Garth Jennings, Son Of Rambow
When you meet Garth Jennings, it is immediately apparent where much of the energy, enthusiasm and imagination in his films comes from. The effervescent Jennings, born in Essex, England in 1972, attended the Central St. Martin’s College of Art & Design in London where he met Nick Goldsmith with whom he formed the creative partnership Hammer & Tongs. Though the pair have always collaborated closely on everything, over time Goldsmith has taken on production duties while Jennings now directs. The pair are most famous for their innovative and quirky music videos, such as Blur’s ‘Coffee and TV,’ Fatboy Slim’s ‘Right Here, Right Now,’ and REM’s ‘Imitation of Life.’ After winning numerous awards for their pop promos and television commercials, the pair moved on to features and in 2005 Jennings directed the long-gestating movie of Douglas Adams’ cult novel and TV show The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with Goldsmith producing.
Jennings’ follow-up feature, Son of Rambow, is a project he and Goldsmith had been trying to get off the ground years before they were offered Hitchhiker’s. Based on Jennings’ childhood experiences, it is the 80s-set tale of Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner), a naïve young teen whose family belongs to a Christian sect, the Plymouth Brethren, and who is sheltered from modern evils. A chance encounter with school scamp Lee Carter (Will Poulter) introduces Will to the wonders of movies – and specifically Rambo: First Blood. His unlikely friendship with Lee (and their collaboration on a Rambo sequel) threatens to cause a rift between himself, his family, and the Brethren. A charming crowd pleaser with great performances from its two young leads Son of Rambow is smart, sweet and funny in its nostalgic recollection of Britain in the 1980s. Writer-director Jennings creates a vivid and colorful world for his young protagonists and, like them, shows so much passion for movies that it is infectious for the audience.
Filmmaker spoke to Jennings about 80s movies, the pressures of making Hitchhiker’s and playing a crackhead in Hot Fuzz.
Filmmaker: You have an extremely close creative relationship with the other half of Hammer & Tongs, your producer Nick Goldsmith. How exactly do you function as a team?
Jennings: We met at art school 17 or 18 years ago, so we’ve been friends an awful long time and we’ve been working together for 10 or 12 years. We worked together on everything from the start and it was only as things started to go well that we realized that he suited production more than I did and I suited direction more than he did. And there’s our third member, Dom [Leung], who became the editor, even though he’s a director too – everyone can do all that stuff in their own way. We’ve always had a very hardworking ethic and for us the majority of the film is made in preproduction: I spent three months storyboarding Son of Rambow, then I went through it all with Nick and Dom, and prior to that Nick and I worked out the script together. I am technically the writer, but that’s more because it came from my experiences and I brought the premise to the table and could join the dots. [Nick and I] worked on that outline together and he read every page as it came in and responded to it, so I feel like it’s a 50-50 relationship.
Filmmaker: From a practical point of view, what is it like to have the film so clearly defined in your head before you start shooting?
Jennings: I just find it really relaxing, everyone knows what they’re doing. Everything changes on set, as you know – the sun goes in, the guy hurts his foot… Someone’s always hurting their foot, I don’t know what that is. It’s always like, “Where’s so-and-so?” “Oh, he’s hurt his foot.” And when they hurt their foot, you have to switch and find something else but if you’ve got this brilliant map that everyone, even the runners, know what they’re shooting today, it’s amazing how much energy and enthusiasm you can get from a crew. It galvanizes people when there’s a common goal and it’s OK to then deviate from that.
Filmmaker: What sort of obstacles did you have in making the film?
Jennings: No one would finance us. We couldn’t get any financing and none of it came from the U.K. in the end. We saw everybody, absolutely everybody – most of them twice – over the period of about two years. [The reaction] mainly was “Boys, you’re making a film that you say appeals to everyone. Well, how do we market to everyone?” Also because we’d done a big sci-fi movie it was like “What’s this then? Surely more robots, puppets…” Luckily there’s two of us, so we’d pick each other up, but it was really hard because it wasn’t just being rejected, it was being told that you’re absolutely wrong, that this will not work. There was one guy sitting there saying “Adults are not going to see a film with children in it,” and behind him on the wall was a huge poster of Billy Elliott. I remember thinking, “I’ve got a choice on this one: either I pick him up on this and tear a strip off him, or I just realize that this is just not the right man to be making the film with.”
Filmmaker: So let’s talk about your childhood and 80’s cinema…
Jennings: [puts on psychiatrist’s voice] “Go back to your childhood…”
Filmmaker: So, tell me about your mother…
Jennings: [laughs] “What’s your relationship like with your mother?” I do actually have officially the best mum in the world. She’s brilliant, she’s the business. She’d come on Friday with cakes to the set. She’s amazing. It’d be a hallelujah moment for the crew. Why was I talking about that…?
Filmmaker: I was asking about your childhood.
Jennings: Oh yeah. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars… We got a great chunk of movies to grow up with. The first film I ever saw was Star Wars when I was five years old. It blew my head off, and from then on I loved films. But then First Blood came out when I was about 12 and it blew my socks off because it was the first film I’d seen that wasn’t meant for my age group, and it was also a brilliant, brilliant film. We used to play in the forest every day in Epping and then here’s this guy in the forest who’s got a stick and a knife and he’s taking on 200 men, he’s sewing up his own arm – it was brilliant! Survival, a man on his own, a guy who has to outsmart the enemy and they’re all after him and they’re all unreasonable – that’s how you think of adults when you’re a kid. Even though it’s a cliché, it’s true. Even your parents, they’re sort of the enemy, they get in the way of what you really want. It struck so many chords that my friends and I decided we should make our own film. It was sort of my production: we got my dad’s video camera, even though we had no idea how to use it, and we made this action movie called Arran, Part 1. It was a tremendous hit! It was a day shooting, it was 10 minutes long, it was cut in camera.
Filmmaker: That’s quite an achievement at that age.
Jennings: I didn’t think so at the time. I thought it was cool, but I look back and I think, “Brilliant, we did so well.” It was so lovely because it was all my friends, my sister, my dad played the getaway driver for the terrorists who kidnapped the head of the M.o.D., who’s me. The P.L.O had kidnapped me. We had no idea who the P.L.O. were. No idea. We’d heard this name on the TV. So the P.L.O capture the head of the Ministry of Defense and they hold him hostage, and it was in my mum and dad’s shed which they doused with water (which was supposed to be petrol) and threatened to burn me alive unless they get the money and the terms they’re after. My friend Arran comes to save me and burns them alive in a shed. That was our little film. My sister was the fiesty reporter going live to the scene. We had scrolling credits, a soundtrack. It was amazing, really, and so I just kept doing that. About eight years ago, I was talking to Nick about how great it was to be that age and not give a shit about the consequences, never worry about screwing up or whether what you were doing was stupid or if you were good at something, you just did it. Even though we liked the idea of kids making a film, it was more important to us to capture that lovely feeling we had.
Filmmaker: How difficult was it on Hitchhiker’s to not worry about screwing up?
Jennings: Initially I turned it down because I wanted to make Son of Rambow with Nick. We were getting ready, starting to cast it and everything, but I grew up with Hitchhiker’s and was a huge fan and when I read Douglas [Adams]’ last draft of the script I thought, “This is amazing!” In terms of the outside pressure, the first thing I did was meet with all of [Douglas Adams’] family, especially his widow and his daughter, because they had to like us. There was no point in forcing ourselves on them, they had to like us and what we were doing. They did, so did his mum, so did everyone else, but all the people on the internet – who are either pro us or against – I don’t know them, and I don’t actually have to meet them. They can write their silly things, even if it’s nice, but when you’re making a film, I can’t tell you how abstract that becomes. There’s a guy knocking on the door saying, “We need to approve the molds for this thing by three o’clock or we’re fucked,” or “The set’s going up now and we’ve chosen the wrong lighting. Can we please go and correct it?” There is absolutely no time whatsoever to worry about [internet opinions], you’re just trying to do this good thing.
Filmmaker: How was it working with the kids in Son of Rambow? Obviously so much rests on finding the right child actors in a film like this.
Jennings: Everything does, everything does. Most of the time it’s hard to get young actors right, and it can be quite hard to watch when they’re bad. So we took five months to find them, but when we found them they were perfect. They’d never acted in anything before. Well, one of them had been in a school play, but that was just as a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz. It was such a pleasure to have such genuine [kids]. They were self-confident, but still kids. They hadn’t been to any acting schools, they were still themselves. They were quite happy to play and if you wanted them to cry, they weren’t worried about not looking tough in front of anyone. On the second day of shooting, we were shooting the end of the movie in the cinema. I thought, “This is going to be too much for little Will Poulter sitting there.” I’m talking to him off-camera about what he’s looking at and there’s all these people sitting there in complete silence. He started to well up, tears start rolling down his face, and I was just thinking “Holy Jesus Christ, this kid is amazing! He has no idea, absolutely no idea how much he has just made my day!” They’re also two of the nicest people I’ve met. Their enthusiasm – they’re like, “Wow, we get to swing off a crane!” – is infectious to all of us. The crew had seen it all, they’ve been on The Bourne Supremacy for nine months, they’ve done it all, but these children reminded them why they got into it in the first place.
Filmmaker: If you could travel back in time and be able to make movies in a time and place of your choice, where and when would it be?
Jennings: I think I’d probably do well in about the 1950s, around the time of The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and things like that, films where “We don’t care if we can see the strings.” I’d go to the Ed Wood era and try to make some ludicrous monster movie.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you wished you had a different job?
Jennings: When I saw the White Stripes playing live. I know the guy who owns their record company and he invited me to stand in the wings and watch them play live. I watched them and I really, really wanted to be in a band. I’ve always secretly wanted to be a rock star, and when I saw that I really wanted to be a rock star. I was really envious of that, and it wasn’t because I don’t like my job it’s just because that looked much better at the time.
Filmmaker: What’s the strangest experience you’ve had during your time in the film industry?
Jennings: I was a crackhead in Hot Fuzz. In the opening montage of Simon Pegg’s character’s reveal of his many talents, one of his talents was to shoot a crackhead who was holding a family hostage. And that’s me. [I was] standing in for that, waiting all afternoon with sores all over my face with a Kalashnikov rifle, thinking “This is really weird, really, really weird.” Being in front of the camera is a lot weirder than being behind it.