Director Garth Jennings and his friend and producer Nick Goldsmith, who work under the moniker Hammer & Tongs, have been toying with video cameras for a while now. They got their start in music videos, breaking onto the scene with 1999’s award-winning video for Blur’s “Coffee and TV,” a semi-tragic story of a milk carton’s search for a missing person.
Now, after successfully helming one of the most anticipated film adaptations of all time, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Hammer & Tongs have returned with Son of Rambow, a smaller, more personal story about the exploits of two kids in the 1980s making a movie and the highs and lows that come with even the smallest of productions. Shortly before the film’s theatrical release, Jennings sat down with MovieMaker to discuss the benefits of making things up as you go along and how an Academy Award-winning film with an NC-17 rating inspired his movie about two schoolboys.
Andrew Gnerre (MM): Son of Rambow perfectly captures the whole spirit of running around as a kid, making movies. Can I assume it’s at least somewhat autobiographical?
Garth Jennings (GJ): Well, a bit. Although my own life was far less interesting than the lives of the characters in the film. We realized that quite early on in writing it. It’s all very well to base your film on personal experiences, but you’d have to have a pretty good life story if you want to make a movie about it.
MM: What did you learn on Hitchiker’s that helped you with Rambow?
GJ: We were told, “It’s very different making films than music videos. You’ll need all these people.” We had loads of people we felt we didn’t need at the end of the day on Hitchhiker’s. You do a lot more with a lot less, essentially. So that gave us confidence to go back to the way we normally do things, which is a smaller, hands-on crew where everyone does everything. No video playbacks, no monitors. You just shoot it and if you missed it then it’s tough shit.
It just seems to work and it’s more fun. You haven’t got all that rewinding. It makes you a lot more focused on getting it right in front of the camera.
MM: One of the things that really captures the spirit of the movie and sets the tone are the special effects. They have that handmade look that you guys seem to gravitate toward.
GJ: It’s funny, people have asked us, “Why the handmade stuff?” And it’s because we really don’t know what we’re going to do before we start. When we pitch an idea we rarely think we’re going to get it because it’s a stupid idea or it’s crazy. Then when they turn around and say, “Yes,” we then have to think, ‘Well shit, how are we going to do that?’ I’m not kidding you—that’s how we’ve approached everything. We pitch it first and we work it out later.
It’s a combination of that and also just wanting to have fun when you’re making it. The more you put into the post-production house, the harder it is to enjoy it. We try to put as much in front of the camera as we possibly can because we prefer to see it. It’s like when you’re a kid I suppose.
MM: I read that one of your big inspirations for the film was Midnight Cowboy?
GJ: Well, yeah. We like those sort of unlikely friendships. Obviously, that’s a very different movie, but it’s really a love story. You’ve got a very innocent, naive man who comes through Manhattan and he’s all wide-eyed. And you’ve got this despicable rogue, Ratso Rizzo, who rips him off—the first thing he does is rip him off.
We realized, as we started the process, ‘Gosh, that’s quite interesting. There’s quite a lot of similarities here.’ And the only time we consciously thought, ‘Wasn’t that a lovely aspect of Midnight Cowboy?’ was when we had the scene in the common room where we wanted them to be tested. All the treats, all the distractions that come with success, are heaped upon our innocent hero. It was already written, but then we realized if it was more hedonistic like the party sequence in Midnight Cowboy, we could really make it have more of an impression on the audience. It’s this sort of candy teen version of hedonism.
MM: There’s a bit of that throughout the movie. That scene has got a bit of a different feel, like a different genre almost. And then the scene where the French exchange student, Didier, essentially auditions for the boys’ film feels almost like The Godfather.
GJ: Yes! So what are we doing here? Yes. That’s good. I’m glad that it feels different. You’re trying to make the film from their point of view. And I don’t know about you, but when I think back to my childhood, I remember it being a lot bigger and more exciting that it probably really was. So you’re trying to make this film this heightened memory of what it felt like to be that age. Meeting people and making friends were big deals back then, they meant something. You have to try to translate that into movie language. That’s what we were trying to do.
MM: That definitely is how you take things in when you’re younger.
GJ: That was the trouble: Trying to capture how movies affected us, the impact they had on us. In the early drafts it just wasn’t coming across. We kept verbalizing it, and that’s boring. People want to feel it with the character.
MM: Was working on features ever a goal when you were starting out?
GJ: Oh yeah, absolutely. I’ve always wanted to be a moviemaker of some kind. I didn’t know if I’d be a director or anything, but I suppose from the age of 12, when I did my first little Rambow movie, I thought, ‘This is the best job in the world.’ It just went from there really. I used to get drafted to do a lot of wedding videos for relatives and I’d spice them up with effects and things—but that’s a whole other story.
MM: Are you planning on continuing with features? Do you have another one planned?
GJ: Yeah, we’ve got two things that we want to do, but we’re right at the beginning. Our next film will be animated. We just quite like doing something different than what we’ve done before. We’re still bashing out the story; we’re almost there. It’s going really well. I don’t even know what form of animation we’re going to use yet. Whether it’s 3D or CG or models or cell or, I don’t know.
MM: So it’s just exciting to do a completely different thing?
GJ: Just focus on the story and make something incredible. It’s going really well. It’s a kind of real epic. And if [the story] goes okay, then we’ll look at it and go, ‘It feels like it should be made this way.’ And again, like I said before, we have no idea how to do it. All we know is the best way to do it is to make much of it ourselves. Not actually animate it, but bring those elements within our own little community rather than trying to do it through someone else’s system where we don’t understand as well.
MM: Do you think starting out you were helped by the fact that music videos allow you to churn out a lot more for practice?
GJ: Yeah. The thing is, if you’re just churning out stuff, we realized—
MM: Maybe churning was a bad—
GJ: No, no. It’s true because we were at the beginning. We were just making as much as we could to build up a showroom because none of them really commission you until you have a great body of work. Then you realize quite quickly, if you just keep doing that, then actually you’ll just make stuff; you’ll never make anything good. So it’s a good thing to do to start with, but then you have to go somewhere from there.
Then it became, ‘Let’s just focus on the good bands and the good stuff and try to make something excellent.’ People would respond to these videos. You’d have “Coffee and TV,” which we did for Blur, and you go into that thinking, ‘This is crazy, I don’t know what we’re doing here with a man in a suit running around a green screen studio. Jesus Christ, it feels very Ed Wood.’
MM: Is that one of those ideas where you pitched it—
GJ: …and then we had to do it. Yeah. No idea. Absolutely no idea.
MM: That seems to be sort of the theme.
GJ: Yeah, absolutely. Just do it as you go along!
MM: At the end of the film, mostly everyone I was in the theater with had grins on their faces.
GJ: Oh, Good! Good. That was what we were going for. Before we had the plot, way before we had the plot, all we wanted was to capture that feeling. Just films where you’re left feeling better for having seen it. That’s how we felt when we thought back to being kids. If that was the effect, then that’s it. It worked.
MM: There’s just something about watching people watching a movie. The end is really almost a testament to the power of movies. Is that something you guys were going for?
GJ: Well yeah. I just…Yes! We’re not very good at articulating these things, but when we’re making a film, it seems to be very simple to explain it. People get it when they watch it.
But I think that’s going to be its stumbling block, getting people to see it. Because they’re like, “What the hell is that about? Son of Rambow? I don’t want to see a film about his son now, I’ve just seen him blowing up Burma.” So it’s really going to be word of mouth if it works.