Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Terry Jones

Terry Jones (left), with Graham Chapman (center) and Michael Palin (right) as the Three-Headed Giant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Snake in the Grass

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

May 21, 2001—Say the name Terry Gilliam, and any film buff will tell you that he directed Brazil, and The Fisher King. A very good film buff will also be able to tell you that Gilliam directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A still better film buff will be able to add that Terry Jones co-directed it with him. The film gets a re-release in a brand new 35mm print on Friday, June 29.

Jones ("the Welsh one") has perhaps kept the lowest profile of the six-member Monty Python team (minus the late Graham Chapman, who died in 1989), though not on purpose. During our brief phone conversation from his L.A. hotel room, he maintained that he's kept busy doing "absolutely anything" with various television projects and children's books. One of those books, The Saga of Erik the Viking, written for his son, became the ill-fated 1989 film >Erik the Viking. He's currently working on something called Kinzuki's Kingdom. and also "writing another book about Chaucer. And doing some TV documentaries. I really enjoy directing. But I don't do it a lot," he says. "Most recently, I'm doing a medieval series, The Knight in the Square. I was over here to give a talk about Chaucer at UCLA at the Medieval Studies group."

Jones also recently provided introductions to the new Jacques Tati DVDs Mr. Hulot's Holiday (1953) and Mon Oncle (1958). Discussing Tati, Jones admits that he borrowed the idea for the ending of Monty Python and the Holy Grail from Tati's 1967 masterpiece Playtime. "I saw it in 70mm in this big cinema near the Arc de Triomphe. At the end of the film, the traffic just goes round and round. And you walked out, and it was the same thing -- the traffic going round and round. It was incredible." For the end of Holy Grail, Jones and Gilliam show a policeman grabbing the camera, a couple of strips of unexposed film, then about three minutes of carnival music over a black screen. "The idea was to see how long we could get people to sit there watching nothing," Jones says.

How did the two Pythons get on together while directing? "We sort of did a tag team. We did alternate days. We thought very much the same way. I was very much into the Middle Ages and I was keen to make it very funky. But Terry would do that as well." Jones' big scene was as the namby-pamby Prince Herbert, locked in a castle and forced to marry a young maiden. He's forever breaking into song and finds himself rescued at the last minute by Sir Launcelot (John Cleese). "I turned up that day, and I forgot my lines. I was too busy directing the scene."

Jones says he doesn't mind Gilliam's huge success as a director. "That's what he really wants to do. Me? I love directing, but I'm usually just doing my own stuff. And I'm a bit slow writing scripts."

Though Jones has ventured into non-comedy areas from time to time with his books, he's still primarily a funnyman. He ruminates over how comedy never gets the same respect that serious, tragic work does. "It's always puzzled me. I suppose people think comedy's easier. You laugh, so it’s not really serious. It's something I've always felt worth fighting for. Particularly at the BBC, they used to erase all the tapes. They kept the ballets and whatnot, but they erased all the live entertainment. But in retrospect, nobody wants to see the ballet."

In addition, the Pythons found it difficult raising money for their now-classic film, despite the success of their TV series, Monty Python's Flying Circus. Most of the funds came from, believe it or not, the rock bands Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. "A lot of films were made like that," Jones says.

Jones is quick to point out, however, that Monty Python's 1983 film The Meaning of Life won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Jones calls working on the Monty Python and the Holy Grail 25th anniversary release, "a very odd experience. I was just re-dubbing it, and it was just me alone. It was weird to do it a quarter of a century later." On the other hand, Jones is proud of the upcoming DVD edition of the film. "We have a 40 minute film of Mike (Palin) and I going around the old locations which is quite fun. We've also got subtitles of Henry IV Part II for people who don't like the film."

After more than 30 years of Monty Python antics, are there any jokes that Jones would take back? "I have my favorite jokes," he says. "They weren't my jokes... they were John (Cleese)'s. So I won't take them back." He laughs, and then gets serious. "You should be able to joke about anything. I think any subject is capable... there's humor in life."

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