Robbie Stamp—The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy—02/18/05

Robbie Stamp, the executive producer of the 2005 film The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy had the unique and perhaps daunting job of protecting the original vision of the late Douglas Adams. In May of 2001, the 49-year-old Adams died suddenly, following a heart attack. Adams left behind a wealth of drafts and fragments on his hard drives, including one of a series of drafts for the long-awaited feature film version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. With new determination, Stamp and producer Jay Roach (director of the Austin Powers films) led the charge to make Adams's dream a reality. On February 18, 2005, I spoke with Robbie Stamp at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The occasion was WonderCon, where Stamp was due to unveil a "Sizzle Reel" of exclusive footage from the film and assuage the fans.

Robbie Stamp: I'm at your disposal.

Groucho: Excellent. So, by all accounts, your production has gone to great lengths to respect your friend and Hitchhiker author, Douglas Adams.

RS: Yeah.

G: Including, but not limited to, casting his family as extras and erecting giant likenesses of his nose.

RS: (Laughs.) You've done your research!

G: Can you tell fans, unironically, "DON'T PANIC!"?

RS: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, we've—I've—I knew Douglas well. We were good friends. I have a huge sense of responsibility to Douglas. I have a huge sense of responsibility to his family and to his fans. I know how much—we all do—how much this means to how many people. You know, we know how passionately people care about this and how suspicious people have been. And I understand—I genuinely, genuinely understand that. But I think that the care and the energy and the passion that we've—everybody involved—has brought to this—I think we're going to produce something which is—[about] which 99% of the fans are going to go, "This is just a fabulous addition to the Hitchhiker body of work."

G: Mmm. When did you first meet Douglas, and how did you come to be partners?

RS: I first met Douglas in the early '90s through a mutual friend. And I was a TV producer. He was looking for somebody to produce a big series on evolution that he wanted to make. And we arrived and we chatted, and I remember him playing Bach to me—because he wanted—there was a point he wanted to make about mathematics and music. And we discovered a mutual love of The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse. And we just stayed in touch. And then, when I was looking to set up a company, I remember sitting in his front room, and he said, "Robbie, what would it cost to be your partner in the company?" And so we were partners. And that's it: we set up the company together, and we had a good ride at the Digital Village, and then we got flattened by the collapse of internet stocks. But we created some good things—good game called Starship Titanic and, the sort of the Guide made real. So we had a good time.

G: Douglas's book was first optioned in 1982, according to legend, by a team including Ivan Reitman.

RS: Yep.

G: And now, 23 years later, the film has arrived, almost like a message from space, it seems. From your perspective, what were the stumbling blocks for the film over the years, and, how did you and the ultimate production team finally overcome them?

RS: Yeah, this is such a hard question to answer, y'know, "What were the stumbling—?" Y'know, Hollywood is a mysterious place, and why does something have its time and its season, finally? I think that there were—there were issues around—I think, I think one of the great strengths of Hitchhiker's is that there is a—it's always been different in each of its versions. There's no sort of core religious text like there is with Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. You know, there's the radio, which is different from the TV, which is different from the books. And I think that what we've got is a desire that Douglas always had to try and make Hitchhiker's work as well as it could in the medium that it was gonna be appearing in. So he was up for reinventing. And I think that he wanted to try and reinvent for the movie. But I think one of the issues is that the Hitchhiker's is very episodic in the sense of it goes from one brilliant set-piece idea to another. And I think finding a narrative drive that really worked for a big movie was quite hard. And I think that was probably one of the big stumbling blocks. I mean I could—it's a subject I can talk at quite some length about because—but I end up sounding a bit like somebody doing a sort of, y'know, English Crit 101.

G: (Laughs.)

RS: But I think that there were issues to do with Douglas becoming more interested in other characters than Arthur, because Arthur's essentially a picaresque character to whom things happen. And I think he got interested—should it be more Zaphod, or should it be the Vogons? But I think we took the decision when—after Douglas had died—that it was going to be Arthur's point of view. It was gonna be Arthur's movie. That was where we would go back to basics. It was this ordinary guy who finds himself out in the galaxy discovering that the galaxy is every bit as absurd as the earth is.

G: Mmm. About Arthur, he is sort of a grumpy, feckless sort as a character, but I get the impression he's been given more of an arc of action as well as, well as romantic—

RS: Yeah. We clearly needed—if it was gonna be Arthur's point of view, we clearly needed to give him things that he could do from time to time, as opposed to always being acted on. But we, you know, absolutely have not turned him into a lightsaber-wielding space hero. I mean, he's still the guy in his pajamas and his dressing gown, who wants a cup of tea, and yeah, there's some moments where, y'know, he—There's a queue. So his contribution is to be able to—you know, they need to get in the queue. He's able to say, "Stand back. I'm British. I know how to queue."

G: (Laughs.)

RS: And that's what Arthur does. That's his big hero moment. He's geared himself up to be a hero, but actually, what he needs to do is take his place in a queue. And we've tried to play around with that kind of thing. So yes, we've given him more of an arc, but no, we have not made him some kind of—as they say—mega space hero at all.

G: Mm-hm. Screenwriter Kerry Kirkpatrick helped to finalize a reverent shooting script. Can you address some of the specific concerns that led the production to hire him to reconfigure the last version of the script?

RS: Yeah, I mean, I think what had happened before Douglas died is that the last version that Douglas wrote really—it still wasn't going anywhere. I mean, we still were, to get the movie—[it] was really losing momentum badly. I think what Kerry brought was—having seen work like Chicken Run, you can see an ear for English irony and humor, but a Hollywood structural sensibility. And Kerry actually wasn't a fan—I mean he wasn't not a fan—he just wasn't a fan. And he came in and just looked at a script and said, "Look, this works and this doesn't work," and he became a fan and just in awe of Douglas' ability and genius as he got to know the works. And I was able to make available to him a whole series of backstory and notes and previous drafts and scripts and so on. So Kerry had a terrific body of work to refer to, from those notes, on—from Douglas through the books, the radio series, in particular, so whenever he hit a problem, there was some material that he could go to, to try and find a solution.

G: Mm-hm. If there were any creative disagreements that arose during the course of development, where did the buck stop?

RS: Um, to be honest, there weren't. And genuinely, there weren't. It's been a very, very collaborative process. Everybody, from Disney through Spyglass through Nick and Garth, Kerry, myself—we've all just wanted to do the best—we just wanted to make it work. And so, yeah, you talk about things, and you disagree about things, but in the end, y'know, there was nobody having to hold the rig and just say, you know, "That's what we're gonna do" because, by and large, we agreed. And Garth has just got just such a fabulous vision that, time and time again, what he was coming up visually with—and his team were coming—we'd just go, "That's fantastic."

G: And Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith—how did the two of them work together, and were they sort of de-facto co-directors?

RS: No, Garth was very much the director. Nick is the producer, and they work extremely well together. And Nick looks after Garth, gives him the space to do what he needs to do there on set to help, you know, just—he was Garth's eyes and ears. And Garth could, y'know, "I'm thinking of this, I'm thinking of that," but, no, Garth's the director and Nick is the producer, and it's a very, very good creative team.

G: Can you give a rough idea of how far into the increasingly improbable Hitchhiker trilogy this takes us?

RS: It's the first book, essentially. First book with new material. It's a lot of the new material that Douglas was working on. It's the first book effectively.

G: And can you speculate at all about sequel plans? Are the actors coming back—?

RS: Well, I mean—yeah, the actors are—it's a big galaxy out there, and there's a lot more to explore. And I think if, you know, if its—let's hope. Let's hope this is the phenomenon that I think it's going—Hitchhiker's is a phenomenon, and I just have this beginning of a sense that this movie could be the phenomenon of the summer.

G: One of the many fan-friendly touches that I'm sure will be all over the internet shortly is a cameo by the BBC design of Marvin.

RS: Yeah.

G: Can you let slip how that came about and/or comes about in the film?

RS: Mm. Well, it's a little moment for the fans. And we put it in. Marvin is in a queue, which—in a scene, sort of—and so, yeah, that's where he is. And we just wanted—we just thought it would be fun. We thought there would be—it would be one of those real "ooowhoohh" moments. And there's a lot of them—I mean, there's a lot of stuff, like the original Simon Jones—the original Arthur Dent, Simon Jones—is playing a cameo. So a little tip there, for—bring your 3-D glasses.

G: Oo-ooh.

RS: There's a bit of the movie that's in 3-D, and that's Simon Jones's bit is in 3-D.

G: Well, I'm very pleased to hear that—in addition to the dazzling CGI on display in the trailer—that Garth and Nick favor practical effects. What is it like to meet a Vogon, courtesy of Jim Henson['s Creature Shop]?

RS: It is astonishing. They are—when you were with them on set, you just—they were just like they were there as if they were other actors because—the guys who were running them would kid around and play and it was—so even when they were off-shot, if you like, they would be nattering to you and talking to you. And when a big Vogon walks towards you, you know, you— there's a reaction. It's a real—it's a real reaction. And they were great fun. And they work very well. And Henson's have done a fabulous job, and I think people are going to love them. I think they'll love the Vogons.

G: I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you about what I think is a brilliant outgrowth of Douglas's work that you collaborated on, which would be the earth edition of the Guide, online, and your hand-held history that's presented by Joanna Lumley and Steven Fry, the new voice of the book. For the uninitiated, what do those outgrowths provide?

RS: Well, the is very much a space for creating the earth edition of the Guide for real, and it's a place where people can share their information about—everybody can be a field researcher—so, y'know, tell me your favorite place to buy cheesecake 'round the corner from where you live, tell me about games to play on a lazy Sunday afternoon down by the river, tell me about teaching quantum physics. And Handheld History is a sort of—you know—is born of my interest in hand-held devices and of the increasing richness of these things to be able to deliver location-based information to you on the mobile device that you carry around with you everywhere.

G: Mm-hm. Hopefully, there'll be a big blitz that goes along with the film. I know there's a book that you've edited about the film.

RS: Yeah, the making-of book. And also, I've done a—written the story of how the movie came to be made in the tie-in edition as well.

G: Mm. And I know that oftentimes during the production of the film, the DVD release is very much in mind—

RS: Yeah.

G: And there is an accompanying game in the works and the website. What can you tell us about what we might expect surrounding the film?

RS: Yeah. Well, you'll get a couple of great mobile games—really, really good mobile games, [and there's] the making-of book, there's the tie-in book. There's gonna be some fun merchandise. I'm sure there'll be towels. There'll be some figures, and then there'll be the big DVD release. And we worked very hard on the DVD. I mean, there'll be—the DVD is gonna have a ton of great stuff, and we planned the DVD from the very beginning of the movie. So the stuff—the first unit has actually shot specially for the DVD. So with the DVD we—I thought, "God, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy—what a great DVD." So we put a lot of effort and energy into that.

G: This is a surreal story. What was your most surreal moment making this story?

RS: I think my most surreal moment was undoubtedly filming in the quarry in Wales—following a long and honorable tradition of British science-fiction.

G: Right.

RS: Filming in quarries in Wales. And it was a cold day. It had been raining—we'd been in and out of the cars. But it was towards the end of the evening—there was a bit of sun, and there was the stand-in for Marvin, standing, you know, out—holding his big, bulbous head. And there was a guy in a dressing gown talking to the President of the Galaxy and a bright red escape H.O.G. pod, and I just thought, "Here we are," you know. This is, this is—we're out there, we're doing this, and that was quite surreal.

G: Well, I hope everything goes well with the film.

RS: Thank you very much, indeed.

G: It was a pleasure, thank you.

RS: Well, thank you very much for your time. It's much appreciated.

[For Groucho's review of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, click here, and for his review of Stamp's book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: The Filming of the Douglas Adams Classic, click here.]