Exclusive: Once Again with Hammer & Tongs

ON

ComingSoon.net already had a great interview with Hammer & Tongs, the video and commercial production team of director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith, when Garth’s movie Son of Rambow premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, so we had to find some way to make our second interview with them new, different and special. (You can read our previous interview with the duo here.)

The interviewer decided to shave his beard (it’s true!) before realizing that the second time around would probably be more relaxed since it wasn’t taking place at a film festival where we’d been watching literally dozens of movies in the days before, plus the guys had some time to recover from their Sundance partying after having made the biggest sale at the festival when Paramount Vantage bought their little coming-of-age film for $7.5 million.

It’s a pretty amazing feat for a quirky and hilarious Anglocentric story set in the ’80s about two boys from different backgrounds, Will Proudfoot of the Quaker-like Plymouth Brethren and Lee Carter, a troublemaker living with his older brother, as they become unlikely friends while making their own home-grown sequel to the popular “First Blood.” The fact that the movie is carried by two young actors, Bill Milner and Will Poulter, neither whom had been in a movie up until to that point, is also pretty amazing.

This time around, we discussed what had changed (if anything) since Sundance, how the movie has been playing for audiences, how they feel about test screenings, and how at least Nick has little fear of their movie finding an audience despite a number of back-to-back summer blockbusters opening in the next few weeks (Watch out, Iron Man and Indy!)

ComingSoon.net: When we last spoke, you had just finished the movie six days before and were going through the Sundance experience and sold the movie. Now that it’s 15 months later, are you sick of talking about it yet?
Garth Jennings: Actually, we haven’t been talking about it all that time. It’s only been the last couple months really where we’ve been doing press, mainly in the UK and obviously, in the last two weeks, we’ve been here in the United States.
Nick Goldsmith: It’s actually quite easy talking about this one, because we’re really proud of it. Luckily—and who knows? We’re off to L.A. tomorrow and maybe the end of three days in L.A., we’ll start to get bored of it—but right now, it’s still good. We’re finding out a lot about each other in this process.
Jennings: It’s true, because the funny thing is, we’ve worked together for 17 years. You know how you don’t talk with your brother or sister? You just take it for granted that you are what you are and that’s the relationship. Everyone keeps asking, “So how do you work?” And we’re like (gives blank stare) and then they say, “Who does this?”
Goldsmith: It’s like therapy.
Jennings: Yeah, we’re going to go home and change.
Goldsmith: We’re never going to work together again.
Jennings: Too much skin has been removed.

CS: So “Rambow” might be your swan song? You’ve been bringing the movie to a lot of festivals, too, so how has the reaction been to it? Sundance is a fairly singular experience.
Goldsmith: The festivals have been amazing. For us, it’s great, because it’s been an opportunity to see the film with an audience who haven’t been sold a lot of advertising and posters before coming to it. They’re obviously cinema lovers, but they’re seeing something with a very untainted view, and pretty much with all of them, we’ve been doing Q ‘n’ As afterwards, and it’s just been amazing. One, how many people stay behind afterwards for the Q ‘n’ A, but also the response we’ve been getting from people. They genuinely really seem to like the film.

CS: Have you watched the movie a lot of times with the audiences since last year?
Jennings: No, we always catch the end, like the last five minutes, just so we’re going into the Q ‘n’ A knowing…

CS: The last five minutes?
Jennings: Yeah, but really, the lovely thing for us was the problem getting this film made was that people couldn’t understand… we promised that we’d make a film for everyone, this was our premise, this was our whole pitch. And people struggled with that idea because they thought, “How could you make a film for everyone? We don’t know how to make a poster for our film for everyone.” When we go to these screenings, we’ve had kids from the age of 5 through the oldest people I’ve ever seen, and seeing that and seeing them there and seeing them all respond with the same level of enthusiasm–well, they all get something different from it—is the greatest reward after all this work. It’s really nice.

CS: Has the film changed at all since Sundance, bearing in mind that you had just finished the film and had time to see it with audiences since then?
Jennings: Oh, we did actually. Paramount asked us if there was anything we wanted to do, and because that Sundance screening was really the first ever public screening we’d done, we wanted to go back and just do a slight tweak on the mix in some areas. There were a couple lines of dialogue that just needed lifting. It was an afternoon tweak, that’s all we did.

CS: There were some worries about Vantage wanting to release a PG movie and change it to be more of a family-friendly or kids-type film, but it seemed like pretty much the same movie I saw at Sundance.
Jennings: Well, it hasn’t changed, not one frame different, and really no one’s noticed the difference. It’s just an EQ thing, that’s really all we did.
Goldsmith: The amazing thing is that kids are enjoying it. In the screenings, there’s been many times where there have been kids as young as five, and they ask questions at the end, and they’re actually the most intelligent questions of all the questions you get, ’cause they’re real questions. We had this one girl ask, “When the Mum has the flashback and she’s a young girl, how did she get the money to buy the record player?” That’s a good question!
Jennings: You’re amazing, you eight-year-old genius.

CS: Then you have to go back and do rewrites and reshoots to answer those questions?
Jennings: I hate that whole tradition of reshoots that’s become a custom now. That it’s acceptable, that it’s okay to go into a movie not having a finished script ’cause you’re going to reshoot it. How depressing!

CS: There’s a whole test screening process that studios are famous for doing. I guess you’re doing most of your testing at the festivals in some ways, but did Paramount say, “Let’s test it before an audience?”
Jennings: We did test it…
Goldsmith: …but the testing was for the marketing departments to work out how to market the film, rather than how to change the film. We did testing in Pasadena… because everyone seems to do their test screenings in Pasadena, so it’s sort of like, “How could it really be a very good place to test?” because everybody going to the screenings, they’re used to going to test screenings.
Jennings: And then in their focus group at the end of the screening, they’re going, “I’m not sure about the cinematography in Reel 5,” and you go, “Bollocks!” It’s really funny… I hate those bloody things. But also, I swear to you, no test screening I’ve ever been to, and I think the studio found this when they screened “Son of Rambow,” you know what’s working and what isn’t by the time the movie’s ended. In terms of informing the marketing people, they should just be getting on with it and making decisions themselves. They want confirmation, sure, but there’s too much emphasis put on those things, and very often, the information can be taken from those things and read the wrong way.
Goldsmith: Also, audiences don’t want to decide themselves what they are meant to be watching. People don’t give audiences enough credit. Audiences are clever. It seems like these days, we’re too quick to go, “Well, let’s check with the audience what they want first,” and we’re adapting to that. What you end up with is mediocre, because you’re trying to please all opinions, when actually, audiences want to be surprised.

CS: And yet you guys succeeded at finding something that all audiences might like without having to go through that process.
Jennings: Yeah, we were happy, and it was great, because at one of the test screenings we were at, it was like, “Well, there you go. Told ya!” I don’t mean that in any way arrogant, because the studio were wonderfully supportive and that’s what they wanted to get from the screening, but it was very interesting to just sit there and listen.
Goldsmith: I think the only thing we got from the screening was the thing that… actually, putting the “w” at the end of “Rambow” is a good idea, because there was one guy who went to the screening and on his test report, it was like, “How dare you trick me? I thought I was coming to see a sequel to Rambo! Where was the guns?”

CS: “Where was his son?”
Jennings: “I wanted a ninja boy! Where’s my ninja boy?”
Goldsmith: So hopefully, the “W” goes a little bit to saying, “It’s not a sequel to Rambo!”

CS: I can’t remember if we discussed it last time, but way back in the ’80s, there were these guys who remade “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I know you did some home movies of your own when you were kids, but were you aware of those guys when you were making this or at any point beforehand?
Jennings: Not until when we started because we started right near eight years ago, and there was nothing around at the time as far as we knew. Obviously, that film had been made but it hadn’t been brought to our attention. We started working on this in England…
Goldsmith: We knew about it after the “Vanity Fair” piece, well that was the first time I heard about it.
Jennings: That was before we shot it, but all it was was an account of their story, and we thought, “Yeah, we could relate to that” and we knew when we were writing this as well that we were not the only kids who had similar experiences. It was a collective experience, whether you’d actually picked up a camera or not, you knew the value of movies and it had the impact of watching something and have it blow your mind. So yeah, those things came out and then in the time we’ve had, “Be Kind Rewind”—which we hadn’t seen yet—and then another “Rambo” movie!

CS: Well, the “Rambo” movie you knew about because we discussed it last time.
Jennings: But we didn’t know when we started working on it. If you told me there’d be another one, I would have laughed you out of the room.

CS: And another “Indiana Jones” movie, too. Nothing dies forever. You mentioned “Be Kind Rewind” and when I saw that, I immediately thought that everyone is going to see “Rambow” and think you were imitating.
Goldsmith: I haven’t seen “Be Kind Rewind” either but they’re very different. It’s just the fact that it’s on a VHS really, isn’t it? It’s the entire town filming…

CS: Yeah, it’s a completely different premise, but I think Michel Gondry was influenced by the Raiders DIY thing, but I’ve never asked him directly, so I can’t prove it.
Goldsmith: I want to see the “Raiders” thing ’cause I’m just curious about this whole thing that it happened over seven years… they’re getting older through the film!

CS: It’s absolutely hilarious and it’s one of those “must see” movies. I know you had the script for a long time before you decided to make the movie, but did you do a lot of storyboarding?
Jennings: Yeah, it’s great fun doing that, because we’re big on planning. We work on the whole thing upfront. It’s all about the prep for us, and I spent three months storyboarding the entire film. I think it was somewhere in the region of 1500 frames, and that finger (shows pinky) has never quite been the same, but it’s brilliant because I love drawing anyway. I love it. It’s just the nicest thing to do, but I love the idea of planning it with Nick and with the editor, and we took my storyboards and we would go through it as if we were watching the film. We made some brilliant deletions and simplifications during that process. You don’t just storyboard it and that’s it. You then use that as something to then go, “Okay, now here’s our movie.” You go through it like a slide show and go, “Well we won’t need this now.” Seeing it on the move with other people, you start to recognize…
Goldsmith: And it’s great for all the other departments as well, because everyone knows what you have to achieve. It’s all there, there’s a very clear map, and for us and the way we work, it’s brilliant and our crews love it, because everyone knows, “Okay, this is what we’ve gotta do.”

CS: Does that allow for any surprises or happy accidents on the set or does that limit what you can do? What do you do when you have something on set that’s better than what you planned or envisioned?
Jennings: The whole film has come out as good… it’s what we wanted but even better than that, maybe because of the kids though. We always say, “This is the line and we’ve written it for this reason, and that’s how we’d like it please,” but you always get something slightly different, whether it’s that the sun’s come out or the rain’s coming and we have to do something in a different way, there’s always something slightly different, but if you go into it with a very clear plan, you feel incredible relaxed. You can suddenly go, “You know what? That doesn’t work quite so well, does it? Try doing it this way.”

CS: You can change things on the fly.
Jennings: Yeah, because you knew what you were after in the first place. The problem for us would be if we turned up on set and not know what we were trying to here.
Goldsmith: It works for some people. It just doesn’t work for others.
Jennings: I mean, we’ve done that approach. In commercials, I’ve done it more like overcovering something and I realize now that I didn’t know how it was going to play, or rather, none of us knew, the entire agency had no idea, so you just get everything and you work out in the edit, and it’s the most cripplingly boring process ever. Film by committee, it just doesn’t work.

CS: We talked about showing the movie to different audiences, so how has this movie been marketed differently in England then here? Obviously, American audiences view British films very differently here.
Goldsmith: Optimum Releasing released it in the UK, opened three weeks ago.

CS: I heard it did very well.
Goldsmith: Yeah, it was #2 the first two weeks and we’re still there. It’s dropped off 20% over three weeks, which is great, but they took a gamble, and they opened large in the UK, it was up to 300 screens, which for the UK is a big release. I mean, 450 is like…
Jennings: Harry Potter.
Goldsmith: Like the absolute top.
Jennings: And that’s like two on each screen.
Goldsmith: So we went really big and it seems to have paid off, so they had lots of big posters, there were billboards everywhere, they pushed it as a big movie, and it’s done well. Whereas over here it’s a platform release, which I think is right too. America is so much bigger anyway, but it will open in New York and L.A. first and then build on that, and hopefully, word of mouth will keep it going. But just that thing about it’s so difficult to stay in the cinema for longer than a couple of weeks.

CS: Especially at the time in which the movie is opening.
Goldsmith: Well, “Iron Man” doesn’t stand a chance. It’s not going to stand a chance at all. Even though it’s a Paramount film, we don’t care.

CS: Maybe they’re releasing “Rambow” as a back-up plan in case “Iron Man” fails.
Goldsmith: And the same goes for that Indiana someone bloke? Doesn’t stand a chance.

CS: It probably won’t even be able to get into theaters since “Rambow” will have them all by then.
Jennings: (laughs) Just the idea that we’re this bizarre little overspill unit, we’re like the… “What do you mean there’s no more tickets to Iron Man? Aw, sh*t! What’s this ‘Son of Rambow’ thing?”
Goldsmith: The only thing we’re worried about is Cameron and Kutcher… no, not really.
Jennings: I think we should be worried about them though, but you know what? You asked about what’s the difference in how they’ve been marketing it and I’m not really sure, but I remember one of the things they were doing in the UK, which is very interesting, was just in terms of the graphics, the poster, the tone of it, they were saying that they were trying to soften it. The film “Rambo” brings such a violent image into people’s heads and the trouble was that kids were loving this thing and they didn’t want families to feel like we can’t go and see that, it’ll all be blood and guts. Especially with the most recent “Rambo,” all you ever read was how many people blew up, so they tried to put a friendly face on it a bit more.

CS: And here they’re trying to make your movie even more violent to match America’s bloodlust?
Jennings: You know what? Here, they kept the poster that we made and we kept it really like “This is an interesting film” approach.

CS: I could definitely see the poster getting people on the curiosity factor if tickets for “Iron Man” are sold out.
Jennings: It works, yeah.

CS: You’ve obviously been doing a bunch of music videos since I last saw you. Are you going to get into doing another film soon?
Jennings: Yeah.
Goldsmith: We started writing, so I hope it’s not going to take as long. It’s an animated film, which we’re at the outline-treatment stage at the moment, so there’s not really a lot to tell except that at the moment, we’re going into it thinking it’s going to be animated. What style of animation, we’re going to sort of let the story dictate it, but we did a deal with Illumination, that’s part of Universal, that did “Ice Age” and “Horton Hears a Who,” that we’re trying to do something of a smaller sort of style where we can not create the animation ourselves, but try and really tailor something that would work towards the story.

CS: Your videos have always used a lot of mixed media techniques with puppets and different styles of animation, so do you think you’ll go more in the route when making another movie?
Jennings: I think that’s come about, all those different techniques have been used, because we never go into a project knowing how to do it. It’s like Nick was saying earlier, that we’re always quite surprised when somebody says “Yes, that sounds like a good idea, let’s do it.” And then you’ve got that moment of, “Right, sh*t, we better think about this now.” Invariably, you haven’t got the time or money to do the high-end David Fincher route—not that there’s anything wrong with that—so you try to think of another way. Actually, that’s not entirely true, because we also do enjoy having things in front of the camera rather than relying on post-production facilities.
Goldsmith: (dryly) Which is why we’re doing an animated film.
Jennings: Yeah. (laughs)

CS: It’s something that a lot of directors have said, that they like doing things in-camera, because you can have the control to do what you want rather than having to explain to the FX department what you want.
Jennings: Yeah, but you’re always having to explain what you want to someone else. You always have to explain it, to the actor, the DP, even the studio, everywhere along, it’s very rarely you actually doing the thing. In fact, if we get a chance to do anything for the film in the process, whether it’s like throwing the pine cone or…
Goldsmith: We will be doing, not necessarily complete voices, but definitely some sort of audio stuff if we do the animated film, if it ever happens. There’ll be us… ’cause that’s something you get a chance (to do) because you’re not drawing.
(The two of them give a brief sample of the silly voices they might do in this animated project which would not translate into print even if described in great detail.)

CS: I just talked to Tarsem and I asked him why he doesn’t do music videos anymore, after winning an MTV award for one of his two videos, and he said he didn’t necessarily like the music. Are you guys very selective of which bands you work with?
Jennings: Oh, yeah, ’cause it’s too hard to do anything if you don’t like it, it really is. In the early days, we were just trying to build up a show reel. We were less choosy, but even then we were quite spoiled because it was a good time for independent music, but then as we went on, no, we’ve only ever done stuff we liked, even if it means… we pick it because of the music, not just because of the budget. We just did a video for a band called Vampire Weekend and that was pretty much for free, but it’s come out great and we love them and it’s lovely.

CS: Is there some sort of new British arts movement going on in the film and music scenes? I know you’re friends with Edgar Wright and producer Nigel Godrich.
Jennings: I love the idea…
Goldsmith: We’re called “The Squiggle Pies” and…
Jennings: It’s always so funny because we’re all from England, there’s the instant thing of like, “There must be a movement” but no, I love the idea of there being a movement. We’re all doing our own thing and we’re all desperately trying to get ahead, and every now and then we crop up in each other’s projects. I haven’t seen Edgar since he left England to start promoting “Hot Fuzz”–he’s been in L.A. this whole time, working on his next two movies and all that sort of stuff. It’s just Nick and I. We just do our thing and then he goes surfing and I go and take the kids to the park.
Goldsmith: I’m just trying to think of a new good word that can be a good name for it.

CS: “Squiggle Pies” is pretty good. Or you can just start a movement with a bunch of others who don’t realize they’re in the movement.
Jennings: You know, we could do a lot worse than create a movement ’cause that might give us a little more clout, you know, like the Manchester scene. I know what you mean.
Goldsmith: Well, “Cool Brittania” has been used.
Jennings: “Film People from Britain”… no that doesn’t work.
Goldsmith: “Squiggle Pies” for the moment is what we’re going with.
Jennings: Well, you’ll have to let us know and then from there on, they’re our ideas, okay? That’s the deal, that’s how it goes.

Son of Rambow will open in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, May 2, and will hopefully expand so that it will be in 4,000 theaters or more by the end of the summer, and yes, the movie is just as funny (actually funnier) than this interview.