John Cleese said a lot of things during three days I spent in Dallas in the first week of December, during various events large and small with him held by the Dallas Videofest. A sidebar to an answer to a question he’d been asked, referencing Terry Jones’ directorial style, stuck with me.
Specifically, it was Jones’ trusting the comedic performers to do their stuff. “He knew how to direct us,” Cleese said. He pointed out that a number of the best sequences from the Python films were long, extended takes, takes which were scenes Terry Jones had directed. And, pointedly, these long takes for the most part were the scenes.
Cleese made a point that Jones had trusted them to perform the lines and gags, to have the chemistry and timing, and captured that on film in an extended take.
The example he cited was the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail with the two guards played by Eric Idle and Graham Chapman. “You two stay here and make sure he doesn’t leave until I get back.” Idle’s cheerfully doltish inability to understand this instruction, punctuated by Chapman’s hiccups and Palin’s repeating the request, is covered in a single take in medium wide-shot.
Cleese talked about the penchant of most comedy directors to get everything in close-ups, reaction shots, coverage etc and then assemble that chemistry and timing in the editing room. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but his point was that it’s important to trust the performers — in this case, comedians, especially — to know how to do what they do and to allow it to happen.
It’s something that’s always bugged me — having done some sketch work and comedy filmmaking myself — and it was great to hear this point made by John Cleese. Hearing it in praise of Terry Jones was of added interest to me.
There have been a lot of things mentioned about Terry Jones’ work and his various roles in the Python universe over the last couple of days, but I thought this one should be mentioned as well.
Cleese also cited the “Bring out your dead!” sequence as one Jones had directed and allowed to play out in one extended take. I’m posting both this and the “You two stay here” sequences below so you can see what Mr. Cleese was talking about, and to see how to direct a bit of sketch comedy on film.