Ab­so­lutely Any­thing

Si­mon Pegg’s play­ing God in a new Python- pow­ered SF com­edy. Stephen Kelly keeps the faith on set

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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!”

long ges­ta­tion

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


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.”

Bal­anc­ing act

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.

Si­mon Pegg stars along­side Mojo – who’ll get the best re­views of the pair?

These strange alien crea­tures are voiced by the Pythons. Di­rec­tor Terry Jones gets a chuckle out of Sanjeev Bhaskar.

“Tell me it’ll be bet­ter than Run Fat­boy Run!”

Is Si­mon Pegg mor­ph­ing into Gary Old­man…? Pretty, sure, but we bet the traf­fic’s a night­mare.

See, it’s def­i­nitely science fic­tion! On their planet he’s very hand­some. Kate Beck­in­sale gets to rush around as Cather­ine.

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