“Hitchhiker’s” interview: Director Garth Jennings and Producer Nick Goldsmith
LF: When adapting a book for film, it's inevitable that it's going be difficult to capture everything in the text. What, in your opinion, is the essence of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy?
GJ: You can't capture all the detail. The film would be 10 years long. We've had to boil some elements down to their essence in order to make them work on screen (with some excellent results too) but I think the themes and ideas in the book are still just as prevalent in the film. And they are as topical as they were 20 years ago. "Hitchhiker's" always seemed like a surreal spin on life to me.
Wherever you went in the universe you would always find creatures or situations that reflected the madness of a certain aspect of ordinary life on earth. Vogons aren't that different from men you might find asleep in the House of Commons or wearing a judge's wig. The President of the Galaxy shares many of our world leaders characteristics, give or take the odd head or extra arm.
And the themes that run through the story such as, for example; as a race we take ourselves far too seriously, we're always worrying about things that don't matter and not noticing the extraordinary planet we've ended up on… They are wonderful themes to carry home from the cinema with you. And it's all in there. You'll find it next to the bowl of petunias and the whale coming to terms with its existence.
LF: As a director with no Hollywood experience how did you end up helming one of the most anticipated films of 2005?
GJ: Good question! The short answer is that Nick [Nick Goldsmith, the producer] and I came up with a big, fresh way to make the film that got everyone very excited, and we could do it for less than half of what it would normally have cost to make in Hollywood.
The slightly longer answer is that Nick and I have been making videos, commercials and short films together since we left art school. It was through this that we met Spike Jonze, he was sent one of our scripts but passed, and then we sent him our showreel as an alternative suggestion - and we are forever in his debt! Spyglass [The production company behind "Hitchhiker's"] also liked our reel too and sent us the script. So, Nick and I downed tools on a movie we had just written and spent the next 8 months working flat out on the "Hitchhiker's" script and the visuals.
I also storyboarded about half of the film. 3 drafts, over 2000 drawings and ten million packets of Hob-Nobs later we had it all worked out. We had shot Zaphod head tests, made models of space ships and Vogons, and burned all of it onto a nice little presentation DVD. The guys at Spyglass really liked what we had done so Nick and I flew out to L.A and presented it to Disney. The presentation, especially the storyboards, went down really well, so well in fact that they green lit the movie then and there. The stuff of dreams!
LF: When "Hitchhiker's" was written, computer technology was very new and so the science fiction element of the story was very potent. Nowadays we have all kinds of technologies, how do you think a modern "Hitchhiker's" fits, do you think the 'fantastic' element of the text is lost on a modern day audience?
GJ: I think "Hitchhiker's" will always be fantastic for an audience because it's got such a unique personality and hilarious view of the universe. But you're right, technology has caught up with the original ideas but the technical side of the book isn't really that important. It's not about the buttons or the interface or how quickly it can stream audio. It's Douglas' take on life, and that will always fit in, even when they have invented the silliest and smallest of gadgets.
LF: "Hitchhiker's" has a huge fanbase, were you put off by this great sense of expectation? What made you say yes to the project?
GJ: Our first reaction was to reject the script before it had even popped through the letter box. "They'll have ruined it!" we said to each other. But they hadn't ruined it. In fact, the script was fantastic and after some pacing about, we said yes. We aren't daunted by what the fans think because we are fans ourselves - and so are the people we were working with. We're all really proud of what we've done. The fact that it is our first feature film meant that we probably worked even harder than more established people to get the film ready to shoot.
NG: The fact that our first film had so many fans already attracted to it, at times can be incredibly daunting, because there is such high expectation. But then you think about it from an alternative perspective that you are making a film which already has an audience, and how lucky you are. How could we not say yes?
LF: Your background has been working in adverts, music videos and short films, did the scale and budget of "Hitchhiker's" alter the creative processes?
GJ: Although we had a much bigger budget than anything you would normally be given to make a music video it was relative to the scale of the production. We didn't have to change the way we work, if anything, it was often more hands-on than our previous productions. We brought all of our usual crew with us too; production designer, composer and costume etc. So, it was pretty much business as usual.
NG: The weird thing is that in all the work we have ever done, there never seems to be enough money, from the smallest job, to a huge feature film. It seems that with us, whatever we're given to make the thing, we will squeeze it dry for everything it's got. The great thing is that when you financially come across a hurdle it forces you to come up with a more creative way to solve it.
LF: What have you done in preparation for the DVD release and how has this impacted the creation of the theatrical film?
GJ: Ah ha! We had lots of fun working DVD extras out. We planned things very early on, like having a making of/behind the scenes/round-the-bend film and a ton of great bits and bobs we made ourselves along the way - but we won't tell you about them yet. If things continue as well as they seem to be going, then I think the theatrical release will be the directors cut - or at least a cut that director is extremely happy with. I have rarely seen a directors cut I liked more than the original - have you?
NG: I like the idea that when we release the DVD, you get the actual film as the bonus DVD. We have filmed a lot of extras!
LF: Mos Def doesn't seem the obvious choice for the role of Ford Prefect. What was it that won him the role?
GJ: Our casting director, Susie Figgis, had seen Mos in a play called Top Dog/Underdog and thought he would be great for the part. Nick and I only knew him as a musician but met with him on the strength of Susie's recommendation. We instantly clicked with him. Mos really is from another planet. Planet Mos. The idea of him sat next to Martin Freeman in a rural pub, downing pints as fast as he can and saying lines like: "What if I told you I wasn't really from Guildford," really appealed to us. He is an extremely intelligent and funny man, full of wonderful ideas for his character, from his clothes right down to 'how to shake hands with a car.' After we met with Mos we really couldn't imagine anyone we'd rather see carrying a towel across the galaxy.
NG: Mos was so excited when we originally met him for the part, that I remember his legs shaking. We never thought he was an obvious choice, but then that is what makes the Ford character so interesting. The chemistry between Mos and Martin is fantastic, they are like The Odd Couple.
LF: Are you worried about premiering only a couple of weeks before Star Wars? Or do you think "Hitchhiker's" is a good counterpoint to Star Wars?
GJ: I'm not worried at all. "Hitchhiker's" is going to have Lucas quaking in his boots!
LF: Were the designs of Marvin, Deep Thought, the Heart of Gold, etc. made to exacting descriptions in Douglas's script, or are they all solely products of your imaginations?
GJ: We would always start by clarifying the concept of whatever it was we had to design before we drew anything, and Douglas always had amazing concepts. It's very easy to design creatures and space ships and as a result, it can be difficult to design something that you haven't seen before. We wanted it all to look amazing, but different from what we've come to expect from Sci-Fi. And it had to be in-keeping with the original concept. We'd carefully work out what part the creature/ship/thing played in the story, then we'd fill our mugs with PG Tips, pick up a pencil and go mental.
NG: And in some cases that cup of PG tips was in itself an inspiration!
LF: How do you think the characters have altered from the original?
GJ: In general, all the characters have been given more depth - especially Trillian - so that we care about who they are and where they are going. Once you get the chemistry right between the characters, the rest of the madness falls into place. Even in the earliest test screenings the cast have been enchanting everyone and allowed us more freedom in other more peculiar areas. We haven't had to change a character in order to make them appeal to a wider audience but we have had to add dimensions so that it's a more fulfilling story.
NG: We also have some new characters in the film which were invented by Douglas, mainly Humma Kavula. [Played by John Malkcovich]
LF: How much does this movie deviate from Douglas Adams' original ideas and ideals? How much was sacrificed for a better commercial success?
GJ: Douglas wrote the script that we've revised with Karey [Karey Kirkpatrick, one of the writers of "Hitchhiker's"] and it sticks to the original themes and ideas but has more plot structure and character arc than previous incarnations.
NG: From what I have heard Douglas Adams approached each incarnation of "Hitchhiker's" whether it be the TV show, book or games with a fresh take depending on the medium. The great thing with "Hitchhiker's" is that as long as you understand the ethos behind it and where the humour is coming from, it allows you a lot of leeway.