Simon Pegg’s playing God in a new Python- powered SF comedy. Stephen Kelly keeps the faith on set
The new Monty Python comedy ( sort of ).
he board outside the North London building says Ashmount Primary School, although it hasn’t been that since 2012. Inside is a derelict mess of leaking roofs, filthy carpets, loitering zombies, tatty old furniture and a classroom that has been blasted to bits by aliens. Some of this is due to the building having been abandoned since the school moved to another site. The rest is down to the fact that today it’s been repurposed by Monty Python’s Terry Jones. We’ll leave it to you to guess which is which. Welcome to the set of Jones’ Absolutely
Anything, a comedy whose hero Neil Clarke, a disillusioned teacher played by Simon Pegg, suddenly finds that he has the power to do, well, absolutely anything. It’s an ability bestowed upon him by four aliens watching from space, all voiced by surviving Pythons John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle. It does not, surprisingly, go well, and Clarke begins to realise that not only must he be careful what he wishes for – but how he wishes it.
“The powers are quite strange and pedantic,” explains Jones, who speaks to SFX in the film’s final week of production, “and he doesn’t know he’s got them in the beginning. He doesn’t realise until another teacher asks, ‘ What would you do if you could do anything?’ and Neil says, ‘ I’d make an alien spaceship hit class 4C and vaporise them [ hence the blasted classroom…]”
“And then,” chips in producer Ben Timlett, “he tries to fix it by saying, ‘ Everyone come back alive!’ [… and the zombies]. We’re shooting that scene today, with people coming out the graveyard. We’re then going to shoot a street scene where dead people are trying to get back into their houses.” That’s a bit grim, isn’t it? “Well,” he grins, “I think certain teachers would enjoy their class’s demise. He does redeem it. There is a happy ending!”
Absolutely Anything has effectively been in the making for 20 years. Jones originally started on the script with Gavin Scott, known for his work on Small Soldiers and The Young
Indiana Jones Chronicles. It was, according to Jones, inspired by HG Wells’ 1889 short story
The Man Who Could Work Miracles, which also centred around someone whose sudden omnipotent power gets him into trouble, but soon “changed dramatically”. It wasn’t to be, however. After years of getting it into shape, the script was scrapped in 2003 when Bruce
Almighty – where Jim Carrey’s character is given the power of God – was released. “It was just too similar a premise,” says Jones.
But Absolutely Anything wasn’t dead – it was resting. In 2011, after being asked by Phoenix Pictures CEO Mike Medavoy if he had anything in his “bottom drawer”, Jones and Scott dusted off the script and had another go. Producer Timlett, who raised money for the film along with Jones’ son Bill, reckons the time away from the project was vital.
“I actually remember reading this script a long time ago and not thinking much of it at the time! But when Terry and Gavin got the call they started to work it into something really, really good. It’s a vast difference to what it was, and I think that’s what sometimes happens with scripts – sometimes you need to take a fresh look at it. They’d made a lot of changes. It just became wonderful and suddenly it was a laugh- out loud script.”
The decision to return to film is quite a
big deal for 74- year- old Jones. A member of legendary comedy troupe Monty Python, he co- directed 1975’ s … Holy Grail with Terry Gilliam and then helmed … Life Of Brian and
… Meaning Of Life by himself. From there, he established his directorial style with such films as Personal Services and Erik The
Viking, but became disillusioned with the film industry when his 1996 film The Wind In The
Willows was “appallingly handled” in terms of distribution. Now, though, he feels that it’s time to get back in the director’s chair. “I’m very excited.”
It’s been a year of grand returns for Jones, who, last July, reunited on stage with the remaining Pythons ( Graham Chapman died in 1989) for a string of live shows at the O2 in London. In Absolutely Anything, they will reunite again – albeit, only in voice. They play squabbling CGI aliens who, after intercepting Nasa’s Voyager probe, become curious with Earth and decide to test the human race by seeing if one of them would use God- like powers for good or evil.
We use “reunite” loosely, mind, as actually getting them all together in one recording studio is, says Timlett, “virtually impossible. I think when that happens a black hole opens in Australia or something. So, we did Terry Gilliam and Mike Palin together, and then John [ Cleese] came in on his own and then we had Eric [ Idle] soon after.”
Did the guys take much persuasion to do the film?
“I twisted their arms a bit,” Jones chuckles, “but they all came along, and were agreeable.”
“They’re all about money,” Timlett adds, tongue moving firmly to cheek. “Money, money, money, divorce this, divorce that.” Simon signs up Humanity’s representative, of course, is bumbling everyman teacher Neil – a natural fit for Spaced and Shaun Of The Dead actor Simon Pegg, who is currently hiding from the rain with co- star Sanjeev Bhaskar, who plays colleague Ray. Even so, he initially turned down the role.
“I spoke to Terry about it a few years ago,” Pegg says. “I was developing something with Nick Frost at the time which didn’t have a similar story, but was about a guy who had a special ability, and it felt like a bit too much of a crossover. So I said, ‘ I don’t think I can do this.’ But, obviously, the thing with Nick drifted away in the end and here I am! It’s a bit of a dream come true, because the Pythons were such an important part of my formative years as a fan of comedy. To be able
"IT'S VERY EASY TO BE FLIPPANT ABOUT SCI-FI OR HORROR OR ANYTHING GENRE"
to work with [ Jones] is another box ticked off the list for me.”
Alongside Pegg, as befits the Pythons, is a cast packed with British comedy stars, including Eddie Izzard, Joanna Lumley and Meera Syal, as well as Kate Beckinsale as love interest Catherine. The film’s most notable star, however, will be the late comic titan Robin Williams, whose last role before his sad death last year was the voice of Neil’s talking dog Dennis. According to Jones, who directed Williams over Skype, the man was a “perfectionist” who did three recording sessions before laying down anything he deemed worthy, having decided on the third attempt that Dennis should be delivered in the style of a 16- year- old boy.
Dennis himself, however, is a real dog called Mojo, who, despite being incredibly welltrained, has proven a challenge for both Jones (“Oh, it’s painful!”) and his on- screen owner.
“It was difficult at first,” says Pegg, “because it was just me and Mojo filming in Neil’s flat. As soon as Sanjeev and Kate got on set, I suddenly remembered there were humans in the world and it became a bit more fun. At the time it was frustrating. It was because of the sheer industry involved in working with a dog. So if you do a take which is amazing, Oscar- winning, and Mojo does something he’s not supposed to do, then the shot is unusable. Whereas if Mojo does a take, and you’re mediocre, that’s the one that gets used.
“He is so well trained, though,” Pegg continues. “When I see my dogs in the morning and I’m all, ‘ Hey how’s it going?’ they’re so happy to see me. But Mojo is so focused. No one’s allowed to talk to him or stroke him. And it’s not because he’s a diva, they just have to keep him so focused. He’s a total professional.”
Bhaskar pipes up from the other side of the classroom. “He was telling me the other day that he loved your early stuff.” Pegg laughs. “He thinks I’ve sold out.” “Yeah,” Bhaskar smiles, “he wants you to make another series of Spaced.”
Of course, the big question when it comes to
Absolutely Anything isn’t to do with Pythons or dogs, but whether it’s actually funny. Blending science fiction and comedy is a tricky art, one that has yielded classics such as Ghostbusters and Back To The Future, but also spewed out disasters like Eddie Murphy’s The Adventures
Of Pluto Nash. Pegg, obviously, cannot guarantee that you’ll be rolling in the aisles but, seeing as he’s previously starred in films like Paul and The World’s End, he is a man who knows a thing or two about sci- fi laughs.
“I think the art of doing that is to never assume that the science fiction element is funny,” he says. “Sci- fi has been, and always will be, a fantastic metaphorical tool. In
Shaun and certainly with The World’s End, we were using sci- fi as a metaphorical tool and not taking the mick out of it. It’s very easy to be flippant about sci- fi or horror or anything genre, because it’s easy to reduce it to something. You can say, ‘ Oh yeah, sci- fi’s all about this’ and ‘ Horror’s all about that.’ It’s very easy to be dismissive about it. What’s harder is to actually embrace it and use it constructively and seriously and approach it from the point of view of affection rather than disdain. I think always: if you’re going to make a sci- fi comedy or a horror comedy, it’s always better to make sure that part is intact, and not just a piss- take, like Spaceballs!” Absolutely Anything opens in cinemas on Friday 14 August.
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