Cast: Simon Pegg, Robin Williams, Kate Beckinsale
Director: Terry Jones
Genre: Comedy, Sci-Fi
Running Time: 85 minutes
Synopsis: The fate of the world hangs in the balance. One man's actions stand between Earth's survival and its absolute destruction. The thing is, Neil hasn't got a clue what's going on.
Up in the distant reaches of outer space, the Intergalactic Council, a nasty bunch of alien creatures, intercept the Voyager space probe and look down on planet Earth. These cackling creatures have an appetite for destruction and believe that Earth and its inhabitants should be destroyed.
However, before such an order can be placed, Intergalactic Law states that the inhabitants of any planet must be given the chance to prove themselves. One person is to be selected at random and granted exceptional powers. How they respond will dictate the planet's future.
With just a wave of an alien limb, this chosen one will be able to do Absolutely Anything. And so with the whirl of a holographic Rolodex, Neil Clarke (Simon Pegg), an unassuming teacher from North London, England, becomes that person.
At first, Neil doesn't realize that anything unusual is happening. He is completely oblivious. He doesn't see the laser beam from outer space that strikes him as he cycles to school. He gets on with his usual daily routine and when chatting with his best friend, Ray (Sanjeev Bhaskar), tells him that he wishes his rowdy class would just disappear.
As a muffled explosion silences the canteen, and chaos ensues, Neil stands aghast at the door to his classroom where he is confronted by a smoking hole in the ground. His class has vanished! Confused, Neil heads home to his apartment and his loyal dog, Dennis. They watch TV together as the news channels report on the school blast. Neil can't believe it could have anything to do with him! Could it?
Then, realisation slowly dawns and Neil discovers that he can do anything he wishes, with simply a wave of his hand. But he can't get the hang of his newfound powers straight away.
The first thing he must do is bring his pupils back to life. In doing so, he learns a valuable lesson. He wishes everyone who died were alive once more, not realising that his wish will resurrect everyone who has ever died, causing an army of decomposing corpses to rise from their graves and start wandering the streets! He must be specific with his demands and consider his diction very carefully. In desperate need of a friend, Neil turns to his dog, Dennis (voiced by Robin Williams), to whom he grants the power of speech and rational thought. But it turns out that most of Dennis's rational thought revolves around biscuits.
All the while he is desperately bidding for the heart of the girl of his dreams, Catherine (Kate Beckinsale), who lives downstairs. To further complicate matters, he must also battle her psychotic ex, Colonel Grant (Rob Riggle).
Absolutely Anything is a story of choosing the right words, of working out what a man really wants, and of saving our planet from total destruction. Good luck, Neil, we're all counting on you…
Release Date: November 19th, 2015
The idea for the latest film from Terry Jones, Absolutely Anything, began life many years ago when the former Python imagined a movie inspired by a short story written by H.G. Wells at the end of the 19th century " the comedic fantasy -The Man Who Could Work Miracles'. Terry Jones worked up a script before then popping the film concept on the back burner while he concentrated on other projects.
His interest in the story was rekindled, however, following a call from producer Mike Medavoy, with whom Jones has enjoyed a long working relationship, starting with Erik the Viking back in the late 1980s. As a distributor, Mike Medavoy had also worked on the release of the seminal 1979 Monty Python movie Life of Brian.
'I had gone to Terry Jones and asked him if there was anything he had wanted to direct and he sent me this script," says Mike Medavoy. 'I thought it was very funny and we proceeded to try to get it made."
Once Terry Jones revisited his original script, he asked screenwriter Gavin Scott to join him and the pair reworked the story together. 'When I was working on George Lucas' TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, George asked me to persuade Terry Jones to direct one of the episodes I had written," explains Gavin Scott. 'When I went to see him, Terry Jones said that he didn't have time because he was rewriting a script. With considerable cheek I offered to help with the rewrite, and we have written material together ever since."
Producers Ben Timlett and Bill Jones (the latter Terry Jones' son) also came on board, to manage the production in the UK and raise the finance. Bill Jones had already worked with his father, alongside Ben Timlett, on a number of occasions and had enjoyed the process immensely. 'Working with your dad can be a bit of a struggle for some people but not for me," he says. 'We've done quite a bit together, like re-cutting Erik the Viking, which they ended up calling the -Director's Son's Cut'.
'Dad is such a nice person," he adds, 'and he goes out of his way to know every single person on set, all the actors and all the crew. He's nice to everyone and it just makes the whole set a great place to work. Making a film should be fun and making this film has been a wonderful experience."
Bill Jones' producing partner, Ben Timlett agrees, saying that shooting Absolutely Anything has been a blast. 'Terry Jones is so collaborative but just as importantly knows immediately when he has the take. This puts the whole crew at ease. What also helped was that from a very funny script Terry Jones produced simple but wonderful storyboards, showing how he pushes his brilliant comedic vision through to the team. We loved them so much that we incorporated them into the end credits with some touches of animation."
Terry Jones explains how the film opens. 'Aliens intercept the Pioneer spacecraft as it's leaving the solar system and decide to assess planet Earth and its inhabitants."
In real life, NASA launched the Pioneer mission in 1974 with the intention of studying the outer rim of our solar system. They included a plaque about the human race and a map of where to find us, just in case intelligent life discovers the probe in deep space.
In the film, this is exactly what happens when the Intergalactic Council of Superior Beings intercepts the Pioneer probe and starts studying mankind. They wonder whether they should destroy the Earth and its inhabitants for the good of the Intergalactic Community.
The aliens, however, are bound by intergalactic law and must give mankind a chance to prove itself before condemning the planet to oblivion. 'They then choose one member of the human race at random, who happens to be a teacher in a secondary school," continues Terry Jones. 'Once he is chosen, they then give him intergalactic powers. How he behaves will dictate the planet's fate."
Casting Absolutely Everyone
Once the script was locked, the filmmakers set about gathering a stellar cast. 'We've got an amazing casting director called Irene Lamb who has worked on loads of films, like the original Star Wars and more recently Terry Gilliam's Zero Theorem," notes Bill Jones. 'She's helped pull together a really terrific cast."
Indeed, according to Terry Jones, the filmmakers have assembled something of a dream team. 'Simon Pegg plays our leading man, Neil Clarke, the teacher, and Kate Beckinsale plays the girl he is in love with," the ex-Python says.
'Then Joanna Lumley plays a voracious TV presenter who doesn't read the books she's covering in her book programme. Then we have Sanjeev Bhaskar who plays Neil's friend and sidekick, a biology teacher called Ray.
'Eddie Izzard plays the head teacher at Neil's school, and the Pythons voice the aliens. There is Sharon played by John Cleese; Kylie is myself; Janet is Mike Palin; Maureen is Terry Gilliam; and Eric Idle voices the Salubrious Gat, who blows up the school where Simon's character works. Then we have Robin Williams voicing Dennis the dog in his last voiceover."
When working through the later drafts of the script together, Jones and Scott had the advantage of knowing which actors would bring their script to life. This was especially important in the case of their leading man, the secondary school teacher, Neil.
'The whole project really gathered momentum when we got Simon Pegg involved," explains Bill Jones. 'Five years ago, my dad had the idea of Simon playing the part of Neil. However, Simon actually had a script with a similar premise that he was developing with Nick Frost so he turned it down.
'We spoke to a few other people but when we finally got our film fully funded, we actually re-approached Simon Pegg after we met him at a screening of a film we had just directed, A Liar's Autobiography: The Untrue Story Of Monty Python's Graham Chapman.
'We had a quick chat and then Ben Jones rang up my dad and said, -What about Simon Pegg?' Dad said -Well, I've already approached him,' but I said that we should try again and see if anything has happened. Simon then told us that his other script idea wasn't happening and that he would love to play Neil, which was great for us."
Simon Pegg was great casting. 'He really is Neil," continues Bill Jones. 'He really solidifies the character and is the perfect Neil. Even some of the more outrageous lines, he makes them seem completely realistic. He's brilliant.
'He is also so down to earth and doesn't have any big demands, like trailers and the like. He doesn't care. In fact, he hardly went into his trailer! In the end, we gave it to Mojo the Dog who plays Dennis on screen."
For Simon Pegg, the chance to work with Terry Jones proved too big an opportunity to turn down. He'd watched Monty Python's Flying Circus when growing up, even when he was too young to fully understand all the humour. He is also a huge fan of the Python films and had already met Terry Jones. He leapt at the chance to work with him.
'Obviously the chance to work with Terry Jones was amazing, and the other Pythons being in the film was another big draw for me," explains Simon Pegg. 'It was a chance to work with some of my comic heroes.
'I grew up as a great fan of Monty Python and I've met Terry Jones a few times. The chance to work with your heroes is something that is always very welcome. Then I read the script and it was very funny. I thought, -Let's do this.'"
Simon Pegg also loved the Neil character and his unusual journey. 'Neil Clarke is a teacher who is a bit down-trodden, a bit down on his luck," says the actor. 'He has pretentions of being a writer and a literary figure, but he's not either of those things. Then by some weird chance he is given the power to do anything by a conglomerate of aliens."
Neil then goes on to make a series of dreadful mistakes. 'It's all about how Neil deals with this massive and ungainly power he has," Simon Pegg says. 'He isn't the brightest guy and he realises through trial and error that he has to be very literal in his demands when it comes to using this power, otherwise terrible things happen.
'At one stage, he manages to reanimate the corpse of everyone who ever died. Then he turns the earth in to a ball of ice. He makes a series of catastrophic mistakes and has to learn about the responsibility that comes with great power."
This is a busy time for Simon Pegg who has a number of very different films being released during 2015, and he says he was glad to tackle a straight-up comedy. 'I come from a comedy background and comedy has always been my great interest," he says. 'I started out doing sitcoms and sketch shows and that led to comedy films.
'I love doing serious stuff but people know me for comedy. I do have to assert myself dramatically, but as I have a few of those coming up I was quite happy to go back to an out-and-out comedy because it's something I really enjoy."
A key part of Neil's journey is his changing relationship with the girl next door (or the girl downstairs to be literal). She is called Catherine and is brought to life by Kate Beckinsale.
'My character works in television on a show about books," Kate Beckinsale explains. 'Her boss is played by Joanna Lumley who is a quite fearsome creature, with my character being a bit more idealistic. Catherine lives in the same building as Simon who is supposedly writing a book. Her character and his know each other though not intimately. But then she becomes embroiled in his whole charm." Kate Beckinsale was enamoured with the chance of doing more comedy, which doesn't figure as highly as drama or action on her film CV. 'I haven't really done a lot of comedy," she says. 'I've done a few things but it's been really nice doing this. I don't have to beat anybody up in this movie, which makes a nice change.
'I was also drawn to the fact that it is a really sweet script," she continues, 'a very silly and fun fantasy comedy. But the thing that was most attractive was that anybody would want to work with Terry Jones. I'm such a massive fan of his and of all the Pythons, and of Simon Pegg, too."
Working with Terry Jones has been a dream, she says. 'It's great working with Terry Jones. My mum worked with Terry Jones on Ripping Yarns a million years ago so it's quite nice to suddenly come in and find that Terry Jones is exactly how she said he was. He couldn't be sweeter and he couldn't be more prepared.
'He's been writing this script for decades and he really knows his way around it. He has his storyboards all written out and really knows what he wants. It was just absolutely charming and lovely."
Finding a spark with Simon Pegg was also an enjoyable exercise. 'It is fantastic working with Simon Pegg," Kate Beckinsale says. 'He is absolutely as funny and nice and inventive and cool as you would assume that he is. Also, he works really hard and it's a lovely vibe to be around."
Neil and Catherine's blossoming relationship is not without its problems, one of which comes in the form of Catherine's ex, an American Colonel called Grant, who rocks up in London bidding to re-conquer her heart, much to her, and Neil's, annoyance.
American comic-actor Rob Riggle brings the larger-than-life Colonel to the screen. 'Rob Riggle was suggested by Mike Medavoy and I thought, -Yes, he'd be great'," notes Bill Jones.
His producing partner, Timlett, elucidates, 'Rob Riggle is a big star in the States. If you've seen The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live or watched Will Ferrell movies, then you would have seen him a lot. It took quite a bit of time to show Terry Jones all his stuff."
Once the producers were able to show the director Rob Riggle's work, Terry Jones could see what he would bring to the role. 'In a lot of the shows, Rob Riggle is very over the top," Bill Jones says, 'and what is wonderful about the Grant character is that he plays it down and then when this over-the-top character bubbles out occasionally, it sets him off."
Screenwriter Gavin Scott adds, 'Rob Riggle's character is of course the villain of the piece, but what neither Terry nor I had anticipated in writing him was the way Rob Riggle would make Grant both scary and sympathetic. He has these hopeful little smiles that he does when he comes up with some outrageous idea and secretly wants people to like him for it."
Rob Riggle says that he jumped at the chance to get involved. 'My character, Grant, is awesome," he notes. 'He's very focused and, generally, doesn't hear too well in that he doesn't do a lot of receiving but does a lot of transmitting. He's in love with Catherine and can you blame him? He's not going to take no for an answer."
The actor found the script hilarious. 'The script was very funny," he says, 'and I couldn't believe I'd be getting the chance to work with Terry Jones, a legend, someone I grew up watching and enjoyed all my life.
'The chance to work with him was awesome so I jumped at that. And then Simon Pegg and Kate Beckinsale, I think the world of those guys. I've watched them for a long time and I'm a huge fan, so I wasn't going to pass that up."
Grant is a ferocious nemesis for Neil, but the beleaguered teacher does receive some support from his colleague and best friend Ray, played by Sanjeev Bhaskar. 'I play a teacher who is Neil's best friend, possibly his only friend, and a biology teacher," Sanjeev Bhaskar explains.
'Ray is the one person that Neil entrusts with the information that he has these special powers and, in turn, Ray tries to get Neil to use his special powers to benefit Ray. That has comic and disastrous consequences.
Director Terry Jones had given Bhaskar a draft of the script a couple of years ago. 'Terry Jones gave me the script and said, -I've been writing this film and would you like to have a look?' I said yes, of course. Gosh, who wouldn't? It's a Terry Jones script! I read it and it seemed really funny. It was probably the funniest script I'd read in years.
'I very rarely laugh out loud when I'm on my own but this was a script that I had to put down to stop laughing," continues Sanjeev Bhaskar. 'I had to pick it up to re-read the thing I'd laughed at, to make sure I'd laughed at the right point.
'I was doing it constantly and, afterwards, I said to Terry Jones, -Look, it is one of the funniest scripts I've read.' At that point he asked me to play Ray. I had no idea I could possibly be involved so that was a dream come true."
A Dog's Life: Dennis
While Ray is an important ally for Neil, so too is his dog, Dennis. In fact, once he acquires his super powers, Neil gives his pet the power of speech – which works for and against him at various points in the film. Master comic Robin Williams voiced Dennis in what would prove his last-ever film role. 'Robin Williams did the voice of the dog three times," says director Terry Jones. 'The first time we did it on Skype and we had a ten-second delay so I couldn't direct him properly. Then Bill and I went over to San Francisco to do it in person, and then after that, Robin Williams phoned me up and said he'd just got an idea " that Dennis was a 16-year-old boy!
'He was so excited about that we did it the following Monday with Robin doing the voice of the dog for a third time and he was great. He was such a pleasure to work with."
His writing partner agrees. 'I was present in a studio in Santa Monica when Robin Williams recorded one version of his dialogue for Dennis," says Scott. 'Terry was directing from London but because of the 10-second delay Robin wanted me in the sound booth with him to read the other lines. 'He also had a picture of our film dog on the lectern to help him get in character. He gave us a wonderful Dennis the Dog, who I like to imagine never actually gave up the powers Neil passed on to him and is still having fun somewhere in the cosmos!"
When it came to casting Dennis, the filmmakers had settled on a dog called Mojo, who makes his big-screen debut. 'Mojo was wonderful," says Bill Jones.
'We found this company called Birds and Animals and they train up animals for films. As soon as they sent us a test with Mojo in it, my father went, -That's Dennis!' He was perfect as he was just a dog. Someone like Neil wouldn't necessarily have a certain type of dog. They'd just have a dog!" Timlett agrees. 'Mojo is a perfect Dennis. Obviously, you talk about breeds and what kind of dogs. At one stage we were thinking maybe a Labrador," he says, 'but Mojo photographs so well, just like Kate Moss!"
Whenever Simon Pegg and Mojo were on set, Bill Jones cracked his favourite joke. 'When Simon Pegg was walking with Mojo, I would say, -Oops star coming through. Sorry, Simon Pegg, would you mind moving out of the way?' I think he probably got bit bored of it by the end. Mojo I mean, not Simon!"
Mojo has been training for film roles for more than two years and Absolutely Anything marks his screen debut. His owner and trainer, Jo Vaughan, says that he trained for eight weeks for this specific role.
'We get the script and then we make a list of behaviours that the dog has to learn to do and we do all that upfront," Jo Vaughan says, 'but training never stops for us all the way through filming. If we need him to stand in a certain place or go to a certain person, we sometimes use a mark. 'This can be in the guise of anything really. We ask them to go and stand on that and they get rewarded for it. So they learn to recognize where it is."
Vaughan says that Simon Pegg was Mojo's favourite, which was fortunate for the filmmakers. 'He really likes Simon Pegg," says Jo Vaughan. 'They had a nice relationship. He'd always wants to say hello to Simon Pegg when he saw him and have a bit of a stroke. Luckily, Simon has dogs so he's a dog person." Simon Pegg says that he loved Mojo, too. 'He is such a sweet dog," the actor says. 'When an animal is on set you are essentially beholden to it. It is all about getting the animal to do what it needs to do. But Mojo is extraordinary. He is very well trained, without being too neurotic and over-trained. It's all about making sure he gets his stuff right.
'If Mojo gets it right and I do a take that is passable, then that's the take we use! They ask so much of him sometimes, but Mojo is a credit to canine beings."
Kate Beckinsale had to interact with Mojo, too, as well as working with a Corgi. 'I have to say the dog playing Dennis has probably the most expressive face of anybody in the movie and is completely professional and amazing," she laughs..
'There is a scene in which I end up snogging a Corgi and they are a little less friendly on the whole than other dogs and so it had a slightly funny look in its eye," she adds. 'They said, -Oh no, you can't kiss it because it might bite you!' It was all right in the end, though he did make this gagging noise after he climbed off me, which I thought was pretty insulting!"
An Interstellar Cast: The Alien Design
The other non-humans in the movie are, of course, the council of aliens who reside in deep space and decide on mankind's future. Their individual designs came via production designer Jim Acheson and his team.
'He was so great," says Terry Jones of Acheson, 'the way he and his visual artist envisioned them and brought the aliens to life. There is Janet, voiced by Michael Palin, while John Cleese's alien is like a stern housemaster. Then I play Kylie. I don't know what Kylie is.
'But then also there's Maureen, a little short alien who falls off his chair and jumps around, and Terry Gilliam did that. Eric voiced the Salubrious Gat. I didn't write them consciously for each of the actors but they seem to fit pretty well. There is the headmaster, John; the nice one Mike; Maureen is the grotesque one, and Kylie is the scientific one. I guess that's how you might consider them."
Jim Acheson, who worked on costume as well as production design, gives much of the credit for the alien designs to the film's concept artist, Paul Catling. 'He is a brilliant illustrator and Paul Catling was absolutely instrumental in the design of these aliens," says Acheson, who's worked with Terry Jones on The Meaning of Life and on The Wind in the Willows.
'We talk and I give him little scribbles but Paul's skill and brilliance shines through all of this. The aliens are in 18 per cent of the film and a pretty nasty bunch they are, too."
Acheson and Catling originally thought that they could capture the individual Pythons within the design of each alien, 'but we threw that out quite quickly because one of the things we don't want people to think was, -That is John Cleese trapped inside a rubber suit," Acheson says, 'let alone Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam. So we were anxious to make them different sizes."
The nastiest alien, played by Gilliam, is a tiny little chap, while the chief alien, played by Cleese, is the biggest. 'They all sit on the same-sized chairs so there is a problem with scale, which we purposely develop," Acheson says. 'They are really ugly, nasty creatures and we also wanted to play with the idea that these aliens came from different galaxies.
'Also, very early on we decided that none of them would be wearing clothes so that meant we were interested in texture, colour and silhouette. Initially, we thought we'd have lots of limbs and three heads and things like that, but the further we got away from a humanistic style the more difficult it was to make them believable."
Another vital piece of production design was the alien spaceship, which is based on a Portuguese Man of War. 'It is based on a large jellyfish, which is a very personal idea," says Acheson. 'I've always been frightened of jellyfish, especially Portuguese Men of War, having been stung as a child. 'So we had the idea of making a spaceship that was vertical rather than horizontal and a spaceship that had tentacles, which looked dangerous but beautiful."
Location Management: Bringing The Film To Life
Back on planet Earth, the key locations were somewhat less exotic and were focused on the school where Neil works, and also his flat. 'We decided we needed a central location," says Bill Jones. 'If we could find an old school where we could base the whole unit, then we could build extra sets within the school."
The filmmakers settled on Ashmount Primary School in Crouch Hill, North London. 'When our locations manager brought us to the school, it only took my dad five minutes to get here from home, and he said, -I really like it. This is an excellent location.' I was like, -Dad, you haven't even got out of the car yet!' But then we walked round the school and he was right. It was a really good location."
Timlett adds, 'It was the dream to have a base location like ours. We built Neil's flat here and we also built the morgue here that you see when Neil accidentally brings the dead back to life."
Other important locations included an amazing penthouse apartment on the Southbank right next to the Tate Modern. 'It was used for the scene where Grant holds Neil captive and ties him up in a chair," Timlett says.
'And we also shot one scene at Woolwich Town Hall, the dream sequence right at the start of the film, where Neil is dreaming of being feted as a wonderful writer. It's a beautiful town hall with amazing architecture."
This particular scene culminates in 30 dogs ambushing Neil's dream moment and causing havoc among the partygoers. Pegg remembers the scene all too well. 'I didn't realise until I was lying on the floor looking at them all lined up, straining at their leashes " from a St Bernard down to a little Yorkie " quite what I had signed up to do," he recalls.
'Suddenly I thought, -Oh, there are a lot of dogs going to run on me!' They basically funneled them through a polystyrene corridor over my head but they were very courteous and careful not to tread on me. I think the last time we did it, though, one dog ran right over my face and I felt his little balls brush my forehead!
'I felt the little velveteen sack there and I knew that was the take we were going to use." He laughs. 'That really is a treasured memory from this shoot!"
Release Date: November 19th, 2015