The concept of “paying your dues” is valued for the simple reason of knowing what it’s like to be at the bottom, and learning from that experience, so that when you do succeed you apply what you have gained to your current and ongoing success. And one wonders if HandMade Films, the boutique, independent British production company responsible for such films as “Monty Python’s Life Of Brian,” “Withnail & I,” “The Long Good Friday” and more, would’ve lasted longer, and fostered better relationships, if they had to struggle a bit first. That’s one of the conclusions reached by the end of “Very Naughty Boys: The Amazing True Story of HandMade Films,” a detailed and fascinating look at the company from its spunky beginnings to its slow collapse, chronicled by Robert Sellers. Now back on bookshelves, it’s a worthy read for any interested in the often volatile world of indie moviemaking.
And while Sellers constructs a narrative that ultimately celebrates HandMade as one of the few institutions releasing riskier, daring films, particularly in Britain in ’80s, it must be pointed out that few companies ever got as lucky as they did, the first time out. Founded by George Harrison (yes, that George Harrison), he created the venture in what might be one of the most expensive favors of all time. Monty Python were just about to get rolling on ‘Life Of Brian’ when EMI, their original backers, suddenly bailed, concerned about the potentially volatile material. Harrison, a big fan of the comedy troupe, and friend to a couple members, decided to back the movie himself, by putting up his own house. But what started as a gesture to finance a movie he simply wanted to see, soon turned into a full scale and proper business. And HandMade’s fate would be cast when Denis O’Brien was hired to run the show.
The face in front of the money and the company, and the man tasked with the day-to-day operations (as well managing Harrison’s personal accounting), he was undoubtedly feeling good with HandMade going three-for-three with ‘Life Of Brian,’ “Time Bandits” and “The Long Good Friday,” the latter a movie they snapped up when the original producers were seriously thinking of re-editing it, and dumping it on TV. But O’Brien seemed to think these early achievements were largely due to his own savvy (to his credit, ‘Very Naughty Boys’ does underscore he was a tough, if sometimes wildly unfair, businessman who got results) not because of the popularity of the Pythons, or the quality of the filmmakers behind the movies. And once that talent started backing away, HandMade’s fortunes begin to vary wildly.
The story Sellers tells in the book may be familiar, but it’s no less fascinating, and perhaps remarkable for how much history repeats itself in the industry. Originally envisioned as home for Monty Python, O’Brien’s continued pressure on the members to collaborate and work together, even on unofficial Python projects, combined with this shady financial dealings, ultimately pushed many of them away. “In the end, I felt Denis was too active, that really Python didn’t want somebody who was going to come up with projects and push us into doing things. All we needed was somebody who would react to us… we wanted somebody who was rather more reactive than active,” Terry Jones reflects. Either way, with the Pythons bouncing, and making their next film “The Meaning Of Life” at another studio, HandMade had to redefine itself.
And outwardly, the name came to symbolize a place where creativity was championed, in an environment that was open to challenging projects. But in practice, it was hardly a haven for free spirits. O’Brien soon fancied himself a filmmaker, and on more than few pictures, butted heads with directors over scripts, casting and even editing, often fashioning his own test cuts of films. His ambitions also grew faster than the company itself, with HandMade setting up an illfated distribution company, and a U.S. office, while also venturing unwisely into big budget fare, winding up with two massive, expensive disasters: “Water” and “Shanghai Surprise” (and the story of the making of the latter film is worth the price of admission alone).
But it’s thanks to the dedication of those under O’Brien, who truly believed in the company and those making the movies, that HandMade also had a hand in successes like “Withnail & I” (which one can’t imagine being made by anyone either then or today), “Mona Lisa” and what would be HandMade’s last film, “Nuns On The Run.” Those efforts continued to establish HandMade as a place where original, outrageous and unique movies could thrive, but behind the scenes, it was turmoil. And it came to a head in a rather spectacular crash, once again due to O’Brien, whose financial shell games eventually caught up with him and managed to make an enemy out of the one man who mattered most: George Harrison.
“A lot of us who worked there just though that there was this fantastic opportunity and amazing people around and amazing material and Denis always seemed to take the wrong,” says former HandMade exec John Kelleher. “Having lucked out with his first two movies, he almost got nothing right after that. The more Denis got involved in the making of the films, the more they went downhill. He understood the deals, but I don’t think he understood the movies. But you have to give Denis some credit. If it weren’t for him, I suppose some of those terrific films wouldn’t exist. You can’t knock him completely.”
And it’s that complexity that shines in Sellers’ enjoyably, readable book. And far from a hatchet job, “Very Naughty Boys” almost reads like an oral history with interviews from key figures like Alan Bennett, John Cleese, Robbie Coltrane, Sean Connery, Terry Gilliam, Richard E Grant, Richard Griffiths, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Neil Jordan, Paul McGann and Michael Palin. In capturing a distinct moment in British film history, Sellers have crafted a great behind-the-scenes yarn that encapsulates in great detail the toil, triumph, tears and zeal to make these movies, along with the hubris that made it both succeed and fall apart. [B+]
“Very Naughty Boys: The Amazing True Story of HandMade Films” is now in stores.