see about four movies a year, but I think I'm gonna have to sit down and watch some of these. I liked very much The Good Shepherd last year. I thought that was very underrated, and I couldn't understand why. I think it's probably too difficult, intellectually, for the mass audience. But I don't think the critics liked it that much, and I thought it was away on its own, you know?
AVC: People seem to have found it cold and detached.
JC: Well, I'm not so sure that the world of espionage is a particularly warm and fuzzy one. Or if it is, it will be fake, you know?
AVC: That's true. You don't want a warm, loveable CIA spymaster. That wouldn't have a psychological—
JC: That's a very funny idea, isn't it, to take somebody, especially someone in counterespionage, who's very trusting of people. You know, "I don't think he's a spy. He gave me his word!" Hah!
AVC: Were you disappointed that Q wasn't brought back in Casino Royale?
JC: Well, I was disappointed because I enjoyed the people I was working with so much. I do think Pierce [Brosnan] is just a dream to work with, because he's so relaxed, he's totally non-egotistical, he's got a lovely sense of humor, and he's unbelievably professional. He doesn't screw anything up, ever. So to work with him is a delight. And I liked [producers] Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, they were very nice, I got on well with the director. But it was only two days filming each movie, so it was something like four days spread over what, six years?
And although I was allowed a little bit of say in the script, I would strike up a relationship with the writers and make one or two suggestions here or there, and then they'd send stuff back to me, and I'd say "I love this bit, but I'm not happy about this line." So when I went on the set, I had 100 percent confidence in the script, and 101 percent in Pierce. And it's also lovely to be part of that family, because it really was a family. There are people on those movies whose grandfathers worked on Dr. No.
AVC: It seemed like the Q part was comic relief in the James Bond movies, and there rather purposefully is no comic relief in Casino Royale.
JC: Well, I must go and see it, because I didn't like the second Bourne movie as much as everyone else. It's a style of moviemaking where, in all the action sequences, you never quite see any given shot. It's all kind of blurred, so it's like impressionistic filmmaking. And it's not my favorite style. Doesn't mean there's anything wrong with it, just doesn't appeal so much to me. And the utter sort of coldness and desperation of it, I didn't find it terribly enjoyable.
I didn't think it was as full of subtleties as, for example, The Good Shepherd, which has got much less action in it. So it's a style of film that clearly I wouldn't fit into. And sadly, that lovely girl Samantha Bond, who does the London Times crossword so fast it'd frighten the shit out of you—she was the other comic relief, as Moneypenny, and I think she's gone. So I understand—I mean, it took in $600 million! The ones that I was in only took $350 or something. So I understand why they did it, but it seems to have lost an element that was very characteristic of Bond. But, nobody else seems to mind, so…
AVC: These days, do you audition for roles, or do people just say "Get me John Cleese"?
JC: Well, I think they used to say "Get me John Cleese." Now, they say "Get me a John Cleese type. Someone who's like him, but much easier to work with, and not grumpy. And not likely to go to sleep after 13 hours."
AVC: Who else would qualify as a John Cleese type? You seem fairly singular in your persona.
JC: Well, there used to be one or two. There was an English actor called Anton Rodgers, who I thought was very similar to me. We tended to get offered the same parts. But Anton is my age. John Lithgow, often people said he's the American John Cleese. Or more often, they said I'm the English John Lithgow. I loved doing 3rd Rock From The Sun with him. He's such good company. God, he's such an amusing, unbelievably well-informed fellow. I like him. Who else is like me? I don't know. I always thought—there's an English actor who's been getting an enormous amount of good parts, and doing well. And I've actually forgotten his name. I'm having a senior moment. What was that very raucous, French, turn-of-the-century musical with Nicole Kidman?
AVC: Moulin Rouge? Jim Broadbent, maybe?
JC: Yes. I always thought Jim Broadbent was slightly like me.
AVC: Maybe in terms of his height, and being very thin.
JC: I think it's also in the face, the slightly big, slightly tight jaw, the slightly thin lips. I always had a feeling, instinctively, that if offered the same roles, we would approach them the same way, the only difference being that he really likes film acting, and I don't. [Laughs.]
AVC: Fierce Creatures was your last big leading-man role.
JC: I think so. Well, the only way I can get a leading-man role is if I write it. I've had two leading-man roles, and—actually, that's not quite true, because there was Clockwise, a very good film I made, written by that genius Michael Frayn. You don't get any nicer than Michael, you don't get any brighter than Michael. And I think that Copenhagen is probably the best English play of the last 20 years. So I'm a great fan of his. And he wrote Clockwise, which did no business at all here. It's actually very good, except that we screwed up the last five minutes.
AVC: Have you written any scripts for yourself since Fierce Creatures?
JC: No. I wrote a couple of scripts about three or four years ago, because I wanted to see if I could make a living writing scripts. And then I realized that you had to deal with the studios. No matter how much fun you had writing the script, at the end of the day, you were dealing with people who had no idea what they were doing, but had no idea that they had no idea what they were doing. It's terribly frustrating.
AVC: Which has to be all the more vexing, considering the incredible success of A Fish Called Wanda.
JC: Yes, but studio executives always treat people like me, and writers in particular, as though we live in some kind of ivory tower. And these executives think they know what audiences really like, despite the fact that I've spent my life in front of audiences. And the executives have never been in front of audiences, apart from sycophantic young junior executives who wouldn't dare not laugh at their jokes. So the whole idea that they have some kind of practical knowledge that I don't have is so ludicrous that it does not bear inspection. But they hang onto it. They hang onto a mystical belief that in the moment they inherited the biggest desk and office in their block, they also inherited an understanding of comedy. And it's absolutely insane, but they really do think that they understand it. And so they start telling you to do things which you know are wrong, and I don't know how you can write something that you know is wrong. I mean, what do you try, do you try to write it badly so it will be better? [Laughs.] That's rather wicked, Nathan, you should've laughed at that.
AVC: Speaking of wickedness, when you were shooting Life Of Brian, were you concerned with the fate of your immortal soul?
JC: No. No, because it's not in any way against Christ or Christ's teachings. It's all about criticizing people who make something of Christ's teachings, which I think he himself would not recognize. There's a lovely line that an idea is not responsible for the people who hold it. A lot of people in America who describe themselves without any hesitation at all as Christians are, in my opinion, completely missing the point of most of his teachings. It was like Tom DeLay, who said, with reference to turning the other cheek, that he never understood that bit of theology, which is absolutely the key to everything that Christ says. Here you've got a guy who's made a political career out of being supported by evangelical Christians, and he's totally missed the point of the teaching. So is he a Christian?
AVC: It seems like Christianity was removed from Christ at a certain point.
JC: Oh, exactly. And it's very interesting to go back to the early history, because the cross itself as a symbol doesn't seem to come in until 300 A.D. And the belief in reincarnation in Christianity was not labeled a heresy until, I think, the 400s.
AVC: Religious traditions as a whole are constantly revised, yet you kind of have to hold onto the fiction that there's an objective truth that stands the test of time.
JC: Here's what I think in a single sentence: I think that the real religion is about the understanding that if we can only still our egos for a few seconds, we might have a chance of experiencing something that is divine in nature. But in order to do that, we have to slice away at our egos and try to get them down to a manageable size, and then still work some practiced light meditation. So real religion is about reducing our egos, whereas all the churches are interested in is egotistical activities, like getting as many members and raising as much money and becoming as important and high-profile and influential as possible. All of which are egotistical attitudes. So how can you have an egotistical organization trying to teach a non-egotistical ideal? It makes no sense, unless you regard religion as crowd control. What I think most organized religion—simply crowd control.
AVC: Life Of Brian was very controversial. A Fish Called Wanda generated controversy as well. Have you ever reached a point in a project where you thought "Maybe I've gone too far?"
JC: No, I don't think I've ever had that thought. I've often thought to myself, "Have I stepped over a line?" Or, "Is this particular line over the line?" In the German episode of Fawlty Towers, I sensed it on two or three lines. And funnily enough, when one of my favorite people at the BBC rang me up and said "There's two lines here we're worried about," I said "I'm delighted to tell you I've already cut them."
No, I've always kept my eye on things like that, but I also know that unless your comedy is completely bland, there will always be someone somewhere who's offended by it. You can't really avoid some offense, so the question is not "Will you offend people?" but "What sort of proportions will you offend them in?" I'll give you a good example. The producers of Holy Grail actually wanted to cut the Black Knight scene, where the limbs get cut off, because they thought it would worry people. Of course, 95 percent of the audience thinks it's the funniest scene in the film. Two percent of the audience don't like it, because it seems so violent. So do you cut the scene so that two percent don't object to it, and deprive 95 percent of their favorite scene?
AVC: You originally expressed interest in playing the lead in Life Of Brian. What did you feel like you could have brought to that role?
JC: I'm afraid I was interested in the experience of playing a role that went all the way through the movie, 'cause I'd never played a lead. It wasn't in particular that I thought I would do Brian better than any of the others, it was just that I wanted to know what it was like to carry the same character throughout an entire movie. And I didn't do that until 1986, which was seven years later, with Clockwise. So that was the reason I wanted to do it, but they were absolutely right to have given it to Graham, because he was better as Brian than I would have been, and I was better than he would have been in roles like the Centurion In Red. So the Pythons got it 100 percent right.