As all of San Francisco went higgledy-piggledy below over the movements of the Olympic torch relay, director Garth Jennings and his producing partner Nick Goldsmith spoke to me about their new film Son of Rambow, their follow-up to the science-fiction comedy feature The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. A charming double act vaguely reminiscent of Wallace and Gromit, the duo known as "Hammer & Tongs" met in art school, then wielded their creativity in a slew of music videos made from their home base: a converted barge named Poppy. I spoke to the gracious and gregarious Garth and Nick at San Francisco's Clift Hotel.
Groucho: You guys have—sometimes it gets mentioned in the same breath with this film—something in common with Michel Gondry in this idea of the kinda DIY, get out, grab a camera-like you said, inspiring people. You want them to have a feeling, and one feeling you mention there is going out and doing something.
Garth Jennings: Mm-hm.
Groucho: What do you think about-this is a period film reminiscent of your time growing up, but now we have the explosion of things like YouTube. Do you think things have changed or just the medium has changed?
Garth Jennings: That's a good question.
Nick Goldsmith: Personally, I hope it's just the medium that's changed. I think it's tricky sometimes when you get asked a question like this, because you can't help but answer it from one's perspective. So you think, "Oh, well when I was a kid, I was doing that." But I'm not a kid now. And I can't put myself into the brain of that kid.
G: But you have a competition going, right—or did?
NG: We do have a competition going. And I think, for me, with the things like YouTube and stuff, I think the creativity's still out there. And kids still have the opportunity to do stuff. It's just because it's so accessible now-and every phone's got a camera on it: y'know, it's very easy to film something and to post it on YouTube. I think it's just [that] there's so much stuff that exists, and it's so accessible for everyone to look at, it's just harder to find the really good stuff amongst it. I still think it's there. 'Cause I don't think kids suddenly stop being creative.
G: It's a democratic process, as well, on YouTube, right, because the cream rises to the top based on voting or whatnot.
GJ: That's a good point, yes. So even though there's more of it, it's filtered by the-
G: The people.
GJ: Just viewers, yes. I mean, I suppose when we were growing up, it was just-because it was harder to make, that already weeded out a lot of people. That wasn't to say it made better movies. The movies I made as a kid were atrocious. But they showed promise, you know? They showed willing! I think you're right though—
NG: Also no one got to see the films-
NG: That you made, apart from your friends.
GJ: Although that was enough at the time!
NG: Oh yeah, exactly!
GJ: Playing it for my mum and dad and the kids at school was a triumph. A solid gold triumph. And the fact that, you know, people cheered at the end and everything. I thought, "Wow, it's been worth it." My mum and dad weeping with laughter at how bad the effects were. That was great-those were good times. But I suppose the only thing you don't have with YouTube is you're not watching it with those people.
GJ: They're kind of just watching it as one of a thousand things they'll watch that day. Whereas you would put it on in your lounge. It'd be an event. You'd pull the curtains. You'd maybe even bring out a choc-ice to your mum and dad and really complete the experience. And then hit them with it.
G: And your film at the time that kind of inspired this—"Aaron Part 1"-
GJ: Yeah, yeah. I love the fact that we called it "Part 1." I still think the idea—
GJ: We thought, "Yeah, we'll do more of these, of course. It'll be a trilogy..."
G: In that band of friends, in that collective, were you the director even then?
GJ: Yes! I rather arrogantly write in the opening titles "Devised and Directed by Garth Jennings."
GJ: I misspelt that as well.
NG: Things haven't changed!
GJ: Yeah. But I was-and I played the lead-well, not the lead part: I wasn't Aaron. I was the head of the military of defense, who was kidnapped by the PLO and saved by Aaron, my trained, y'know, my next in line.
G: You were the Richard Crenna.
GJ: Yeah, exactly! I was the Richard Crenna who was kidnapped. Was he actually kidnapped during any of the Rambo movies?
NG: In number three. Kidnapped by the Russians into Afghanistan.
GJ: Well, clearly I preempted that because that was way before they'd even gone to II!...They were like, "Jesus, this kid's got something!"...
[A knock at the door.]
GJ: Come in!
NG: Could be the coffee.
GJ: Oh yes, it's the coffee! (Jumps up and collects the coffee tray.)
G: Who did the drawings in the film?
GJ: Well there's a young chap called David O'Reilly, who was an animator we'd met when we were doing Hitchhiker's Guide. He worked on the animation of the Guide.
G: Is he from Shynola? I don't know how that works.
GJ: He knew Shynola. Well, actually, Shynola discovered him, and brought him into their gang, in order to make all this stuff. Do excuse us, though, we're having a coffee moment...He's marvelous, 'cause not only is he a very, very good animator, but he's also one of the finest artists and illustrators I've ever met. And we met some good ones when we were in art school. So he could do everything. And he could be this kid's entire imagination. To the point where he'd be drawing all over the toilet cubicles. And for every book that you see in the film, he then had to do another one, as backup. So for every page he drew up beautifully, there is an exact copy. He was...locked up for months.
NG: Yeah, he wasn't happy about that. He'd finished one and presented it to us. And we were like, "Wow, that's amazing! (quieter) You know you have to do another one."
G: If you drop one in the drink or set one on fire.
G: The film is so much about the kid brain and how kids see the world: how do you see that, and the priorities of childhood as opposed to the priorities of adulthood? And the way kids see friendship as opposed to how that changes?
GJ: I know what you mean.
NG: Tough question.
GJ: It's a tough one. I don't know necessarily whether I think—well, I know Nick and I always felt that one of the attractions of telling this story was that fact that we were trying to capture how great it is to be sort of free in a way. Even if you don't really understand all the subtleties of what's going on in the world. We didn't realize what the whole Vietnam thing was. We just thought this was this cool guy with a knife. We didn't understand he was being rejected by his country and that this was a war they're ashamed of and all that sort of stuff. That came later. So you don't get that, but you are completely—there is something wonderful to not care about what's going to happen tomorrow and just do what's enjoyable now. And that-I know that was a big part of what made us want to make the movie, 'cause that was the feeling that we were after. But I don't know whether it's such a bad thing to then move on from that. Maybe it's because you have to anyway. You just do, so-but it's nice to remember it! And remembering a little bit of that is worth keeping hold of. Or at least a little bit. I suppose that was always-that's how I feel. I think we're both very lucky in that we're still able to-I still feel quite closely connected with that. Even though I've still got my worries and fears about things. I still feel like when we work, we do it for ourselves. We do it because we love it.
G: Partly I guess the film is a reminder too to adults, to remember on behalf of their kids and allow them to have that freedom.
GJ: Yes, you know what? They are going to hurt themselves, and sometimes that's not such a bad thing...
G: "Helicopter parents," they call them.
GJ: (laughing) Helicopter parents?!
G: Because they hover over the children...
GJ: It is something that is definitely creeping in everywhere. And now I have children of my own. I've noticed this terrible peer pressure between parents. And fear. And also from schools that are being forced to raise standards, from a very, very young age. And they're being tested and all that kind of stuff. Part of your brain is saying, "Run away to a country where this doesn't apply. Live in the forest." Because you know that that freedom that you had, which you completely take for granted as a child, is actually something that was very, very good for you. Even though much of it was lost—I mean, you can have a golden view of things: an awful lot of it was mucking about; there was no more to it than that. But I think being allowed to grow up feeling you're not being watched, not being tracked and able to do stupid things and screw up, being able to make mistakes, I think, was the key. Being allowed to screw up is wonderful...Nick and I were saying: it's okay to—if they break their arms, they can be fixed. You know, you've just got to let them do it. Easier said than done.
NG: Easier said than done. Also city living, which doesn't help. The cities have become so—well, it's not an excuse. It shouldn't be an excuse, but it's sort of like—you know, I'm sure there are kids out there who still manage to go and do all the stuff that we did.
G: But there is this kind of feeling of crowding, yeah--
G: In on the kids. Even the testing, like you say: it's emotionally crowding.
G: I wanted to ask about the young actors. That's obviously an important topic. You had very experienced actors on your first film.
GJ: Right, yeah!
G: And here you had complete neophytes, virtually, as your leads. So, obviously they had the imagination for it, but was there a learning curve in terms of getting them to act in front of the camera in an effective way?
GJ: It was the fastest learning curve you've ever seen in your life.
NG: Yeah, it just seems to be very easy. Look, if you find the right kids, I'd throw out the old thing of saying "Never work with kids." Always work with kids if you find the right ones. Because for them, you know, they'd never acted before. So a lot of it was like a game. You know, it's like "Here are your lines." So they'll go and learn their lines like homework. You know, "I will learn my lines." Learn the lines. They come back. And it's like, "Okay, what you need to do is you need to start on that mark, and you need to get over there in about five seconds whilst you're saying your thing. When you get there, you've got to cry." So, in response to that, you don't get, "Well, what's my motivation?" You get, "Okay!" And you go "Go," and they'll run over there, and when they get to that point, they'll start crying. And then they'll finish, and you go, "D'you want to do it again?" and they'll be, "Yeah! Okay!" And they'll do it again. And they'll do it—
GJ: It's phenomenal. And it was lovely seeing them go from being completely wide-eyed, standing in front of the camera-and the first time I said, "Turn over," he physically turned over-to three days in, you know, marking his own takes. Hitting every spot on the floor. But not with that kind of precocious-ness. Just with a love of it. That getting into that whole spirit of what it's like to make something with a gang...They didn't know each other prior to the film, but they became the best of friends. They're two of the luckiest people you could hope to meet, anyway, but they just hit it off. When they start laughing in the film, they genuinely were killing themselves laughing. And that was the great treat was the fact that behind the camera they were having such a blast. And you'd say, you know, "Okay, today you're going to be pulled by a crane with a kite on it." "Alright!" And you know an adult actor would say, "Well, I don't know. I've got to be padded."
G: "Let me see someone else do it first."
GJ: Yeah, "Someone else do it first." Actually, we quite enjoy showing people how to do stunts.
NG: But we also make sure we've created an environment in the filmmaking process that stayed as like a gang, of fun...We had a really small crew. There was no video monitors on the set. So no one could, like, go back and start looking at things and see what they thought about it. You know, Garth and I get very involved with everything. Prior to starting filming, we spent a bit of time with the boys together, and we made a little short film in our back garden. We just sort of like-we tried to create a bit of an atmosphere of like "We're just a big gang. And we're making this thing. And it's gonna be a laugh." And it rubbed off-all the crew knew that as well. No one was trying to mollycoddle the boys or anything like that. Everyone was on a sort of even par. So it sort of helped...
G: On Hitchhiker's did you feel supported in that process once you signed on, or was it somewhat contentious?
GJ: Oh, totally supported.
NG: No, the great thing with that was-and, you know, I think this has something to do with Hitchhiker's...Walt Disney and Spyglass Entertainment: basically when we did our pitch to Disney, they were great, because they were very honest. They were sort of like "Look, we've got this material. We love it. We don't really get it. You guys seem to get it. Can you just go away and make it? And come back to us? Because you know what you're doing." And that was pretty much it. They left us alone.
GJ: They only came to the set once during the whole shoot.
NG: And it was the same with the edit, you know? It was pretty much "You guys understand it. Go ahead and do it." So, no, for us, for a first film, for a studio picture, it was like—we'd be saying, "This is amazing!" People were like, "What d'you mean they're not making you change the cut or doing this—." We were pretty much left alone for the whole thing.
G: And got along with the producers and whatnot.
NG: Yeah! It was all—I suppose the only thing I would say—yeah, no—
G: I'm not trying to create a drama; I was just curious—
NG: No, no, no, it was a pleasure. It was an absolute pleasure.
G: I just imagined because Douglas having died that everyone was on tenterhooks about his vision being realized, that there might be an added pressure about that coming from even within the production.
NG: We very early on met up with Douglas' family and wife and everything in the U.K. So we had all of their support. And there's a guy called Robbie Stamp, who worked with Douglas for most of his career. And Robbie was very involved. And we had his support. And everyone was very supportive of us. And you know there was also Jay Roach, who'd been working on it with Douglas when he was alive. And Jay had stepped down as being director and stayed on as producer. And, again, Jay was just supportive.
GJ: It was extraordinary. I think all that happened was we came up with a way of making the film that everyone felt was in the spirit of what Douglas had in mind. Obviously no one could have imagined exactly that we were going to do it that way. And they were keen to just do that. And honor that. Oh, it's wonderful really. We've had two very different experiences: one very much an independent film, one a big studio film. And both of them were a treat.
G: The first film was deemed not to have been a success financially, or enough so to justify a sequel.
G: Whereas on this film you already have broken even for your investors, right?
G: Or nearly.
G: But will I'm sure.
NG: I hope so.
G: Given that, it seems like you might be poised to make a film on your own terms on this scale relatively easily, whereas it looks like apparently there's no hope for you guys doing a Hitchhiker's sequel.
NG: I see your point, but it's like-for us, I personally never liked the idea that sequels are made—but they unfortunately say: this is normal...if something's a big hit, then we'll make a sequel of it. I like things where it's planned to be a trilogy or something, prior. I don't have such a problem with-but when it's just purely on a financial basis that you're making a sequel, I just find that it's never the best place to start from in making a film.
GJ: Or, I don't mind it so much if somebody goes "Well, we never made this movie to be made into a franchise, but isn't it obvious that the next movie would be this." I haven't a clue what the next-what would you do with Son of Rambow from here? We used to joke about the idea that "Oh yes, the French exchange, and this is what happens: the ginger kid goes back to France, and Didier's family vineyard is falling to bits, and it's his cheeky English ways that restore prosperity to the vineyard and bring happiness to the village.
G: "Son of Son of Rambow."
GJ: Yeah! Exactly. But that would be—that's a joke for us to share. No, I like the idea of people making films, and if it's good that they get to make another film. And try to make another good film. And it doesn't have to have anything in common narratively.
NG: What we love: we did Hitchhiker's. It was great to do. To be honest, the idea of doing another huge creature puppet thing-that's why we turned a few down after we did Hitchhiker's, because it's like "I want to do something different!" Which is what was nice about doing Son of Rambow. And, you know, our next film is not going to be the same as Son of Rambow. It's the joy of doing what we're doing. I'd hate to just be doing the same thing...
G: Could you conceivably do the whole thing from Poppy?
NG: We'd love to do the whole thing from Poppy. But again, you can't let that—where some people like to—
GJ: (rhapsodic) Yes!
NG: Keep themselves in restrictions—we have to do it all from [Poppy]—those are our restrictions. Love to. I mean I think, if anything, what will happen—and again we don't know what we're going to do-but, you know, the core would be on Poppy. And then you'd ship other stuff out.
GJ: Nick's right. Once we've got the story nailed, I think it will just—
G: Organically work out how to do it.
NG: We're really lazy, though. We don't like leaving our boat. If we could, we'd do everything on the boat.
GJ: There's a lot to be said for having a root somewhere. I really believe that now. Especially with family and work as well. It's really nice to have a place where you're based. I always find when we're going on shoots that being uprooted is kind of—
NG: Yeah, we edited the whole Son of Rambow and we did most of the visual effects and the sound on Poppy and-what's our other boat called?
GJ: Rosie! What am I talking about? Daisy's next door. Rosie.
NG: So we have two boats...It's unbelievable.
G: I also read that you have a live-action project in mind down the road. I just wonder if you could say something, maybe hint about what kinds of stories they are, or what genres you might be playing in. Or is there a known property that you play with?
GJ: (Hearty laugh.)
NG: I think the other projects that we're looking at can be...It's too early days, but I think what we want to make-what we'd love to make-again, it just comes down to this other thing of-love making films and stuff-is to do some sort of like big adventure. You know, we've done Son of Rambow, which is a small-scale film; we've done Hitchhiker's, which was in space; we're going to hopefully do an animated film, which will be epic. I think we want to do something which is gonna be a big adventure.
NG: There you go. I can't be more vague.
G: That's all right!
G: Now this film, Son of Rambow, you originally conceived it—or there was talk at some point in the script of it being more of an action-adventure-
G: And it became somewhat more realistically based. What would it have been like had it been an action adventure?
NG: I mean, it was a lot of fun...Elements of it were a lot of fun. But whether it would have had the—
NG: Yeah, and the journey that this one has, I don't think—
GJ: I think you're right.
NG: It had things like-it would be like-there was, I remember, a scene in it which was a very, very sort of like action-packed break-in to the school vault.
GJ: Oh, that's right!
NG: Because something is confiscated-the camera gets confiscated, and they have to break into the school vault. And it's like Mission: Impossible times ten.
NG: To get into the school vault. And inside the school vault is this magical world-y'know, it was Goonie-esque.
GJ: Yeah, the thing was-'cause we never had a plot to begin with. We always had that feeling that we were after. So we were sort of trying out different—
NG: (whispering conspiratorially) It was a good scene, though.
GJ: Oh, some good stuff!
NG: (Laughs heartily.)
GJ: It's so funny how that can be so seductive, and you think you're on to a winner, and then you put it all together and you go (sheepishly) "This isn't very good." But we certainly went through different—really dramatically different-tones before we found the right one that captured that feeling we were after. It was staring us in the face. You know, it was the first proper script we'd written as well, so we were learning how to do all of that at the same time...
G: Well, it's very dramatically relevant, I think, to have that kid who's so shut off, and then the world opens up to him.
NG: Absolutely. I mean, for us it was-the reason it came about-they were next door neighbors to Garth, but we needed to make that moment when Will sees First Blood for the first time an epiphany, and to really be a special moment in the film. And it was staring us in the face. You know, here we can have a kid who's never seen any TV or anything before. It's amazing.
GJ: That captured how it felt for us. Whereas the early draft, it was very much "Where could a kid see a movie and they're like, 'Cool, this is a great movie!'" And it's just a dead movie moment. There's nothing there. You have to keep writing words, dialogue in order to explain it.
G: I know Sylvester Stallone saw the film and like the film and supported you in the film. But I also read that he had some notes. And I'm curious what his notes might have been.
GJ: No, they were just very positive comments, you know. Oh, his only slight concern was "Who was that guy playing me in the dream sequence?" 'Cause we had to, you know-you only see him quickly. It's very dark and it's very quick, because he doesn't look very much like him at all.
GJ: I think, yeah, he was a little concerned as to "Wait, you think that's what I look like?!" So that's fair enough. And it was nice because it meant that he was paying attention. It was one of those clever comments, I always thought, when he said that. It was like, "Ah-"
G: He's watching carefully
GJ: A tiny thing, you know...
G: Well, thanks very much, guys.
NG: Thank you.
GJ: Thank you! Thank you for braving the Tibetan riots!