Garth Jennings

Garth Jennings began his filmmaking career at age 11, turning on his parents’ video camera to make his own version of First Blood entitled Aron: Part I. Twenty-five years, a bunch of ingenious music videos and one sci-fi feature later, he’s brought that childhood experience to the big screen in one of the year’s best films, Son of Rambow. I spoke with the British director ahead of Rambow’s Australian release.

Garth, you made Aron: Part I when you were 11 — was that the first time you’d ever picked up a camera?
I think so. I may have picked it up and pointed it back at my face and done that thing where you point it back at the TV screen and watch the psychedelic effect.

The feedback?
Exactly, I did a lot of video feedback stuff and darting in front of the camera. But it was the first time I’d actually made something where I went, “Okay — story, titles, fireworks and things.”

Did you remake any other Hollywood films, apart from First Blood?
No, never really. We always just used to make our own. They were never really remakes; we always did our own version of things. We were not interested in doing the same version of the thing we had just seen — as opposed to being just inspired by it. I was doing one set in my school called Gusty Pick and the Egyptians, and it was a just sort of ludicrous blend of everything I’d seen up until that point. It just involved lots of chases, really.

Sounds like something you’d wanna see, just from the title.
Yeah. There was a curse on a school and there was only one boy who could fight this curse. Everyone was affected by it and there were these two evil Egyptians who I think had come back from 100,000 years or something after they’d been buried and — I don’t know, it was ridiculous. I was a kid making this crap.

But now they spend $100 million and call it The Mummy.
[Laughs] Although I have to admit that I actually really liked the first one. I though it was terrific fun even though you could clearly see where its influences were coming from.

So at what stage did you rediscover Aron and say, “This is gonna be my first feature film”?
Oh, eight years ago, almost to the day. We [Hammer & Tongs producing partner Nick Goldsmith] were just talking about films and ideas for stories and I’d just been to my mother’s that weekend, and I’d dug out some of my old home movies. I thought, Oh hang on — these are funny, and written down loads of notes about the process of making that film and the world around it at the time. It was this great flood of nostalgia. I was talking to Nick about it the next day and we thought, Wait a minute — we haven’t got a story, but we knew this is the kind of film we could make. Because it’s more than just, “Oh, it’s a good story”; it captures a feeling, and it touches on things that we felt we’d like to say, I suppose.

In making up the film’s main characters, you said that your childhood was “too boring” to be inspired by—
Well it was too great! I had far too good a time.

What was your childhood like around that time, 1982-83? What were you like as an 11-year-old?
Oh just incredibly enthusiastic, naïve and a late developer. I was small for my and very keen to make stuff, I suppose; just run around and do what you do when you’re 11 or 12. I spent a lot of the time running around in the forest with my friends, because we lived on the edge of this forest, so we’d always be making rubbish traps — useless traps — or, like, digging a little den or trying to make a rope swing; wanting to be a movie star or movie maker or playing in a band or something. All the usual stuff that kids think.

And now you do it professionally.
[Laughs]

Who were your movie heroes at that age?
It was all the Spielberg-Lucas stuff. We saw Star Wars and then you get all these other movies, you know: you get Empire Strikes Back and you get E.T. and you get Raiders Of The Lost Ark, for God’s sake. I mean, these are all just unbelievable for a young kid growing up. Especially E.T.. I think I was almost the same age as the kid in it, so I remember thinking, This is the greatest movie ever made. And it’s still one of the greats for me. They were my heroes growing up.

Sylvester Stallone loved Son of Rambow, I hear.
Yeah, he did — it was great.

Initially he thought you were gonna make fun of him, no?
Yeah, and I can understand that, because that’s the current trend, isn’t it — to just make fun of everybody. It’s always the joke at someone else’s expense. But no — he really liked it.

Of the kids in Son of Rambow, would you say you were more like Will or Lee Carter — or a combination?
I was much more Will, without the religious stuff obviously. Much more like Will. Even though Lee Carter has the oomph to make something, I relate to the naïve kid who’s easily distracted.

When Son of Rambow was initially in development, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came along. Was that a good experience for you?
Oh, it was amazing. It’s funny, you ask that in a way where you think — which is the way everyone expects it to go: Surely it was a miserable time making a studio movie, with all that pressure. And I got warned so often by people and friends who were directors that “You are gonna get fired two weeks into the shoot, that’s what happens in these movies — or they fire your DP just to test you out”; all this kind of stuff. But I had the most delightful two years — in space, basically — with a bunch of robots and all my friends who I’d always worked with, and this amazing cast. And Disney were unbelievable: they greenlit the movie in a 25-minute meeting and they came to set once in 17 weeks. All through the process they were very supportive; like good parents, just backing you up. I’d never known any different so I figured this is the way things went. I had an absolute blast. I mean, it doesn’t get much better than running through fields with Vogons or shouting “action” at robots and things like that.

I guess what I meant was, was Hitchhiker’s commercial underperformance a good thing for you, because then you were able to say, “Well now I can go back and do Son of Rambow”?
That’s a good point. I never thought of it that way but that is a good point. We were technically signed on to do a sequel if there was one, so yes, I suppose if it had made more money we wouldn’t be talking about Son of Rambow right now.

That would be a shame. Even though I’d love to see you do Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
Yes. Well, for me it was always very odd, because we were very lucky to have had a script written by Douglas Adams — even though Karey Kirkpatrick came on to finish the job off, it was done with his work, and he’d done so much invention for that script. Anything that was new for the series in that script was genuinely invented by Douglas. We don’t have Douglas anymore, and it would be very strange to do another movie completely from scratch. I’m sure there are fans that could do it really well — and I’m not just saying that superficially, I really do think there are people that could probably do it — but I’d certainly feel uneasy about it.

What was your favourite part of Son of Rambow? Was there a moment that stood out for you in the making of the film?
Day two of the shoot. Day two was when we were filming the beginning and end of the film in the cinema. Both of them [the kids, Bill Milner and Will Poulter] were so brilliant on those days. Don’t forget, even though we were confident when we cast them, I had no real idea how it would be on the day. And both of them were just phenomenal. I remember thinking on day two: Okay, we’re gold, we’re gonna be fine.  Sure enough, every day from then on, they were just perfect.

Were you worried that the first scene in the film, with Lee taping a movie in the cinema, was going to encourage piracy?
No! [Laughs] Neither do I think people will be going out and touching live wires on lamp posts, or hopefully not joyriding stolen cars or—

Flying guide dogs through the air?
Well those kinds of things would not work — none of that works. I think people understand that when they see it. When they watch Stand By Me they know that dodging trains on giant bridges is not a good idea; or carrying guns and pointing them at other children is not a good idea [laughs]. They’re not watching it feeling like it’s being sold to you as a cool thing. I think kids get that.

If someone decided to make a Son of Son of Rambow, would you be flattered?
[Laughs] I would be… ah… confused. I would think, what on Earth possessed you to do such a stupid thing? [Laughs]

Michel Gondry could do something like that and get away with it.
Yes, he probably could. He’s a man that’s constantly turning inside out, isn’t he?

What are working on right now?
We’re working on the next film, which is an animated film. We’re just finishing the script for that and starting on the tests for the animation. It’s all very, very early days but it’s a very exciting project?

Is it CGI?
I’m not really sure yet. We’re trying things out at the moment. There’s a look we’re after and we’re trying different ways of getting it. I think we’ll probably end up using computers to a certain extent, but to what extent I don’t know.

What kind of a “look” are you after?
It’s hard to explain right now. It’s early days. I have this funny thing: when a script isn’t locked — and it isn’t yet — and when, you know, a look isn’t finalised, I’m incredibly protective over it because the more I talk about things outside of it, the more I feel like it takes something away. I might say something to you like, “the man will have a red beard” and you’ll go “oh — a read beard!” And then I’d probably think, He didn’t like that idea. Or you’ll do that think when you’re telling someone a story and they say, “It’s like the one with so and so in it” and you go, “Oh crap”. So, until it’s locked, I keep it all rather secret. You know what the film business is like — it could suddenly collapse, for a number of reasons.

August 2008

Originally published on Empire online

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