“The Gospel according to Monty Python”
Author JULIAN DOYLE is one of the world’s most versatile Film Makers. He has Written, Directed, Photographed, Edited and Created Special Fx in feature films all to the highest levels. He is most famous for editing the Monty Python films such as ‘Life of Brian’ and shooting the Fx for Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ and ‘Timebandits, which he also edited. He has also won awards for directing pop videos such as Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting’ featuring Donald Sutherland and Iron Maiden’s ‘Play with Madness’ featuring Graham Chapman. His most recent film is ‘Twilight of the Gods’ an in depth exploration of the relationship between Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche. He can be seen in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ playing the Policeman who puts his hand over the lens bringing the film to an end.
Q1: Working as a film editor on Monty Python films, such as ‘Life of Brian’, must have given you a great opportunity to converse with the Monty Python troop. How did your interactions influence your newest book, The Gospel According to Monty Python?
The book arose when I suggested Life of Brian was the most accurate Biblical film ever made and we should make a documentary about it. I started writing a few notes and ended up with 200 pages. This was clearly not a documentary; it was a book. And so, it came to pass. Terry Jones was so pleased that he wrote a wonderful forward for the book, and Mike Palin added a backward (the only book with a forward and backward). Terry Gilliam was also so impressed that he made his kids read it.
Q2: How has your film background helped you to develop your writing skills?
Editing film is about structuring your material and then dramatizing the detail. Writing is much the same.
Q3: You originally called the book, ‘The Life of (Brian) Jesus’ with Brian crossed out. Why did you change the title?
I thought it was a clever idea to have part of the title crossed out. It turns out such a title cannot be catalogued or even emailed so I had to change it. So it was not such a clever idea! But while changing the title I had time to add some astonishing revelations that had come to me after the drafting of the first.
Q4: In the book you describe the work of the film editor and discuss the complexities of making a comedy film. How did you deal with explaining critical film analysis and film terminology for the average layperson?
I lecture on directing to film students and media groups at universities. Earlier in the year, I was at Penn State, September I will be in Greece, and in October I will be in Ohio. But, I often give talks at festivals or events to laypeople. For example, I gave a talk last month in Limerick, Ireland regarding Life of Brian. (the first time it was shown there since the ban) I have honed into how to convey information to those in and out of the industry.
Q5: Can you give an example or two of your revelations in regards to the previous question?
There are many revelations in the book. Many arise from the process of trying to crucify the Pythons. Simple things like the fact we had to import large trees. Where could such tall trees have been found in Jerusalem, a dry arid area. Also, if the actors wanted to have a pee, we had to take them down. This makes it clear the criminal was naked and the place was disgusting. Then, there were more serious issues. Terry Gilliam put skeletons on the crosses—this exposes the nonsensical Biblical story that Jesus was taken down because he was dead. The purpose of crucifixion was not to kill people but to put the criminal on show to rot as a warning. We found making the crosses with electric tools a lot of work. Just imagine making one, carrying it to Golgotha, and being nailed up for three hours and then you drop dead (which is very unlikely), so you take the person down. What a waste of a good tree! Even the stoning scene undermines the Bible. John is about to stone Mathias for blasphemy; the Jewish Sanhedrin accuse Jesus of blasphemy. Why do they take him to Pilate? The punishment for blasphemy is stoning which has nothing to do with the Romans. After stoning, the law says the body must be hung on a tree but removed and buried before sunset. These are minor points because in the book there are even more serious issues raised.
Q6: The Gospel According to Monty Python has controversial interpretations of Biblical passages, framing, and depictions. How does this text support those who are yearning for a better understanding of the Bible?
I have been fascinated by ancient history all my life, so I came to the Bible as a historical document, which I believe it is. I investigated the text with no bias and was struck by many interesting anomalies. Not to give away any from the book let me give you an example from the Old Testament. Moses leaves Egypt as a murderer. He then goes back and keeps popping in to see Pharaoh in order to threaten him with plagues. Surely, you can’t just pop in to see a God King. I couldn’t pop in to see the Queen of England, especially if I was a murderer carrying threats. But, then this is followed by Moses meeting his brother, Aaron. Where the hell did he come from? The Egyptians were killing all the Israelite male children. Moses survived the genocide because he was floated down the Nile in a basket. So if Moses has a brother Aaron then the original story is very unlikely. There are many more significant examples like this in the New Testament.
Q7: Although your book is inspired and informed by Monty Python, are there differences in opinion of the Bible and, more specifically, the story of Jesus that you’d like to discuss?
One of the key parts of the book is explaining our attempt at crucifying the Pythons; it revealed many mistakes in the idea and image we have of Jesus crucifixion. It is absolutely clear that the event is nothing like we depict it.
Q8: Monty Python’s work is canonized and critically described as postmodern. Does this deter or enhance Biblical understanding, in your opinion?
Last week there was a three day conference called “Brian and Jesus” at Kings College, London, which I was asked to speak at. Professors from all round the world came to read their papers. These included, among many:
Prof. Bart Ehrman from the University North Carolina, “Brian and the Apocalyptic Jesus.”
Prof. Guy Stiebel from Israel, “Romani ite Domun. Resistance in Judea.”
Prof. Martin Goodman from Oxford University, “Brian and Politics in First Century Judea.”
Rev. Cannon Prof. Richard Burridge from Dean of Kings College summing up with “The Church of England and Life of Brian.”
Therefore ‘Life of Brian’ is clearly a source of Biblical study.
Q9: Could you briefly explain for readers how and why Biblical stories commonly are reinterpreted in modern works?
The Gospels are very contradictory: he was anointed on the head, he was anointed on the feet; in the empty tomb there are two angels, in the tomb is one angel; an angel flies down rolls the stone away and sits on it. The Biblical films always select the most believable. So, angels flying down and sitting on stones is never shown. Other textual points are also never shown: Matthew 27:51 has zombies in Jerusalem. Acts 20:9; has Paul resurrecting a man he bored to death. Matthew 8 has suicidal pigs. And Matthew 21:18 has Jesus trashing a fig tree. These are just some revealed in the book. Some people enjoy stories; others enjoy histories. Trying to understand the history of the time of Christ fascinates many as shown by Dan Brown’s books.
Q10: The Gospel According to Monty Python incorporates the troop’s interpretation of Biblical stories. How does your text accentuate the viewing experience of ‘Life of Brian’ and other Biblical films?
Some scenes were cut from Brian, which meant things like the ending suicide squad are unexplained. The reasons why scenes were cut are revealed. On the set revelations, give more fun and enjoyment when watching the film (for example, the Biggus Dickus scene). An understanding of the Bible parallels gives greater insights: Pilate DID build the Jerusalem aqueduct (What have the Romans done for us?). Brian insists on his Jewishness but when confronted by Pilate claims his father was a Roman; this is exactly what Paul does. First he claims to be Jewish then when arrested by the Romans he suddenly announces he is a Roman. Revelations that occurred on the set like the fact the actors could not carry full size crosses so we built small ones for them. These are just a taste of what the book reveals
Q11: As a former research scientist, could you explain how your interest in Biblical interpretation grew over the years? More to the point, how did you accumulate the body of knowledge housed in The Gospel According to Monty Python? Did you continuously research while writing, or was the writing process more of a stream-of-consciousness?
Many years ago, I read a book on the Pyramids. I was so fascinated that I read more on ancient Egypt. I then found a link between Egypt and Pythagoras and ancient Greece. Following this line, I came to the Knights Templars and then Scottish Rite freemasonry, which led me to the war of independence and George Washington’s membership of the masons. Holy Grail stories began to filter into the story, and then from this, I went back to the Old Testament and through to Jesus. I have read the Bible many times and many books about it, some very cranky ones, but even these often had a germ of an idea. There is nothing I like better than finding new ideas about the past.
Q12: What is the one takeaway you hope readers find after reading The Gospel According to Monty Python?
I hope readers will gain an understanding of the difficulties of editing a comedy film and a new understanding of the Biblical story. But most of all I hope they have fun.
For more information, you can reach Julian @
Interview by -Stacey Wood / Editor FEDP
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