Garth Jennings, together with business partner Nick Goldsmith, is part of the successful creative double-act Hammer & Tongs. Beginning, as many feature filmmakers do these days, in the world of music videos, creating memorable short films for the likes of Blur and R.E.M., the pair burst into feature film with about as ambitious a project as one could imagine: Disney’s 2005 big-screen version of Douglas Adams‘ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
Four years later and they present their follow-up, on a decidedly more pint-sized scale, Son of Rambow is a tribute to the sort of carefree youth film fans know only too well, as nippers Will and Carter take to the woods after a viewing of First Blood and decide to make their own sequel. A huge hit at Sundance, the film is out now in the UK and will find a release in the US on 2nd May and in Australia on 4th September. RT caught up with Jennings to find out more about the film, and how a certain other movie this year has had its own impact…
When we spoke to you about Hitchhikers three years ago, you were talking about this movie then…
Garth Jennings: Yeah, we were trying to get it made when we started Hitchhikers, and when you get offered a job like that you can’t not do it. Getting a chance to do a big movie that you love so much is the chance of a lifetime so we put this on hold and came back to it.
What was it about this idea that so excited you?
GJ: When Nick and I were first discussing the idea, it was kind-of funny the idea of kids making their own action movie. We all used to do it as kids. But there’s that thing, as well, of thinking back to that age when you have no fear and no concern for the consequences of your actions whether they’re dangerous or stupid or cruel, you know. You just kind-of go for it.
There’s a lovely, uplifting feeling about trying to capture that and that’s what we were trying to do, really, with Son of Rambow. Before we’d really worked out the plot we had this mission to make the film that made us feel like we used to do. It was never going to be slavish to reality – it was always going to be a romantic view of that time. Stand By Me has a similar sort of thing where it’s all heightened and they’re dodging big trains and it’s a little fantastical, but it’s got such a lovely feeling about it and even though I didn’t grow up in that period, that coming-of-age story is universal and timeless.
This particular coming-of-age story is also quite special for anyone who discovered film as a kid, because this is what we were doing.
GJ: Most of the fundamental influences come at that age. Whether they’re positive influences or negative ones they come around those formative years and when you see First Blood way before you’re supposed to be seeing it and you live on the edge of a forest you think this is the coolest thing you’ve ever seen. This man has a knife and a stick, he can sew up his own arm, he can do everything including take on 200 guys. I loved it.
I guess it’s the idea of escaping to this magical world where these things are possible as well…
GJ: Yeah, and having friends that you can do that with. It’s harder to keep that when you get older – things change, things become more serious, it’s about looking cool and all that sort of stuff. There’s this lovely window before all of that kicks in where you’re really uninhibited and you really can do anything you like. It’s sort-of lovely and you don’t even realise it when you’re going through it. It’s only after that you remember and you go, “That was brilliant.” We did whatever we wanted – eating as much ice cream as we wanted and making as many silly movies as we could.
You haven’t even got to the point where people are saying, “You have to pass this exam and if you don’t pass this exam you won’t work and if you can’t work you’ll be miserable.” You’d have said, “No, I’m going to make things like this for the rest of my life.” What more does there need to be to life, apart from making trenches in the forest and living there for a few days?
Did you get the opportunity to regress while you were making the film?
GJ: Not really, the regressing bit happens while you’re writing because you’re trying to remember what you’d have done in the situations you’re writing, but as soon as you start making it you’re right into, “We’re running out of time people! Let’s get a move on!” There’s no time to stop and soak up how it used to be!
Bill and Will are so brilliant in the film, I can’t imagine working with them was anything but a joy.
GJ: They were the big thing for us, because it’s tricky casting kids who’ve either never acted before or who have acted so much that they’re like little mini-adults. Professional tiny people. These guys hadn’t done anything, and it was lovely that they had the confidence to do whatever we asked them to do and to not try and show off in any way. They weren’t at all self-conscious.
They come from very solid families, the families were never interested in pushing them into show business, and that’s a big part of it. They’re so sweet, these kids, and they really were having the time of their lives. Their entire summer holiday was spent on the set of Son of Rambow jumping off trees and leaping about, it doesn’t get any better! I’d have loved to have been in their position!
And now, of course, this is an eye-opener for them because the posters are going up and you guys are coming to talk to them. We did all the auditions in here, I think, and after five months it was like, “That’s the kid.” They were just amazing.
It was a long process to find them, then?
GJ: Yeah, five months. Our casting director went off to the schools and saw hundreds and hundreds of kids, whittled that down to the best and we see round two. With Bill, who plays Will Proudfoot, there was one kid who we thought was going to play the lead part, and dropped out the night before the call-back because he didn’t want to be famous or anything like that. The casting agent called and said, “I’m really sorry, he’s dropped out, but I’ve found this other kid and you have to see him.” It was Bill and we got him in the next day knowing he wouldn’t have time to learn the lines. In walked this sweet kid who didn’t know what was going on, and he had learned the lines and then he walked out again. He was the only one who didn’t try to be our friend, he just walked in and did his thing and left. It was instant – that was the guy. And it was the same with Will Poulter, it was extraordinary and instant.
They sell the film in the end.
GJ: I think you’re right. You do your best with the script and all the camerawork and the editing and all of the fancy bits, but if you don’t get them right it’s all worthless. It’s hard to get that right but because they’re so charming and because they became such great friends while making it, that comes across.
The release of Rambo this year is the elephant in the room a little bit, who saw that coming?
GJ: That was weird. When we started writing this eight years ago, as far as we were concerned that whole franchise – I hate that word, but it is – was well and truly over. The idea of another Rambo movie was a joke, because he would have been – as he is – in his sixties. It’s unbelievable that not only is it coming out in the same year but that they’re within months of each other. It’s crazy, but there you go.
Did you enjoy it?
GJ: I didn’t really enjoy it. I thought it was funny, but I don’t think it was trying to be funny. I don’t think it’s pretending to be anything other than what it is, that’s for sure, but as movies go it was a bit rubbish. People blew up a lot, I remember that, and I remember leaving before the emotional release. I could sense that coming, after the massacre when he’s just sitting on his big gun for ten minutes. He can’t move around anymore – it used to be a trap here, a trap there, “I’ll run around here and get you and then I’ll come over there.” None of that anymore, he just sits down for a bit. He’s dealt with the guy with the mirrored shades who’s so evil that he reflects the horror back at him and all that sort of stuff, but I couldn’t stick around for the last bit which was obviously going to tie back into the people of Burma and all that.
But he doesn’t make those films thinking they’re anything other than they are and he even introduced it by saying, “You know, let’s be frank, I didn’t think I’d be doing this. I’m really old now and I’ve done the best I can, so there you go.” And then he walked off.
Rocky was more successful, I think, at taking the idea that he was past it and running with that, but with Rambo he was still hammering nails with his hands and picking up snakes and doing all that stuff…
Did its release cause you any problems?
GJ: No, it was just a case of who owns what and then after we’d shown it at Sundance, making sure everyone was happy. We just worked out that instead of Paramount in the UK it would be distributed by Optimum because they’re owned by another company who own the rights to the Rambo movies. Those things all get worked out, but they just take forever, and in that time we got to go around all the film festivals and I’d never done that before and it was just marvellous.