‘A**holes: A Theory’: John Cleese, director John Walker on what makes us jerks

WATCH: 'A**holes: A Theory' trailer

Some days, it seems like everyone you interact with is an a–hole. At other times, everyone is peachy-keen and kind.

It’s the rich tapestry of the human experience.

In his latest documentary, A**holes: A Theory, Canadian director John Walker explores this personality trait in detail: What makes somebody an a–hole? Are men a–holes more frequently than women? Can someone ever overcome their a–hole tendencies?

Inspired by Aaron James’ New York Times bestselling book of the same name,  A**holes: A Theory investigates the breeding grounds of contemporary “a–hole culture” and locates signs of civility in an otherwise nasty, uncaring universe.

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Lively commentary is provided by the likes of comedy legend John Cleese (Monty Python, Fawlty Towers) throughout the movie.

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Global News sat down with Cleese, Walker and James in Toronto to further discuss the documentary, how it came to be, and whether nature or nurture dictates our a–holery.

Global News: How did this movie iteration come about?
Aaron James: It all started for me when I was surfing, when this guy at the surf spot would drop in front of people on waves, violating the rules of right-of-way. When they complained at him, he would escalate it and yell at them, make a big fuss. I thought, “Man, what an a–hole.”

John Walker: I was having a conversation with another filmmaker and she said, “You have to be an a–hole to be a great filmmaker.” So I started musing on this, and we found a lot of a–hole American filmmakers, but couldn’t find a lot of Canadian ones, so I started wondering if this was a cultural thing. I was heading on a plane to Toronto, and a–hole mayor Rob Ford was in power then… anyway, I went to a bookstore and saw A**holes: A Theory sitting right there.

On page 101, I read: “If a young boy was born in the United States, Italy or Israel, he’s far more likely to live the life of an a–hole than if he was born in Japan, Norway or Canada.”

Once I checked out Aaron’s credentials, we were off to the races.

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John Cleese appears in ‘A**holes: A Theory.’
John Cleese appears in ‘A**holes: A Theory.’. NFB/Hot Docs

How did Mr. Cleese, right here, get involved?
JW: Someone pointed out to me that he was tweeting that he liked the book. We got in touch about the documentary and said that if he wanted to take part, he was welcome.

John Cleese: Sometimes my celebrity is useful. You get attention.

JW: That was not my reason for contacting you; I wasn’t interested in celebrities, I was interested in people who loved the book. It only crossed my mind as a secondary thing.

JC: A book like this is very important, and I have a natural desire to draw people’s attention to it.

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One element I loved about the doc is it features a wide swath of people who have the potential to be a–holes. It’s not just one group.

JW: Of course, throughout the documentary we have our academics, our experts, our subjects, but I wanted to include the ordinary citizen, too… anybody on the street can talk about a–hole behaviour.

A lot of documentaries that tackle a topic like this tend to go towards the lowest common denominator. I like that A**holes doesn’t do that, instead going towards the cerebral, the theoretical.
AJ: My thought was, when I was writing the book, as long as the philosophy is useful and anchored in that existential personal concern, then any sort of sophistication layered on… it was all natural.
JW: We basically followed the book’s lead.

Click to play video 'Trailer: Bad Boys for Life' Trailer: Bad Boys for Life
Trailer: Bad Boys for Life

Can you comment on the political a–holery we’ve seen in the last several years? What’s going on with that?
JC: My delight reading the book is that I don’t really come across that many a–holes, I really don’t. It’s partly because when people recognize me, they want to be nice. They don’t want to be nasty. I get freedom of deference, because I’m a celebrity. I still don’t get a lot of it, but I suppose it’s because you’re arguing the definition of a word.

The political aspect is the most interesting to me. It’s become obvious that people in politics now, both in England and America, are shameless. That was not the case before.

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So what’s the impetus now?
JW: A–holery breeds a–holes. Big a–holes breed little a–holes. It’s spread around the world. I’m worried for Canada… Aaron claims in the book that our country isn’t a great producer of a–holes, and per capita we don’t have as many. We certainly have them, that’s for sure, and I’m very concerned that this behaviour will spread.

JC: I think I first noticed it in the U.K. with a man named Jeffrey Archer. He got into politics that then got tied up with all sorts of shady things, and he had to resign. Everyone detested him. I sat next to him once, and I found it extraordinary — I couldn’t look at him. When it struck me, I noticed no one else at the table could look at him either. He was absolutely unaware of it; he didn’t even process it.

AJ: I wrote the book as a cautionary tale, and then the thing I was worried about — the proliferation of a–holes — happened much faster and to a much greater degree than I would’ve ever guessed. That happened quickly in the United States, and Canada’s doing better by comparison. But this spreads like pollution, up across the border.

JW: There are no a–hole borders. [Laughs]
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So is it nature? Is it nurture? Is it somewhere in between?
AJ: There might be some sort of natural disposition among males, testosterone-driven and such, that might make us more likely to be a–holes. For the most part, it’s culture and context. That’s why you get country variation. Gender norms have an impact, too.

JC: The tendency to think and behave like a sociopath has to be in there somewhere, right? There’s a certain insensitivity to other peoples’ feelings.

JW: It’s not about good or evil — we all have an inner a–hole.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]

‘A**holes: A Theory’ is now playing in select cities across Canada. It opens in Toronto on Nov. 29, with a special John Walker Q&A at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Dec. 1. Please check your local listings for exact showtimes/locations.

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