Adams’ original story was about mild-mannered Brit named Arthur Dent and his discovery of how big the universe really was after a race of aliens named Vogons destroyed earth. With his alien hitchhiking buddy Ford Prefect, Dent traverses the galaxy in a series of adventures filled with the type of dark and dry humor for which the British are famous. The original series was made up of five books, which have sold millions of copies to sci-fi fans of all ages, and it spawned a popular BBC television series in the early ’80s, as well.
It’s taken over twenty years for Adams’ work to come to the big screen, and sadly, it happened four years after the author passed away. While there is a lot of buzz for what could be done with a bigger budget than the BBC television series, sci-fi fans are scratching their heads about the man at the helm, because few Americans will be familiar with the name and work of director Garth Jennings. Then again, if you’re into Britrock, you’re likely to have seen some of the Jennings’ music videos for bands like Blur, Badly Drawn Boy and Supergrass, as part of the production team “Hammer and Tongs”. The most distinctive thing about some of them were the use of puppets, something that continues into Hitchhiker’s, as they worked with Jim Henson’s company.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to the director on his recent trip over to the States.
CS!: Since many people, especially Americans, aren’t too familiar with your previous work, can you please tell them about “Hammer and Tongs”?
Garth Jennings: Hammer and Tongs is myself and my producer, Nick Goldsmith. We met at school, and there were originally three of us. The third guy left to do his own thing but we still work with him; he was the second unit director [on the movie]. We’re just a little production company that’s mainly made music videos, short films and commercials for the last ten years. We had been writing feature stuff and had started casting and putting together our first film when the script came through the door, so we wrapped it up and put it in the fridge, and hopefully, we’ll do that afterwards.
CS!: How did you get involved with turning Douglas Adams’ books into a movie and was he still alive at the time when you came on board?
Jennings: No. I got involved with the project two years ago, and Douglas had died two years prior to that. Unbeknownst to me, they had sent the script to Spike Jones. Spike was doing something else, so he sent my show reel to them and recommended me for the job. I didn’t know he was doing this, but It was a very kind thing to do. That’s how the script came my way, but I only found out afterwards, so I owe him a lot.
CS!: Is it intimidating to work with material like this that has such a huge cult following?
Jennings: Yes, it’s incredibly intimidating! When our agent rang up and said “Would you like me to send you this script to read?” We said “no” mainly because we’d loved it as kids, and the last people we thought would get it right would be someone coming from the Hollywood side of things. Also, the prospect of doing something that we’d grown up with and loved so much was rather daunting. He sent it anywayit was Douglas’ draft–and we read it. [Writer] Karey Kirkpatrick had worked it out, and it was just too wonderful to worry about anymore. Once you start thinking about how you would make a Vogon, you just suddenly get swept away with it.
Jennings: Most of the time I’d start with the basic concept as described in the book. Marvin was depressed and had the weight of the world on his shoulders, so I ended up drawing a big round head and a tiny body and it looked really funny. I really loved the idea that without him saying anything, I could just cut to him all the time and he’d just do that (Jennings slouches). A lot of the early work we did ended up being the final thing. The Vogons were more like a surreal spin on people you meet at the DMV or the passport office, and they had to have that quality. They ended up being caricatures of grotesque judges and things that were based on these cartoons from the 18th Century by Gil Ray of lords and British MPs and kings. They had these tiny ineffectual arms and these huge swollen faces and bunkly noses and they seemed to capture everything that was sort of Vogon–relentless, awful, dreadful people–and I loved their cardigans and suits as well, so they ended up being these swollen court judges and policemen.
CS!: How involved were you with the casting of the movie?
Jennings: The weird thing is that I’ve kind of been left alone to do it, because I’ve got this incredible title, and that was my star. I didn’t need to have TOM CRUISE in Hitchhiker’s Guide in the Galaxy. Everyone in it could serve the title rather than the other way around. I would say that pretty much all of them were my first choices. I met Sam Rockwell for the part of Ford Prefect originally, but within five minutes, he ended up convincing me that there was far too much energy in him to be this zen-like traveler. He was clearly the President of the Galaxy. Our casting director had seen Mos Def in a play and thought he was marvelous. I only knew him for his music work, which I loved, but I didn’t know him for his acting. I met him and it was just one of those lovely meetings where within about fifteen minutes, we knew that he would be perfect for it. It was ever so simple. Bill Nighy, again, first choice. Wrote him loads of letters and he never replied, but then six months later, I was watching TV and he was coming out of a movie on the red carpet and they asked what he was doing next, and he said “I’m doing the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!” So I rang every one. “He’s in! He’s in!!” It’s typical Bill. ‘I’m sorry about that. I got the letters, but my agent wouldn’t let me reply. I really wanted to reply but she wouldn’t let me. Anyway, I got so excited that I was on the red carpet and I just told everyone I was doing it.'”
CS!: There must have been some big names that wanted to play these parts, because it’s such a well known series.
Jennings: I think that may have happened before I came aboard, ’cause I came on after Jay Roach had stepped back from being the director. At the time, there were people like Jim Carrey and some very big names had been mentioned as far as possibly working on it, but my first thing was to cast these people that I thought were alright, but weren’t as big as those people.
CS!: What about the inspiring casting of Marvin as an amalgam of Warwick Davis (the Ewok from “Return of the Jedi”) with the voice of Alan Rickman (from the Harry Potter movies)?
Jennings: Warwick just came down to the creature shop to see the suit and help us find someone to fit it and he looked at the suit, said that he might able to fit it, and just took over. For the whole four months and all through editing, I was working with Warwick. The character in the radio and TV series has this wonderful low depressed pitch; Alan Rickman just popped in to test and it was done. His test was pretty much what we used in the end. It was just very easy. In two hours, he’d done the whole movie.
Jennings: No, absolutely not. I didn’t have any real set ideas of where anyone should come from. I only knew that Arthur Dent should be English. That was Douglas’ point and everything else was up for grabs. We sort of spread the net quite wide, but these were people that were just perfect for the roles as far as balancing each other out.
CS!: So many years have passed since the books came out and the movies being made. Why do you think it took so long?
Jennings: I don’t really know why it took 20 years to get made, because I didn’t know Douglas before I started working on this. Certainly, from all the people we were working with like [producer] Robbie Stamp, I think the problem was always that because it was never plot-driven, it was just bursting with ideas. It was so difficult to pin something down when the plot bits are the tricky bits. Once you get that right, you can hang all these wonderful things off it. And Douglas himself was a great one for never finishing things. His famous quote was “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound as they go past.” That sums it up perfectly, and it’s just terribly tricky to convince people, because it’s just a very odd film and a very expensive film to make. When we came onboard, clearly one of the reasons why we got it was our approach to it also meant that it would be made for a lot less than you would normally make a sci-fi movie for.
CS!: How was the transition from doing four-to-five minute music videos to doing this sort of big budget full-length big budget feature film?
Jennings: We’d done so many of those music videos, so we got used to filmmaking. That wasn’t a big step for us, but going from four days shooting to four months shooting and doing something that normally would take two weeks to doing two years. I thought it was going to be daunting, but it actually was rather lovely. The only aspects of it that were ever sort of difficult were just the immensity of things sometimes. The technicalities of things would become quite cumbersome. But apart from that, it was everything that we’d always wanted to do, and in a way, it had been a great training ground doing those short things. We’d tried out all the things that we ended up using in the movie.
CS!: Part of the charm of the original Hitchhiker’s and even Dr. Who was that they were not very hi-tech. Was that why you chose to use creature effects and animatronics instead of using CGI?
Jennings: Yes, it was a very conscious step. When we were sent the script and we were asked how I would do that, I just thought it would be a real shame to do it in a way that would look like it was trying to compete with ‘The Matrix’ or whatever the most current big special effects bonanza was. Hitchhiker’s was never about trying to be flashy. It was always funny and inventive and imaginative. It had this great sort of sense of wonder. We got into it as kids and it was just glorious! We wanted to make it much more fun and playful like the old Star War films, you know, where it really was there. Jabba the Hutt was sitting there and it’s great! When you work with people like Henson’s, they’re such extraordinary artists. It’s a delight really. Sometimes, it’s kind of funny and takes the mickey out of itself as far as you can tell that it’s just people vibrating inside a rubber suit, and then other times, when you have the planet factory floor where you just want to sweep everybody away and it just be spectacular and glorious. I think there’s a balance of that. I love CG effects and they are a fantastic tool, but essentially, I was much happier having the elements to the scene in the shot–the set, the creatures and the actors–cause then you know if it’s funny or not. It’s really difficult to know if you just got a tennis ball and a stick.
Jennings: Planet Factory took a long time to get right. I ended up going back to using matte paintings as the basic elements for that just because I didn’t want it to look too technical. It had to be really romantic and kind of spectacular in a more beautiful way, almost like Christmas. That just took a long while to get right. It’s such a huge space. The problem we had was that Douglas described this space as being infinite, but not quite infinite enough to feel like it was nothing. It was huge but you could get a sense of it. I was trying to do a really big space, but also make it feel like it was big. The minute you took away any walls or parameters to make it look genuinely infinite, it looked tiny, for some reason. The minute you brought things in it looked too small, so this wonderful artist conjured up this idea of these backgrounds and structures. It was great!
CS!: Both the books and your movie are very British. The movie seems a bit like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which might have been influenced by Douglas Adams’s books. How do you get something like that across to Americans?
Jennings: I met [Gilliam] the other day and I was such a huge fan! I don’t really know if there’s a formula. As in: if I do it this way or “blue” it would come out fine. I guess the way we had it in our heads seemed to appeal to the people that were going to invest in it. Douglas sold 15 or 20 millions of those books, so it certainly already had a wide reaching audience. I didn’t want to limit it to just hardcore few fans or just for kids or just for adults who had grown up with it. It would have been a shame to do that cause the books had never done that, so we were trying to make something that would fit with where it had already been as far as the audience that had appreciated it so far.
CS!: Speaking of Gilliam, did any of the Pythons offer to lend you a hand because they were big fans of Adams?
Jennings: I wish they had done. It would have been brilliant, but no, none of them did. Bastards! (laughter) I think Terry Jones had been involved at one point to possibly direct it, as he certainly had worked with Douglas a lot in the past. I had never met any of them until the other day. I met Terry Gilliam and it was just the most brilliant thing ever. I met him on the stairs at our editing suite, where he was editing ‘The Brothers Grimm’ above us. I was sort of talking in a way “Oh, you’re just upstairs? Can I see it?” but no, nothing happened there. He was like “You made it?! Somebody made it!? Wow!!” I think he was going to make it at one point and he knew Douglas very well. He’s coming to the premiere next week so I’m very honored. Well, he said he was going to come. I’ll find out if he’s really telling the truth.
CS!: Has there been any talk about adapting the other books and would you want to direct it?
Jennings: Yeah, I’d do it. It’s kind of left open for “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” at the end. It’s sort of a real ‘Back to the Future’, like “Where we’re going, we won’t need roads”. You know, it’s kind of like that. I love that title as well, because it would be such a funny poster. But I don’t know what will happen. They’ll probably kill me afterwards.
Although it was unclear who Jennings was referring to with that last statement, it’s not likely to be the fans of the books.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy opens everywhere on Friday, April 29. Check back next week for an interview with the new Arthur Dent, actor Martin Freeman.